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Summer vacationing without breaking the bank

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Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor

(Read caption) A road sign for Route 66 is seen here. Families can save money for summer vacations by planning for road trips and staying with friends and family.

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This summer, my wife and I and our three children – a four year old, a two year old, and a baby – are going on at least three different family trips. One will be to downstate Illinois, another will be to northeast Iowa and southwest Wisconsin, and the third will be to northern Minnesota. That doesn’t include multiple graduations we’re going to attend in May, either.

How are we going to do this while simultaneously keeping our sanity (yes, you try traveling for several hours in a vehicle with a four year old, a two year old, and an infant) and keeping our wallets in good shape? Here are seven methods we’re using to provide great experiences for our family while also keeping our finances in mind.

Keep in mind why we’re doing this

Why would we want to travel with a car full of small children? For some people, there may be no rational answer to this question at all. For us, though, there are several reasons.

First and foremost, we want the children to see different places and people. The geography where we live is very flat; this summer, they’re going to visit some very hilly areas. There are no large lakes here, but this summer we’re going to visit Lake Superior. We’re also going to go to areas with at least some cultural differences from home. On top of that, we also want to spend a lot of time outside, as fresh air is one of the best things you can give a child or give yourself.

Those are the reasons we’re traveling. Those reasons have nothing to do with seeing some mind-blowing sites or going to spectacular events. We know why we’re doing this and we let those reasons lead the whole vacation. As long as we follow that lead, we don’t need to pour money on other activities or sojourns.

Stay with family and friends

On each of these trips, either in the middle of a travel leg or near our destination, we’ll be staying with family or with friends.

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This provides both a social purpose (seeing people we care about) and a financial purpose (free lodging for a night or two). Usually, in exchange for this, we often will buy dinner when we’re there (or prepare it). We also allow any family and friends who are in our area to stay at our home for free.

This is an exchange that does nothing but build relationships and help out everyone involved.

Camp out

At least once this summer (perhaps twice), we will be camping out for multiple days. Yes, with a baby. We did it with just one baby and we did it with both a toddler and a baby, so I don’t think it’ll be a problem doing it again with two young children and a baby.

In fact, there’s one big advantage to camping: unless there’s a storm, when everyone falls asleep, everyone sleeps really deeply. I actually tend to sleep better when we’re camping because there are no night-time interruptions or other such things.

On top of that, camping can be incredibly inexpensive. We often request camping gear for gift-giving occasions, which makes camping nearly free. Usually, all we pay for is the spot to camp on – $10 to $20 a night unless we find a free option. Our supplies are usually inexpensive, too, especially if we collect or make our own while we’re there. It provides exercise, tons of fresh air, and some wonderful time in the great outdoors with the people I care about most.

Plan for the road trips

Road trips can be a very expensive part of traveling (as can flying, but I’m just simply not going to attempt that with three children under five). Between the gas, the maintenance costs, and the expensive food and beverages along the way, it can really add up.

That’s why I do some advance planning. The goal is to prevent stops, because stops are expensive.

First, I make sure there are plenty of beverages and snacks packed, probably more than we need. I usually pack sandwiches and vegetables and fruits so that we can have a full picnic meal on the road. I also prepare a big bag full of things to do for the children on the trip.

Second, we stop mostly at rest stops and everyone is required to go to the restroom when we stop. This reduces the temptation to spend money on overpriced stuff when we stop and it also reduces the overall number of stops. Another advantage is that many rest stops (particularly in Iowa) have areas for running around in the grass and picnicking, both of which happen on trips.

Use alternative housing

Hostels. College dorms. YMCA lodging. Housesitting. These are all great options for saving money on lodging when you arrive if you’d prefer not to camp. We are actually going to do some housesitting this summer for one of our trips.

Find out what types of alternative housing are available at your destination. This can be done with just a bit of effective internet searching. Reviews of the housing (available on many travel websites) can help you avoid unexpected problems.

Utilize free activities when we’re there

Vacation doesn’t have to be about jumping from high-priced activity to high-priced activity. Most of the best memories from the vacations I’ve taken in my life come from the free things we did: climbing a hillside in Edinburgh, putting my feet in the ocean northwest of Seattle, seeking out petroglyphs on foot in rural Arizona.

Yes, if there’s something your heart is set on that you really want to see that costs money, do it. However, use travel guides that help you identify the free things in the area and use those to fill up your activity schedule. Spend some time doing simple things, like walking in the woods or resting on the beach or building a great campfire.

Be resourceful

Before you go, tell your social network where you’re intending to go and ask if they have any tips or suggestions about traveling there. You might just be shocked at what your receive in return.

Be resourceful when you’re there as well. Don’t buy firewood if you can find it yourself. Don’t buy campfire roasting sticks – use a knife and make them from branches. Don’t buy beverages – carry an empty container and fill up at water fountains. Just by taking a few little steps to avoid buying things, you can save money left and right on your trip without reducing your enjoyment of it one iota.

Good luck!

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