Whether you tend to vacation during the summer or over the holidays, it’s never too early to start planning your next family trip. Of course, you’ll want to go somewhere that has activities both kids and adults will enjoy. But it’s equally — if not more — important that you stay within your budget during your trip.
Whether you’re interested in outdoor adventures, city sightseeing or something in between, click through to see the best family vacation ideas, with real-life examples, that won’t break the bank.
1. Go Camping
As long as you already own a tent, sleeping bags and other gear, camping can be an affordable getaway — especially if you pick a low-cost camping spot. And, it’s a great way for families to spend quality time together, said Lissa Poirot, editor-in-chief at Family Vacation Critic.
Typically, you’ll only have to pay a fee that can range from approximately $10 to $25 a night to stay at a campground at a state park, national park or other recreational areas. Plus, you can take advantage of hiking trails and other free activities.
Try the Bartlett Cove Campground in Glacier Bay National Park
Located in the gorgeous Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska, you can camp at Bartlett Cove for free, where it’s easy to find places to hike, kayak or go on a boat tour. Or, simply take in the majestic mountain views, watch the Alaska sunsets or look for the local wildlife — you might be able to hear whales at night. There are no fees for entering the park or for getting the backcountry permit you need to sleep there overnight — but you will need to get yourself to Alaska if you’re not already a local.
2. Take a Road Trip
There’s a reason that the great American road trip is still a favorite way to travel for many families: It’s cheaper than most other types of travel, said Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, family travel expert at TripSavvy.
“Most families live within six hours of somewhere amazing,” she said.
To keep the cost of food down, Kelleher recommends staying at an all-suite or extended-stay hotel that offers a small kitchen space in the room so you can prepare some meals, or at properties that include a meal such as breakfast as part of the room rate. Also, take advantage of entertainment and lodging discounts you might have through memberships in groups such as AAA. Lastly, keep an eye on lodging deals within a few hours’ drive from you through LivingSocial Escapes or Groupon Getaways, Kelleher said.
Try the Black River Scenic Byway
Highway 513, which follows the scenic section of the Black River, was designated a National Forest Scenic Byway in 1992 and includes the Black River Harbor, one of only two harbors in the National Forest System. Not only can you enjoy a beautiful drive through the scenic area of the wooded Upper Peninsula of Michigan, but the nearby Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park offers plenty of options for camping and hiking, including the Presque Isle Campground.
3. Explore National Parks
Visiting America’s national parks is a “great way to see the most spectacular landscapes in the country,” said Kelleher. And, it can be very affordable if you go on a free entrance day, such as Presidents’ Day or Veterans Day weekend.
Camping can be the least expensive lodging option. Fees vary by park, but some are less than $30 per night. If you’d rather stay in a hotel, Poirot recommends looking for those outside national parks, which tend to be cheaper than lodging within the parks or renting an RV.
Try Mammoth Cave National Park
Cost: about $15 for a Mammoth Passage Tour
Mammoth Cave National Park is located in the Green River Valley in the hill country of south-central Kentucky, and it preserves the world’s longest known cave system that is chock full of fascinating underground features. Of course, caves are just one part of the 52,800-acre park that includes a wide variety of natural and geographic wonders in addition to the chance to do some spelunking.
4. Relax at the Beach
Want to go on a trip that your kids will remember? Then, pick a fun beach vacation. Children really just want to spend time with their parents and play. “That’s what you do on the beach,” said Poirot.
For the most part, entertainment is free if you’re just hanging out on the beach and swimming in the ocean. Limit spending further by staying in a vacation rental property that has a kitchen so you can cook your own meals, Poirot said. You can find vacation rental properties through sites such as HomeAway, VRBO and Airbnb. If you’re feeling extra frugal, consider beach camping.
Try Coos Bay
Coos Bay represents the largest city on Oregon’s gorgeous Pacific Coast, which offers a chance to visit sandy beaches surrounded by a beautiful natural setting with three different state parks within 15 miles.
5. Head to the Lake
A lake vacation can be a lower-cost alternative to a beach vacation, Kelleher said. Plus, it might be a safer option for families with small children, because you don’t have to worry about riptides and rough surf along the lakeshore, she said. Sharks and dangerous marine life also aren’t an issue at a lake.
Save money during your lake vacation by pitching a tent at a park with lake access.
Try Lake Pen Oreille
Located in Idaho’s panhandle, Lake Pen Oreille offers a variety of options for boating, swimming and fishing all nestled amid the Rockies in Northern Idaho. A range of amenities also awaits you, including restaurants and hotels, in the town of Sandpoint, Idaho.
6. Stay at a Family Camp
Parents can relive their childhood camp experiences along with their kids at a family camp, said Poirot. Accommodations tend to be rustic, but you’ll get to have good, old-fashioned fun and lots of quality family time, she said. Programs at family camps range from arts and crafts and yoga to zip lining and kayaking.
Try Camp Pendalouan
Camp Pendalouan is a YMCA camp located on the shores of Big Blue Lake in the Huron-Manistee National Forest in Michigan, less than a 20-minute drive from the shores of Lake Michigan. The camp offers two family camp sessions each summer in addition to other options for getting parents involved, like a father and son camp and a mom and kids camp.
7. Saddle Up at a Dude Ranch
Families should consider vacationing at a dude ranch, because these properties let you live the life of a cowboy and typically include accommodations, meals and horseback riding in the price, said Poirot. And, you can find dude ranches at different price points.
Poirot said that when her family stayed at a dude ranch, it was like one giant summer camp where everyone became fast friends. The best part: Although the ranch had Wi-Fi, she never saw anyone on electronics because they were having so much fun.
Try Southern Cross Guest Ranch
Who says a dude ranch experience has to happen west of the Mississippi? Southern Cross Guest Ranch in Georgia is about 50 miles outside of Atlanta and offers all-inclusive packages that include horseback riding, meals, beverages, mountain bike rentals and more in addition to your room.
8. Visit a Theme Park
“Every kid wants to go to Disney,” Poirot said. But visiting the iconic Disney World in Florida or Disneyland in California can be an expensive family vacation.
You can save money at Disneyland, though, by staying at non-Disney hotels, eating meals offsite and dividing your time between the park and low or no-cost activities in the area, Poirot said.
Or, you could get the theme park experience for less by taking a trip to an amusement park that’s within driving distance of where you live. You’ll likely save money if you opt for an annual pass rather than a day pass if you plan to spend several days at the park or if you make more than one trip to it during the year, Kelleher said.
Try Cedar Point
Disneyland and Six Flags might be more recognizable names, but “America’s Roller Coast” in Sandusky, Ohio has long been a mecca for roller coaster fans. Sitting on beautiful Lake Erie, the park features an array of roller coasters, including the Millenium Force, winner of the Golden Ticket Award from “Amusement Today” for the year’s best steel roller coaster a whopping 10 times. Savvy shoppers can lock in children’s ticket prices for all ages by taking part in the preseason sale.
9. Splash at a Water Park
A water park can be a less-expensive alternative to a theme park, Poirot said. Plus, it’s a great way to stay cool while having fun in the sun. “I don’t know any child who doesn’t want to go down a water park slide all day long,” she said.
But you don’t have to limit your trip to the summer. You can splash year-round at indoor water park resorts, such as Great Wolf Lodge, which has multiple locations throughout the U.S.
Try Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari
It must seem like Christmas for water park fans if they’re visiting Santa Claus, Ind. because it’s the home to Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari, a combination water park and theme park that includes the Mammoth Water Coaster, certified as the world’s longest water coaster by “Guinness World Records,” and the Thunderbird Steel Roller Coaster.
10. Tour a Big City
A visit to one of America’s big cities will allow your kids to see skyscrapers, ride the subway and learn about urban life. Plus, there’s an abundance of things to do for all age groups. But visiting a big city can get expensive quickly.
To keep costs under control, Poirot recommended staying in a hotel that offers free meals — such as breakfast or an evening reception — or a kitchenette where meals can be made for less than the cost of dining out. Also, look for free activities or save money on top attractions in 12 North American destinations with a CityPASS.
The Windy City is full of wonderful attractions for visitors. You can grab a famous deep-dish Chicago pizza, catch a comedy show at The Second City, capture the breathtaking view from the observation deck in the Willis Tower and visit a number of excellent museums. And, if your family is ready to brave the frigid Midwestern winters, a room at the Travelodge Hotel Downtown Chicago goes for as low as $84 a night for a weekend in mid-January.
11. Take a Cruise
A cruise might seem like a pricey vacation, but the price you pay includes accommodations, meals and entertainment on the ship. It can be fun for people of all ages because most cruise ships offer a range of activities. And, you can visit several destinations in one trip without having to listen to the kids say, “Are we there yet?” because they’ll be staying busy between ports, Poirot said.
To save money on a cruise, look for sailings out of ports that are within driving distance of your home, Kelleher said. And avoid the temptation to pay for extras on board and on shore that aren’t part of the cruise fare. “There are opportunities to spend a lot,” she said. “But you can have a lot of fun without spending a lot.”
Try Royal Caribbean International’s Liberty of the Seas
Departing from Galveston, Texas to a variety of locations in the Caribbean, Mexico and Latin America, Liberty of the Seas offers many options for family fun at a reasonable price. In addition to many pools and age-specific youth clubs, Liberty of the Seas has a number of attractions built around favorite Dreamworks films like “Madagascar”, “Shrek” and “Kung Fu Panda.”
12. Stay at a Kid-Friendly Resort
Like a cruise, a resort stay might seem like an expensive family vacation. But knowing what you’re paying for upfront with an all-inclusive resort can help you stick to a budget, Poirot said. If a variety of activities are included, you won’t have to say “no” to your kids when they ask to enjoy the amenities, she said. And, parents might get some downtime if the resort offers supervised kids’ activities.
There are a range of resorts, so you likely can find one in your budget, Poirot said. Plus, resorts often offer discounts of up to 50 percent off or free nights. You can learn about these special offers by signing up to receive email alerts from resorts, Kelleher said.
Try the Lutsen Resort on Lake Superior
Established in 1885, Lutsen Resort in Minnesota has been operating for over 130 years. The resort has a wide variety of options for family fun, from fishing and boating on scenic Lake Superior to hiking in nearby state parks to skiing in the winter.
13. Get a Feel for Farm Life
Let the kids get up close and personal with cows, chickens, horses and other farm animals with a vacation at a working farm. You can offer a helping hand, learn more about where your food comes from or simply enjoy the countryside. Find a farm vacation or a vacation rental on a farm through Farm Stay U.S.
Try Verdant View Farm
Verdant View Farms is in Paradise — literally. Located in Paradise, Penn., the working farm raises calves and cows and gives children a chance to help with daily feedings and play with the animals. The farm also offers a farm-to-table breakfast every morning but Sunday for its guests.
14. Volunteer on Vacation
If you want to teach your children the value of helping others, consider a vacation that involves volunteer work. There are a variety of family-oriented opportunities, ranging from building homes to helping out indigenous and local communities. You can find programs that offer volunteer trips in the U.S. and abroad. Be sure to check age limits, though.
Try Youth Rebuilding New Orleans
Youth Rebuilding New Orleans is an organization that recruits teens and young adults to help rebuild and refurbish homes in New Orleans to then sell them to teachers for below market value. It has the twin functions of rebuilding neighborhoods devastated by Hurricane Katrina and attracting teaching talent to the city, and there are options for group volunteer outings. Although you can certainly find your own accommodations, you might also be able to book a stay in the volunteer bunkhouse, which is just a five-minute bus ride from Bourbon Street.
15. Taking a Staycation
Who says you have to go somewhere new to have fun? Families can get so busy shuttling kids to daily activities that they don’t take advantage of all that their hometowns have to offer.
As a city or state resident, you might be able to take advantage of free or discounted admission tickets to museums and attractions. Or, check out the local hiking trails for a free way to explore where you live.
Try Backyard Camping
You can help your kids rediscover their own yard by spending a night sleeping in it. Without having to travel or spend any extra money, you can enjoy all of the fun of camping with an airtight backup plan should the weather turn bad — your house. If you don’t already have a tent, you’ll need to buy one.
Joel Anderson contributed to the reporting for this article.
Photos are for illustrative purposes only. Some of the photos might not reflect the locations described in this article.
About the Author
Cameron Huddleston is an award-winning journalist with nearly 14 years of experience writing about personal finance. Before joining GOBankingRates, she was a contributing editor for Kiplinger.com and wrote the popular Kip Tips column, which was syndicated in Tribune newspapers nationwide. Her work has appeared on Yahoo!, MSN, AOL Daily Finance and other online and print publications.