I have always given our kids a small amount of souvenir money for them to manage on their own. I soon noticed that, very often, they gravitated toward the small, kitschy—dare I say tacky— items with logos or animal characters. A few years ago, we started recycling those Mickey Mouse keychains, 4-inch plastic replicas of Mount Rushmore, and teeny bottles of Vermont maple syrup as Christmas tree ornaments. I simply tie on a piece of ribbon, write the year of our trip on the bottom of the item, and we have a cute memento to help us remember all of our wonderful family trips through the years. It’s turned into a great family tradition, and we now always keep our eyes peeled on our travels for small items that would make good ornaments. — Marna from Fort Wayne, Ind.
Whenever we go away, I tell my kids to keep their eyes open for coupon booklets in our hotel lobby and at the entrances to restaurants and attractions. We always find discounts for meals and sightseeing, and it ends up adding up to quite a lot of savings. — Marie from Manhattan Beach, Calif.
Pre-buy your souvenirs before you go to theme parks, and you can save huge money. Before you go, shop at major retailers like Wal-Mart and Kmart, where you’ll find tee-shirts, baseball caps, and bags with favorite characters on them. There are also stuffed toy versions of these characters. They’ll cost a fraction of what you’ll pay in the parks, guaranteed. Present these items to your kids on the first day of vacation. You may not get away without shelling out a few dollars for small gifts, but the mad hunger to have something—anything—with the characters will be sated. It works with nearly any theme park you can think of, from Sesame Place to Disney and Universal. — Nancy from Cape May, N.J.
A few weeks before my family goes on vacation, I let my kids start earning their souvenir money by doing extra chores. Sometimes I match whatever they earn to double their total sum. I hold the money until the day we leave. My kids are less impulsive when it’s their own money. — Michelle from Darien, Conn.
In Colorado, locals never pay full price for lift tickets since all the grocery stores sell them at a discount. Also, spending $40 for the area’s “Entertainment Book” is worth it. There are always a lot of coupons inside for local ski resorts. — Barbara from Morrison, Colo.
Booking a room
It’s amazing how much of my family’s travel budget goes toward meals. When we need keep vacation expenses low, the first thing I look for is a “kids eat free” family promotion (always available at Holiday Inn, and sometimes offered at and other chains). If I can’t find such a promotion, I look for a hotel where I can get a room that includes a small refrigerator. Some hotels also offer microwaves in your room. You can save a lot on your food bill if you don’t eat every meal out, so these two appliances really come in handy. — Danielle from South Bend, Ind.
For years, we frequently stayed at hotels that provided an in-room DVD player that we’d never use. Inevitably the hotel would have a DVD library that rented DVDs for $10 a pop or more. We finally wised up and started bringing our own DVDs. Now we stop at our local DVD store before we go and rent the films of our choice for less than half of what we’d pay at the hotel. If I know that our room will also have a microwave, I bring our own popcorn and presto!—we have an instant movie night. — Valerie from Durham, N.C.
Over the years, we’ve gotten more savvy about hotel marketing spin. Nearly every hotel has a “Kids Stay Free” policy where kids under 12 (or sometimes even 18) can stay in your room at no extra charge. Therefore, “Kids Stay Free” amounts to no real savings. We always look for “Kids Eat Free” deals, like the one offered by Holiday Inn. At active resorts, we also look for “Kids Play Free” or “Kids Ski Free” deals. These packages really do make a huge difference to our bottom line. — Stephanie from Kansas City, Mo.
My husband and I always underestimate what dining out will cost when we go on vacation. Whenever possible, we like to stay in an all-suites hotel with kitchen facilities. It lets us control the number of meals we eat out, and we save a bundle on our food bills. — Ann Marie from Akron, Ohio
Keeping food costs down
It’s difficult for my family of five to eat lunch in a restaurant for under $50, even at a moderately-priced chain. So eating three meals a day in restaurants really adds up when we go on vacation. To cut down on costs, we do a lot of picnics. One of us is always toting a backpack, and sometime mid-morning we find a grocery store and get some French bread, cold cuts, cheese and beverages. Usually we will have chosen our picnic spot in advance—a nice park, riverbank, lake shore, or other pleasant location where the kids can have fun exploring. We typically save at least $35 per day, and some of our best vacation memories have been our picnics! — Sally from Colorado Springs, Colo.
I almost never order a kid’s meal for our 5-year-old. It costs a fortune and he never eats much of it. Instead, my husband and I order our meals with what our son likes in mind. We just ask for an extra plate for him, after checking with the waiter that it’s okay to order this way. Our son usually ends up eating more and healthier this way, and we save $5 to $8 per meal. — Jennifer from Richmond, Mo.
Dying to try out a nice restaurant? Make lunch the big family meal out. A restaurant’s lunch menu is usually less expensive than its dinner version, even when dishes are identical. Then keep it cheap and cheerful for dinner. — Editor Renting a car
When you’re booking a rental car at a very busy destination (such as the Orlando International Airport during a holiday week), reserve the least expensive category possible. The budget categories almost always sell out, so you’re likely to get an upgrade to a roomier model. Nine times out of 10, this works like a charm. If you arrive at the rental desk and no upgrade is offered, you can always change your booking to a bigger car. — Ken from Chester, N.J.
Hitting the road
Want to save on gas money? Roll up the windows and turn on the air conditioning when you’re on the highway. Open windows create more drag, which uses up more fuel. Also, drive at the speed limit. The faster you go, the more gasoline your car needs to get from A to B. — Charles from Ojai, Calif.
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