How to Take Your Family of 4 on Vacation for Under $1,000

by Travis Pizel · 15 comments

Living in the great state of Minnesota, winters sometimes seem endless. Arctic blasts like we had recently — where the daytime high was -22°F — make it almost unbearable.

For the past few years, our family’s taken a midwinter vacation to get a break from the winter blahs. There’s a tourist destination a few hours away that is known for hotels with huge indoor water parks. This provides us with a very summer-like environment during a very winter-like season.

Unfortunately, with the holiday season just coming to a close, we don’t have a whole lot of extra funds lying around for a vacation. However, where there’s a will, there’s a way; and we found several ways to bring down the cost of the vacation and make it fit within our budget.

Here are four ways to have an inexpensive midwinter vacation with your family: 

1. Travel during the off-season

Not only does taking off in the middle of winter give us a nice break from the weather, but it’s also off-season for tourist locations — which means the hotel prices are half what they’d be in the summer. Also, there are several days towards the end of January when the kids don’t have school, so we try to have as many of our vacation days fall in the middle of the week when prices are lowest.

2. Travel as a group

There are actually five families that go on our midwinter adventure. For the same price we’d pay to each have our own cramped hotel room, we pool our money and rent a five-bedroom multilevel condo. Each family has their own bedroom and bathroom in addition to a shared kitchen, living room, and recreation room.

3. Make your own meals

Eating out while on vacation is super expensive, especially at tourist destinations. We utilize the kitchen in our condo by having each family sign up for a meal during our stay. Each family only has to plan and cook one meal, and we all save a ton of money on food.

4. Bring your own entertainment

We’ll spend most of the day at the water park, but during the evening time, we’ll make full use of the condo. The kids bring along their video game consoles, and we bring along board games and cards.

Here’s a breakdown of the budget for our vacation:

  • Accommodations (three nights including water park and indoor amusement park access): $600
  • Gas (one tank): $65
  • Food, drinks, and snacks: $150
  • Incidentals (three days): $150

Total: $965

Not bad for a four-day, three-night vacation for a family of four!

Do you take a midwinter vacation? Our trip isn’t for another week — do you have any additional tips to save us even more?

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • Jacob says:

    Another thing to do here is take advantage of credit card rewards. We travel extensively and have flights and hotels completely paid for. You can then use the additional funds on eating out, activities, etc.

    • Travis @Debtchronicles says:

      If you have the self discipline to use credit cards and earn rewards, more power to you, Jacob. Unfortunately, I’m learning that I just don’t have that discipline, and I tend to overspend when I use a credit card resulting in paying interest that equals or exceeds any rewards I get back. If it works for you, great….but for me I’ll stick with the cash in my account. 🙂

  • Karen @ Coolfamilylife says:

    You are right about stepping it up with the family of 5, especially as my kids are between 7 and 14, I can’t squish us all on two beds. The rollaway cot isn’t the greatest so I always try to get a pull out couch. Will have to keep Embassy Suites in my mind for future trips! Your BIL has good advice too! 🙂

    • Travis Pizel says:

      Oh, I know about the roll away got too….I think most hotels have pull out couches these days – I know they’ve come in handy for us!

  • Karen @ Coolfamilylife says:

    I like the idea of travelling in groups. We have stayed in a 5 bedroom cottage with 3 families but not 5 – but I would! Free good breakfasts are very helpful. We had that on our last family trip to Myrtle Beach plus a kitchen. We went the last week of August. A lot of kids are back at school by then but our kids’ school doesn’t start till the day after Labour Day. We are planning an outdoor water park trip this summer for about four nights but hoping to go somewhere for spring break if I can find the right deal! We usually end up paying more for a family of 5!

    • Travis Pizel says:

      Families of 5 can get a little more tricky as there’s many accommodations that fit 4, but 5 makes you got to the next “step up.” Am I right?? I love a place that gives a great free breakfast – As mentioned in an earlier comment, Embassy Suites is top notch there – made to order. As my brother-in-law always says, when you get a chance to fill the hump, you fill the hump! (like a camel, lol).

  • Marie @ 4HWD says:

    We are planning to have a vacation this coming summer. Travel as a group will really save you a lot and you can even get a big discount.

    • Travis Pizel says:

      It never hurts to ask if you can get a group discount everywhere you go, Marie – great tip, and thanks for reading!

  • Alan says:

    * Make sure the hotel has a REALLY GOOD (not just “hot”) breakfast. This is critical for traveling with little ones.
    * An evening “manager’s reception” is even better! Free drinks (which you may need by the end of the day. Kids usually can fill up on food provided and adults can relax in a pleasant enough environment.

    Embassy Suites and Drury’s are good for these two.

    * Make sure the hotel has enough kitchen amenities to cook and prepare all meals. You probably won’t want to eat every meal in during a vacation but if the kitchen equipment is capable then you’ll still save an ocean of cash.

    • Travis Pizel says:

      Embassy Suites has a fantastic breakfast, I agree with that for sure. The condo we’ll be staying at has a full kitchen with all the pots/pans/utensils/plates that we need. We have $150 allocated for the food/snacks/drinks for the 9 mealtimes we’ll be away from home. In a tourist trap (unless you ate fast food each meal), we’d be spending $50 a meal at least and that’s not counting having snacks at the condo!

  • Marcia says:

    We haven’t done much midwinter trips in awhile, now that we are on the school schedule. However we do have a four day weekend in February.

    One year we took a 3 day weekend in Feb to drive about 4-5 hours to go to Big Bear Lake for skiing. I don’t ski. We stayed in a decent little hotel with a fridge and microwave – enough to save on eating out. My husband skiied one day while my 4 year old and I went sledding on the hill next to the hotel. That was only two nights, and was pretty cheap.

    Almost annually we go on a camping trip with our neighbors to Joshua Tree National Park. This is a fun, frugal trip too. It’s about a 4 (through LA if no traffic) to 5.5 (the back “scenic” way) hour drive. It’s $20 to get into the park (for one week), and $10/ night to camp. Depending on the site we get, we can share one site – usually there is a six person limit, two cars. Together we are 8 (now 9). We have a tent and they have a camping van so we really only need one tent spot and two parking spots. Fun is hiking around and climbing rocks. Food is pretty cheap. The only hard part is that it’s hard to get a spot on Friday afternoons.

    We aren’t able to go on vacations with a lot of people generally (to get a big condo). We tend to keep our trips close to home. Another recent winter trip was in March – spring break time frame. We hit the Bay Area (on weekend when rates are cheaper – we stay at the business end of town not the tourist end), and then went to Yosemite and stayed in a condo for a couple of nights.

    Another trip we did was to Legoland over Thanksgiving.

    Really, we’ve been focusing more and more on staycations lately. Our little guy is 18 months and it’s a pain to travel with him – nothing is child proofed. I am lucky to live in a nice place. I try to take time here and there on weekends to enjoy the local sights so I don’t *need* to escape. I love flying to Hawaii but at about $5k or $6k for a family of four, I have to think about “bang for my buck”. And we are going to be on the “School schedule” from now until 2030. Which means we are traveling when everyone else is traveling.

    • Travis Pizel says:

      Those all sound like amazing vacations, Marcia! We did the Legoland visit several times when my son was younger and very much into Legos. They have a great one at the Mall Of America in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area (just an hour north of where I live). To be honest with you, as far as the school schedule, I don’t mind yanking my kids out of school for a few days if it means we save a bunch of money. They do very well in school, and the teachers are very accommodating regarding giving them homework ahead of time. I never thought I’d say that – as I believe that being present is the best way to ensure success in school, but each time we’ve done it we’ve minimized the time absent, and taken action to get the homework ahead of time and it’s worked out fine.

    • Mark says:

      I agree, Joshua Tree is a really great place to go – as long as it’s in the fall or spring. Summer can be pretty toasty out there. I’ve been camping a few times out there and really enjoy it.

  • John S @ Frugal Rules says:

    Nice work Travis! It’s a bit difficult for us since our kids are on the younger end of the spectrum, but we generally look at going off season to save money. If we’re not able to make our own meals, we find a hotel that offers a good breakfast. We can usually make it so it means we only have one meal to buy per day and just bring a few snacks or fruit with us to carry us through the day.

    • Travis Pizel says:

      One of the couples that comes along with us has kids that are much younger, and they have a visibly harder time trying to relax and enjoy themselves while having to supervise their youngest at all times – the rest of us have kids the age that can pretty much fend for themselves at a water park (and want to). Anything you can do to cut down on food costs is a positive, though – we took ONE meal to go out last year and we dropped over $70. Yikes.

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