Three smiling children back seat of car on family vacation

When I was a kid, vacation meant four kids crammed into the back seat of a sedan, poking and elbowing one another while counting the miles between rest stops.

Things have changed dramatically since then. But even with onboard DVD players, electronic devices, spacious minivans, air travel, cruises, and theme parks, family vacations can be either delightful or disastrous. It all depends on the care you devote to research and planning.

Three happy children back seat of car on family vacation

Adjust your attitude

Here is the first rule of family vacations: Parents on vacation really aren’t. If you can unload personal expectations that you will be relaxed and refreshed when it’s over, you won’t be disappointed when you’re not. And if you do get a little rest and relaxation along the way, consider it an unexpected bonus.


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Be realistic about cost

Decide ahead of time how much cash you have for this vacation. If you have, say, a family of five and $500 to spend, don’t even think about a couple of days at Disney World.

Always consider the money you have first and then design a vacation that will realistically fit within that financial boundary.

Be realistic about time

Don’t try to stretch your available cash to cover the maximum time you have to be away from home. Divide what you can spend by a reasonable daily budget to determine how many days you can be gone. Carefully consider all the costs, not only the admission fees and overnight accommodations.

Instead of full weeks, consider day trips or a weekend vacation. When it comes to family vacations, quality is considerably more important than quantity.


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Envelope method

There’s nothing like a good visual to keep a vacation based in reality. Large colorful envelopes are ideal, one for each day to hold that day’s allotted cash. Design the outside for the spending record so you can keep track of where the money is going.

Involve the kids

One reader allowed her teenage daughter to plan their vacation with the money they had to spend over the cost of overnight accommodations. “Our spendthrift daughter became Ms. Frugality because she wanted to parasail,” the reader recalls. “She had us fix meals in our room, and watched the expenses like a hawk. And we parasailed!

It was the best vacation ever. As a bonus, we went home with cash in our pockets and the priceless accomplishment of teaching our child the value of money.”


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Theme-park strategy

Set on a visit to an amusement park? Set on a visit to an amusement park? You can find deals and discounts on the Internet says Robert Niles, editor, and founder of ThemeParkInsider.com. Birnbaum’s 2019 Walt Disney World: The Official Guide gets rave reviews from readers of this column. “We visit several times a year for what many people spend on a single trip, and we do it with four kids!” reports one family.

Camping

If you’re careful, camping can be nearly as affordable as staying at home provided you have the equipment or can borrow it. Visit the National Park Service website, www.NPS.gov, to search for affordable destinations within the National Park Service.

Many campgrounds now require reservations so don’t wait until the last minute. Expect to pay about $15 – $35 on average per night for a campsite.

Reserve America is a one-stop site taking reservations at more than 100,000 campsites in the U.S. and Canada. For everything else you need to know about camping, go to camping.about.com.


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Living history museums

There are at least 2,000 living-history museums around the country where the past seems as real as the present.

Start with a virtual visit where you can “tour” many of these wonderful attractions online. Go to ALHFAM.org, the site of The Association for Living History Farms and Agricultural Museums. Jamestown Settlement and Washington County History Society (www.historyisfun.com), Henry Ford Museum (www.hfmgv.org) and Conner Prairie (www.connerprairie.org) are just a few of the living history museums that make learning fun for visitors of any age.

Group travel

Vacationing with another family can cut the costs on rentals, food, and transportation. This is an especially good choice for single-parent families who agree to pool their energy and resources. Sharing the trip with another single-parent family with kids the same age can reduce costs significantly. It will relieve your anxiety and stress, too. Make sure you discuss expectations and budgets ahead of time.

QUESTION: Are you planning to take a vacation this summer? Oh, please share in the comments area below!


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