Planning an Affordable Family Vacation
Story by Sarah Gonzales
Leaving the state of Alaska with kids in tow for a family vacation is not a cheap endeavor. It means multiple plane tickets, hotels, rental cars, entry fees to theme parks and attractions, eating out and let’s not forget the souvenirs! What is affordable to one family could be extravagant to another, so we asked local family travel experts how to get the most value for your travel budget, whatever it may be.
Flying the Thrifty Skies
“Buying tickets has two extremes: Either plan way, way ahead, or go spur of the moment,” offers Erin Kirkland, travel writer and publisher of the AK on the GO website. “Savings are there, like in the annual companion fare deal” offered through the Alaska Airlines Visa card. Earning miles on everything from gas to groceries can add up quickly to a free ticket, especially when the card offers special, seasonal deals that sometimes double or even triple the miles awarded for certain purchases.
Scott McMurren who writes the popular Alaska TravelGram blog, recommends working with a travel agent because they can sometimes find fares not available to the public. His best advice on finding a good deal, though, is to let the current sales dictate the destination. “Fares change all the time. For example, you can fly to Los Angeles from Anchorage this summer for $294 roundtrip – nonstop,” he says. “That’s cheaper than a ticket to Juneau. Anchorage to Seattle? Try $497 roundtrip.”
The Travel Experts' Top 3 Travel Tips for Ensuring an Affordable – and Fun! – Family Vacation
Erin Kirkland, AKontheGo.com:
1. Know Your Family. What's a "must see" for one family might be a "must avoid" for yours. Do what you like to ensure the most value and fun.
2. Do Your Homework. Research, read, ask questions; know where the public transportation is, what's in walking distance from your hotel or condo.
3. Be Flexible, With a Caveat. Try to keep mealtimes and naptimes intact, but be flexible where you can – it is a vacation.
Scott McMurren, AlaskaTravelGram.com:
1. Upgrade the Rental Car. Rent a car that is a little bit bigger than you think you need because you'll always welcome the extra space.
2. Stay With Family. The kids get spoiled by grandparents while parents get more free time to enjoy together.
3. Go Natural. National parks mean lots of exploring and quality time spent together, plus "less arguing over how big of a Coke to get."
Do Good Things Come in Vacation Packages?
Often bundling airfare, car and hotel can equal more savings than booking each part of the vacation on its own. There are numerous online travel sites that offer pre-made packages. Alaska Airlines vacations and Costco Travel both allow travelers to build a package that includes airfare from Alaska, while McMurren says many swear by Travelzoo.com. Kirkland says packages can be great if “you like having all the details arranged ahead of time, leaving time for having fun. But, for families that are “more indie and prefer to set their own intinerary,” a package could cramp their style, she says.
“The ultimate package is the cruise,” says McMurren. “It includes meals, entertainment and accommodations. Cruise companies offer some of the best values out there.”
Best Trips for Young Families
Beaches are great for little ones because they can explore, swim, dig and play. “The Washington/Oregon Coast in the summer is fabulous for Alaskan kids; they’ll be able to go into the water and play in the sand,” Kirkland says. “Mexico is affordable, warm and has wonderful culture. Hawaii is not as affordable, but is wonderful for kids.”
McMurren chooses the national parks as a fun, adventurous and affordable vacation for families. Which one you visit can be determined by the lowest airfare deals. The low roundtrip fares between Anchorage and Los Angeles can mean a gateway to California’s national parks, including Yosemite and Death Valley, he says, adding that Jet Blue is offering summer roundtrips to Las Vegas for under $400, a launching pad into Zion National Park or the Grand Canyon.
Food, Gas, Lodging
Both McMurren and Kirkland are strong advocates for the vacation rental property. Whether mountain cabin or beachfront villa, a private rental will generally cost less than a hotel or resort, and it comes with the added value of a kitchen, allowing families to cook the majority of their meals in.
A recent Hawaii trip saw the Kirkland family staying in a condo on Oahu, booked through VRBO.com. “Upon arrival, we hit the local grocery store and stocked up,” she says. “We spent $350 on food for 10 days in Hawaii - way, way less than if we had eaten out.” If you do eat out, go for breakfast or lunch which are usually less expensive, saving dinners out for a less frequent treat.
But, be realistic about your motivation to cook and clean up while traveling; it is vacation after all. McMurren advises you get enough snacks and drinks that you won’t have to leave the beach or stop having fun to eat a meal. The rest of the time seek out places where the locals eat, says Kirkland, not only will they be more affordable than restaurants in the tourist zones, “you’ll also get better food and an awesome immersion into local culture.”
How about souvenirs? Kirkland notes that gift shops are like “magnets for kids” and so she set a limit for her own son to a couple of picture postcards from each attraction they visit. Once at home they have fun reliving their memories by “turning (them) into a collage” or sticking them to a world map.
You needn’t spend any money at all if you follow McMurren’s advice: “Rocks,” he says. “I bring rocks from wherever I visit.” Even a subway map, foreign currency or an especially interesting leaf can be a great, cheap souvenir to share with friends back home, and to remember your fun – and affordable – family vacation.