family trips on a shoestring: 5 simple tricks


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This may have been our first theme park, but as a family of seven, we know how to do family trips on a shoestring.  

Here are my 5 simple tricks.



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1.  Read all of the FAQs about your trip destination online well before leaving for your family trip.

This will make the biggest difference with packing up for the trip, knowing what you can and can't bring to the destination, and what concerns other parents of children may have.  Important info you'll find out:

  • If you can bring outside food in
  • How large of a tote(s) you can bring
  • If strollers are permitted
  • If you an exit and return again after paying
  • If there are picnic areas in the area
  • If it's cheaper to pay for tickets and parking online rather than at the venue


2. Eat breakfast at home (or in the car).

It may be tempting to grab breakfast at a fast food joint as you are leaving town but it only takes a bit of planning to save $20 before you even get to your destination.  Our rule for family trip is this: if we plan to leave after 7:30am, Bobby and I plan to make a quick sit down breakfast to gobble up once everyone is dressed and ready to walk out the door.  If we plan to leave anytime before 7:30am, I plan a simple grab-and-go breakfast.

Our quick sit-down-and-eat breakfast (7:30 and after departure):

  • breakfast fruit smoothie (usually with vanilla protein powder and/or nut butter to keep the the kids fuller)
  • scrambled eggs + bacon (if we have the luxury to take a bit more time to make it--the reward is great: satisfied, full kids for a long morning drive)
  • homemade cereal + milk
  • yogurt, fruit, + nut granola

Grab-and-go breakfasts (before 7:30 departure):

  • Muffins (made the day before or pulled out of the freezer) + individual milk cartons (we get these from Costco for trips)
  • breakfast fruit smoothie (in disposable cups with straws)
  • breakfast cookies (these Paleo Chocolate Breakfast Cookies are currently our favorite.  They are probably my new favorite cookie.  Period.)
  • homemade larabars (Here's an excellent new high energy/protein bar we love: Hemp Seed and Toasted Coconut Bars.)



3.  Pack (an exciting) picnic lunch.

Every day trip we take can potentially mean dropping $30-50 just on lunch.  Whether it's a historic venue or museum, those venue "cafes" that are so conveniently nestled next to the attraction are overpriced and rarely guarantee a great meal beyond the typical child fare: hot dog or mac 'n cheese, soda, and fries.  I can't bear to spend double the money on something my kids might pick over or have a tummy ache afterwards.

If a venue doesn't let you bring food in, plan ahead to eat at a picnic area or park nearby.  We have a few medium size, padded coolers and ready-to-freeze ice packs to prepare for any trip the night before.

And make it exciting since your kids will be faced with looking at cotton candy and cool eateries possibly all day.  Here's a sample of our picnic lunch we ate at picnic tables outside of Sesame Place:

  • turkey + cubed white cheddar skewers (on toothpicks--which I assembled the morning of)
  • rinsed whole strawberries
  • the girls' favorite potato chips
  • homemade chocolate peanut butter larabars (recipe coming soon--a new favorite!)
  • milk cartons
  • water bottles (remember they're like $3 a pop if you don't bring tons for the day!)

For trip picnics, I skip bringing paper plates and bring small disposable paper tray boats that I can easily fill up with that day's lunch and pass out with a napkin.  Plus, it is more exciting for the kids.

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4.  Decide ahead of time that you're not spending extra money at the venue.  

Ever wonder why every tourist stop, vacation stop, theme park, and so on are overwhelmed with little stores, gift carts, toy shops, and so forth?  One reason is that when we are happy and the endorphins are up, we spend.  It doesn't really matter what we spend money on but as humans we subconsciously spend 10x more money when we are with our loved ones in a happy place.

Family trips on a shoestring means talking to your whole family on the trip, during the trip, and during the trip some more about how special it is to be at your special venue.  It is important to remind your children that possibly, the tickets cost money to enjoy the venue.  Although they may be overcome by all of the exciting-looking gadgets around waiting to be bought, you can gently remind them about the special time that you all get to have together, without the fluff.

How to remember and treasure a family trip without the expensive fluff:

  • make a photo album of pictures when you return
  • enlarge your favorite family photo from your trip and print it for a frame
  • if there is something your child really wants, look on Amazon or Target after the trip and get it (or let them get it) for a third the price
  • let your kids bring their own money if there is something they really want

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5.  If you're gonna eat out, plan ahead to know your less expensive options.

Our rule of thumb for family trips is if we will be gone the entire day and into the night, pick up dinner.  (Especially since we've already eaten our picnic lunch and packed snacks throughout the day.)

That might mean leaving the venue to avoid the high prices and long lines.  For us it's simple: our go-to inexpensive dinner on road trips or late family trips is Chick-fil-A.    We may only go there a few times a year but we know exactly what to order for each person, it's under $30 (impressive for feeding a family of 7!), and great food.  (This is what I always get.)

We also look up "food" in google maps on our phone, no matter where we are, to see other options for dinner based on reviews and price.  You'll save plenty of money to even buy dessert just by leaving the venue to eat outside of the high-priced attraction.

IMG_8094 With our family size and all of our homeschooling outings during the week and family outings on weekends, we easily save at least $50-200 per day trip from planning ahead.

And everyone leaves happy.


the sleepy time gal