You plan your family vacation budget perfectly; you have allotted just enough money for attractions, hotels, gas, and meals.
You have clipped coupons, joined travel clubs, and saved your travel rewards for years – you are going to successfully have a budget-friendly vacation – and then you hit the road.
It was not my first, second, or even my third vacation when I finally realized where I was losing all my extra money. I say losing, because it would literally disappear without me thinking about where I had spent it.
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I never wrote down, thought about, or even worried about how much I spent on little things like headache pills, snacks, or shampoo – until I ended up blowing my budget on one trip by hundreds of dollars. Now I think about it and I try my best avoid those cost.
- Bottles of Water – Drinking water is best when you travel. But at $1 per bottle of water (or much more if you buy it at a theme park). Assuming you are visiting someplace where the water is safe to drink, bring a refillable water bottle for each member of your family and refill them along the way. It’s better for your vacation budget and for the environment. If you must use disposable bottles, pack your own. A 24 pack of bottled water sells for about $3 at my local grocery, much less than the $24 or more i would have paid to buy those 24 bottles individually. Think about this with all your drinks – sodas can cost $1 per can, you can buy a 12 pack for $4 – and sports drinks can be even more expensive.
- Snacks – Have you ever noticed how much a bag of chips are at the gas station, or the fact that they seldom have generic brands? On average, a bag of chips costs $4 at a convenience store. in my local grocery store I can purchase two bags for $4; depending on how many bags you need this can add up fast.
- Diapers – You never think about diapers or pull-ups as an unplanned family vacation expense, but I did after being stuck in the middle of nowhere and finding I had to pay $10 for 5 diapers. Buy diapers in bulk at the big box store before you hit the road. If you are planning to swim, pick up swim diapers too.
- Park Entry Fees – In one year I spent $60 in park entry fees for the same park – so frustrating when I realized I could have purchase a Federal Duck Stamp for $15 and entered several parks for free. Look at parks that you are planning to visit, see what kind of annual pass they offer, and see if that annual pass covers multiple parks.If you have a museum membership in your town, ask whether the membership card entitles you to free entry at partner attractions in the city you plan to visit via the Association of Science-Technology Centers.
- Sunscreen – Summer is over, who needs sunscreen? We all do, but we often forget that sunscreen at home when we are not heading to the beach – then we end up paying $14 a bottle when we get there. On average sunscreen cost $8 a bottle at big box stores..
- ATM Fees – Is your bank in every city, every town, every airport? Mine is not – I recently was charged $6 in ATM fees for a $20withdrawal. The ATM told me I would be charged $3, but it did not tell me my bank would charge its own $3 fee. To avoid those fees, carry some cash with you, stop at a store and ask for cash back, or call your bank to locate the closest ATM that will not charge you major fees.
- Charge It to Your Room – Many hotels allow visitors to charge dinner, wine, movies, and more to the room. Do you write down every item you charge to your room? Have you checked the price of that $30 bottle of wine at the local liquor store – it can sometimes be as cheap as $3 wine? Yeah, you can unknowingly waste money by charging it to your room.
- Souvenirs – Can I say that I hate souvenir shops? With two kids who could star on the next episode of “Hoarders,” souvenir shops are off limits. Our souvenirs are often free souvenirs, trinkets we win at games, photos that are snapped along the way, and things we pick up at the beach. You can never have too many free seashells, can you?
- Parking – We paid $25 to park close to Busch Stadium in St Louis, Missouri a few weeks ago – then as we left, we drove down the street and found $10 parking. Palm to forehead. Plan where you are going to park, figure out if the city offers public transportation, and see if your hotel offers free parking. In large cities, check online for discount parking at sites like SpotHero
- WiFi – Hotels often charge $9 or more for 24 hours of wifi. Look for a hotel where wifi is included in the price, learn to live without it for the duration of the trip. Or, if you can’t, find a Starbuck’s, McDonald’s or other spot that offers free wifi.
- Travel Size Toiletries – Yes, TSA limits the amount of liquid you can carry through security and onto a plane (and those travel size toiletries are so cute and convenient). However, those travel-sized bottled are refillable. So no need to buy them every time. Just grab that 20-ounce bottle you bought at the big box store and refill them. And, if you’re traveling by car, take the full 20-ounce bottle.
- Laundry Detergent – We are on vacation, who needs to do laundry? We do, because we have kids. Extended stay hotels (and sometimes other hotels) often have free laundry facilities. However, they can stick you with the cost of laundry soap and dryer sheets. I recently spent $10 on Tide pods at the hotel front desk. I seriously could have bought a 64 load bottle of Tide for that price. Plan ahead by buying detergent pods. They travel well. Some brands have even offer wash and dry detergent packs that are great for travel.
- First Aid Kit – I cannot stress enough how important it is to have a first aid kit handy. In my first aid kit I keep all the necessities for a scrape or wound, along with allergy tablets, headache pills, PMS tablets, tampons, and anything you can think of that you might need in an “emergency”. I can purchase an entire bottle of Ibuprofen at the local grocery store for $1, but at the convenience store I have paid as much as $2 for 2 pills. That is ridiculous.
- Batteries and Phone Chargers – By now we know it is necessary to keep our cameras and phones charged at all times, but when that charger breaks it can cost you major dollars. I have spent $25 on a charger at a gas station, only to find the exact same charger on eBay for less than $1. My method for preventing this wasteful spending: I keep extra phone chargers and batteries hidden away in my car.
- Sunglasses – Not having my sunglasses can absolutely ruin my day, even on a cloudy day. However, I do not want to pay $25 for a pair of cheaply-made sunglasses at a gas station along the way. A couple times a summer I hit a dollar store and buy as many as 20 pairs of sunglasses at a time, I stash them everywhere (including in my first aid kit), so that in a sun emergency I have a pair of glasses to pull out.
- Flip Flops and Sandals – Why would a pair of flip flop or sandals blow your budget? I have about 30 pairs of cheap/affordable flip flops that I wear to rivers, lakes, beaches and other flip-flop-friendly places. However, those cheap/affordable flip flops often break at the worst times and I have ended up paying $15 for a similar pair at one of those overpriced souvenir shops. Now I never go anywhere without at least 2 pair of shoes.
- Headphones – Having three kids means we have three iPods/iPhones playing at once in the backseat of our car. Two hours of listening to three different songs at once can send parents overboard – or wishing they were overboard. On a recent short road trip I made a stop at the gas station 50 miles into our trip to buy headphones–at $10 each. Now I have 6 sets of $1 headphones hidden away in my car.
Save yourself the budget worry when planning your trip, make a list of those things you use daily, and decide whether you will need them while you travel. Keep that list handy; as you start packing; include those daily necessities in your travel bags.
Want more budget travel tips? Join us on Twitter Oct. 6, 2014, when we talk budget travel with kids.