Set sail on a budget! Discover our family budget vacation tips: from savvy savings to memorable moments. Your dream vacation is closer than you think!
How can you afford that dream family trip when it often seems too expensive? Here’s how we were able to take our family of 6 on an 8-day vacation including a 5-night West Caribbean cruise for less than $3,700! Discover how we turned a budget vacation into a magical journey that felt far from budgeted! Flights, hotels, transportation, food and entertainment included.
This trip was truly memorable. Our daughters experienced their first flight, and since having kids, Ryan and I hadn’t traveled far. Plus, none of us had ever been on a cruise before.
How We Scored Big on a Cruise
Christmas gift? A cruise from my sister to our parents. My sister gifted a family cruise to my parents and her in-laws. Here’s how we made it affordable for my big family to join:
- Deals: Opted for a “kids sail FREE” deal on Royal Caribbean. Plus, a 30% discount was on offer.
- The Catch: The free sail for kids requires one adult per child. So for my family of six, two kids would be full-priced.
- Solution: My sister’s genius idea? List two of my kids in our parents’ room, even if they ended up bunking with us. The only fees we had for all four kids were taxes, government fees and gratuities.
- Savings: Originally, the cruise alone would’ve cost us upwards of $4500. But with the discounts and some creative rooming, we managed it for $1883. This even included $480 for prepaid gratuities.
Sure, our room was snug, but we were mostly out exploring. And for that price, it was a steal! This was a big win in creating our budget vacation.
Cruise cost: $1883
Harnessing the Power of Credit Card Points
Credit cards can be advantageous when used strategically. My husband and I leveraged credit card points to our benefit. We both registered for the American Airlines AA red card, drawn by their 60k points onboarding offer.
We timed it right, using these cards for our kitchen updates. Often, credit cards require you to spend a certain amount within a specific timeframe to earn promotional points. By making these cards our primary payment method and paying off the balance monthly to avoid interest, we accumulated nearly 155k points.
Six weeks before our cruise, I monitored AA flights. With some clever scheduling, we secured roundtrip tickets for all six of us for 150k points. To get this deal, we had to be flexible with our flight timings, opting for the less popular ones. Our flights into Bush International cost 7.5k points going and from Hobby 17.5k points returning. We took red-eye flights both ways. While challenging with young kids, we made it work.
The only cost we had associated to these flights was a $5-11 per ticket tax which added up to $96.
Flight cost: 150K credit card points + $96
Upgraded Seats for a Seamless Connection
The strategic decision to upgrade our seats:
Due to our tight 35-minute connection for our outbound flight, I chose to pay an additional $120 to secure seats near the plane’s front, ensuring a swift exit.
Flight Seat Upgrade Cost: $120
Importance of considering tight connection times:
Ryan and I hadn’t traveled much since having our kids, who had never flown before this trip. Trying to be strategic, I chose flights with the shortest connections to minimize airport waits with our four young ones. In hindsight, this added unnecessary stress. A longer connection would’ve been wiser. Thankfully, we made our connection, but it was a close call.
Getting from the Airport to Galveston
If you’re planning a cruise out of Galveston, note that both Hobby (HOU) and Bush (IAH) airports are quite a distance from the cruise port, ranging between 40 to 70 miles. They are the closest international airports to the cruise port.
- Shuttle service – about $30 per person one way
- Uber or Lyft – $50 to $75 for 4 seater or $110 for a 6 seater one way
- Rental car through Turo or similar – $30 to $80 per day
We opted for an UberXL to get us from the airport to Galveston. It cost $110 from IAH.
Because we had planned on spending a couple of nights in Houston to explore the city we rented a Ford Explorer off Turo for $142 for the two days. We requested pickup as far south as we could and drop off at HOU were we were flying out of. This gave us the ability to go and do what we wanted when we wanted to without having to take an Uber everywhere. We were able to pick up some groceries for meals and snacks while were were in Houston to avoid expensive meals out.
Note we had to get another UberXL to get to the pickup point for our rental which cost $42.
Transportation Cost: $294
Budget Vacation: Beachfront Stays Without the Beachfront Price
1. Finding the right hotel deals and benefits of advance booking
My sister and I chose a hotel near the beach and a short walk from a Walmart. We anticipated needing items, like reef-safe sunscreen and soda, that we couldn’t bring on the plane. Being close to a store saved us from extra transportation expenses. We spent a single night prior to our cruise here and the cost was $120.
This also included a free hot breakfast which lowered our cost for food before embarking on our cruise ship the next morning.
Hotel Cost + Groceries: $165
2. The joy of staying right on the beach and the serene vibes
We stayed at Hampton Inn Galveston, conveniently located across from Walmart and just a short walk from the beach. Being within such close proximity to the ocean was so refreshing and beautiful.
As a family we wondered the beach looking for seashells and critters until everyone was ready for dinner. Knowing we had limited food at the hotel we opted to take the girls to a buffet for dinner so they would be stuffed before bed.
Buffet Cost: $70
3. Sailing with Royal Caribbean’s Adventure of the Sea
We had a positive experience with Royal Caribbean’s Adventure of the Sea. The kid-friendly amenities, like Ocean Adventure, were a plus, although our girls weren’t as fond of it as we’d anticipated. A cruise offers clarity on expenses as it covers essentials like accommodation, food, and entertainment. Any additional costs usually arise only if you opt for upgrades.
Food On Board:
The buffet offered tasty options, but the dining hall stood out as exceptional. On our next cruise, we’ll prioritize meals there.
We appreciated the late-night promenade café, serving a variety of foods, including pizza and desserts, almost round the clock.
The ship’s entertainment was enjoyable, with the ice skating show and activity being a highlight for our family.
Daily dips in the pool and hot tubs, as well as indulging in the soft serve ice cream, became our routine. One day, our kids devoured around 20 ice cream cones – quite a feat!
We decided against a drink package but invested in an internet package so Ryan and I could manage work emails. For beverages, we brought the maximum amount of soda permitted by cruise ship guidelines. Plus my sister, who did purchase the soda package for her family allowed us to stow soda to their room to get it though security. Combined with the complimentary drinks like milk, water, and juices, this met our family’s needs perfectly. These are great ways to minimize additional expenses on your budget vacation.
Internet Package Cost: $60
However, there were hiccups. Rough seas led to seasickness for me and the cancellation of our first port, Costa Maya. As compensation, we received a $25 refund per person and docked early in Cozumel.
Port Refund: -$150
The unfortunate cancellation at Costa Maya was saddening as we only had 2 ports we would be stopping at over our 5-night cruise but the excitement of the journey ahead kept us content.
Due to porting in Cozumel a night early we were able to catch a taxi (for about $20) into town where we walked the shops and observed a local festival. A local shop gave us these flyers for highly recommended eateries in the neighborhood. As we had just had dinner we didn’t end up going to either but if you’re in the neighborhood and check them out, you’ll have to let me know how they are.
Diving Deep in Cozumel
Ryan had always wanted to snorkel at El Cielo, a top snorkeling spot near Cozumel. Finding an affordable excursion for our family of six was challenging, so I proposed a private excursion split with my sister’s family and the grandparents. We discovered Compadre Tours on Facebook. I was initially skeptical due to the absence of a deposit or receipt, but they turned out to be both legitimate and outstanding.
Unfortunately, water conditions prevented us from visiting El Cielo. Nonetheless, our exceptional guide pivoted to other safe snorkeling sites. We explored a shipwreck, observed stunning fish, and relished in authentic Mexican chips, guacamole, and fruit courtesy of Compadre Tours. Snorkeling was a highlight of the trip for almost everyone!
Worth mentioning, Compadre Tours provided an underwater photographer who captured brilliant shots of us snorkeling amidst the vibrant fish. This wasn’t a planned expense in our budget vacation but well worth it. We jointly purchased the photos with my sister for $150.
Post-snorkeling, we unwound at Chankanaab Adventure Beach Park. We covered just the entry fee since we’d snacked with Compadre Tours earlier and planned dinner on the ship. Chankanaab was picturesque: starting with a independent snorkeling session and culminating at a sandy cove where the girls played until we had to leave. A delightful day for all.
Private Snorkel Tour with Compadre Tours + Photo Cost: $308
Chankanaab Resort + 1 Snorkel Gear Cost: $155
Taxi (5 rides) Cost: $120
Back On Land
To conserve frequent flyer points, we chose a Sunday night flight home, which required fewer points. This allowed us two full days to explore Houston. We strategically selected a hotel near Hobby airport, our departure point, and in proximity to our planned activities. We stayed in a two-bedroom suite with kitchen at TownePlace Suites NASA/Clearlake, securing both an early check-in at 12 pm and a late 2 pm checkout, which the hotel graciously accommodated.
With a rental car in hand we were able to make a quick grocery run for the rest of our meals.
Hotel Cost: $158
Grocery Cost: $85
Exploring Houston: Museums and Space Center
We had our sights set on the Houston Space Center but also discovered intriguing options like the Health Museum, boasting a massive heart display, and the ever-popular Children’s Museum.
We toured the Space Museum on Saturday afternoon.
Following Sunday’s breakfast, we ventured to the Children’s Museum and later, the Health Museum. Conveniently, they were a short walk apart, so we saved on parking.
While we anticipated the Children’s Museum being a hit due to its interactive exhibits, the Health Museum was an unexpected delight. Though smaller than anticipated, exhibits like the heart attack simulation and intestinal tubes the girls could crawl through were fascinating. It was a rewarding experience exploring and learning as a unit.
Space Museum (general admission) Cost: $160
Children’s Museum Cost + Parking: $88
Health Museum Cost: $52
Smart Commuting with Turo
Considering our extended stay in Houston and our plans to sightsee with our big family, we compared the costs and convenience of Turo versus Uber. Renting a car through Turo proved to be more cost-effective than using Uber for all our trips, offering both time savings and convenience.
Budget Vacation Last Thoughts:
This trip was a remarkable blend of adventure and affordability. We experienced the best without breaking the bank.
With careful planning, resourceful strategies like credit card points, promotions, and even a little family assistance, your dream family vacation is within reach. Harness the budgeting insights shared in this post, always be on the lookout for budget friendly vacation options and set sail on your own dream journey.
Tips and Tricks for Budget Vacation Travels
Let’s recap on a few ways you might be able to save on your next family adventure.
- Look for promotions like ‘kids sail FREE’ and other discounts when booking a cruise.
- Compare Uber, Lyft rates vs renting a car. Consider what activities you want to participate and where you will need transportation.
- Travel with a friend or other family and split cost were you can.
- Be coconscious of where your hotel is located and what activities you’d like to do.
- Planning and booking in advance can offer early bird specials and discounts.
- Utilize credit card promotional points when available. (This can take several months so plan ahead).
Budget Vacation: Our Final Cost
Our inaugural 5-night family cruise was an unforgettable experience. Beyond the cruise itself, we delved into the wonders of Houston and Galveston.
Remarkably, our 8-day budget vacation for our family of six totaled just $3,664. This covered everything – from food and accommodation to transportation, airfare, excursions, entry fees, and hotel stays. Talk about value for money!
In the vast ocean of travel opportunities, it’s entirely possible to find that perfect wave of adventure that doesn’t drain your savings. Our journey stands as proof that with a blend of savvy strategies, a sprinkle of determination, and a touch of family collaboration, dream vacations can become a reality without compromising the experience. Here’s to the many more memories you’ll craft on your own budget vacation. Bon voyage!