According to American Express and Forbes, the average cost per person for a family vacation is $1,145 for a 7 day trip.
For a family of 4, that breaks down to:
- Average cost: $4,580
- Daily cost for the family: $654.29
- Daily cost per person: $163.57
If a vacation was that expensive, our family would most certainly stay home.
Of course, if you follow MacBeTrippin, you know that we don’t stay home. We take 3-4 weeks each summer to travel 4,000-5,000 miles.
For comparison, I’ll use my own family’s trips in 2017 and 2018.
States: Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada
Length: 26 days
Major attractions: Sequoia National Park, King’s Canyon National Park, Yosemite National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, San Francisco, Redwood National Forest, Death Valley National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Lake Tahoe.
- Total cost: $1,934 (fuel, campsites, activities)
- Daily cost for the family: $74.39
- Daily cost per person: $14.88
States: Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado
Length: 22 days
Major attractions: Custer State Park, Badlands National Park, Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Pikes Peak.
- Total cost: $1,442 (fuel, campsites, activities)
- Daily cost for the family: $65.55
- Daily cost per person: $13.11
If you rolled the pro-rated cost of our pre-owned pop-up camper into the mix ($200 per trip), we still land at less than half the average cost.
For us, camping offers a wealth of experiences without bleeding cash. But, before we talk about tips for saving money on the road, let’s address the big elephant in the room.
Define your priorities
For some families, annual trips to Disney World hold weight. I have friends who swear by annual or semi-annual trips to see the mouse. If that is your idea of vacationing, this article is not for you.
Our family decided long ago that we valued diversity of experiences over commercial experiences. That doesn’t mean that special locations like Disney or Universal Studios never have a place. But, it does order our priorities.
Our priorities derive from 3 family goals:
- Be 100% debt free (including our mortgage) by the time the old girl (my wife) and I are 45.
- Visit all 50 states by the time our oldest kiddo goes to college.
- Give more to charity each year than we did last year.
Each of these goals has a financial component. Being debt free meant making sacrifices to pay off 2 bachelor’s, 2 master’s and 1 doctoral loan by our 15th anniversary. It means we’re still happily living in our starter home. And it means that we have to be economical in pursuing goal number 2.
Then, goals 1 and 2 have the potential to conflict with goal number 3.
With our priorities in mind, we decided that spending $4,500 for a 1-week vacation was never going to be our style. We couldn’t see ourselves looking back in 10 years after 5 bi-annual trips to Disney World and thinking, “That was $25,000 well-spent.”
And so, our 4-week summer adventures were born.
If you share our point of view, let’s talk about 9 ways to save money on vacations.
1. Eat like you’re at home.
One of the ways we are able to save so much money during vacation is because we eat on vacations like we eat at home. We don’t use the open road as an excuse to dine out for every meal.
At home in Texas, our family eats most meals at home. We limit dining out to only 2 times per week. Then, we allow a little bit for our espresso addictions at our favorite local spots.
One of the advantages of pop-up camping over hotel vacations is that you can plan meals and cook. We reserve dining out for places on our “must eat” list or our “best espresso” list. Because, let’s be honest — that seafood in Key West or beignet in New Orleans are worthy of venturing into town.
All other times — self control goes a long way.
2. Don’t use mini propane.
If you are camping in cold areas or you like to cook on a stovetop, then propane will likely be part of your plans.
Prefer campfire cooking? Awesome. Skip this tip. You’re well on your way.
If you are using those little green propane bottles, you are burning little green dollars. (Not to mention, they’re terribly wasteful. 40 million 1-pound propane gas cylinders are sold in North America each year. Used cylinders occupy approximately 3.3 million cubic feet of landfill space annually.)
People buy them because they’re small and convenient. Plus, most portable stoves that don’t come with your camper are engineered to use them.
But, with the right attachments for your 20-pound propane canister, you can save substantially.
Those little green bottles range from $3.50 to $5 per bottle. But, they only hold about .23 gallons of liquid propane. A 20-pound tank holds 4.7 gallons.
For a 20-pound tank refill, your cost would be $14.10-$18.80.
For the same amount of propane in those little green bottles, you would need 20 bottles, which amounts to $70-$100. That’s a high price for convenience.
3. Boondock or enjoy dispersed camping.
There are a wide range of campground types to fit your wants and needs. Resorts usually range $60-$140 depending upon where you are. (We only stay there as a last resort.)
Most of our stays are state parks, core of engineer parks, or community parks that range $8-$24 per night.
Many of my favorite places to stay are boondocking or dispersed camping locations. Most national parks or forests have free campsites. Amenities vary widely, but the views are among the best. Nothing beats free.
If you’re staying overnight just to get some sleep while on the road, you can also take advantage of free boondocking at places like Walmart, Camping World, Cracker Barrel, casinos and truck stops. Be sure to check the specific locations for requirements. Most require that you be self-contained (water/potty).
4. Get a 4th-grade National Parks Pass.
Our family has now saved nearly $900 on national park fees because of this simple tip. If you have a child who is entering or exiting the 4th grade, simply fill out the online application for a free National Parks Pass. Then, arrive at the national park confident that you won’t be paying the per-person or per-car entry fee like the other poor souls in the line.
Added bonus — your kid will be talked to like a VIP. Rangers love kids who know about the parks pass.
5. Join a camping club.
Ever since we started camping, we have been members of Good Sam. Good Sam is tied into Camping World and Pilot and Flying J travel centers.
Why is that important?
First, we get discounts on merchandise at Camping World. If you’re looking to save money, the last thing you want is to buy needless merchandise because you have a membership. We rarely buy. But, once in awhile we need something of significance. When combining our discount with the regular Camping World coupons, we can save big money. I recently needed a new awning for my pop-up. I saved $75 from the closest online price when I bought it with Camping World.
While we rarely use our Camping World discount, we always use our Pilot and Flying J discounts. We find Pilot stations to consistently have among the lowest gas prices, cleanest bathrooms, and decent food options. Most importantly — with a Good Sam membership, you get an extra 5 cents off per gallon.
Lastly, if you find yourself in a region where your best camping options are resorts, many offer a 10% discount on the nightly rate.
With how we camp, we have found that the benefits exceed the low cost of membership.
6. Use Gas Buddy.
If you don’t go the club membership route, you should download the free Gas Buddy app. We often plan road trips with this app to make sure we get the lowest gas prices. It especially comes in handy for checking whether you should fill up at a half tank before you cross that next state line.
7. Time your trip.
The best deals can most often be found in the off-season. Like hotels, many resorts adjust their nightly rates during seasons of low volume. Many tourist attractions have off-season pricing or offer coupons and special offers to boost attendance. Plus, visiting when fewer people are around makes the visit more enjoyable.
8. Install an inline water filter.
This may seem weird to include. But, on long trips, we’re amazed at how much water we go through. Sure, bottled water is cheap at CostCo. But, it’s cheaper when you filter it yourself.
Consider buying an inline water filter for your camper. Then, get everyone a cup and show them the faucet. Installation is painless.
9. Budget snack stops.
Nothing makes us more snacky than staring at the open road. A certain level of rest stop treating is fine. But, it can be easy on a 10-hour drive to let those 3-hour stops nickel and dime your budget into submission.
Budget your travel stops. If you have kids, let them know that they have $5 each from point A to point B. When it’s gone, it’s gone. Not only do you control costs, you teach a valuable life principle.