How families can economize without sacrificing the fun


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Have you sat the kids down for The Talk? Not the where-do-babies-come-from, or safe sex, or being respectful of all talk.

I’m talking about the always difficult conversation about vacation finances and how much the kids can spend on souvenirs. Sure it’s vacation and you want to indulge the kids-and yourselves.

But this is a tough economy, and many families still haven’t recovered from Pandemic loss of income. According to new research from Empower, a leader in financial planning, investing and advice, nearly all Americans (88%) say inflation has cooled their summer plans, causing people to save up for longer, plan fewer getaways, or take shorter trips. Others are breaking out the withholding calculator and adjusting their withholding allowances. Beyond that, nearly a third (31%) of GenZs and 26% of Millennials are turning to a side gig to save more for their trip. 

Picnicking vs restaurant
Picnicking vs restaurant

More than half of Americans are capping their travel spend at $500 for flights and transportation (52%), food (55%) and activities (51%).

At the same time, the latest American Travel Sentiment tracking study from Longwoods International suggests top summer leisure trip activities remain visiting friends and relatives, with more than a third planning a road trip and nearly a third visiting state or national parks.

There are lots of simple ways to curb your vacation spending. Opt for a shorter road trip closer to home, for example.

Alternate pricey attractions–like theme parks—with those that are free or cost little—like the beach, visits to state and national parks and monuments, local playgrounds or even a day lazing at the resort pool. You will be amazed at how many free attractions you will find. Encourage each of the kids to find one. Many cities including New York, San Francisco, New Orleans and many in Europe offer Free Tours by Foot. Orlando is more affordable than ever with 70-plus exclusive deals – including up to 50% off theme parks and up to 25% off hotels–available at Visit

Washington DC boasts more free attractions than most cities; Your aquarium, museum or zoo membership may well get you admission in those where you are visiting. Many have designated free entrance times too—Check in advance. If you have a Bank of America debit or credit card, you can get free general admission to more than 225 cultural institutions across the country the first weekend of every month.

H Street Festival in Washington DC
H Street Festival in Washington DC

Summer is also the time you can take advantage of free concerts and festivals in many places. Portland, Oregon, for example has a Summer Free for All program featuring everything from concerts to movie screenings; Chicago boasts the Millennium Park Summer Series (bring a picnic!) while Tulsa’s popular free concert series happens every Thursday evening throughout the summertime at Utica Square and locals and visitors alike gather Thursday nights on Fanny Hill for The Snowmass, CO Free Concert Series.

If you plan to visit several national parks, historic monuments, and federal recreation sites, opt for a park pass. (If you are traveling with grandparents, a senior annual pass is just $20; free for families of fourth graders and $80 for the entire year.)

It’s no wonder so many of us are opting for vacation rentals. We can save money eating-in (who wants to drag kids out for three meals they may not eat anyway) And we can share expenses with family or friends as well as child care.

Camping in a rustic cabin with 'smores by the fire
Camping in a rustic cabin with ‘smores by the fire

Picnics are economical as well as fun. Visit local farmers’ markets and encourage the kids to try some things they don’t necessarily see at home. Palisades peaches in Colorado, for example; blueberry syrup in Maine, huckleberry jam in Montana, a different variety of cherries in Michigan or apples in Washington state (there are more than 30 types!).

And if you are opting for hotels, consider those that offer a complimentary breakfast, including Embassy Suites and Homewood Suites by Hilton, Holiday Inn Express, Country Inn & Suites by Radisson, Residence Inn and Element by Marriott, Days Inn and most Choice Hotels. Compare rates on sites like Trivago or Expedia. In some cases, you can save significantly if you shift your dates slightly. That goes for flights too!

It goes without saying that you should seek out all the discounts you can. Don’t be shy when you check in to ask if there is a better deal, an upgrade, complimentary breakfast coupons.

 If you are flying, pack sandwiches, snacks and water bottles (which you can fill once you are through security) rather than paying for pricey airport food.

Then there is the souvenir question. How much can each child spend? Do they have birthday money or money they’ve earned that they want to use for something special- say that $50 hoody.

Do they want one “big” souvenir that will use their entire souvenir budget, or do they want to add to a collection they’ve started- stickers, key chains, patches, funny socks…..

Souvenir shop atMission Beach in San Diego CA
Souvenir shop atMission Beach in San Diego CA

Encourage the kids to look for something authentic made in the area you are visiting. (Farmers Markets are a good bet for local crafts and jewelry.)

Discourage impulse buys. Admittedly, that’s difficult to do a theme park where it seems you walk through a shop at every attraction. But you can always suggest the kids put off their souvenir shopping until the end of your trip and then designate time for everyone to shop till they are satisfied. Many families opt to souvenir shop at outlet malls—better prices on tee shirts, sweatshirts and caps emblazoned with state, city and sports team logos.

If there is something the kids really want but out of their budget, consider purchasing for a later holiday or birthday gift. Not only will you have taught them an important lesson about prioritizing their wants, but you’ll be able to surprise them later.

Who thought economizing would be fun!

(For more Taking the Kids, visit and also follow TakingTheKids on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram where Eileen Ogintz welcomes your questions and comments. The fourth edition of The Kid’s Guide to New York City and the third edition of The Kid’s Guide to Washington D.C. are the latest in a series of 14 books for kid travelers published by Eileen.)

©2023 Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.