Vacation on a Shoestring: Part 2

Tips for traveling with kids  on a budget @ jaxinthebox.comIf you live in a cold winter climate like I do, you are so ready for summer.  This winter has been the worst. As the thermometer climbs and the snow melts, I am actually thankful to see the scattered trash appear under the heaps of ice — a sight that usually makes me recite the lines of my boys’ favorite preschool book: Trashy Town

Dump it in.

Smash it down.

Drive all around the trashy town.

And when I think of summer, I think of family vacations. If your family is anything like ours, we simply can’t afford to spend $1200/person on vacation — which is, according to CNN Money, what the average vacationing U.S. family dishes out on holiday.

I wrote about vacationing on a budget after our family trip to Springfield, IL last summer: Vacation on a Shoestring (without sleeping in a tent). In this post, I’m going to share more of my favorite strategies for saving on the big ticket vacation items: travel, food and lodging. Make sure to click over to my original post for more of our tried-and-true money saving strategies.


The number one rule of saving money on vacation is to skip the plane and hit the road. At an average of $400 a pop, my family of five would spend $2000 on air fare alone. While gas isn’t cheap, fuel plus an overnight hotel stay for longer road trips doesn’t even come close to that bill.

So choose a destination that is within driving distance. Keep your kids’ ages and their tolerance for car rides in mind when determining how long of a road trip you plan to endure.

Maintaining Your Sanity on the Road

Nothing wears on my nerves more than “Are we there yet?” “Mom he’s touching me!” and “Mommy get it! I dropped Thomas the Train on the floor” from the peanut gallery in the back of the van. As such, I’m more than willing to put time and energy into prepping activity bins and planning for breaks on the road.

Build in Breaks

With kids in tow, you’re not going to make record time. I’ve heard of families who tuck kiddos into their car seats at bedtime then hit the road overnight, but I don’t trust that we wouldn’t fall asleep along with our kids. So that’s never been a realistic option for us.

We know there will be plenty of potty breaks and that the kids will need to stretch their legs. So, we use our smartphones to locate rest stops and nice parks en route so the kids can get the wiggles out, and we can eat the picnic lunches I’ve packed (more on that meal strategy later).

Prep Activity Packs

Let’s face it, hours strapped in the car can get boring. I pack lots of novel activities to keep my kids’ interest on the road. While the items you pack will depend on your kids’ ages and interests, hopefully my goody bags will help you get started.

Keeping the Toys Contained

I refuse to be a gopher during road trips, constantly unbuckling myself to travel throughout the minivan rescuing dropped markers and random toys. So I use a number of methods to keep the gear within their reach and off the floor boards.

Bins. I use a medium-sized canvas bin to contain the big boys’ (they are 9-years old) books, notebooks and larger games. They simply keep the bin between their car seats in the third row of the minivan.

Hanging Toiletry Bag. These can be hung from garment hooks or ceiling grab handles next to each of your big kids so they can easily access markers, handheld games, and other small objects you pray will provide hours of entertainment.

Travel / vacation tip: Use a hanging toiletry bag to keep markers and small games within reach during road trips @

Keep small toys/objects within kids’ reach.

Catch-All Net. I made that name up. But this has got to be the best homemade invention ever. I saw a picture on the Internet somewhere where a parent had strung a narrow net from the bottom of a convertible car seat onto the back of the front passenger seat. There was no explanation to the pic, so I rigged up something that I thought would work for us.

I bought a cheap mesh laundry bag, cut it open, zip-tied it to the bottom of Jax’s car seat, then attached each of the corners of the end of the bag to the backs of the driver and front passenger seat. I used hook and loop fasteners here because I imagined I’d need to detach it at some point, and didn’t want to waste a bunch of zip ties. I spread out the net as wide as I could because Jax drops toys in front and along side of his seat.

While at 2-years old Jax can’t yet reach forward far enough while strapped in to retrieve his goods, I simply reach behind and can grab whatever he dropped. This SO beats his screaming, “Mommy get it!” for what seems like hours on end when his toys hit floor and I am unable to pick them up without contorting my body while our van hurls down the highway at 65 (okay 70) miles per hour.

Travel / vacation tip: Use a laundry bag to keep small toys off the floor during your road trip @

Keep toddler’s toys off the floor boards.

Lap Desk. These fit nicely over our car seats (Britax Marathon and Frontiers) and provide a flat surface for writing or playing. I hot glued some non-slip rug pads to the inside of the legs so it would stay put when squeezed over the car seat sides (especially for Jax as he can’t yet reposition the tray should it slip off).

Travel / vacation tip: Use an inexpensive lap desk to create a magnetic work station for young kids during road trips @

Homemade entertainment center.

Big Kids

My big guys are becoming seasoned car travelers and require little more than a pile of good books to keep them occupied. Speaking of books, make sure to raid

Vacation / travel tip: Borrow books from your public library to read in the car during road trips @

Borrow books from your local library.

your local library for plenty of reading material for you and your gang. I’ve stashed away some other gems that mix things up nicely when they need a reading break. Here’s my list.

Little Kids

I simply try to throw together a variety of activities Jax can use on his lap desk. To contain the items a bit more, I hot glued more non-slip rug pad to the back of small jelly roll pan that fit nicely on the desks’ surface. (See the pic above.) This creates a magnetic surface with a “lip” to contain markers and other smaller toys. Here’s my list of toys/activities I have stashed for him:

  • Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends. Jax is a huge fan, so I pack a bag of his favorites.
  • Matchbox Cars. He happily rolls these along the pan while making those car noises boys innately know how to make.
  • Bugs and Dinos. These little plastic toys are perfect for the small lap desk. If you have extra energy, you can hot glue small magnets to the bottom so they stick to the pan — I haven’t conjurred up the energy yet.
  • Magnetic Letters. He loves letters right now. And I love that there’s learning involved.
  • Vehicle Magnets. Jax loves big metal things that move. These are right up his alley.
  • Dry-Erase Board, Books and Markers. These fit nicely inside the pan too. While Jax isn’t doing much actual writing, he sure gets joy out of seeing the scribbles that result from his efforts (with washable markers, of course).

You can also find pictures to download and print off that make fun play mats for the different toys. I Googled “dinosaur scene” in Google Images and found a prehistoric picture that I printed off and slipped in a sheet protector. Or, while looking for pictures I also found this mom’s idea for a magnetic play station that is too involved for my energy level, but includes some fun printable play mats. You can switch scenes on top of the jelly roll pan during your trip if that helps keep your little one’s attention.

You’ll notice I don’t have a DVD player listed. We just don’t use them, mainly because our minivan doesn’t have one of those nifty built-in ones, and it’s too much of a hassle to strap one up so all the kids can see it. But if you like to travel with one, don’t forget you can borrow DVDs from your local library.


We save big time by eating out only one meal a day. I pack meals and snacks for the car ride, and bring along (or buy onsite depending on how far we are traveling) supplies for making breakfasts and dinners. I explain my method here: Vacation on a Shoestring (without sleeping in a tent).

You’ll see my crock pot is part of my food plan. My favorite crock pot cookbook is Slow Cooker Revolution. While many of the recipes involve a bit more than throw it in and forget it, the meals are flavorful and not mushy or rubbery after a day in the cooker.


We skip the hotels and book condos or rent houses with kitchens. This enables our family to relax after a day of sightseeing (by relax I mean run around a large house and yard) and cook our own meals. We use VRBO and Airbnb to find great deals on rental properties.

Budget Friendly Outings When You Get There

We like to choose destinations that offer free or budget-friendly activities. This is what we consider:

State and National Parks. They are great choices as they are intended to be family and budget-friendly.

Museums and Zoos. We are members of our local zoos and museums, both of which offer reciprocity (free admission with our membership card) to other zoos and museums across the country. Check out your local zoos and museums to see if they offer something similar.

City Website. Browse the city’s website to see what the locals might be up to when you are there. This is where you’ll likely find things like music in the park, library fun days and other local, often free, events.

Not sure where to go? Check out this site that lists family-friendly activities at more than 80 cities across the country: Kid Venturous.

Now strap yourselves in, pull out your activity pack and don’t ask, “Are we there yet?” because I won’t answer. Safe travels.

Budget-friendly tips for taking a family vacation. Great strategies for keeping kids occupied in the car and how to save on travel, food and lodging @





5 thoughts on “Vacation on a Shoestring: Part 2

  1. Great idea, Jessica, with the toiletries bag hanger and the jelly roll tray on the lap desk! I’m gonna use those for our summer driving vacation to Florida!

  2. Pingback: We were on TV talking about how to save money on family vacations! | Jax in the Box

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s