FIVE zero-budget family vacations

Family vacations that cause ZERO additional funds to your weekly budget. Especially if you do some planning ahead and research.

Let me clarify by saying that there isn’t such a thing as a zero-budget vacation as in completely free free. Instead, these ideas are those that would utilize the money you’re already spending on every day things and put them towards vacation. They, for the most part, cause zero additional funds to your budget, especially if you do some planning ahead to shop coupons, free ticket days, and more.

For these ideas to work for your family, you have to flex your vacation definition a bit. Vacation, for the sake of today’s post, is defined as an extended period of family togetherness in which work, stress, and fighting is reasonably removed.

Slumber Party.

A week long slumber party complete with movies, pajamas, forts, slumber party food and staying up late. It accomplishes the goal of family togetherness, doing nothing, relaxing, and eliminating stress. A giant slumber party is also friendly on the budget.

This is always a winner in my house! We usually attempt to watch all the classic Disney movies, eat ice cream sundaes for breakfast, and stay up until 2am.

Food ideas:

  • sandwich making supplies
  • “better for you” ramen noodles
  • smoothie supplies
  • pasta, pasta, pasta!
  • anything ice cream!
  • t.v. dinners


  1. Shut off your phone, tell your family you are unavailable, and otherwise make it impossible to be distracted.
  2. Schedule a daily fun activity that involves a bit of physical activity and movement or you will have a cranky family after days of inactivity.
  3. Although it’s tempting to stock up ONLY on the crappy, cheap food that your family loves, when day three comes you will regret it. Invest in some good for you options, fresh fruit, and the “healthier” options of your family’s favorite cheap foods.
  4. If you can afford it, think about getting everyone a new pair of pj’s and slippers for the event.
  5. This is the time to allow your children to build (get in on the action!) giant forts in the living room, bring their computers inside, and eat, drink, and exist in those forts as long as they want.


This is a scary word for some, but for that very reason worth looking into. If camping scares you a bit that means it will be an epic adventure for your family! Luckily, camping has become a bit more accessible, easier, and convenient for the inexperienced. And, many of the built in activities are inexpensive! Here’s some tips and tricks to help keep it fun, inexpensive, and easy…

If you live in MN and have never camped, look into the State Parks I Can program. $85 dollars covers all the equipment and fees for two nights of camping (food isn’t included) AND someone helps you set up and gives you necessary guidance. I’m telling you, this is a great program! Check out

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If you embark on camping yourself and don’t have the equipment…put out a call on Social Media before you purchase anything. Chances are you have friends with tents, sleeping bags, coolers, and the like that rarely use their equipment and would be more than willing to lend it! Ask them to label their equipment so you can keep track of it and return it properly.

  • Many State Parks offer cabins for rent, if you don’t have or don’t want to do the tenting route.
  • Think about going the bag lunch route for as many meals as you can stand. Kids think they are fun and you will be glad to save yourself the trouble.
  • The expense in camping comes with all the “extras”. Keep your groceries simple and easy, keep the toys and games to a minimum, and leave the extra stuff at home. You can take a trip to a local store if you really want something. Hey, that would be a great way to pass a rainy day!
  • Almost every State Park has backpacks full of adventure guides, scavenger hunts, magnifying glasses, and more for kids to use and enjoy. These are free and a great resource.
  • Prior to heading out, scout out local, free, and inexpensive attractions that would help pass rainy days. When camping, how you spend those rainy days can make or break a camping trip. Keep it fun!

Be local tourists!

You know this, you’ve heard this, you’ve probably done this, but it needs to be said…a staycation is a great budget-friendly vacation idea! This is the chance to do or see the things in your own area you never get the chance to! Use, local budget sites, and special savings days to keep the cost down at museums, restaurants, and more.

  • To keep costs low when eating out, eat breakfast before you leave, eat lunch at the restaurant (lunch prices are cheapest!), and pick up take-out for supper. If you can, have meals frozen in advance or in the slow-cooker for when you get home which saves you even MORE money.
  • Stop at the information booths at all the destinations you visit and see if they have special activities, games, or other free incentives for kids. Many have free activities that enhance their attraction at no additional cost to you.
  • When heading to free attractions that your family has been to before, or ones you are concerned they may quickly tire of, think of planning ahead and create a scavenger hunt or a checklist that rewards a fun prize for completion. Encourage them to look for certain animals, buildings, even certain foods that can help your family look at an ordinary destination in a new way.


Use and abuse family!

Especially if they live a bit from you. If your family has the space to put your family up, why not use that great resource? Sure, it might not be hotel quality but…it’s free! The best part is you often have a kitchen, babysitting, and tour guide resources, and more.

Note: This only works if you are willing to let go of your vacation expectations and daily routines for the sake of having a week with family at little to no cost to you. 

  • anticipate possible conflict and build solutions in advance. 
    ie. if the kids don’t always get along with their cousins, plan on afternoons for just your family.
    ie. if they don’t eat the foods your family enjoys, offer to bring food with and make some of the meals. Give your kid’s a sticker sheet that they can add to every time they eat a food they don’t normally eat at home. A full sheet equals a fun reward.
    ie. if you know you’ll need time away from family, plan on heading out on your own. Simply talk about how excited you are about it in advance to prep your family for it.
  • bring comfort items from home, where appropriate.
    It can be helpful to allow your children to bring their own pillow and blanket. Go ahead and do the same. Perhaps your child has a favorite mug….bring it. Those small things can help alleviate some stressors and help things run smoothly. Never mind being fun!
  • be thankful and show it!
    Regardless of how your family meets your expectations, they are still going out of their way to host you. Show thankfulness. Guaranteed the more thankfulness you show the harder they will try to be good hosts. I pinky promise! I find it appropriate to leave a monetary gift (or gift cards, if necessary), as large as you can afford, to help them offset the cost of your invasion.
  • allow them to take you around
    If they want to take you somewhere, have guests over, or otherwise involve you in their life…do it! This is a great way to see new things, meet new people, and experience things you wouldn’t normally be able to…at a fraction of the cost. And if you have an open mind, you will most likely find that you enjoy yourself!

House Swap!

I have yet to try this but intend to! It’s as simple as it sounds…swap houses with another family. They can live across the country or close by, it doesn’t matter. Something about getting out of our own homes for an extended vacation immediately helps us breathe. Never mind the excitement your kids will have at staying somewhere else. Can you imagine?

  • Try to pick a family with a similar lifestyle to your own. Or, at least, similarly behaved children. It would be a bad move to go to a home that is made for quiet, well-behaved children when yours are demons. You would not stay friends.
  • Hire a cleaner for your home right before you leave AND, if you prefer, right when you get back. I would do the light cleaning myself and hire them for the deep cleaning. Then leave a note for the family staying with you that you just had it done. If the family on the other side hasn’t done the same for you, and isn’t going to, think about having a cleaning service set up to take care of it immediately on your arrival. Just the stuff like the floors, bathrooms, and kitchen.
  • Ask that everyone has the bedding freshly laundered (in the machines still is a-okay! I don’t mind making the bed with fresh sheets!).
  • Bring your own toiletries just like you would at a hotel.
  • And your own food, for goodness sake!

Hotel Hop

If your kids are on the smaller side then chances are that you spend FAR more time in the hotel pool than anywhere else. Why not take advantage of that? Spend a week hitting up different inexpensive hotels each night. Your kids will have a blast exploring each one. When they get bored of one hotel, you can just move on to another. You can even stay right in your own town if you like!

  • Watch for Groupon deals on local hotels. Don’t be picky! The point of this vacation is exploring. A crappy hotel might happen and that’s okay…it’s part of the experience and will make the next one all the better.
  • Get some pool toys. Seriously, the best investment ever!
  • Food can be more expensive than the hotel itself. Bring food from home, hit up the local grocery store each day prior to checking in. Remember, eating out at lunch is far cheaper than evening meals.
  • Perhaps on the last day, you can “splurge” for a hotel with a waterpark or other fun feature. Just be sure to not start the vacation with that hotel or you will have unhappy kids the rest of the week.
  • If you have older kids that aren’t interested in as much pool time as their younger counterparts allow them to spend time at the arcade, if the hotel has one. Or, have them bring their computers and access to movies they wanted to see (this is a far cheaper option than purchasing movies at Hotels). Is there a new series of books they want to read? Surprise them by having it available. Head to Wal-Mart and get your daughter a stack of magazines to read.

Remember, with all of these vacation alternatives the name of the game is adapting and enjoying the little things. Allowing your children to revel in the activities they love most, finding ways to make inexpensive things seem important, and remembering the small activities are often what are most worth doing.

Family vacations that cause ZERO additional funds to your weekly budget. Especially if you do some planning ahead and research.


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