The “Our Family Vacation” series shows how several American families travel on a budget.
Lissa Poirot: Editor/writer
Matt Cooper: High school teacher
Zach Cooper, 18
Ainsley Cooper, 17
Braeden Cooper, 13
Sophie Poirot, 12
Ethan Poirot, 11
Hometown: Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania
Annual household income: $180,000
Destination: Washington, D.C.
Vacation dates: April 7-9, 2017
Lissa Poirot and Matt Cooper joined families and finances, bringing their five children and love of travel under one roof. Here’s how they budgeted for a three-day weekend in Washington, D.C., during the National Cherry Blossom Festival.
Vacationing in the Poirot-Cooper household
Lissa: “We’re a big, blended family, and we just love to travel. When we were dating and wanted the kids to get better acquainted, we all took a camping trip to the Poconos for a three-day weekend. You really get to know people when you’re camping, and they loved it. During the summers, Matt takes students on school trips — he’ll take around 70 kids. Last year, he went to Australia. This year, we took his kids, the older ones, to Canada so they’d get an international experience closer to home. And we also do a lot of weekend trips as a group.”
Fitting travel into the budget
Start a separate travel account. “With my kids having traveled a lot and his kids being teenagers, the weekend rolls around and they’re bored. We have an account set up that’s really just for travel and entertainment. So if we don’t have anything planned on a weekend, we can use that money to find a festival or event in the area without worrying so much about budgeting for it ahead of time.”
» MORE: How to save for a vacation
Visit destinations with free attractions. “Part of the reason our weekend in D.C. came about was because I know all of the Smithsonian museums are free. So, I knew we could go in one museum and if the kids didn’t like it, go to the next. Plus, there were going to be a lot of free activities that weekend with the Cherry Blossom Festival. We knew the costs were mostly going to come down to lodging and food.”
Great weather? Bike share! “The thing the kids loved the most about this trip was actually renting city bikes and riding them through the Mall, stopping and taking photos whenever we wanted. We stopped at the Lincoln Memorial, racked the bikes, walked around a little bit and then picked the bikes back up. It was such a hit. They thought it was such an experience, and it’s really nice because it’s really inexpensive, even for the entire day.”
Parting travel tips
Plan meals in advance. “We didn’t realize we’d be blocked from restaurants by street closures on the day of the parade. I’m a seasoned traveler and I totally missed that. The only places we could really access for lunch were the museums, so we thought we’d eat cafeteria style — how bad could it be? We spent $180 on sandwiches, chips, and sodas. We were so upset. Next time, I’d bring snacks or plan on going back to the hotel for some meals. When you have seven people, it’s a party every time you try to eat somewhere.”
Travel when they’re young, if possible. “My kids are conditioned — they can maneuver through an airport and are good with international foods. They started traveling with me in my work when they were 4 and 5 years old, and before that I was taking them just because they loved going places. They’re so used to airport security that one time we went to a museum and they had a metal detector and my kids started taking off their shoes! Matt’s kids, on the other hand, are older and less traveled. We took them to Quebec City this year and they hated all of the food — they wanted hamburgers, so we had to specifically look for pub type restaurants where they could find more American-style foods.”
» MORE: Six smart ways to travel cheaply
A Nerdy perspective
Having a big family means paying more on vacation — for transportation, meals, lodging … everything. Set and stick to a vacation budget, as just one “splurge” meal could set you back several hundred dollars. If you indulge too much or if unexpected expenses come up, tighten up your household budget when the vacation is over to recover quickly. It’s easier to rein in spending at home when the memories of your indulgent vacation are still fresh in your mind.
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Elizabeth Renter is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @ElizabethRenter.