When planning for vacation, we use this travel cost estimator to figure out our vacation budget! For us, it’s not necessarily about cheap family vacations. For us, budgeting is a way of life. We budget groceries, gas money, clothes and gifts. So, we plan family vacations on a budget, too.
Sometimes, that vacation budget is $5,000. Sometimes, it’s much less!
Here’s our step by step guide to how we use this travel cost estimator to figure out our vacation budget. At the end of the post, there’s a FREE downloadable travel budget worksheet you can use to plan your own family vacations on a budget!
We’ve been budgeting for vacations our whole marriage, just like we budget groceries and other expenses. We might actually be better at vacation budget planning. After all, vacations are fun! And I want to take more vacations — even if that means some are cheap family vacations close to home.
Through the years, readers have asked how to budget for a vacation. So, here it is — our step by step method to estimate travel costs.
How to make a estimate travel costs for a no surprises vacation budget
Believe it or not, making a vacation budget makes for a more fun vacation! If you estimate travel costs ahead of time, you can plan better. That means more relaxing once you get there, because you won’t wonder, “How much is this costing me?”
Step one is deciding the type of vacation you want and where to go. Got it?
Step two is figuring out how much it will cost.
If you have never looked ahead at expenses for vacation, it might seem overwhelming the first few times. But, I promise, after you do it once, it’s easy! And the peace of mind you get from knowing you can afford your vacation? Priceless!
So let’s look at how you “budget” the general costs of your vacation. I’ll be using a 5 day vacation example through the whole thing to help you see how it works.
NOTE: Resist the urge to book tickets or reserve a hotel at this point. This is the planning budget — to help you know what you can afford!
Vacation planning tools to help you estimate travel costs.
Momondo is an online cost comparison search tool that does so many amazing things:
- Compare flight costs by airline, date/time of travel and by airport to find the best value for your vacation,
- Compare hotel costs from various discounters and also by dates of travel — maybe adjusting vacation by a few days or weeks will help you save tons,
- Compare car rental costs by location and company.
- Book deals directly through the site.
I like Momondo because I can explore all the options and decide what’s best for me. We used the tool to discover that flying from Fayetteville, NC was cheaper than flying from Raleigh. Sure, I drove an extra 30 minutes to get there, but I saved about $200. Great investment!
Kayak is an online booking tool that can help you save money on travel. You can book flights, hotels, rental cars and even cruises through Kayak. I compare prices I find on Momondo (which offers date flexibility) with Kayak (for specific dates) as Kayak is more of a booking site. I like Kayak because it shows all the booking options in one screen — from all the options available with a map so I know where each place is located. Once I know what I want, it’s easy to book through Kayak.
Cost factors to consider to plan a vacation budget
1. The Cost of Travel — how much will it cost to get there?
The first thing to consider when you plan a vacation is how will we get there? Generally, when I plan a vacation more than a one day drive from home (10 car hours), I compare the cost of driving to the cost of flying. Of course, the more people who go, the more expensive flying is. Likewise, the further away the destination, the higher the financial cost (and time cost) of driving.
But, sometimes, when you way out all the costs of vacation travel, flying is the better choice. Sometimes, it’s not.
What is the cost of a road trip? To estimate the cost of driving to your chosen family vacation spot:
- Figure out the cost of gas for the trip:
- determine the number of miles you will travel (google maps provides a good ballpark figure)
- divide the number of miles by your car’s mpg (the number of miles you travel per gallon of gas)
- multiply that answer by the current cost of gas per gallon
- Formula: M (miles round trip) / mpg X $ (price of gas/gallon) = Total cost of gas for travel.
- Example: You decide to go someplace 250 miles from home, which is 500 miles roundtrip. Let’s say your vehicle gets 20 miles per gallon (mpg) on average. And, let’s say the cost of gas is $2.50/gallon. Using the formula above, it looks like this:
- 500 miles / 20 mpg = 25 gallons of gas needed.
- 25 gallons X $2.50 = $62.50 needed for car travel.
- This Fuel Economy Trip Calculator is a great tool to simplify this step.
- Then add in costs for toll roads if needed. This link helps make that easy. In our example, there are no toll fees.
- Budget the cost of food on the road:
- as a general rule, figure $20/person per full day of travel. If traveling with teens or others with large appetites, increase that budget to $25/per person per day of travel to and from the destination.
- In the example above, a 250 mile trip (one way) which is 3.5 to 4.5 hours of travel is, at most, one meal. For a family of four, I would budget $40 for this meal (half the daily food budget). Then I would double it for the meal on the drive home for a total of $80.
- Add overnight hotel lodging (if needed for the length of the trip):
- if the trip will take longer than a day, factor in the cost of a hotel at $100/room per night needed (there and back).
- In the example above, an overnight stay would be unnecessary.
- Then add in the cost of parking during your trip:
- Do you have to pay for parking at the destination? If traveling to a major city such as Washington, DC, NYC or San Francisco, factor daily parking at $40/day for the duration of your stay. Other cities might cost a bit less.
- Total each of these categories to estimate the cost of driving to and from your destination.
- In the example, our cost for travel is $142.50 (gas + food).
- If headed to New York City for 5 days, the estimated cost is $342.50 (parking for 5 days at $40/day = $200 in addition to gas for travel and food).
- Calculate round trip tickets within your half of the country (east or west of the Mississippi) at $300/person.
- Calculate round trip tickets across the country at $600.
- Or, explore actual costs on Momondo. Prices change, but you can get a good idea of cost with it.
- Add in luggage costs ($30 per checked bag each direction).
- Factor in daily parking at the airport (anywhere from $6 to $15/day).
- For a family of four, the cost of round trip air travel would be $1200 + cost of parking at the airport.
- Also calculate cost of airport transfers to hotel or cost of rental car for the trip. I use a quick figure of $100 for airport transfers each way and $25/day for car rental (which is low).
For a short trip like our 5 day vacation example, traveling by car is much cheaper.
2. The Cost of Lodging at your Destination
- 5 nights at $175/night = $875.
- This hotel does not require an additional resort fee.
- Taxes add on of 15% ($875 X .10 = $131.25)
- Total hotel working budget is $1,006.25.
3. Add in dining and food costs.
As a general rule, we factor $100/day for a family of four if breakfast is included at the hotel. We increase it to $150/day if breakfast is not included. In major cities and at theme parks, we increase our budget by $50/day.
Example: Using the same 5 day vacation scenario with breakfast included at the hotel, I would calculate food costs at $500 (5 days X $100/day = $500).
4. Add in Attraction and Entertainment Costs.
- Theme park tickets
- Other entertainment (Broadway shows, the opera)
- Museum tickets
- National park admission fees
- Ferry costs
- Bike, kayak or other adventure rental costs
- Mass transit (subway or metro)
Here’s a GREAT MONEY SAVING TIP! CityPASS offers discount attraction package deals in many major cities across the United States. It also offers theme park tickets at some of the best rates available. So, check out CityPASS when planning your vacation! You could save 50% on activities.
Example: Let’s say our family wants to go to a “theme restaurant” that includes entertainment at a cost of $40/person. For a family of four that would be an extra expense of $160. Since we’re at the beach, we want to rent beach bikes for one day at a cost of $15/person for a total of $60. And, we want to splurge on a cabana at the beach for two days to really relax at a fee of $80/day for a total of $160. Our add on expenses would be:
- $160 + $60 + $160 = $380.
Remember, this is the working budget for planning the trip. There’s no need to make reservations yet. We’re just trying to figure out how much the vacation will cost.
5. Add up your total costs to know your vacation budget
Add all the costs from the above categories together to set your working budget for your trip.
In the example, my travel budget would be (I’m assuming free parking at the destination):
- $142.50 for the cost of travel + $1,006.25 for lodging + $500 for food + $380 for extras and activities = $2116.25 total for vacation.
I use a one page sheet to estimate and compare vacation ideas. Here is your FREE vacation cost estimator tool!
If you like this post, you’ll also like these other budget family travel posts!
- CityPASS: A complete guide to this money saving attractions pass!
- How to save on Disney travel.
- Save on cruise shore excursions with the Hilton Beach Day Pass.
- How to stretch your Disney Cruise Line budget and save.
- Cruise Essentials: What you need, not what you don’t!
So, do you plan your family vacation budget? Or do you just wing it? Or something in between? I’d love to hear from you. Please, leave a comment below!