Save & Splurge: 25+ Ideas for a Frugal Family Vacation

Why travel across the country for a vacation, when memories are waiting right here in Lake County?  In this blog, guest blogger Zena from tells about her family’s vacation to Lake County, and when splurging is worth it!


Save & Splurge: 25+ Ideas for a Frugal Family Vacation


Six Flags Great America

Some say there is a MAGIC AGE to visit Disney . . . an age when your child is young enough to believe in all the enchanting features the theme park has to offer, yet is old enough to remember the adventure. But let me tell you, it’s a precious — and short — window.

As friends and schoolmates shared their Mickey summer vacation stories with my daughters, Disney trips became a hot topic at my house. I could see my family’s small window of time passing, and part of me felt that our girls were truly “missing out” on the adventure of a lifetime. My husband I debated over the cost of such an elaborate trip.

Yet, when I really sat down and thought about it, my most memorable childhood Disney moments didn’t occur at the Magic Kingdom. My fondest Disney memories are of me and my brothers swimming with my dad at the hotel pool at the end of the day. That realization changed my whole perspective.

So my husband and I took the money we would have spent on airfare and entrance fees and rental cars and decided to transform a local vacation into a magical adventure of our own.

My husband and I quickly realized that our perfect “In Lieu of Disney” destination was a mere 5 hours away. Lake County (just north of Chicago) had all the ingredients for the family vacation of a lifetime. So we put the same energy, effort, and excitement that usually accompanies a grand Disney trip into our local vacation planning.

Read on to get the details of how we cut corners on the little things so we could splurge on the things that mattered mostto our family . . .


Below you’ll find over 25 tips on traveling cheap by being savvy and getting deals at the hotel, online, on the road, and on location.

At the hotel:

  • Pick a semi-local destination to avoid airfare. Have you ever heard the phrase “Be a tourist in your own town”? A local trip might mean a commute of 45 minutes or 7 hours. Pick a destination that feels far enough from home that you can truly relax.
  • Stay at a hotel that offers shuttle service. This will save you money on gas and, more importantly, on parking fees. You’d be surprised how quickly parking costs add up when visiting a larger city! Most metropolitan hotels offer shuttle service. Not only will you save money, you’ll save time and your sanity. Most large museums, galleries, and amusement parks will offer a “front doorstep” drop-off zone for hotel shuttles. Put away the GPS and your wallet and enjoy the ride. Little kids will love shuttling around the city.
  • Make sure your hotel room has a mini-refrigerator. This tiny detail allows you to keep a wider variety of fresh drinks and snacks while on vacation.
  • Try to find accommodations with a decent & free breakfast. Now days many hotels go beyond the traditional bagels and cereal spread. Call and ask if they offer hot choices like waffles, eggs, or oatmeal.
  • Stay at a water park hotel. The nightly cost of staying at a water park hotel can feel steep, but you’ll have built-in family fun all under one roof. This is a great way to keep little ones entertained with a nice, quiet room just steps away to crash or nap or snack whenever needed.
  • Review hotel entertainment packages. Check your hotel’s website for custom local offers. If you are staying at a large chain and your location doesn’t have custom information, take the old-fashioned approach: Get the phone number and call. The resort we stayed at partnered with the amusement park across the road. The package they offered was better than anything we found online. We also ended up buying an in-house fun package that included arcade tokens, an art project, and a spa treatment. The package was a fraction of the price of doing the items individually and also included 10% off all kids meals within the hotel. Win-Win.
  • Book Sunday through Friday. If you’re able to adjust your schedule, book the hotel during the week. This will save you a great deal of money. The real benefit of this schedule is that you get Saturday to pack and you come home to a weekend rather than a work day. You’ll also enjoy a more peaceful period of the week: fewer lines, less crowding, better room selection, and more.
  • Stay with friends or family for a portion of the trip. If you have friends or family in the area, save by starting your vacation with an overnight visit. Even one night’s savings will allow you to reallocate money to either a better hotel choice, nicer restaurants, or more activities.
  • Use an Entertainment Coupon Book. Check to see if the area you are visiting offers one of these classic print books. It includes hotel, restaurant, and (you guessed it) entertainment coupons. The savings from BOGO food coupons adds up quickly!
  • Research your hotel on Trip Advisor, but check for deals on the hotel site or through
  • Pay for your room when booking. When making reservations online, pay when booking. This can usually save you between $10 and $50 depending on the hotel chain. Only pay in advance if you are 100% sure your dates will not be changing. Small-print stipulations almost always make the transaction non-refundable.


  • Think local, not like a tourists. Check out the city’s website to research events, fairs, and local exhibits for inexpensive family fun.
  • Sign-up and save. Watch, or Living Social for deals the weeks before you travel.
  • Check for multiple-day amusement park packages. Most amusement parks will offer a package if you visit for a few days. This cuts down the stress of cramming in all the park’s fun activities in a single day. If you have little children, I highly recommend this!
  • Get app savvy. Review the following apps to see if any feel like a good fit: Out to Eat with KidsBite HeadKids Meal DealsRough GuideEntertainment, and Yelp.
  • Research museum reciprocityThe Association of Children’s Museums and the Association of Science Technology Centers have a great reciprocity offer. Nearly 200 museums participate in the network and reciprocate 50% off general admission for up to six (6) people. Click here to see if reciprocity is available in your state (PDF)Listen to this… We bought an annual family pass from the Appleton Children’s Museum that allows us to go to all the zoos, museums, and aquariums in both Chicago and the Twin Cities. Call your local children’s museum for details.
  • Get the skinny from real momsLearn how 80+ moms would recommend exploring their local cities on a budget. The opportunities are broken down by section of the U.S. and then by state and city!

On the road:

  • Stop at rest stops for family bathroom breaks. Gas station snacks are expensive and usually unhealthy. Try to avoid the temptation by breaking at rest stops rather than gas stations. This is also a great time for kids to get out and stretch their legs. Set your phone timer for 5–10 minutes and let the kids run around the area. You might be anxious to move on, but this will help your kids get some wiggles out.
  • Avoid gas station snacks. Again, my first recommendation is to try and avoid having your kids in the gas station. Of course, that is not always possible.Plan ahead. The week before traveling, we go to the grocery store and buy an awesome selection of car-friendly snacks for the road. You want the items to be healthy, but keep in mind that you’re trying to sway kids away from the temptation of the gas station snack aisle.
    • We love the Simply Balanced fruit snacks Target offers. They are sweet (curbing candy), but still all natural. I admit, I *love* getting candy at the gas station on road trips, too. Having these fruit snacks in the car helps me avoid giving in to temptation as well.
    • We also like to pack easy-to-eat Buddy Fruit snack pouches. We’ve tried bringing fresh fruit, but even with a cooler, it always seems to go bad or get bruised. We’ve also had the cooler get jostled around, causing the melted ice water to leak. Keep your car snacks simple!
    • I had a bag of this awesome Monster Trail Mix and it melted into a single solid chunk. Be cautious of snacks that melt in the summer heat. (Mind you, I still broke off chunks and munched at it. I looked like a toddler, my face all covered in melted chocolate shards, but waste not, want not!)
    • Keep a small stash of frozen juice pouches. They start to thaw out right when the initial excitement of the road trip wears off and “I’m hungry” sets in. You can freeze traditional juice boxes, but we’ve had the best luck with Capri Sun and Honest Kid Organics pouches.
    • Stop by the site MOMables for a unique list of snack suggestions with a grocery store printable.
  • Have a designated Kleen Canteen. We packed a small 12oz Kleen Canteen for each child. Give each child a designated color and have them be in charge of keeping track of it. Kids enjoy the ownership and filling it up at the rest stop water fountains. Also, instead of buying drinks from the vending machine at a hotel, you can use these instead.
  • Ban Happy MealsDon’t pay extra for the plastic toy! Despite our all-natural and organic tendencies, we still occasionally eat breakfast at McDonald’s when traveling. It is an inexpensive way to start the day. My two ladies (7 & 8) and I share the Big Breakfast with Hotcakes, usually on the road. Top with a few bags of Apple Slices, and we’re on our way.
  • Drive 60 mph. My green husband implements this money-saving technique. I admit, at first it drove me a bit crazy. I like to GET places. When I finally tried this technique, what surprised me was how relaxing driving can be! Set the cruise control and coast. When you’re dealing with little-kid energy squiggles in the car, it is awesome to not have the stress of navigating in and out of lanes. CNN Money reports, “In a typical family sedan, every 10 miles per hour you drive over 60 is like the price of gasoline going up about 54 cents a gallon . . . Driving 10 miles per hour faster (assuming you don’t lose time getting pulled over for a speeding ticket) does have the advantage of getting you to your destination 50 minutes sooner on that 400 mile trip. Whether that time difference is worth the added cost and risk [stress] is, ultimately, up to you.”

On location:

  • appleGrocery-shop for fresh fruits & veggies upon arrival. After you get settled, stop by the front desk and ask which local grocery store has the best fruit and veggie options. Some of our favorite quick-fix items are: apples (with peanut butter), grapes, carrots (with ranch), milk chugs, and cheese sticks. If you are staying an extended period, buy cold cuts and fresh rolls for a simple lunch solution. While you’re there, grab yourself a 6-pack of local beer, too.
  • Pre-game with healthy snacks before heading out to amusement parks, tours, or any adventure. Feed your kids fruits and veggies at the hotel to avoid paying for overpriced snacks when out and about. The one afternoon I forgot to do this, we ended up spending $16 for a bottle of water, a pretzel, and some nacho cheese. {blah}
  • Eat local. Ask for suggestions at the front desk when checking into your room. Local restaurants often have the best deals, plus it makes the trip more of adventure.
  • Share a dinner when eating out at sit-down restaurants. That tiny refrigerator at the hotel can only hold so much. When you eat out, be sure to order “just enough” so you aren’t trying to jam leftovers into your mini-fridge. Consider ordering two adult dinners to share with the kids. Or share one adult meal, knowing you’ll have a few uneaten chicken fingers and buttered noodles to munch down once the kids are full.
  • Find a local parkPlay. It’s cheap.


Pinching pennies allows you to focus on the portion of the vacation your kids will remember the most. Now it is time to reallocate the money you would have spent. Here’s how our family splurged. Oh, the possibilities! You could:

Go BIG or go HOME.
Pick a grand hotel with a water park. When we saw a semi-local hotel mentioned in The 7 Top-Rated Family Hotels in the U.S.A,we were thrilled. Then we saw the hotel’s website. {jaw drop} KeyLime Cove is a 65,000-square-foot indoor water park with 12 water slides, 6 pools, a lazy river, and a three-story play structure. The resort also boasts 2 spas (one for adults and one for kids), a huge arcade, multiple restaurants, a Starbucks Café, and (most importantly) family-friendly suites. Located between Chicago and Milwaukee, this was just far enough from our backyard to feel like a true adventure. I popped over to TripAdvisor to read reviews and verify the hotel was as family-friendly as it claimed. One TripAdvisor traveler wrote, “Now we don’t have to go to Florida!” SOLD.

KeyLime Cove - Gurnee

Stay another day.
Surprise the kids by adding another day to your trip. At the last minute, while I was literally checking in to the hotel, I decided to book an extra night.

Do something out of character.
Step into a different world. The girls did something special that we’d never do at home: they got a pedicure at the kid’s spa [Instagram]. The girls glowed as they had their spa treatments done; they were so happy. It was part of a KeyLime Covehotel package that also included vouchers for daily ice cream, tokens for RipTide Reef Arcade, as well as a painting project at Leapin’ Lizards art center. It was nice to be able to pre-pay for all the activities in a chunk and not have to worry about it throughout the week. Click here to read my full review of KeyLime Cove.

KeyLime Cove - Lake County

Drink good beer.
Splurge on drinks. Timothy O’Toole’s Pub was a hop, skip, and a jump away from the hotel. We walked there for dinner one evening, but before we dug in, we each got specialty drinks. Even the girls! They had Shirley Temples, while Shad and I sampled a variety of local beers. Here’s a little Lake County insider’s tip: the Small Town’s “Rootbeer Beer” microbrew is amazing.

Go on an adventure.
Get out of the hotel and try a new restaurant. While we were at Gurnee Mills, we had lunch at The Rainforest Café. The restaurant has waterfalls, tropical fish, lush vegetation, indigenous creatures, and … WEATHER. The booms of a looming thunderstorm set the tone. The food was pricey, but the experience was worth it. You’ve worked hard saving, so find a unique restaurant your family will appreciate, and then enjoy it.

Rain Forest Cafe - Lake County

Say “YES” to the little things.
Say “yes” to the tiny random requests kids make. We spent a rainy day at Gurnee Mills. We also enjoyed indoor-black-light mini-golf, laser tag, and bowling at Rink Side Sports. We decided to pass time and relax at the mall theater. We enjoyed popcorn and candy. These things sound insignificant, but they mean a great deal to a young child.

Make it a double.
Consider adding an extra day at the park. Six Flags Great America offers 3 children’s themed areas, a 20-acre water park, special nighttime events, and 14 heart-pounding roller coasters. Our family didn’t want to feel the pressure of having to rush through the park and see everything in a single day. Great America offers a next-day pass for a reduced price, so we decided to double-dip. This allowed us to gallivant around the park with ease. It also allowed us to take a break mid-day at the hotel, so the kids would be well rested and fully enjoy the evening.

Will you be traveling to an amusement park on your vacation?
Read the article 10 Must-Try Tips for Avoiding “The MELTDOWN”.

Dance with the butterflies.
Pay extra to participate in museum, park, or garden exhibits and shows. We spent an afternoon at the Chicago Botanic Gardens and enjoyed the summer butterfly exhibit.

Chicago Botanic Gardens - Lake CountyOur “In Lieu of Disney” trip to Lake County was an enchanting and unforgettable vacation. Lake County offered us a variety of family-friendly activities, events, and restaurants to explore. If you’re considering visiting Gurnee, Illinois, and have question, let me know below.

Cutting corners on insignificant things so we could splurge on certain portions of our trip made all the difference. If your family isn’t in a financial position to pay for airfare to Disney, THINK LOCAL. And remember…

Adventure will show up wherever you look for it. {Tweet This}

Have you got any additional tips for frugal family travel or suggestions on splurging? Let’s chat in the comments.


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply