Museums, tours, zoos, aquariums, planetariums, pioneer villages and amusement parks: the choices are endless when it comes to fun activities for vacationing families. But admission costs can add up quickly when you are paying for each family member. Over the years, I have found several creative ways to keep costs down during our family trips. Here are some of them:
Seek out free attractions
Some destinations, more than others, have an abundance of stellar attractions with no admission fees. A mom from Washington D.C. said she was so used to the city’s free museums that once, when on vacation, she entered a museum with her kids, completely forgetting to pay until she was stopped by a security guard. All 19 of Washington D.C.’s renowned Smithsonian Institute’s Museums are free. This includes the National Zoo, where you can visit their most popular residents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, the giant pandas. At the National Air and Space Museum, kids can see the actual plane Orville and Wilbur Wright flew in 1903 and compare it to the space rockets on display. For more information, visit www.gosmithsonian.com.
Other museums often offer free or reduced admission days, either at a fixed time every week or a certain day of the month. Visit www.museumfreedays.com for a handy listing of free days at museums in several American cities. Or you can simply visit a particular museum’s website and look at the admission policies. Just keep in mind that locals enjoy these free days too, so you can expect that the museum will be fairly crowded.
Take advantage of reciprocal benefits
Often museum and science centre memberships have reciprocal agreements that grant members free admission to affiliated attractions. If you have a membership to the Montreal Science Centre, for example, you can visit over 270 museums worldwide. In Chicago alone, there are six different sights you can enter free with your membership including the Adler Planetarium, the Field Museum of Natural History and the Chicago Children’s Museum.
Go play outside
Public parks and green spaces are wonderful spots to explore, play or have a picnic lunch with some local delicacies. You rarely have to pay an admission fee, although sometimes there are parking fees. If you’re in Toronto, for example, you can visit Toronto Islands and High Park or, in winter, skate at the Harbourfront and Nathan Phillips Square. To find out where local families spend a day outdoors, try a Google search using the name of the city and terms such as “family fun outdoors” or “green spaces.”
Consider buying a package deal
City Passes offer significant discounts when you purchase tickets to multiple attractions at one time. Through the City Pass program, www.citypass.com, you receive a book of tickets for the most popular attractions in 11 cities, but for up to half the prices if you’d bought them individually. Participating cities include Toronto, New York, Seattle and Atlanta. Many of the city passes can be bought with air miles points, which add to the bargain factor. Other cities have their own pass systems that are well worth checking out.
When booking a hotel room, also ask about special family packages that include a discount admission to local attractions. For example, Niagara Falls Hotels, www.niagarafallshotels.com, offer special family deals that includes tickets to water parks, meals and other family-friendly attractions. On Ottawa’s tourism website, www.ottawatourism.ca, you’ll find packages that include tickets to the National Gallery of Canada and the Canadian War Museum along with discounted accommodation.
Reduce hotel costs
Websites such as www.hotwire.com can offer substantially lower prices for hotel accommodation. On this site, you can choose a star rating and area of town you want to stay in but you don’t find out which hotel you’ve booked until the reservation has been paid for. The catch here is that you can’t get a refund once you’ve booked (unless you buy cancellation insurance). Generally, when you book a hotel directly, you are able to cancel without penalty often up to the day of arrival.
Peruse a local family newspaper
Many cities have free, monthly family newspapers, much like the one you’re reading now. These papers offer a wealth of information about local events and discounts, all geared toward families. Most papers also have websites that will provide valuable information about local events. Parenting Publications of America (www.parentingpublications.org) has a list of parenting newspapers and magazines from across the United States, Canada and Australia as well as links to their websites.
Look online for coupons
The Internet has made is easy to find local deals. The first stop should be the website of the tourism board for your chosen city, where you can often find some great deals. For example, the free Orlando Magicard, www.orlandoinfo.com/magicard, offers discounts on hotels, attractions and restaurants. You can also check out the Cities on the Cheap website at www.citiesonthecheap.com, which offers information written by locals on deals in cities in the U.S., Canada and Europe. And do visit www.promotionalcodes.com and www.couponwinner.com; you’ll find all kinds of discounts, including admission to popular attractions and hotels.
As you plan your vacation, also keep in mind that, as tempting as all the activities are, you don’t have to do everything. Getting away from our busy schedules and creating memories together as a family is really what it’s all about and that can mean just hanging out at the hotel pool. One activity enjoyed at a leisurely pace is worth far more than a mad rush to see and do “everything.”