Read this guide to discover how to travel for free even when traveling with kids or other friends and family. Solo travel provides more opportunities for free or cheap vacations. Unfortunately, Couchsurfing and WWOOFING really don’t cut it on a family vacation — or a bachelorette weekend. There are so many sites promoting ideas of how to travel cheap or even get paid to travel, but the truth is that even people who work in the industry usually have to pay part of their own way.
Keep reading if you want to learn how to:
- How to travel for free without putting yourself or your traveling partners at risk
- How to travel cheap and still have loads of fun, and
- How to get paid to travel while still having time to enjoy your trip
None of these methods are 100% free and none of them will make you financially filthy rich, but you can help you save a considerable amount on your next vacation while having the time of your life.
Why It’s Harder to Travel for Free With Kids and Other Family and Friends
A quick read-through any of the “How to Travel for Free” articles will show you how unreasonable it is to expect parents, in particular, to drag their kids along on trips to strangers’ houses. Hitchhiking? With toddlers? Gulp.
Unfortunately, there is bound to be someone who reads that advice and doesn’t realize the suggestions are unrealistic or unsafe.
Taking my kids to a complete stranger’s home I’ve never met before to spend the night? Why would that be a problem? Landing house-sitting gigs with a large family? Totally do-able. Writing off our family vacation when my “S Corp” made $50 hosting one garage sale this summer? The IRS won’t even look twice.
Even the legitimate free methods for traveling solo can be inaccessible to someone in a group. Working in exchange for room and board, teaching English or skiing or skydiving and other activities? Those places operate on slim margins and don’t usually have extra room (or food or supervision) for children. They might not have room for two or three friends to volunteer at the same time.
That isn’t to say there aren’t ways of trimming your expenses or landing some freebies, but the idea of traveling completely for free with your family or even a group of friends is a fantasy. Don’t put yourself and your loved ones at risk. Count on funding part of your own vacation costs, so you can be pleasantly surprised by the savings you do get.
How to (Really) Travel for Free With Kids and Others
Whether you’re traveling with family or friends, there are certainly ways to save money on the road. One of the easiest is to choose a destination that has a lot of free things to do. St. Louis, Missouri, San Diego, California, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C. are just a few U.S. cities known for having plenty of free activities for tourists.
Some are free all of the time and some are free during special events. Others are free with a pass from a local library. Travelers with limited incomes should also inquire directly at sights. Museums and other attractions sometimes offer scholarship passes to visitors who don’t make over a certain amount every year.
How to Score a Free Pass to National Parks
Everyone in the country can get in on the America the Beautiful Pass which gives you free entry to more than 2,000 national parks and wildlife areas. It doesn’t just cover you either, but up to four adults in your vehicle and any child 15 or younger. Sometimes a pass will offer additional benefits, like free or reduced camping, cabin or activity fees. How do you get it? There are a few ways:
- Pay $80 a year. (But why do this when you can get it free-of-charge?)
- Seniors can pay $80 for a lifetime pass or $20 per year (but again, see above)
- Military service (also good for dependents)
- Get the Annual 4th Grader pass for a child in fourth grade (or a 10-year-old homeschooler)
- Volunteer for a qualifying federal agency for 250 hours a year
More information about park passes can be found here.
Transportation, food and lodging will be your biggest expenses if you go this route.
Free or Cheap Kids’ Flights
Maybe it’s the Midwesterner in me talking, but driving can save a bundle while adding to your overall experience. Sometimes it’s not the most sensible (or affordable!) option though. When flying, check into airlines known for low-cost (sometimes no-cost) kids’ deals, such as:
- Frontier Airlines
- Southwest Airlines
in the states, and:
- British Airways
- Qatar Airways
- Scandanavian Airlines, and
- Virgin Atlantic
when you’re flying overseas.
You can also save roughly $20 per ticket by booking tickets with certain smaller or budget airlines in person vs. online.
The same is not true for other methods of travel. Amtrak, for instance, while they sometimes offer jaw-dropping discounts, often save their best prices for people who purchase their tickets online. Note whether each stop of your journey has a ticket office. If you have to make a purchase onboard through the train staff, expect to pay a premium.
Hotels will be more expensive than Airbnb lodging but don’t discount state and county parks. Cabins can provide an impressive amount of space and amenities for a fraction of what you’d spend elsewhere. If you’re open to tent camping, you can save even more. Though I’d skip it if someone in your traveling party really wants to avoid it.
Plan lodging and meals around ‘Kids Stay Free’ or ‘Kids Eat Free’ deals can significantly cut your costs when you’re traveling with small fry, as well.
How to Have Fun on a Cheap Vacation
Taking the “free-dom tour” through a big city often helps you set the right pace. Tourists often try to cram in way too many things during their travels. They want to hit all of the highlights. Not only is that stressful, but it gets expensive fast. By taking advantage of free offerings, you see the sights and save big cash, while not feeling the need to overexert yourself.
A slow, thoughtful vacation always results in a more fulfilling experience. ALWAYS. Even at Walt Disney World.
Is there a paid experience someone in your traveling party really wants to see? Splurge on those important extras. Your super-cheap vacation won’t feel like a win if you go home feeling like you missed out.
If you’re a big fan of zoos, museums or theme parks, you might save in multiple destinations by joining one of the family membership programs available. Sign up in your home state, and then use reciprocal membership benefits for free or reduced entry at attractions all over the United States.
Looking for the most lucrative memberships to join? Check out this seriously thorough post on reciprocal memberships for more information.
How to Score a Super Cheap All-Inclusive Resort Vacation
I attempted my hand at travel planning (for all of five minutes) and discovered a few excellent sources for cheap all-inclusive rates. While far from free, there are a few companies that combine charter flights with bulk pricing to deliver bottom-barrel rates on some of the nicest all-inclusive tropical resorts.
- Groupon Getaways, and
- Apple Vacations
With a few caveats – the lowest prices are low for a reason:
- The weather or beach conditions might be awful
- The resort might be undergoing (or desperately need) renovations
- There could be legitimate safety issues you’d do better to avoid
When using a deal site, it’s so important to do your research! Make sure the resort has good reviews, and most importantly, that it’s safe. Check out the features most important to you before you go. For instance, it’s common for cheap resorts “on the beach” to be in an area that isn’t swimmable.
Looking for the cheapest cruise?
Try Costco, just make sure you pay attention to insurance options. Some readers report getting charged for insurance you can access direct free-of-charge.
What about an affordable independent-style vacation that still has some structure?
My favorite providers in this area are Intrepid Travel and, again, Groupon Getaways. Do your due diligence and know what you’re getting. Some options don’t offer enough structure, which matters if you’re going on vacation with the girls (meaning, friends or daughters!)
Know that “cheap” is relative in all of these situations. Two people are going to struggle to find flights and an all-inclusive resort in Mexico for under $1,000. A family going to Disney can stay in budget digs and still spend three times that amount.
Using Rewards to Fund Free Vacations
I’m trying hard to get the point across that ‘free’ and ‘cheap’ travel generally costs more than you’d expect, but there is one big exception. Leveraging points cards and loyalty or reward programs can result in literally free vacations for you and your family and friends.
There are numerous websites cashing in on the rewards craze. The most well-known of course is the Points Guy. The is a rich resource for all kinds of travel information.
If you’ve got great credit and spend a ton of cash every year, you’ll be earning free stays in no time. If not? It’s going to be more complicated. But there are a few secured credit cards which earn points and cashback which can be worth your time if you’re rebuilding or just starting out.
Backed by U.S. Bank, the Korean Air Skypass and LATAM secured cards, and their secured options, earn points back for those airlines and their partners. They also provide you with free travel coverage.
Another option is using rewards from a group trip or cruise to pay for your own group’s expenses. While this is technically possible, it takes a heck of a lot of work! It also covers your base fare rates in most cases, not fare + fees + taxes + all the other fun stuff you’d like to do on your trip.
How to Work on Vacation (Without Getting Fired or Divorced)
Ah, the allure of being paid to travel. Just the tax benefits can be a big pay-off. In fact, it’s never been more popular to start a business to write off your travel expenses. It’s never been more likely to be selected for an audit either. Let’s go over the basics needed to claim your travel expenses on your taxes.
- Your business must be a business and not just a hobby. The IRS gets pretty irate about taxpayers who refuse to acknowledge the difference. You’re expected to dedicate a significant amount of time to your business and to generate a significant amount of income too. Are you relying on the income to help pay your bills? Do you keep separate records for your business as most professionals do?
- Are your expenses ordinary and necessary for your business? Not just necessary, but ordinary too? For instance, you might need luggage to get from place to place, but the IRS might balk at a $10,000 set.
- How much of an expense is business-related? It can be hard to separate personal and business travel, but most of your costs won’t be 100% deductible just because you conducted some business on the trip.
Receiving comped rooms and entry to attractions is another way a business owner might “get paid” to travel. This is especially popular among new travel writers, but guess what? The IRS considers all those freebies the same as income. Are you making enough from your writing to cover that tax obligation?
How to Earn Money On the Road
There are endless ways to work from home, or work for yourself, or work from the road. If you’re not sure where to start, take a look around at Fiverr.com at the types of services for sale or look at Etsy, Ebay or Amazon for ideas involved in product sales. Alternatively, you can search sites like LinkedIn for “remote” job opportunities.
Depending on where you live most of the time and what you decide to do for a living, you might have to formally establish a business entity before starting your mobile career. However, most people can freelance as a sole proprietor without filing any special paperwork. At a minimum, you should start a spreadsheet to track your income and expenses and get a separate bank account.
Many remote positions require an internet connection, which is easy to access through your mobile-phone provider or a personal mobile hotspot. (More on that in future posts.)
Disclaimer: None of the content in this post is customized enough to your situation to be considered professional or legal advice. You may want to speak with a professional accountant or attorney before you start earning money.
Establishing a Healthy Work-Life Balance
Once you decide on a method, it’s important to stick to a schedule. Make time for work and time for fun, or you’ll find yourself working 24-7. Alternatively, you might completely forget about work until your clients are angry and already out the door. Either can have disastrous consequences for your traveling plans and the rest of the people relying on them.
Of course, road trips tend to be more affordable than flying around the country, especially when costs are shared among several people. Free? No. Cheap? Very possibly! Using gas price apps and super-efficient hypermiling methods can minimize your transportation costs.
Have your own tips on how to travel for free? Please leave your comments below…