Whenever I plan a family vacation, there are several websites I always check while mapping our our itinerary. I do this whether we’ll be driving thousands of miles or staying close to home, whether we’ll be gone for three days or three weeks, whether we’ll spend all our time in one place or traveling from city to city.
We have a big family, so it is usually more economical for us to drive than to fly (unless, of course, we’ve used frequent flyer miles to get free airfare, as when we earned ten free tickets to Europe); therefore, most of these sites are specific to US travel.
As homeschoolers, we do most of our traveling during the off-season (while school is still in session), so we gravitate toward activities that are both fun and educational. In that sense, most of our vacations are “learning” vacations.
Once I’ve chosen a destination and charted the course we’ll take to get there, I search these sites to help me plan the stops we’ll make en route and what we’ll do once we arrive:
I love this factory tours website. Click on the state you plan to visit, and it will pull up a listing of all the businesses within its borders that offer factory tours — many of them for free. Over the years, our family has toured glass factories, pecan groves, chocolate factories, tea plantations, and many others, most of which I found through this website.
We normally buy a family membership to our local zoo every year. With a crew as big as ours, it pays for itself within two visits and also gets us discounted admission to zoos all across the country. I keep a printed copy of zoos that participate in the reciprocity program and cross-reference it when vacation planning. It’s worth checking the list, even if you aren’t a zoo member, as it includes a lot of zoos (highlighted in green) that are free to the general public, as well.
We also buy an annual membership to our local science museum. Not only does this give our family unlimited visits all year long, but membership grants us free admission to hundreds of science museums across the country. You’ll find a list of currently participating museums here. Almost every trip we take includes a (free) visit to at least one museum on this list. They are all different, and our kids have had a blast and learned a lot exploring the couple dozen we’ve visited so far.
Many of our National Parks offer free admission, in addition to wonderful museums, educational videos, and interactive exhibits in their visitor’s center. Your children may also enjoy completing a short workbook to earn a badge in the Junior Ranger Program (which is often free, as well). Check the National Park Service site to see what parks may be near your next vacation destination (or en route to it)!
We do not always have an annual membership to a garden listed with the American Horticultural Society, but we’ll occasionally join the Dallas Arboretum or Garvan Woodland Gardens. On years that either of those memberships are current, I check their reciprocity lists when planning vacations, so as to get the most of our membership. Many cities (like ours) have beautiful parks and gardens that are free and open to the public. I’d love to find a state-by-state listing of those places. If you know of one, please send me the link! In the meantime, I’ll keep searching this site, then clicking through to the individual garden’s website to determine admission policies (note that most of the gardens labeled “free admission” on the master list means free reciprocal admission for AHS arboretum members, not necessarily free for everybody).
Of course, you have to eat while you’re on vacation. We normally choose hotels that serve breakfast (or stay in places with a kitchen so we can eat cereal in the morning and crockpot meals in the evening), but that still leaves at least one meal per day that we eat out. I make those meals count by finding restaurants that award us with airline miles, as well (typically 5 miles per dollar spent, but we sometimes get double that rate). To check your next vacation destination for participating restaurants, follow this link. If you select “map view” to look at the results of your search, you can easily locate the restaurants closest to your hotel or travel route. For more information on how this program works, read this post.
I also check Restaurant.com to see if any restaurants in the place we’ll be visiting offer discount dining certificates. This is not quite as flexible as Aadvantage Dining and requires an upfront investment, but is well worth it when it helps you save as much as $100 off a $200 tab. Certificates are available in much smaller denominations, but we are normally feeding such a crowd that we go for the bigger discounts. Sometimes we can even find restaurants that accept dining certificates and award aadvantage miles — for a double bingo!
I used to get frustrated with the Groupon site, as it seemed to mainly list offers that were of no interest to me. Then I learned how to use the site’s search bar: Just plug in the city you’re visiting and search for “FUN” — that will sufficiently narrow the results so that you don’t have to wade through pages of stuff you don’t want to find something you do. The couple of minutes it takes to scan the relative offers really pays off! For instance, it got us half price admission to WonderWorks last time we were in Myrtle Beach– a substantial savings for our big crew!
I also do the same kind of search on the US Family Guide website. Plug your destination city into the search bar, and pull up dozens of coupons to family-friendly attractions in the area. By way of example, I’m currently in the process of planning some weekend trips to San Antonio, Houston, and Branson, and my search yielded the following offers:
- Natural Bridge Caverns – showcases an incredible underground world of natural beauty. The 75-minute tour explores a half-mile of the largest and most spectacular caverns in Texas. The Hidden Passages Tour gives guests an up-close view of rare and delicate cave formations illuminated by a state-of-the-art lighting system and includes a total darkness experience. Pan for gems, minerals and fossils like miners panned for gold at the Natural Bridge Mining Company. Take on the Canopy Challenge — a 4-level, 60 foot high challenge course and zip lines! Climb, navigate and hang while secured from a safety harness before you “zip” over the Hill Country on one of 4 zip lines. Recently opened, Discovery Village has new food, beverage and retail spaces along with a beautiful courtyard and 5,000 square foot outdoor maze. Picnic grounds also available. Open year-round starting at 9am, with special hours in spring and summer. Save $2 off an Adult and $1 off a Child’s Discovery Tour ticket with this coupon. Valid only on the Discovery Tour, cannot be combined with any other offer. Limit 6 per coupon.
- Cascade Caverns: A fun and educational experience for adults, teens, and kids. Your guided 45 minute to one hour tour takes you through corridor after corridor of timeless beauty. Be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes and bring a camera! Use this coupon to get $1 off child OR $2 off adult admission OR $5 off camping at Cascade Caverns (one coupon per visit, not valid with other offers).
- Urban Adventure Quest – turns Houston (or your choice of 45 other major cities) into a giant game board with a fun scavenger hunt adventure. Combine the excitement of the Amazing Race with a three-hour city tour. Guided from any smart phone, teams make their way among well known and overlooked gems of the city, solving clues and completing challenges while learning local history. Play anytime during daylight hours. Start when you want and play at your pace. Great Family Fun. Sign up online and use promotion code FGCOUPON to save 20% – Only $39.20 for a team of 2-5 people.
- Tilt Studio Family Entertainment Center – hosts a variety of games and attractions that appeal to people of all ages. Buy one attraction at regular price, get one attraction FREE with this coupon! Attractions include: Laser Tag, Black Light Mini Golf, Mini-Bowling, Tilt-A-Whirl Ride, and Outrun SP Deluxe Race Cars.
- Wet’n’Wild SplashTown – Houston’s largest and closest water park with over 80 acres of water park Fun. We’ve spotted this park several times when we were in town visiting my son in medical school, so I finally looked it up. It features over 42 rides and attractions, including water ride thrills with names like Tornado, RipQurl, Texas Freefall, and the Big Kahuna, “an unforgettable mega-thrill raft ride that blasts through a whitewater journey filled with alternating tunnels and plenty of twists and turns.” If that’s too much for our younger kids, they also have a new interactive children’s area and a flowing river, where two can relax, rest, and ride at once.
- Branson’s Famous Baldknobbers – This show is a country music and comedy variety show that features a talented cast of vocalists, musicians and comedians providing fun for the entire family. For more than 57 years, the Baldknobbers has been the show to see in Branson. Don’t miss your chance to see “the show that started it all”, Branson’s Famous Baldknobbers! Receive $3 OFF each ADULT TICKET or $5 OFF our FAMILY PASS when you mention “Baldknobbers’ Christmas Vacation” when making your reservation. This coupon isn’t valid with any other offer or discount.
- Talking Rocks Cavern – Explore the world underground in “Missouri’s Most Beautiful Cave” where fun, knowledgeable guides take you along lighted paths to view amazing crystal formations. Budget friendly Rock/Gift Shop, gemstone mining, and Cave Country Mini-Golf. Enjoy the nature trails, lookout tower, picnic areas and indoor and outdoor SpeleoBox cave crawls, which are free to our guests.
$2.00 OFF EACH CAVE ADMISSION – Save $2.00 off each regular price admission. Not vaild with other offers. Valid for up to 10 people!
- The Butterfly Palace & Rainforest Adventure – Enjoy a Live Butterfly exhibit filled with over a thousand tropical butterflies, educational videos, great banyan tree bungee maze, mirror maze and a living rainforest science center. Fun for all ages! Get $2 off at The Butterfly Palace with this exclusive coupon! – Cannot be combined with other offers. Must be presented at time of purchase.
- Amazing Pets Show – Starring an amazing cast of furry creatures, these trained pets will win your hearts as they perform for your love and laughter. Many have been rescued from animal shelters across the country. In addition to talented dogs and cats doing what they like to do, you’ll see beautiful exotic birds and many other magical surprises that will put a smile on your face! Get $3 off each ticket to the Amazing Pets show at Grand Country Music Hall with this coupon.
If you are a blogger and are willing to share reviews of the places you visit with your readers, you may qualify for even bigger discounts to local attractions. Since that describes me, I usually check their current list of blog promotion offers when planning our road trips, as well. For information on registering your own blog with this program, follow this link.
So that’s my list. What sites do you use to map out or save money on your family vacations? I’d love for you to share them in the comment section below!Blessings,
PS. I sometimes use affiliate links to share products or services I love and think you'll love, too (like Walmart's pickup grocery service below... how did we ever survive without that?). You can view my full disclosure statement here.