Whenever I plan a family vacation, I always check these 9 noteworthy websites as I map 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.
The majority of these sites are specific to US travel. With our large family, it’s normally more economical for us to drive than to fly. (Unless, of course, we’ve used frequent flyer miles to get free airfare. We’ve earned enough free tickets to Europe — 26 total — to backpack that continent three times already. For tips on doing the same, check out this post: How to Fly Free to Europe)
As homeschoolers, we do most of our traveling during the off-season. Since school is still in session, we gravitate toward activities that are both fun and educational. In that sense, most of our travels are “learning vacations.”
Here’s the process I use to plan unforgettable family trips. Once I’ve chosen our destination, I search the following websites to help plan the stops we’ll make en route and what we’ll do once we arrive.
9 Noteworthy Websites for Vacation Planning
There are lots of reasons our family loves factory tours, not the least of which is the fact they are fun and informative. Over the years, we’ve toured glass factories, pecan groves, chocolate factories, tea plantations, plus dozens of others. Most of which I found through the Factory Tours USA website. Just click on the state you plan to visit to see a listing of all the businesses within its borders that offer factory tours — many of them for free.
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. This not only gives our family unlimited visits all year long, but membership also 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 saved us 30% off tickets to Kentucky Horse Park and 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 one road trip to the Smokey Mountains and another to the west coast, and my search yielded the following offers:
Battleship IOWA in Los Angeles
The West Coast’s only Battleship open to the public. Your tour will take you on a journey through World War II, the Korean War, and the Cold War to experience the life of a sailor on the lead ship of the last class of gunships. My Readers GET $3 OFF Regular Tour Admission on Battleship IOWA – using code SCFG.
GLO Miniature Golf in LA/Riverside
State-of-the-art, indoor, glow-in-the-dark mini golf course featuring hundreds of black lights that illuminate the course in a kaleidoscope of electric colors. Travel the world with our 27 ‘World Wonder’ themed holes. Go from the Great Pyramids of Egypt to the Running of the Bulls in Spain to Niagara Falls in New York all lit up by colorful glow in the dark paint. Make the experience even more fun with our 3D glasses, which make you feel like you are in the actual location. Taking a group? Mention this promotion to save 10% off your next party at GLO Mini Golf!
Adventure awaits on the Red Mountains in Boulder City. Discover breathtaking views of Las Vegas, Lake Mead, and the Eldorado Valley, while our eco-tourism guides take you on an interpretive journey over the desert ecosystem. Four separate runs carrying you over 1.5 miles of the Mojave Desert floor at speeds up to 60 mph. Featured on the Travel Channel with Bert the Conqueror, Fantasy Factory and MTV among others. You don’t want to miss this amazing experience. Save $10 Off Each Ticket Flightlinez Bootleg Canyon with this coupon. Must be mentioned when booking. CODE: USFAMGD
Smooth water rafting on the Colorado River in the Black Canyon National Water Trail. The trip starts near the base of the Hoover Dam and spends 3 hours traveling 12 miles downstream to Willow Beach Marina. Experience the amazing views of the Hoover Dam and the Bypass Bridge. You will see waterfalls, hot springs and other geological wonders, possibly spot Desert Big Horn sheep, Osprey, Eagles, Great Blue Heron and much more. The trip is fully narrated by experienced, knowledgeable guides who offer incredible knowledge of the history of the dam and the area. Lunch is included.
Fun for the whole family!
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 routine when it comes to trip planning. I keep these 9 noteworthy websites bookmarked in a file on my menu bar for quick and easy access. Because I want every vacation to be unforgettable — in a good way. 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!
Want more tips for memorable family vacations? Then get a copy of my book, Pack Up & Leave. It’s full of great advice for planning economical, educational, entertaining holidays for all ages.