5 Things to Do If You Can’t Afford a Family Vacation

By Jessica Wolstenholm

Last year I’d hoped for my family to drive south to the Gulf of Mexico for a beach vacation. I’d researched the cleanest, most family friendly beach towns and figured up just how many cities we could cross off our travel bucket list during the road trip to get there. But sometimes plans don’t work out the way we anticipate.

We sold our house last spring and moved into a new one. It was an exciting (fine, stressful) time — and also an expensive one. Between that and a mission trip overseas, our budget looked a whole lot different in the middle of the year than it had in the beginning when we dreamed of white sands and dolphin cruises.

As we evaluated our summer plans, we knew that we could do what we’ve done in the past — take the trip anyway and pay for it later — but we also knew that wasn’t a good choice for us this time around. (Cue the sad face about being adults and how responsibility is a bummer!) So we decided to cancel our vacation.

My husband’s employer requires him to schedule his summer vacation days in January, though, so his days off were already reserved. He could have given them up and gone to work anyway, but we didn’t want to be that grown-up! We wanted to do something special with our daughters, even if we didn’t have the money to drive to the beach for a few days.

What was supposed to be our beach vacation turned into a staycation with a side of weekend getaway. We enjoyed some attractions in our own city and then took a short road trip to visit friends a couple hours away. It was low-key and budget-friendly, but we still had a blast relaxing and spending time together.

If you are worried your vacation plans might break the bank this year, or perhaps unforeseen circumstances are making road trips or cross-country adventures impossible, you can still have fun and make memories with your family this summer. Today I have five things you might try if you can’t afford a family vacation.

Explore Your City. No matter where you live, it’s likely your hometown has something interesting or entertaining to offer. Visit your tourist bureau or chamber of commerce, grab a stack of brochures, and act like a tourist! And don’t just settle for the regular attractions. After all, museums, art galleries, parks, community theater, concerts, and local sports teams are just the beginning.

Is your city home to the biggest rocking chair or the oldest drive-in theater or the birthplace of someone famous? Whatever your town’s (or region’s or state’s) claim to fame, no matter how silly, go visit it! Revel in the kitsch, in the unusual, in the out-of-the-norm. Get to know your community better and enjoy all it has to offer. (Something most of us forget to do when we live there every day — or, even more likely, don’t have time for in the regular, day-to-day living we do there!)

Make a Day Trip. Even if airfare for four isn’t in your budget, perhaps you could manage a tank of gas and a picnic lunch? Within a couple hours of your house, you might find some hidden treasures or a new favorite spot. (Or, like we have frequently done, you could visit family or friends who live just far enough away to be missed!)

To pick your day trip destination, you might start by looking at your state’s visitor guide or website. You could also look up all the state parks within a certain distance, or even just draw a circle around your town and start visiting anything that lands in that space!

Take Time to Dream. So you can’t afford a big family vacation this year? That’s okay. Take any time you have free to dream of future adventures you’d like your family to enjoy! Make a bucket list of new activities you want to try together (karaoke, indoor skydiving, or rock climbing, anyone?), create song lists of music you’d to introduce to your kids, grab a map, an atlas or even a National Geographic and start dreaming of the trips you’ll take when your budget allows.

This might even be a good time to talk about your family’s mission statement or values. Maybe set some goals as a family or start a new project together. Or, if you’re feeling more like relaxation than deep thoughts or handiwork, why not kick back and watch a travel show on TV or a family vacation movie together? (The key, of course, is the “together” part — and stretching your imaginations and sharing your dreams while you do anything will make that time spent together even sweeter.)

Serve Others. Last year wasn’t the first time my family hasn’t been able to take the amazing vacation we’d dreamed about. It wasn’t the first time our budget realities led to disappointment and frustration (and, let’s be honest, it probably won’t be the last!). So I know how hard it can be to realize you can’t do anything fun or exciting or new or special with your crew this year.

Except . . .even though you aren’t packing a suitcase or hitting the road, you can absolutely still do something special and meaningful (and possibly new) with your family. You can serve together — and I guarantee that can bond you as closely as huddling in a tent or piling into the minivan.

Volunteer to serve at your church’s vacation bible school or a local camp. Make homeless care packages and deliver them around the city. Clean out your closets and donate your used clothes to a shelter. Find out what organizations are helping refugees and join them. Serve meals at a food kitchen. Teach inner city kids to read.

The possibilities are endless; there’s always work to be done. And doing it with your family will create an experience for you as a team, remind you that your life — even without a vacation — is incredibly blessed, and enforce your family values of caring for others.

Build Your Own Camp. This one is for the most adventurous and creative families! If you miss those days of summer camp and long for your kids to experience some of those things you hold dear, why not make it happen for them — in your backyard?! Roast s’mores around a fire pit (or even your grill), search Pinterest for the campiest camp crafts you can find (carving something out of Dove soap, perhaps? winding yarn around popsicle sticks to make a God’s eye? making friendship bracelets?!), and start your own water balloon fight.

Sometimes the simplest things really do create the best memories. A sprinkler in the backyard, some homemade pudding pops, a tent under the stars, a round of tug of war, and the movie that makes you all snort chocolate milk out your noses — it might not be crystal beaches, soaring mountains, or foreign lands, but it will definitely be a summer your family will remember.

If you can’t afford a family vacation this summer, it’s okay. You can still have fun and make memories with the people you love most — without ever praying for a rest stop, handing out motion sickness pills, or begging your kids to play the quiet game just one more time.