Want to get out of the house and do something fun as a family?
That can be tough when your travel budget is tiny. Lodging, transportation, admission fees, and other travel basics cost money. There are ways to save money on travel, but that takes time.
What do you do in the meantime? My family lives on a budget. We like to get out of the house and do fun things often, so we love free and cheap activities that make our resources go farther. We have found that there are lots of ways to make great family memories now with no travel budget.
Here are the ideas that have worked for us.
Attitude is everything
It doesn't matter if your fun budget is large or small. It doesn't take money to enjoy life's banquet when you see every day as an opportunity to try something new or spend time with people you love.
People who travel often on a small budget follow the deals. Don't pick a destination and then look for good prices for that one place. Watch Groupon, AirfareWatchdog, Google Flights and others for killer deals anywhere, and then go where you can afford.
Local travel is still travel. I live near Salt Lake City, Utah. It's an internationally-recognized destination for outdoor recreation and has the urban amenities that most cities do. I've lived here most of my life and still haven't done everything – not even close.
Wherever you live, it's a unique place with fun things you can do with little more than a picnic lunch and a tank full of fuel. Where do tourists go when they visit your hometown? When was the last time you visited those places? What great places have the tourists not found yet? If you don't know, ask around or check TripAdvisor for ideas.
I've visited St. George in Southern Utah dozens of times. Last year, I checked TripAdvisor to get ideas for something new to do there. I found an amazing nature preserve, a public garden, a children's museum and a historic home tour – all free or cheap – that I had never done. (Get the list HERE.) It pays to take a fresh look at your hometown, even when you think you've done it all.
When you're local, it's easy to take advantage of last-minute opportunities, locals-only pricing and off-season deals. Just keep your eyes open for them.
Pack a picnic
You have to eat whether you're at home or traveling, so food is a travel expense that you can almost eliminate if you eat the way you would at home. Pack picnics on day trips. Most zoos, theme parks and other outdoor destinations don't mind if you bring your own food and drinks in a day pack or stroller.
Sometimes the picnic is the experience. My husband has told me many times that his family's go-to outing was a picnic in Provo Canyon with a bucket of KFC. Those easy and inexpensive day trips are now cherished childhood memories.
Consider an annual pass
Do you have a favorite zoo, museum, garden, national park, state park or theme park near your home? An annual family pass or membership is usually the cost of 2-3 visits. You can visit a favorite destination all you want for a year. Then renew it, or choose a new destination the next year.
Buy an annual pass to your favorite place for Christmas or a birthday gift. It's an idea you can give to grandparents or others who purchase gifts for your family. Our family purchased annual passes to our local amusement park for Christmas this year. In past years, we've had passes to the Tracy Aviary, Ogden Dinosaur Park and The Leonardo.
Check for reciprocal benefits on your annual pass. You may be able to get free or discounted admission to partner destinations in your area, or nationwide. For example, an annual pass to the Tracy Aviary in Salt Lake City will get you free admission and discounts to the Hogle Zoo, Ogden Nature Center and hundreds of other zoos and gardens across the continent.
Check community calendars
You can quickly fill your free time with all of the free and cheap special events happening in and around your city.
Visit websites for your city, school, library, local colleges, high schools, convention centers, bookstores, museums, churches, historical societies, arts council, astronomical society… They will all have calendars of upcoming events. Many of these events will be open to the public and most will be free or inexpensive.
We've attended star-gazing parties, photography classes, concerts, theater productions, parties, farmers markets, food truck roundups, dollar night at the pool, outdoor movies, lectures, holiday events and many more. They were all cheap or free and all sponsored by our city or other local organizations.
You can do the same thing when you travel outside your hometown. We love filling our itinerary with free and cheap local festivals, farmers markets, city parks, pools and more when we travel. It's a great way to break away from the tourist traps and see the real community at its best.
Get into nature
Natural destinations are nearly always cheap or free. We have many free trails and picnic areas in the mountains near our home that cost nothing. State park day passes usually cost around $10 per car. The most expensive national parks currently cost around $35 per car for a full week. Many national parks cost less, or nothing at all.
Do you like to travel with grandparents? We enjoy spending time with my parents and in laws, and it doesn't hurt that lifetime passes for seniors are fairly inexpensive at state and national parks. Once they have the pass, they can get your whole car in for free.
Kids in the fourth grade are also eligible for a free national parks annual pass. Learn more in my post 4 Ways to Save on National Park Fees.
Nature is so good for kids and adults in so many ways, and many of us are not getting enough of it. My kids don't think they like nature, but they are at their most active and imaginative when we are in it. If you have space in your car, bring friends or cousins. That always improves my kids' attitudes.
Fairs and festivals
Most communities host at least one festival or celebration each year. Small towns and cultural groups seem to do this especially well and you don't have to live there to attend. Summer is a popular season for festivals, but they can be found at all times of year.
When I made a list of Christmas activities throughout Utah a few weeks ago, I was surprised by how many small towns host a big holiday celebration. Independence Day is another great time to enjoy free community activities. Don't forget county and state fairs!
Living Traditions is one of my favorite festivals in Salt Lake City. It is held in mid-May and celebrates the cultural diversity in Utah. The Days of '47 Float Preview Party in July is another of our family traditions.
Free admission days
Many museums, zoos, gardens and national parks offer at at least one free admission day every month or year. It's usually a requirement for organizations that receive public funding. Check the website to find out when free days and hours are scheduled.
Word gets out about free days, so expect them to be crowded. Arrive before opening time or late in the day to avoid peak crowds.
Do you have a theater or other non-profit destination near your home? Find out if they need volunteers. We see plays for free and get concessions for half price at the Ziegfeld Theater in Ogden, Utah when we volunteer as ushers. All kinds of places need volunteers to keep them running, and they can probably give you something good in return.
Venues mostly need adults and older teens as volunteers, but the theater welcomed our 10-year-old as an usher once they got to know us.
Just show up
Good things happen when you leave your house and open yourself to opportunity. Last summer, Pat Benatar and Toto were playing at the amphitheater in our city park. We didn't have tickets, so we brought lawn chairs and enjoyed the music from a shady spot outside the gates. Before long, friends happened by and offered us their tickets because they couldn't stay for the whole show. We saw Toto from the third row for free and it was a lot of fun.
Opportunities like this come our way regularly. We find unexpected festivals, parades, celebrity photo ops and other free activities just because we're in the right place at the right time. My husband enters contests on the radio and online and actually wins sometimes. Friends contact us with tickets they can't use because they know we will use and appreciate them.
Free tickets and other happy surprises don't land in our laps every week, but it happens often enough. When you're the kind of person who sees life as a banquet, people notice and the world helps you out.
I will always work and save for the next big trip to some amazing place. It's what I love. However, who you are with matters more than where you are. My memories from Disneyland are really not that much happier than my memories of the free Beatles tribute concert at the city park last summer with my family and friends.
All kinds of memories make families stronger, smarter and happier.