7 Tips for Planning a Budget-Friendly Family Trip This Fall

With the shoulder season ushering in plenty of hotel deals and airfare steals, it's hard to pass up the chance to enjoy spectacular scenery, autumn activities and valuable bonding time.
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Southern Spain.
Southern Spain.

Bright colors, brisk air, thin crowds and reduced rates inspire families of all ages, styles and tastes to get out of town each autumn. After all, if you're not planning a road or camping trip filled with plenty of stargazing, hiking and quality time in the great outdoors, you're probably toying with the idea of taking the kids to a convenient, affordable and fun fall-break locale. And with the shoulder season ushering in plenty of hotel deals and airfare steals, it's hard to pass up the chance to enjoy spectacular scenery, autumn activities and valuable bonding time. With some help from family travel experts, U.S. News found seven ways to organize a cost-effective family adventure this fall.

Visit Business-Friendly and Off-the-Beaten-Path Destinations

If you want to plan a budget-conscious getaway this autumn, visit less-frequented destinations. "If you'd like to go to Europe, for example, look for flights flying into various off-the-beaten-path cities rather than booking a flight into always popular Paris," says Colleen Lanin, author of "The Travel Mamas' Guide." And in terms of clinching the best deals, she advised heading away from the crowds. "Leaf-peeping season in the East is at a premium in autumn," she explains, while Caribbean cruises tend to be discounted at this time of year. And if your heart is set on planning a Hawaiian retreat, now is the time to book. "September through December is a fabulous time to head to the Aloha State during their low season," she says.

Conversely, if you want to plan a stateside family getaway during the shoulder season, head to major resort destinations and historic spots for the best deals, advises Clem Bason, CEO of goSeek. The trick for snagging a deal is conducting a few searches now to scope out the best weeks before or after a major convention, he explains. "If you don't hit those convention windows, it's much cheaper in the fall."

Another great option for families traveling on a budget: snow-sport locations. Kyle McCarthy, co-founder and editor of the Family Travel Forum, notes that families can reserve condos with amenities like hot tubs and pools and embrace harvest festivals and activities without the hefty price tags during prime winter season.

Rack Up Rewards

Even if you're an infrequent leisure traveler, enrolling in a rewards program is an easy way to increase your odds of securing deals, upgrades and other membership privileges. Bason recommends considering signing up for a credit card with your preferred airline to quickly earn rewards and benefits.

Lanin suggests investing in loyalty programs with each hotel chain and rental company you use. "Points can rack up quickly, particularly if you stick with the same brand for multiple trips. Plus, sometimes you receive a discount or upgrade just for signing up," she says.

Look for Low-Cost Carriers and Book Early

"For flights for families, I think the primary thing is to book as far ahead as you can during a fare sale," explains Bason, noting that low-cost carriers like Southwest are a smart option for those traveling with kids because the average ticket prices are significantly lower than other airlines. McCarthy also advises cross-comparing rates among low-cost carriers to find where affordable flights are headed.

Once you decide where you want to go, Bason and Lanin advise locking in your flights early and purchasing tickets on a Tuesday or Wednesday to clinch the best deals. Searching for alternative airports nearby can also make a major price difference, they add.

Hit the Road

If your heart's not set on traveling to a far-flung locale that requires flying, planning a road trip can be a less stressful and more cost-effective alternative. "If a desired destination is within driving range, it's almost always cheaper to drive than to fly, especially when traveling with multiple family members," Lanin explains. Beyond the cost benefits, road-tripping also affords plenty of other advantages, such as ample attractions and pit stops to let kids release any pent-up energy. "Plus, if the kids throw a tantrum or act up, they're only driving their parents crazy as opposed to a plane full of other passengers," she says.

McCarthy echoed similar sentiments. "For the vast majorities of parents, road trips are a less hassled option than traveling with kids. When they cry, you don't get the evil eye from all the warriors on the plane."

And if you're considering renting a car, Bason suggested reserving your vehicle on Costco Travel, which is cheap and fully refundable if you decide to switch your plans later on. You can also rely on helpful apps such as GasBuddy to find the cheapest destination to fill up the tank, he says.

Know When to Go

Planning your trip at the right time is key to eliminate overspending. "For most destinations, September, October, early November and early December are very affordable times to travel in terms of airfare and hotel rates simply because children are back in school and people aren't traveling as much as they prepare for the holidays," Lanin says. Once you've determined where and when you want to travel, Lanin suggests monitoring airfares and setting up alerts with booking sites like Kayak, which analyzes pricing data to estimate whether fares will increase or decrease in the following week and eliminates extra trip-planning-induced stress for securing cheap seats.

Just as important as knowing when prices drop is knowing when destinations will be less crowded, explains McCarthy. She suggests staying "flexible about the dates and the days of the weeks you can travel." For example, if you want to travel to places with Halloween attractions, she suggests traveling earlier rather than peak season from mid- to late-September. And if you want to check out a college town with the kids, skip a visit during a gameday weekend, she advises.

Stock Up With Supplies

To reduce extra out-of-pocket expenses on the road, at the airport or at your hotel, Lanin advises packing a "stash of travel toys, books and games," which will not only trim costs, but will keep children entertained throughout the journey. She also recommends bringing along travel snacks. "Packing meals and snacks for flights and road trips saves money and guarantees you can eat when you want, without waiting for the flight attendant and hoping there is food available on your flight or needing to drive for miles to the next restaurant," she says.

Rely on Resourceful Sites and Apps

Beyond taking advantage of websites to compare hotels and flight prices, relying on smart travel apps can help you save money throughout your trip. Undercover Tourist can help you score discounted theme park tickets, while TripIt can help you organize your trip and TripIt Pro can send you real-time notifications to help you stay ahead of flight delays and cancellations, among other features. Another navigation app Bason recommends adding to your arsenal: Waze.

Liz Weiss is an editor for the Travel section at U.S. News. You can follow her on Twitter, connect with her on LinkedIn, circle her on Google+ or email her at eweiss@usnews.com.

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