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Have a fun summer vacation—without spending lots of cash

You don’t have to break the bank to make the most of your well-deserved time off.

On top left, family of three smiling in swimming pools outdoors. On top right, child and parent smiling while inserting coins into pink piggy banks. On bottom left, person holding blue plastic credit card. On bottom right, two people lounging in beach chairs on tropical beach. Credit: Reviewed / Getty Images / monkeybusinessimages / Viktor_Gladkov / Ridofranz / Prostock-Studio / Chase

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You have your heart set on a relaxing family vacation this summer but you don’t have a lot of cash. Whether you stay at home, travel in the United States, or venture abroad, we’ve got you covered with these 11 money-saving tips that don’t cut corners on any of your summer fun.

1. Be creative, close to home

Family of four jumping into a swimming pool outdoors
Credit: Getty Images / skynesher

Everybody loves a good staycation.

Sticking around your own area is one great way to save on travel costs—but that doesn’t mean you have to forgo vacation-like fun. With fresh eyes, you’ll find plenty to do in your own backyard. Pools, playgrounds, parks, and nature centers are affordable and fun ways for kids to spend their summer vacations.

And you can take this strategy on the road with you. “We've found some amazing playgrounds in the U.S. and around the world that occupied our kids for a good while,” says Nicolette Kay, founder of Semi-Budget Travel. “The kids love it, and it's free!”

Museums and libraries are indoor options for the whole family to enjoy on a rainy day and to get a break from the heat.

2. Take day trips

Another way to lower your “vacation” costs by taking day trips to nearby sights and attractions. Admit it: You’ve never done enough playing tourist at home as you could. What’s more, it’s a lower effort at a reduced expense to avoid an overnight stay.

“Coming home each night can take the pressure off your adventures and showcase places that you’ve always meant to visit and just haven’t quite got round to yet,” says Laura Motta, senior director of content at Lonely Planet.

3. Plan bigger trips ahead of time

White commercial plane.
Credit: Reviewed / Getty Images / spooh

"The earlier, the better'" is a great rule of thumb to follow when planning a big trip.

Keep costs down by getting your vacation plans in order well in advance. “Finding lodging and transportation on the fly can be expensive, so be sure to make reservations ahead of time,” Kay says. “Then, you will know exactly how much you will be spending on those items. In doing this, watch out for hidden or additional fees.”

The best time to buy an airline ticket is about 76 days before your travel date and the cheapest day of the week​ to fly is Wednesday, according to CheapAir.com. You’ll save $57 per airline ticket versus the most expensive day to travel, which is Sunday.

“When booking travel, consider taking one-stop flights to unlock better fares, or using smaller secondary airports to bring down the cost,” Motta says. Secondary airports—as in the smaller “regional” ones near bigger international hubs—could have cheaper flights due to lower demand.

But if you spot a good price, go for it. “Book soon to lock in a good fare if you see one,” Motta says. “If you’re in a position to vacation outside school break times, then you’ll see prices drop substantially.”

4. Save money on food

Going out to eat for every meal of your trip sounds decadent but can lead to sticker shock when your credit card comes due. Keeping food expenses down can help to trim vacation costs.

“To save some money on food, plan for more snacks and less sit-down meals,” Kay says. “This can also avoid frustrations at restaurants if table service is slow and everyone is hangry! If your lodging has a kitchen, you can save even more by grocery shopping and cooking meals.”

5. Use coupons when booking

Person typing on laptop computer at table.
Credit: Getty Images / Krisada tepkulmanont

Coupons aren't just reserved for grocery store trips and online clothing sales.

Got a favorite vacation attraction? Be on the lookout for deals. “Look for vouchers and coupons and book-in-advance deals for theme parks and other attractions that can keep the cost low,” Motta says.

Going to a city? Check out CityPass, where you’ll get discounts on attractions in cities such as Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Houston, New York, Orlando, Philadelphia, San Diego, Seattle, Tampa, and Toronto.

6. Cash in on credit card travel rewards

Have you been charging away at a travel rewards card throughout the year? Now’s the time to cash it in. You could earn discounts on hotel stays, flights, and more. Paying with points will lower your vacation expenses.

When shopping for a travel rewards credit card, look for a card with flexibility. “Use a credit card that earns flexible award points,” Kay says. “Then, you'll have a head start on your next trip. Think upgrades, nearly free flights, and hotel stays!”

For example, with the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card—the best travel card we’ve reviewed—you could redeem points for everything from flights and car rentals to hotel stays and cruises. If you’re not already a card member, after approval, you’ll earn 2 points per dollar spent on travel and 3 points on dining, so this is a good card to take with you on your summer trip to earn rewards to spend on your next vacation.

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7. Pick the right credit card for overseas travel

Person holding blue plastic Chase credit card.
Credit: Reviewed / Getty Images / Ridofranz / Chase

The right credit card is the perfect travel companion.

Some credit cards charge you a fee every time you make a transaction in a foreign country. Leave those cards at home and pack a credit card that doesn’t charge this fee, Kay says.

Foreign currency conversion fees range from 1% to 3%. Being hit with the higher 3% fee for each purchase you make in a foreign country can really add up. For example, a short stay in a European hotel that should cost you $300 would cost you $309. And you’re paying extra every time you charge your bill for restaurants, rental cars, or train tickets, you’re basically throwing money away by using the wrong card.

Nearly all of the travel cards featured in our Best Travel Credit Cards review don’t charge foreign transaction fees, including Chase Sapphire Preferred, our best overall pick.

8. Commune with nature

Spending your vacation time in the great outdoors can cut your costs way down, mainly because you can bring your own lodging and cook your own meals. “Taking to your tent isn’t just fantastic value—it’s a way of unlocking a back-to-nature vacation that can feel further from home than you actually are,” Motta says. “Plus, kids love it.”

Keep in mind that the more popular spots may be more expensive and more difficult to book. “Go to state parks rather than national parks,” says Pauline Frommer, co-president of the Frommer's guidebooks and Frommers.com. “You want to go to the places the people aren’t going, not only for your sanity but to save money.”

9. Save on gas

Person at gas pump using credit card.
Credit: Getty Images / Onfokus

Maintain the health of your car by checking on it regularly, not just when it needs a major fix.

Want to save money on gas? Take good care of your car. “Getting a tune-up for a car [and] making sure it runs well will help you save on gas,” Frommer says. This is because a well maintained car will run more efficiently.

And there’s more you can do, according to AAA. Underinflated tires lowers fuel economy so keep tires properly inflated. Check the sticker on the inside of the driver’s door for the recommended tire pressure for your car. Don’t be in a hurry when you start your car. Quick starts and hard acceleration increases fuel usage, so avoid these aggressive actions. You also don’t want to idle the car for an extended period of time because this will waste fuel.

Finally, you can save while on the road by using one of the best credit cards to save on gas. Our top pick for road trips, the Citi Premier card, offers 3 points per dollar spent at gas stations, as well as 3 points on dining, groceries, flights, and hotel stays.

10. Save with a bundle

Pay for rental car, hotel, and airfare expenses all together. Sites like Booking.com, Expedia, Kayak, Orbitz, and Travelocity offer discounts for combining travel services in one package.

What’s more, “if booking through an airline, [bundling] can be a good way to use any applicable relevant miles and points,” Motta says.

Family of three walking through airport together smiling while son sits on top of suitcase cart.
Credit: Getty Images / jacoblund

Think outside the box when it comes to choosing your next travel destination.

You may have always dreamed of summering in Paris or cruising down the canals in Venice, but the bigger “name” travel locales are often pricier, particularly after two years of nonexistent tourism. “Aim instead for less celebrated yet still wonderful cities like Seville, Porto, and Split in Croatia,” Motta says.

Lonely Planet is among the travel sites offering these kinds of recommendations. Tour companies eager for travelers are doing the same. Go for a more unusual vacation spot and it will save you and your family money.

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Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.