How to Save Money on Travel With an Awesome Group Vacation
For years, my parents vacationed with their adult siblings in a big, boisterous group. For some people, an adult family vacation might seem like a nightmare, but for my parents, not only were the trips fun, but they provided years' worth of memories and inside jokes that tightened their family bonds.
Group vacations can also have financial benefits. Lodging, transportation, food, and entertainment can all be cheaper when purchased for a group. Vacationers with children can share childcare duties while traveling together, so no one is stuck sitting in a hotel room bored every night after the little ones go to bed. (See also: Free Online Tools That Help Organize People)
The challenge that prevents most people from accessing these group travel benefits is arranging it all. Here are some ideas and resources to make that easier.
Plan the Trip
Group vacations are especially great for friends or family who live far from each other and want time to reconnect. Distance makes the heart grow fonder, but it can make planning a pain in the neck. I am currently planning a Wine Country weekend with girlfriends using a "secret" Facebook group, and posting links to potential lodging and attractions there for all of us to discuss.
A more specialized option for trip planning is Travefy, where you can search through Groupon deals, lodging, transportation options, and attractions; post them to a group board with one click; and then discuss them.
Another travel planning site that allows you to make group decisions is Triporama.
Share the Costs
Unless your trip is financed by a rich uncle (in which case, I just discovered we are long-lost cousins!), you will need a good way to split up the costs of the trip. Many groups skip this important step, figuring they will simply take turns paying for things. This strategy could cause an otherwise fun trip to descend into arguments over who is not paying their share. Even if you would never squabble with your friends or relatives about money, this method just takes up too much brain space. (See also: Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards)
There are web services to help you avoid this situation.
Divide It tracks who owes what and can be updated throughout a trip to free vacationers of the hassle of remembering that Joe paid for dinner but not drinks, and Sue paid for breakfast which was much cheaper than either.
Pay It Square
Pay It Square also lets people pay their portion using a credit card or PayPal, and would be a good service to use to collect funds to pay for housing, etc., before embarking on a trip.
Travefy, mentioned above, also has an expense-tracking tab, that totals up what each individual owes.
But what if you're not sure how to divide expenses?
For instance, we took a trip with two other families this fall. One family had two members on the trip, one had three, and our family had five. Some of us were staying more nights than others. We decided to calculate the per-person, per-night cost, a time-consuming exercise that we could have automated if we had known about Splitwise's travel calculator, which lets you choose between different ways to divvy things up, then does the math for you.
Shared Account and Prepaid Debit Card
Now, if you want to avoid having to track expenses on the trip at all, another idea is to create a group travel fund. Have each traveler or family contribute, either with a cash lump sum or as a monthly payment saved up over a year or more. When it's time to go, get a prepaid debit card that you can whip out when it's time to gas up or pay at a restaurant, and your vacation can be math-free.
Find a Nice Place to Stay
Groups will find a lot of advantages to renting a house or condo compared to staying in hotels. The price may be lower, but more importantly, you will most likely have common space to share. This is especially valuable for families traveling with children whose bedtimes are earlier than the parents'. On our three-family trip last fall, some of the most fun evenings we had were simply when we put the kids to bed and sat up in the living room drinking wine. And when the kids woke up at an uncivilized hour, only one parent had to stumble into the family room to switch on the TV, while the other adults slept blissfully on.
Vacation Rental Sites
To rent a house or condo, check out Airbnb and VRBO. Another option that I've recently signed up for is HomeExchange, where you can offer your own house to other travelers in exchange for free lodging. (See also: How to Find and Book the Best Vacation Rentals)
Camping can also be a great option for groups, because many campgrounds rent group spots that work out to be a better deal per-person than multiple family spots. And if a smallish group rents a spot designed for a large group, you can get the added benefit of privacy and/or more freedom to make noise without disturbing other campers.
With or without kids, renting a house tends to involve a little more elbow grease than living in a hotel. There will probably be at least some meals cooked "at home" and dishes to wash. It's sensible to come up with a system for dividing up the chores, so that the same people don't end up doing maid duty every day and missing out on the fun.
For families with kids, if possible it's a great idea to give each couple a kid-free night out while the others stay home and do tuck-in duty. Or you can pool your funds to get a sitter from a service like Sitter City and go out together.
Get Group Discounts
When hitting attractions as a group, you may have the opportunity to save money by buying all your tickets together. The Hollywood Wax Museum cuts 25% off the price of tickets for 25 people or more, for example.
At some attractions, it might make more sense to buy a family pass that lasts the whole year rather than a bunch of individual tickets. For instance, if a family of five is visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium along with two friends, you can buy an Ocean Advocate-level membership for $275 that would get all seven of you in. Individual tickets for four adults and three children would cost $234.61. If this is a one-day only opportunity, there is a slight savings to buying the individual tickets, but if anyone in the group can go back even once, you'll save.
Some tour companies even offer a free trip to an individual who organizes a group trip. Go Ahead Tours, for example, gives every seventh person in a group a free ride, so if you recruit six relatives or friends, you're on Easy Street. Or, if you want to be more equitable, you could offer to "share" your free trip with the rest of the group by pooling everyone's fees and dividing the cost.
Travel as a Pack
Renting one minivan that seats seven is likely to be more affordable than renting two sedans, and you'll save on gas, too. For larger groups, savings are less clear cut, since the big vans that seat 12 or more can be expensive and gas-guzzling.
However, there can be advantages to riding together besides cost savings. For one thing, you have less stress from trying to follow other cars in your group through traffic. For another, it can just be fun to stick together. Earlier this year I rented a 12-seat Ford Econoline van with family, and we had a blast chatting and singing songs on the way.
Have you traveled in a big group? Please share your organizing tips in comments!