Fun Summer Adventures (That Don’t Break the Bank)

The point of these family adventures is the together time, but don’t underestimate the break in routine that kids need, especially as they get older. A change of scenery can help kids process life and new ideas, and maybe discover something new about themselves.

6:19 a.m. As my husband finishes packing the trunk, our teenagers argue over who gets the back seat to themselves. I have wondered whether this summer vacation will be worth the effort—the planning, the saving, the follow-through.

But . . . the journey is the gift.

One of our family’s values has long been to trade the “stuff” of life for experiences together. That’s often easier said than done. With the barrage of media and (usually) good-intentioned friends telling us what we should buy or what we need to own, it can be difficult to look past the tangible to see the intangible. Yet we’ve come to appreciate the valuable payoff in prioritizing shared adventures and experiences—a deep bonding with one another and family memories that will last a lifetime. We’ve also discovered that committing to regular family adventures doesn’t have to cost a fortune.

Do you want to start bonding as a family through sharing experiences? Here’s where to look and how to get started:

Adventures Just Down the Road

Who said you must leave town to get away? Even if you don’t live near a big city or tourist area, there are likely a number of interesting events and places to stay within a 45-minute drive from home. Whether you want to take the family to a new exhibit and spend the night downtown, or unplug from media by camping at a state park, a little research and creativity can reveal many options.

Find something for everyone. I recommend picking an activity that your whole family will enjoy, perhaps a local sporting event or family-friendly festival. Or choose something totally new that you can experience together. Ever been to an air show? A museum with a collection of the world’s largest insects?

Spend the night, if possible. While it may seem contrary to good budgeting practices to spend money on lodging near your home, the impact on kids is well worth it. Whether staying up late watching a movie after swimming in the hotel pool, or sleeping in and then eating as many different types of cereals as possible from the breakfast buffet, kids love the adventure of a night away.

Make it a mini? If spending the night somewhere isn’t in your budget, consider planning a staycation

Put aside weekend chores and camp out in your backyard or living room, and then spend the next day exploring your hometown. Discuss with your family what means the most to them when it comes to time together. Just as our kids often preferred hanging out at the hotel more than exploring the destination, you needn’t spend unnecessary money on something that doesn’t speak to your family’s sense of adventure.

A Little Farther Down the Road

Ah, the family road trip—a summer vacation seemed to be a good idea in the planning stages, but after the first few hours on the highway you’re wondering what you’ve gotten into. Yet it costs less than flying, you have a vehicle to use, there’s more room for packing, and you aren’t dependent upon airline schedules.

There’s downtime, too. As I write this (two hours into our 12-hour drive), my 13-year-old son popped up from his makeshift bed in the seats behind me. I asked him what he likes about road trips.

“The time to myself, to think and listen to music,” he said. “And the snacks!”

The point of these family adventures is the together time, but don’t underestimate the break in routine that kids need, especially as they get older. A change of scenery can help kids process life and new ideas, and maybe discover something new about themselves. Summer vacations and adventures can be a wonderful way to help your kids grow.

Tips for Planning

Don’t just wing it. You’ll drain your adventure funds quickly if you don’t plan ahead. First, decide the purpose for your trip and a realistic budget. Next, get a map and start outlining the route and its costs, including where you’ll likely stop for food, fuel and lodging. If you decide you want to cruise a scenic highway during the changing of seasons, then the drive becomes the event. If you’d rather visit a festival or big community event, you’ll allocate more resources to the destination than to road expenses.

We took a few road trips for our last summer vacation: one to see family, one for a baby shower and another for a mother/son event. Our budget looked very different for each trip. Avoiding the need for lodging allowed us to spend a little more on meals or admission to different attractions.


Time it right. If possible, drive during off-times. Avoid rush hour on Friday nights and Sunday evenings after a holiday weekend. Timing can also help save money on lodging. If you live near a business epicenter, hotels are often more expensive midweek. But near tourist attractions, there are better savings if you can book a Tuesday or Wednesday night. During these low-traffic times, attractions often partner with local hotels for big savings.


Save on food. My son got it right: Snacks are a perk to the family road trip. But if you buy snacks at convenience stores and eat at restaurants every meal, you’ll pay a big price.

As with the rest of the adventure, the trick for saving money on food is planning ahead. Try to buy simple meals and snacks during the weeks leading up to your trip so you can take advantage of local sales. Then, if possible, find lodging near stores that sell groceries.

This is especially applicable if you stay at a hotel or rental home with a kitchen. One trick we take advantage of is having groceries delivered to wherever we’re staying. Even with a little delivery fee, preparing just one meal per day can save your family hundreds of dollars over the course of a week.

Stay Flexible

Flexibility keeps it fun. Aim to keep everyone’s expectations realistic. Once you’re on the road, you’ll likely run into unexpected traffic, weather delays and out of order signs, no matter how carefully you’ve crafted your adventure. Remain flexible, brainstorm alternatives together and remember the old saying: Sometimes, the journey really is the destination.

© 2020 by Sami Cone. This article first appeared in the June/July 2020 issue of Focus on the Family magazine. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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