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Cheap tricks: How to make family holidays happen

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Keen to plan a summer escape but not sure how to keep the cash from blowing out? Sue White has some tips and tricks.

Not to alarm you, but Christmas is not that far away.

I say this not because I want to propel you into shopping lists and thoughts of family reunions but because for many, Christmas means the start of a big ol’ summer holiday. Exciting!

Until, at least, the issue of money kicks in. It’s an expensive time of year, so how can you plan a summer break that won’t blow the budget?

Good news: it may be easier than you think, at least with these tips in hand.

Tip One: Think carefully about where you lay your hat

It may sound obvious, but there are holidays and there are holidays.

Resorts will always be more expensive than caravan parks while staying with family or friends can slash your accommodation costs to not much more than a takeaway meal or two to say thank you.

Yes, there’s a risk with the latter technique: if you’re not all used to being in close quarters, the holiday ambience can quickly disintegrate, but choose well and you’ll save money and win on the social front.

There are lots of ways to carve this idea. We often stay with family or friends and plan holidays around visits to locations where we have nice folks to stay with. But you can be more proactive about this practice.

Last New Year’s we shared the cost of a family room with close friends at a beachside motel. The motivation was social, but the reality was it also helped everyone hit the beach at peak period for a lower price tag.

My social circle is now getting pretty good at this. Earlier last year we rounded up eight families (many of us with kids in tow) and booked out a youth hostel for a long weekend that one couple said was the most relaxing holiday they’d had since their honeymoon.

Everyone cooked one meal (albeit one meal for 20 people), so once that was done, it was effectively three days off duty. Hello, holiday vibe!

Tip Two: Forgo fancy food

I say this with a caveat: if you are foodies and that’s what you travel for, or this is a food-oriented holiday—go for it on the fine dining. But for everyone else, cutting down on dining costs goes a long way to save on your travel costs.

Apartments and caravan parks are fabulous as you can self-cater, but if you’re in a hotel or resort, see if they’ll throw in a buffet breakfast. Your job then is to dine like a king for the first meal of the day (personally, I love a long, lazy breakfast when I’m on holidays, so this is no problem for me) and keep lunch simple: a bakery meal or a picnic.

If you are dining out in restaurants, remember that lunch is usually cheaper than dinner—although if you’re in a city, there are often cheap pre-theatre packages. If you’re willing to be in and out before a certain time (often 6 or 7 pm), and don’t mind a limited menu, you can sometimes jag three courses for the price of one.

Tip Three: Beat peak

This is tricky in Australia over the summer period—thanks to Christmas and New Years falling smack in the middle of our main holiday period—but it’s not impossible.

In summer, most of us make a beeline for the coast, where peak pricing swells as high as the tide. If you head inland instead, prices are often more stable at this period, so you’ll get better bang for your buck.

Try areas near national parks and rivers—you may not be at the beach but you’ll still probably be keen to swim.

The other way to beat peak is more obvious: avoid taking your main holiday between mid-December and mid-January. In December, you have to leave pretty early to get cheap flights, but I know for a fact it’s possible: last year we went to Vietnam on 1 December.

I booked in July and it was—wait for it—$260 return each from Sydney to Ho Chi Minh City (yes, including tax!). It may be too late for that one for this year, but you now have a good strategy for 2020.

The key? Keep an eye out for specials and be ready to act quickly.

Remember, in mid to late January, prices come down again. If you’re not trapped into travelling in school holidays (or don’t mind the kids returning to school a bit late—there, I said it), planning your beach holiday for February rather than January will save you a packet.

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