5 Vacation Ideas for Under $500

Nov 5, 2020 | Camping, National Parks, Simple Suit, Swim Suit, Travel Tips

If you’re wanting to go on a family vacation, but don’t have a lot of cash to spare, here are five vacation ideas under $500. 

Family vacations are important!  Just like you need rest every night to restore yourself, taking a break from day-to-day activities is rejuvenating and great for your mental health.

There have even been studies that show a correlation between vacation time and health, happiness, and longevity.  Also, we believes that it improves our relationships.  Some of my fondest childhood memories stem from our family vacations.  We’re finding that also true for our children!

Vacation can be pricey.  We can’t all afford to stay in an over-the-water bungalow in Bora Bora for a couple of weeks every summer, but for us, budget vacations are every bit as fulfilling.

If you have only $500 to spend, here are five ideas for making the most of it!

Go Camping

Camping is one of the most economical vacations that you can take.  Getting started with gear may take a few extra dollars, but it will provide years and years of fun for the whole family.  Truly, this is one of our favorite vacation ideas under $500!

Tent Camping is Affordable

Our family currently tent camps. If you’ve never been tent camping, check out A Beginner’s Guide to Tent Camping: 102 Things You Should Pack to help you get started!

Camp in State or National Parks

State and National Parks offer some of the best nightly rates, with most campgrounds costing between $16-$45.  

KOA and private campgrounds generally provide more amenities but are a little more costly in the $50-$75 per night range.  But, when compared to local hotel prices, it’s still a great deal!

Check out these 11 magical campgrounds for families for some great destination ideas!

Boondocking in State or National Forests

Many areas in the United States allow campers to stay overnight in national or state forest areas on the side of the road (in the boonies–thus the name).  Another name for boondocking is dispersed camping. 

What’s the upside to boondocking?  It’s free and there aren’t as many people as you would find in a developed campground.  The downside?  You’ll have to bring your own water, shower, and bathroom facilities if you don’t have a self-contained RV.

Before you go, check the area where you’ll be traveling to see if permits are required for overnight stays, campfires, or to use a camp stove or grill.

Camping at and exploring Pinecrest Lake in California

Visit a Destination Near Family

My family wishes I would do this more often. At least I think they do. My siblings live in some great places that are worthy of more visits!

Planning a trip around a destination close to family allows you to have someplace to crash at night for free, AND locals make great tour guides for all the attractions.

However, there is one caveat. You’ll want to make sure you don’t wear out your welcome. The last time we stayed with my sister, we ended up getting the stomach flu…and so did they. So amazing!

family near the washington memorial in DC vacation ideas under $500

National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Smithsonian Castle in Washington, D.C.

Plan a Staycation

Of the five vacation ideas under $500, taking a staycation is another great option. Personally, I find it challenging to separate myself from “must-dos” when they’re staring me in the eye (things like laundry and dishes).

I think the secret to a successful staycation is planning. Plan to have all the laundry done. Clean the house and put all the dishes put away. Turn on your vacation notification for email and update your voicemail.

Make it a goal to step away from typical household chores and promise yourself that you will treat your time like it’s sacred.

If you’re like us, there are many things in our community that we would love to do, that we haven’t even done yet! It’s crazy how you can live somewhere for 20+ years and still have so many things to see and do.

Take a Short Weekend Trip

Vacations don’t have to be lengthy to be rejuvenating. Sometimes, we’ve taken a 2-day/1-night trip, like our quick trip to Oldtown Sacramento. If you leave early in the morning the first day and don’t come home until late the next night, it can still be a great reset. In fact, after that trip to Sacramento, the kids said, “It felt like we were gone for a week!”

The secret to maximizing a weekend trip and stretching your dollars is 1) finding affordable hotels, and 2) bringing your own food.


Find a Cheap Hotel

Honestly, I’m not a fan of cheap hotels. Well, I CAN do cheap hotels as long as they are in good condition. I can’t do bad smells, dirty bedding or flooring, mold, or grunge. Usually, I stick with Booking.com to find hotels for our trips. I read the reviews and try to find something affordable that is close to a 9 rating. 

If you use Booking for all your hotel reservations, you’ll eventually start getting “Genius” discounts that can save you more money on your reservation or offer free upgrades. Typically, I save 10-15% with my Genius discount.

TIP: Reserve hotels via the app on your phone, and you’ll save even more! I’ve consistently noticed that prices in the app are lower than when accessing the booking site from a desktop.

Saving Money on Food

We often choose a hotel with a free breakfast (preferably one with protein options), because we love a hearty breakfast. For lunch, we can pack something or grab a footlong sub from a store deli for $5. This leaves us with extra cash to splurge on a nicer dinner. 

Packing an ice chest with drinks and some plastic shoebox totes with snacks can also save a little extra money!

Short getaway to Santa Barbara, CA

Combine a Camping Trip with a Short Hotel Stay

One of our favorite ways to get the most bang for our buck out of a vacation is to camp for 3-5 days, then stay in a hotel for 1-2 nights.

If we’re able to score a campsite for $25/night for five nights, we’re only out $125 plus gas money. That leaves around $300 to spend on a hotel and eating out a meal or two.

A California gold rush trip that was a hybrid of camping and hoteling was one of our most memorable trips! We camped three nights at Pinecrest Lake, then stayed two nights in Sonora, visiting Columbia State Historic Park and Jamestown. It was the perfect trip for younger kids and so much fun for all of us.

Columbia State Historic Park in California provides FREE activities for young gold rush enthusiasts


Going on a vacation that doesn’t break the bank is within reach!  Do you have any vacation ideas under $500?  What is your family’s favorite “cheap” vacation?  Tell us about it in the comments below!

Or if you’re trying to plan a trip and have questions, we’d love to hear them!


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