How to Create a Foolproof Trip Budget in 9 Steps

The hardest part of sticking to a vacation budget is creating a foolproof budget. In only 9 steps, you can create a trip budget that works every time.

Vacations are meant to be a time of rest and relaxation, but if you’re spending more on your vacation than you can afford, it can cause months (or years) of stress once you return home. Nobody needs more stress. That’s why our family uses this 9-step method to plan each trip!

Step 1: Set a Rough Budget Limit 

The first step to budget planning is to set a ballpark figure. How much money do you think you can spend on your vacation? $500? $1,000? $2,000? $5,000?

Having a rough idea of how much you can afford will help you determine the next seven steps of the budget. If you’re not sure, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How much money do we have in savings?
  • Do we need to save more money?
  • How many months do we need to save?

Once you determine the amount you think you can spend, move on to the next step. At the end of the process, you’ll revisit the overall trip budget.

Tip: If you’re looking for budget-friendly vacation ideas, check out my list of 5 Vacation Ideas for Under $500!

Step 2: Budget for Transportation

You can’t go on vacation unless you can get there. Do you plan to drive, fly, or take the train?  

Almost always, it’s cheaper to drive than to fly, especially if you have a family. 


If You’re Flying, Don’t Forget to Budget for…

  • Gasoline (to get you to the airport)
  • Airport long-term parking
  • Valet or luggage cart
  • Car rental
  • Gasoline (to get you around once you reach your destination)
  • Tolls
  • Parking

If You’re Driving, Don’t Forget to Budget for…

  • Gasoline (to get you there, around, and home)
  • Tolls
  • Parking

Step 3: Budget for Lodging

Accommodations and lodging are usually one of the biggest expenses when you create a trip budget…unless you’re staying in a tent.


Make reservations from 6-12 months in advance. Most national and state parks allow reservations to be made six months before your arrival.

Look at the reservation website to determine the costs for each campground you want to visit. Don’t forget to include any reservation fees!

Tip: Some campgrounds, like campgrounds in Yosemite National Park, are incredibly difficult to secure a spot. You’ll want to mark your calendar and make sure you’re ready to go 15 minutes before campsites are released for reservations.

Don’t forget to budget for park entrance fees, coin-operated showers, and coin-operated laundry!


Hotel (or Airbnb/VRBO)

The adage the sooner the better rings true when you’re planning a hotel stay.

Most hotels don’t book more than a year in advance. However, you will see price fluctuations in the lodging cost as you move closer to the date.  

Typically, we find the best prices when we book 6-9 months in advance.

My favorite way to determine lodging costs is to use Even if I don’t reserve a room, it will get me a good idea, overall, of lodging costs for that area based on my amenity and rating requirements.

Step 4: Budget for Food

Budgeting for food will vary greatly from family to family. Some families may opt to bring all their own food, other families may stick with fast food, while some families may enjoy 3-course, fine dining experiences.

Questions to ask yourself when you create a trip budget…

  • Is free breakfast included with our hotel?
  • Do we plan to eat out every meal or make some of our own food?
  • Can I pack and bring snacks?
  • Will I want coffee, ice cream, or other little treats?

Looking at menus online for restaurants will help you determine costs.

For our family, we typically eat a free breakfast at the hotel, a cheap lunch, and a nicer sit-down dinner. We opt to bring our own snacks and an ice-chest of drinks.

Step 5: Budget for Activities

The secret to successful budgeting is deciding what you want to do ahead of time. While you don’t have to schedule every single moment of every single day, it’s good to know if there are special activities you want to participate in.

Whether it’s visiting a zoo, museum, aquarium, parasailing, miniature golfing, etc., it all costs money…and sometimes a lot of money. Knowing how much you can spend, and sticking to it, will save a lot of stress.

Step 6: Budget for Souvenirs

Some people are shoppers and souvenirs bring them great joy. Personally, I’d rather put the money toward food for activities. I don’t ever buy souvenirs for myself (unless huckleberry bonbons count), but we do give the kids a small souvenir allowance when we create a trip budget.

Step 7: Extras, Miscellaneous, Unplanned Expenses

There will always be unexpected expenses. It happens. Someone leaves their jacket on the Metro, parking prices for the Marina don’t match the website prices, there’s a carousel ride that you didn’t know about, etc. If you have a little wiggle room in your budget, it keeps the magic of your family vacation alive.

Step 8: Set the Final Trip Budget

Once you’ve determined the costs for all the previous items, you can set your final trip budget. Often, I like to create a couple of trip budgets. I call them Option A, Option B, and Option C. I know, the names are very original and exciting.

One option may be an affordable (cheap) travel option. Another option may be an affordable travel option with additional activities. A final option may be a mid-level travel option or an affordable travel option with additional days.

Having choices allows me to decide what is most important to our family. Having more time together or a nicer hotel? Doing more activities or eating more amazing food?

I choose one option, then move on to the final step.

Step 9: Envelope Method or App Expense Tracking

Setting a budget without implementing it, isn’t very helpful. There are a few ways to implement your budget.  

Cash Envelope Method

If you like using cash, the envelope method is a good choice.

Pros: what you see is what you get. If you spend it, you’re done.

Cons: It can get lost or stolen. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. We did lose $60 on a trip, once. Even $60 hurts.  

Expense Tracking App

If you like to be cashless, use an expense tracking app. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, there are many free, reputable apps. We used the Spending Tracker app on our last vacation, and it worked perfectly.

Pros: you don’t have to bring cash and keep it separated.

Cons: You have to record EVERY. SINGLE. TRANSACTION.

Personally, I prefer using cards with an expense tracking app. If I record transactions as they happen, it keeps me feeling sane and organized. 


When you create a trip budget and stick to it, you can enjoy stress-free, guiltless travel with your family! And…when you stick to your budget, you save money, allowing you to go on even more vacations.

How do you budget for your family vacations? Do you have a favorite app that you use? Or do you have any trip budgeting questions? Drop us a line in the comments below!