How to plan your dream holiday, on a budget

You can have a special family vacation without maxing out credit cards. In fact, you can find real savings

How to plan your dream holiday, on a budget

Source: Best Health magazine, Summer 2014; Image: Thinkstock

This summer marks an exciting milestone for my family. In May we welcomed our second child’a beautiful baby boy. My husband and I have been excitedly planning what we hope will be an unforgettable summer vacation for our newly expanded family. As is the case for so many working parents, with the excitement comes the financial reality of maternity leave and adjusting to a reduced income’something that can most definitely cramp your style.

For me, the ideal family vacation balances relaxation and adult downtime with a mix of memorable experiences that my kids, my husband and I will look back on fondly. Sounds good in theory, but the reality for us this summer has meant working on a tighter budget to cover two weeks of food, travel, transportation and activities.

I started my planning with a concept known as ‘reverse engineering.’ This means I set a clear vision and intention for the type of holiday we want to have, and work backwards to identify how to make it happen. What kind of summer vacation experience did I want to create? (Answer: for my family to spend lots of time outdoors and in the water; to be able to cook; and to be with close friends.) How did I want to feel before the trip? (Not stressed.) During the trip? (Not stressed.) And after the trip? (Not tired!) From there I created a list of locations and then honed in on what was within financial reach.

We hoped to keep the total cost to less than $3,000 for the four of us for two weeks. I started by pricing out my first pick: a visit to friends in San Francisco, with a jaunt into the Napa Valley. While we would save money by staying with friends, I feared the cost of flights, rental cars and hotels would add up quickly. My rule of thumb for vacation budgeting is to keep air travel to less than half of the cost, which isn’t always easy.

When looking to get the best deals on flights and travel, I always start by comparing flight prices using Despite being an American site, Kayak offers extensive Canadian air travel information that pulls from all Canadian carriers and popular travel deal sites (including other discount sites such as and Kayak then sorts and pulls flights based on the criteria you set; mine were price and minimal stopovers. Unfortunately, the best price I could find for our family worked out to be more than $1,800 in flights’too steep for this Smart Cookie.

So, with our budget firm, I moved on to the next best location option, one that still included being near wine country somewhere (clearly a must for this trip!) but that allowed us to drive instead of fly.

After convincing some good friends that we should look at renting a cottage together on Lake Okanagan, we began investigating options. Sharing a cottage or vacation home is one of my favourite ways to save a bit on accommodations and get in some quality time with friends. The savings of shared accommodations adds up to at least $500 compared to renting independently. And another benefit of friends with kids is that you can take turns at child care if you want to take a night off for a romantic dinner, or just enjoy some alone time.

When it came to booking our cottage rental, I used and as my first stops’both offer affordable nightly and weekly accommodations for homes, direct access to the owner and convenient payment. For this particular vacation rental, ended up working best. I was able to get an extensive look at property options, and could also correspond with the owner quickly and easily.

(I’ve talked about it previously in this column, but it bears repeating: As a way to save more on vacations, I rent out our Vancouver home on when we go away for holidays or long weekends. You list your space for a recommended price that is based on square footage, location and amenities, and you also get a $1 million insurance guarantee against damage or theft. In two years, we have earned $10,000, which has helped offset and even cover the cost of our vacations. Of course, there are risks; check for more information.)

Finding ways to save for an enjoyable holiday comes down to planning and intent. I am looking forward to us sitting back and enjoying a lakeside retreat I truly believe is worth the investment.

Katie Dunsworth is one of the founding Smart Cookies, along with Andrea Baxter, Robyn Gunn, Sandra Hanna and Angela Self. They have published two books ( You can follow Katie on Twitter @katie_dunsworth.

This article was originally titled "Healthy money: Dream holiday on a budget" in the Summer 2014 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience’and never miss an issue!