At the end of September this year, the Family Travel Association is hosting its first annual Summit at the Mountain Sky Guest Ranch in Montana. Over the course of two full days, an assembly of industry executives and family travel experts will expand upon topics essential to a rounded understanding of the challenges we face today with family travel and the efforts we can make as an industry moving forward. In anticipation of that, we will count down the 12 weeks leading up to the Summit by spotlighting 12 core family travel topics to the public. Each week, we will publish an introductory essay written by an authority on the topic, which will open it up for public discussion. Following the Summit, we will initiate a 12-month process of digging much deeper into each of these topics, one per month. By the time we gather for the next Family Travel Association Summit in September 2016, we expect to have a much more powerful grasp of what’s at play in family travel.
TOPIC 9: The Truth About Making Family Travel Affordable
Travel enchants us all, but millions of Americans won’t take more than one family vacation per year. Ask average parents why they don’t travel more (or at all) and one of the most consistent responses you’ll get is: money.
According to a 2010 American Express survey, the average cost of a U.S. domestic family vacation (for four) was $4,000. In 2013, that figure rose to $4,580. And in 2015, the reported average ranged from $1,500 to $3,000 or more, per leisure traveler.
No wonder travel is deemed unaffordable for so many American families.
But is it a gross misperception or an economic reality? Are there ways for the industry to create more affordable products or is consistent family travel reserved for the upper middle class and the affluent?
Habits and Misperceptions
In Mom’s Guide To Saving Money on Family Travel, I discuss a major misconception about travel: that it is synonymous with jet-setting around the world. In actuality, travel is simply defined as “the act or means of journeying from one place to another.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
With that in mind, a slight adjustment of our understanding makes travel more affordable.
Family travel can be as expensive as flying across the pond or as affordable as enjoying a staycation just down the road. Economically viable options abound near at hand, but are unfortunately often overlooked by families who report that they cannot afford to travel.
The Cost of Bad Habits
One of the simplest ways to make a family vacation more affordable is to book early. According to a 2015 Fat Wallet survey, however, only 14% of vacationers book more than six months in advance.
Agents struggle to convince clients to book early, even though schedules are available months in advance. Airlines typically announce their flight schedule 300 days outward, cruise lines publish their schedules 18 months ahead and many resorts/hotels open bookings almost a year forward.
So why do people wait? The illusion of last-minute deals motivates families to put off booking.
Although the jury is still out on the absolute best time to book flights and hotels, agents like Sally Black from Vacationkids travel agency argue that families do themselves a disservice by waiting until the last minute.
To buck the trend, agencies like Sceptre Tours offered their customers a $200 per person air credit incentive for travelers who booked vacations 100-120 days in advance. Payment plans and savings accounts like the Disney Vacation account are also useful resources that teach families the time value of money and make family travel more affordable.
Families Not Top of Mind for the Airline Industry
To keep vacation costs lower, most families opt to drive instead of fly. It’s no wonder too. With the majority of domestic airlines tacking on fees for luggage, food and roomier seats, family travelers board planes at an economic disadvantage. Checked luggage alone for a family of four can add an extra 5% or more to ticket costs. Therefore, families opt for drivable destinations.
Airlines sensitive to the needs and wallets of families should recognize the value of travel standards from glory days past like free checked luggage, early boarding for families with young kids, heartier snacks and keeping families together.
Hotel Incentives Make for Happy Customers
Accommodations are the second high-ticket item for family travelers. Rooms on their own may not price families out of the market, as there are accommodation types to suit all budgets. However, the necessary add-ons like food and activities make renting hotel rooms over multiple nights expensive.
This partly explains why apartment and home rentals, all-inclusive resorts, home exchanges and suite-style hotel rooms are favored choices for traveling families. Cooking meals helps to manage vacation costs. Or not cooking at all: families are attracted to the value provided by all-inclusives, with accommodation, food and activities rolled into one price.
For that reason, hotels that offer package deals (accommodations and dining) fare well with family travelers, as do resorts with “kids stay free” specials. Ultimately, it’s the additional free night and the free dining packages that make a hotel stay more affordable for families.
Incentives, rewards and multi-ticket/multi-day price cuts are especially useful. A few examples include:
- Savings clubs that reward travelers with bonus reward points
- Hotel packages that include dining certificates with local restaurants
- Third and fourth passenger reduced airfares
- Weekend vacation packages during the school year
The industry’s creativity is limited only by its beliefs.
Re-educating Family Travelers
Responsibility for making family travel affordable falls to both the industry and families. The industry needs to put its mind to designing packages and incentives that best serve the needs of families. Meanwhile, families must be ready to adjust their habits and behavior.
Travel, whether near or far, comes at a price. It is a luxury, an investment and, in some cases, a necessity for families. Planning and preparing for it by booking early, saving periodically, broadening one’s scope and considering alternate times of the year to travel,ultimately help to make it more affordable.
Tell us about your tricks for and experiences with making family travel affordable. The Family Travel Association is determined to establish both best practices and guidelines for travelers and the industry that help everyone make the most of their hard-earned time and money when they travel.
Please share your feelings in the comments below or, for more interaction, on the Outbounding discussion board prepared specifically for us. And stay tuned in the weeks ahead for more articles about core family travel topics.
Tawanna Browne Smith is the author of Mom’s Guide To Saving Money on Family Travel and the founder of Mom’s Guide To Travel, where she coaches and plans travel for overwhelmed moms. In addition to appearing on local news station WBAL-TV 11 in Baltimore, Tawanna has contributed to various online publications including TravelChannel, Trip Advisor, 10Best USA Today, Family Vacation Critic and Huffington Post Travel.
For more essays in our FTA Spotlight: Re/Defining Family Travel series, click on the topics below.
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