Wise parents know a great family holiday is all about the experience, not the destination. It's easy to impress your kids if you've got lots of money to spend, but if your budget is limited you'll need a bit more ingenuity.

Use our tips and your imagination however, and you'll get both value for money and memories to last a lifetime, no matter how workaday the destination or modest the outlay.

A father with tattoos along his left arm helps teach his young daughter how to surf. They're in shallow water and he's steadying the board while she stands on it.
Rule number one: keep things simple © FatCamera / Getty Images

1. Keep things simple

Every parent has experienced that moment when they realise that their child is having far more fun playing in the puddles and climbing trees than enjoying the expensive attraction they've driven miles to see. Sometimes all the planning, effort and expense just backfires and you wish you'd just gone to the local park instead. Don't confuse your idea of a good day out with theirs; keep things simple, know your limitations, and realise that if they're happy you will be too.

2. Learn from experience

Wherever you choose to go you can guarantee there's a glut of advice available online from parents who have already been there. Read reviews, find out about what's good value and what isn't, where you can find the cheapest tickets and when's best to arrive to avoid the queues.

A child reading a fold-out book that has a large illustration of Rome's Colosseum.
Giving kids tools to trigger their imagination about an upcoming destination is a way to spawn excitement © Lonely Planet

3. Prime your audience

Read about your destination with your kids, watch a movie together or even arrive dressed up in costume – whatever it takes to bring their imaginations alive. A castle ruin springs to life when you arrive in full knights' regalia and have a sword fight on the lawn, a medieval Oxford college is far more interesting once its connections to Harry Potter are revealed, and teens will lose their bad attitude once they realise that that boring walking tour takes in all of Pharrell Williams' favourite haunts.

You might also like: Top 10 Harry Potter experiences in the world

4. Let the kids in on the planning

If there's a significant difference in your children's ages it can be hard to find a destination to suit everyone but get them involved in the planning and they'll realise that all by themselves. Let older children loose on a tablet, pray for a diplomatic discussion and hopefully everyone will agree on a destination.

A young child sittings in a train seat and looks out to a snowy environment with a smile on her face.
Keeping journeys slow and  short, with multiple stops to break the risk of tedium © FamVeld / Shutterstock

5. Keep journey times as short as possible

Plan a long drive or train journey with small children and an excess of junk food, and you're just asking for trouble. Keep journeys as short as possible, let the kids track your progress on a map and if possible when driving, get off the motorway and stop as frequently as you can.

6. Travel slowly

We're often so focused on our destination we forget to enjoy the journey. Rather than spending hours in the car to see one big attraction, plan a shorter trip with multiple stops, one to please each member of the family. Be fair, agree on time limits and let everyone enjoy the day.

You might also like: Unlikely destinations for an unforgettable family holiday

Children's feet hanging over a small stream from a wooden walkway; taken in the mountains.
Stopping for a picnic not only saves money, but it means you don't need to cut things short to reach a restaurant © Zurijeta / Shutterstock

7. Pack snacks

Save money on basics and bring a picnic. No matter how much money you earn it's frustrating watching your kids leave a plate of expensive restaurant food untouched then complain about being hungry as soon as you walk out the door.

8. It's all in the timing

Although most museums and galleries offer children's activities, they can range from badly photocopied sheets to a full interactive workshop program. Find out as much as you can in advance and time your arrival to coincide with hands-on events. A swashbuckling pirate party or a seaside fossil-finding mission can make the difference between a good day out and a great one.

You might also like: How to plan the perfect big family holiday

Children play with toy sail boats at the Luxembourg Palace and Gardens in the Montparnasse neighbourhood.
If local children love it, yours likely will too; toy boats at Paris' Jardin du Luxembourg © Page Light Studios / Shutterstock

9. Don't pay at the door

Taking a family with two children to top visitor sites can knock a whopping big hole in your wallet, and that's before you cave in to the demands for snacks, drinks and souvenirs. Look out for online discounts, two-for-one tickets, voucher codes and special offers in advance and you'll save yourself a hefty chunk of money.

10. Use vouchers 

Got a loyalty or rewards card? Then use your weekly grocery shop or business travel to earn points and stockpile them for your holidays. Offers vary but you'll often get reduced entry to attractions, money off hotels or flights and freebies at a number of places. It's also worth signing up for alerts from deal-of-the-day websites such as Groupon for discounts on everything from famous attractions to meals out.

You might also like: Top tips for first-time family travel

Man and a boy on a standup paddle board on Geneva Lake in Montreux.
Choosing to tour an area in a novel, adventurous way, is a surefire way to keep children interested © RomanBabakin / Getty Images

11. Join a tour

Not just any old tour mind you, but a guided Segway excursion, a late-night ghost walk, a sea kayaking trip or a treetop adventure. Distracted by the thrill of the ride, the kids won't even realise they've toured a whole city and learned a lot about its history.

12. Get an annual or city pass

Although it's a significant initial outlay, it's well worth buying an annual pass to local attractions your children enjoy. You'll visit more often and lose that feeling that you've got to stay all day to get your money's worth. Equally, if you're visiting just one city, look out for sightseeing passes allowing you to enter numerous attractions for one reduced fee.

A family of four roast marshmallows by their tent on the beach.
Campgrounds near beaches or scenic areas is a way to save money and add some novelty to your holiday © oliveromg / Shutterstock

13. Choose your accommodation wisely 

Generally neither family- nor budget-friendly, hotel stays blow a hole in your pocket you could well avoid. Consider taking day trips instead and using the money saved to pay for attractions or treats you might otherwise have had to miss out on. If you are going to stay away overnight consider a campground in a dramatic location with its own adventure playground, a farm stay where the kids get to help feed the animals, house swaps which come with the novelty of someone else's toys, or a private room in a youth hostel where you'll often get a historic property or scenic location on top of the self-catering kitchens and ready-made friends.

14. Become a member

Look out for umbrella groups such as the National Trust in Britain and Australia, Heritage Canada and the National Park Service in the US where membership buys you access to all their properties. You'll usually pay off the cost within a few visits and find yourself spontaneously stopping off on many journeys simply because you can and don't have to pay an additional entrance fee.

You might also like: Travelling with teens: a survival guide

Two girls sit atop a boat as it cruises through a harbour.
Allowing a child to bring a friend can be a recipe for smoother sailing © JLPH / Getty Images

15. Bring a friend

A teen's world is small and intense, and if you take them away from their friends there's a good chance they'll offer little to a family trip other than snide remarks. Bring a friend however, and everything changes – with someone to gossip, shop and moan with, everything suddenly looks rosier.

16. Relax the rules

It's priceless seeing the incredulous face of your child when you allow what is a normally forbidden fruit. If you're a stickler for early bedtimes plan a late-night ramble through the city. Sugar-free household? Indulge in some extra treats. If you hate fancy dress go all out and join them in a head-to-toe costume at the street parade. You may only have to do it once but they'll remember it forever.

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This article was first published May 2015 and updated February 2020

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