An annual family vacation is a happy event and one most people look forward to. All the excitement involved with planning a family trip is a great opportunity for bonding and fun. However, when money is tight, a vacation may seem out of reach for many families due to restricted budgets and a need to cut back on expenses. The good news is it doesn't have to be this way.

There are several ways you can plan a cheap family vacation if you're willing to be flexible and willing to compromise on some things you normally would not consider doing.  Compromise and flexibility does not have to mean losing out on fun or quality. Going on a family vacation doesn't have to break the bank nor does it have to mean months worth of credit card bills coming to the mailbox after you return.

Here are some ways you can plan a cheap family vacation and still enjoy some great quality family time:

Travel Off-Season

This is not possible all the time, especially if the kids are in school, but if there is a willingness and an ability to travel off-season the price of travel can be much cheaper than going at prime times of the year. Many travel and tourism-related businesses tend to raise and lower prices according to the season. Spring breaks, winter vacation and parts of the summer are considered to be “peaks”.

Instead, see if there is a destination during school breaks that may not have the same “peak”. Not every vacation has to be Disney World, the beach or another stereotypical family vacation. Think nature, history or adventure, it’s a big world out there. (Although, there are still ways to bring down costs if Disney - or other popular destination - is the vacation you want to take).

Disney World
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

Many destinations, such as Disney World, will welcome you every day of the year. If you can travel at off-peak times, accommodations, rental cars and transportion are often much cheaper.

Check Out Specials

It’s not only households that are having a rough go of it economically, many businesses are struggling too and are willing to offer discounts, specials and other incentives to get customers to book with lodging, transport and tickets.

Web specials are common and it is a good idea to explore and check out to see what's being offered. You might be surprised in what you find. You may learn your dream vacation may not be as out of reach as you'd initially thought since vendors and service providers are looking to earn a profit. And a cheaper sell is better than no sell when it comes to renting rooms, cars and other travel-related needs. As an aside, I recently saw a booklet put out at an Amtrak station where the company is offering summer vacation packages by train. Think outside the box - you never know where you might potentially find a great deal.

Flexibility on Transportation

If you've found or decided on a destination, but are concerned about paying for traveling, try doing a bit of investigative work. With gas prices always fluctuating a long car drive may be more costly than taking a flight, especially in the summer when most families tend to take vacation.

Many airlines offer special deals in order to fill flights, but whether or not this is affordable is likely to depend on the number of people in a family. For smaller families it may be much more cost-effective to fly the friendly skies.

If you do decide to fly it will be important to know whether or not you'll need a rental car. If your destination provides shuttles or is all-inclusive you may not need one, but if you do, you've got to remember to factor in this cost. Many websites will offer a discount if you book travel, rentals and cars at the same time which may make it more affordable than booking separately.

Use Coupons and Ask about Discounts

Many popular sites offer discounts and other businesses partners (i.e. the grocery store) may provide discounts too. A few months before you want to start booking, keep an eye out for any special offers, coupons or discounts you may come across for attractions, restaurants or other family fun activities. This can save a lot of money. In addition, it is always worthwhile to check out what's on the web. Web-only specials are pretty common nowadays and most people miss out on them because they may not remember to check or search for places to look. Also see if you qualify for other types of discounts such as AARP, military, student or even some grocery store cards can be linked to saving some cash on attractions, etc.

Credit: Cameron Russell (Lomo-Cam on Flickr)/CC by 2.0 with Attribution

Set Spending Limits

Setting spending limits is often key to having an affordable vacation.  Plan enough money in the checking account to cover what you want to spend and stick to the set amount that is within the family budget. Making a commitment to limit recreational spending reduces any temptation to overspend. Avoid using credit cards for non-emergency items.

Overspending is tempting and also often hard to keep track of, but if you check your account balance after every purchase or visit to the ATM, you'll have a good idea of when to start curbing expenses and finding more frugal options (i.e. meals, activities, etc).

Look at Lodging with Kitchenettes

With rentals or hotel rooms that have kitchens, this can really bring down costs. Restaurant meals are not only pricey, but you have beverages and tips to think about too. However, by choosing lodging that has a way to store food and cook, you can make a quick stop at the grocery, stock up on family favorites and scale back food expenses. It’s healthier this way too.

Don't forget the snacks! Stocking up on the kids' favorite munchies will save a large amount of money because they'll be full and not be inclined to want to stop at every ice cream or snack shop they pass by in daily outings.

Look at Lower Priced Vacation Ideas

Camping is a great family activity. If this doesn't float your boat why not try researching small towns across the state or country and stay local? Many small town regions have a wealth of family-oriented things to see and do.

Family cookouts
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

Picknicking at Bear Mountain State Park, in New York

Another option is to vacation from home and take the week off. It is often many people take for granted of the wonderful things their hometown (or nearby towns) have to offer. You'll save a ton of money on lodging and you can pack picnics for meals on daily outings to bring down costs even more.

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Planning a family vacation on the cheap isn't always easy, but with some proactive thinking and willingness to be flexible in planning, there are many valuable ways to scale back on expenses and bring a family vacation to an affordable amount.

[Related reading: Plan the Perfect Vacation with Your Partner]