Vacation. The very word sends little shivers of delight down my spine. Vacation is hard to come by when you work for yourself – when I’m not at my desk, working hard, no income is being generated. I don’t get paid vacations, so when I do get a chance to get away, I want to make the most of it. Over the years, we’ve learned all the tricks to making our hotel budget stretch, because when you stretch the hotel budget, you have the money you need to have more fun on the trip. To help you plan a vacation that won’t break the bank, read on to discover my favorite hotel tricks.

Where we stay depends on how many are traveling with us. When all the kids are along, you can’t beat a suite with a kitchenette, because eating out can get ridiculously expensive. If it’s just Dave and I sneaking away for a weekend, I will try to find something a little more unique, like a quaint old hotel in the oldest part of Montreal. Never be afraid to think about doing something different than what everyone else would do. It can often add a surprising and fun twist to your vacation.

If you’re going to a major tourist attraction like Disneyland, New York City, or DC, the closer you try to stay to your destination the more expensive it can be. Staying at a Disney hotel can be fun, but may cost as much as double what you’d pay to stay down the road, no matter how they try to sweeten the deal with meal plans. When we went to Disney three years ago, I shopped around and found a hotel within a few blocks of Disney’s main gate for less than half the cost of staying onsite, and it included free breakfast, discounted tickets to Disney, and a two-room suite with bunk beds for the kids.

We make regular trips to New York City with the kids, since we’re only 5 hours away, but we always stay across the river in Jersey City. It’s a short trip on the PATH train across the river and saves us $150-200 per night on our hotel. When we went last April, I got a special “stay three nights, get the fourth free” from our regular Jersey City hotel and ended up with a 4-star hotel stay was less than $90 per night for a two-room suite with a kitchenette.

Hotels charge more during popular travel times, so to save the most money, try to travel off season. We take our annual family vacation during spring instead of summer because the difference in room cost can be as much as 60%, especially if you’re heading to a popular destination. While I have memberships with all the hotel point sites, I don’t let the possibility of points keep me from staying somewhere else if I can get a good deal.

Whether it’s a hole-in-the-wall near your favorite eatery or the most popular chain that appeals to your kids, your choice of hotel can make or break your vacation experience, so be sure to give yourself enough time to shop around and find the perfect spot.

Tips you can use:

  • Don’t believe the online reservation system when it tells you there are no rooms for your family size. Call the hotel directly. They will often make allowances or allow more people in the room.
  • If you are a hotel-for-points person, don’t be afraid to have memberships with more than one chain. I open multiple windows when shopping for a hotel and compare prices and locations.
  • Sometimes, its worth paying a little more if the hotel includes free Internet and free breakfast, which can save you $60-$100 a day depending on the size of your family.
  • Don’t get sucked into special vacation packages offered by hotels. They do not always save you money. See what it would cost to get the tickets to the event without it being built into your room price.
  • Join AAA! The 10-15% savings on rooms and meals, plus the travel itineraries they will help you design are worth the membership fees! If you travel to Canada, your AAA membership will be honored by the CAA agencies there, and vice-versa.
  • Pay attention to parking! The hotel might be less expensive but require you to use a valet service or parking garage that costs $12-40 per day.