Safety in numbers? Turns out there's savings, too.

When planning the next big family vacation, look for ways to take advantage of the size of the group to save money per-person on lodging costs and meals, while increasing the fun social aspect of the endeavor.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
The sign for the Buckaroo Motel breaks up the blue sky of Tucumcari, New Mexico in this June 2009 file photo. When planning your next big family vacation, our personal finance expert recommends considering traveling in a large group, to save money on hotels, gas and meals.

Last week, I traveled with my wife, my children, and my parents to South Dakota and Wyoming for several days. (I’m planning an article later this week outlining some ways to save money on a vacation to South Dakota.)

One of my big ideas for planning the trip was to look for ways to take advantage of the size of the group in order to reduce the per-person cost of the vacation without reducing the fun of the vacation for anyone.

I highly recommend traveling as a group for vacations. Even if you conclude that you won’t save a significant amount of money, the social opportunities make a vacation that much more fun. Consider vacationing with relatives and close friends.

First, a few caveats. We didn’t end up doing all of these things for various reasons, a major one being the health of my parents. Also, many of these tactics may work really well for some vacations and not as well for others. As always, evaluate the numbers yourself.

So, how can you take advantage of a group to save money?

 Hotel lodging is often the default choice for people when they travel, but it’s also quite expensive. I’m often hard-pressed to find a clean and comfortable room for a price that doesn’t make me gasp. If you’re in a group, this gets worse, as people consider getting either suites or multiple rooms to house a sufficiently large party.

When you’re traveling with a group, you’re in the perfect situation to look for housing opportunities besides hotels. Group camping can become a wonderful experience, with a larger group to split up the tasks related to camping meaning more relaxation for everyone.

Another option is simply renting a house or a cabin, which is a great idea for a large group. A house can perfectly accomodate a very large group (roughly one family unit per bedroom) and it can be significantly cheaper than a group of rooms or a suite at hotels in the same area. This has the additional advantage of making food preparation much easier, something I’ll touch on below.

 On many vacations, you’re either going to be driving to your destination or renting a car when you land at the airport. If you travel separately, that may mean two or three cars utilized on the vacation, which means lots of miles on lots of cars or lots of rental agreements. If you are with a sizeable group that packs reasonably, you can easily reduce that count by one or two cars, saving everyone money.

There are also additional savings that come from having a smaller vehicle count on vacation. A great example of this is entry into national parks and monuments. At many national parks, you pay per vehicle for entry if you’re not camping. In other words, the cost of driving a car with one passenger into a park is the same as driving a minivan with six passengers into a park, thus reducing the cost per person entering the park.

Meal Preparation
 For many of our lunches (and at least one of our evening meals) during this past vacation, we prepared picnic lunches out of simple, tasty fare. We assembled sandwiches and side dishes in the morning, packed them in a cooler, and headed out for the day.

This was far cheaper than eating out as a group, and because many of the meals could be prepared assembly-line style (sandwiches, for example), it didn’t take up that much time, either.

Camping or staying at a cabin or house makes such meal preparation easier, of course. It’s possible to do this in a hotel room, but most hotel rooms aren’t conducive to food preparation.

Visitor’s Bureaus
 If you’re in an area that has a welcome center or visitor’s bureau, stop in. These places can be a cornucopia of information about the place you’re visiting, helping you to identify interesting low-cost/free things to do.

While this tactic is true for any vacation, it’s particularly valuable for groups. The people working there can often help you quickly figure out things that will work well for a group of your size, help you identify things that match your interests, and sometimes even provide discounted or free passes for everyone.

Larger Groups
 If you’ve got a group of ten or more people, ask about a group rate with everything you do. If you’re flying, ask your airline about a group rate. If you’re staying in a hotel, ask about a group rate. If you’re going to a museum or a garden or an exhibit, ask about a group rate.

Remember, the worst that can happen is that you don’t qualify for a group rate and end up having to pay the same rate as before. All this tactic can do is save you money.

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