Talk money before your trip

Many car conversations this frigid winter have centered on Disney World. 

“How warm is it there?” my 5-year-old would ask. “How long would it take to walk there from Minnesota? Do you remember my favorite rides, Mom?”  

Last fall, my family went to Disney World with “Meemaw” and “Peepaw.” It turns out, this type of multi-generational trip is part of a steady trend. One in three grandparents who traveled in 2013 included grandchildren on at least one trip, according to MMGY Global’s Portrait of American Travelers. Of those trips, three out of four also included the children’s parents.

Such trips allow families spread out across the country to reconnect. They also make travel possible during the slow economic recovery. Baby Boomers tend to have more funds for travel, and are increasingly trading a pre-recession desire to buy more stuff for a new wish to make lasting memories with their kids and grandkids.

Family dynamics are a challenge on any trip. Add in extended family, and travel can be especially fraying on the nerves and on the pocketbook.

What did we learn from our experience in Disney World?

Talk money early and often.

Money will dictate so much of any vacation — and a multi-generational family trip is no exception. If one party suggested the trip and agreed to pay for it, you’re lucky. But you still need to double check whether the offer truly is all inclusive. Plus many family members will want to contribute something to the trip, whether it’s paying for one day of fun or a very special meal, or offering to document the trip with photos. 

If you’re not being treated to the vacation, have a frank discussion of your budget. Rarely do all members of a family find themselves in identical financial situations. So it’s best to speak up and explain your financial constraints before you find yourself locked into a pricey, budget-breaking destination.

Plan, plan, plan.

It’s important to have a plan, especially if the group is large. But you have to remember that travel personalities vary as widely as travel budgets. And part of the fun of traveling is to divert from the plan. Try to fashion a schedule that allows travelers to flex to meet their budgets and their preferences.

For example, food costs can vary widely. Consider renting an apartment or hotel rooms with kitchenettes or grill access so you can prepare some meals yourselves. This will require a conversation to decide who’s in charge of planning and paying for what. Otherwise, you risk hushed conversations about freeloading relatives. 

If eating out is a big part of your group’s vacation fun, think of ways to vary dining experiences and reduce costs with fixed-price dinners, early meals or coupons.

Doing initial legwork to reduce activity costs will usually pay off, too. Many destinations have twilight prices. And some become more affordable if you purchase admissions to other popular attractions. 

Then there are offers through AAA and Costco, or museum memberships that have reciprocity with other museums around the country. 

List which family members have access to such money-saving programs and create a plan for investigating costs.

Save, save, save.

The earlier you start planning, the more time you’ll have to save for a big trip. The last thing you want to do is exhaust your emergency savings for a vacation, or return from your getaway to a hefty credit card bill. Most savings accounts today offer very little return on your cash, but they’re really your only option since saving in riskier investments such as stocks, or even bonds, isn’t a good idea for short-term money. 

American Express, GE Capital Bank and Barclays offer no-fee accounts that yield as close to 1 percent as you can get. 

Another option is to tweak the way you pay for purchases to maximize savings. For example, switch to a credit card with great travel benefits, or check for credit cards that offer extra cash back for travel purchases. and rate the best travel cards. If you have a birthday or holiday coming up prior to travel, ask for cash gifts. 

Develop a souvenir policy.

Sometimes it’s the small stuff that derails a budget. I’m talking souvenirs. It’s nearly impossible to avoid gift shops. Major amusement park ride exits usually funnel thrill-seekers through shelves of overpriced garbage. 

Deciding how to separate sightseeing time from shopping time is one issue. Another is figuring out who pays. Options include designating a certain amount of money per child, requiring them to save for all of the souvenirs themselves or measuring the number of souvenirs rather than the dollar amount spent. Be sure to engage grandparents in the talk, too, so they don’t inadvertently torpedo your plans.

Kara McGuire is a personal finance writer and a St. Paul mother of three. Send comments, questions and story ideas to