The Ultimate Budget-Friendly Family Vacation

Toyota lent me a Sienna to write this post, but all opinions are my own! 

We wanted to go on a family vacation this year but we were working with a tight budget. We weren’t sure if it was going to be possible, but with a little research, a few less lattes, and a dream, isn’t anything within reach? This is how our family road trip to South Dakota came into fruition. We took a road trip there over Independence Day and we had the best time so I thought I’d share how I planned the ultimate budget-friendly family vacation.

The Ultimate Budget- Friendly Family Road Trip (South Dakota)

Pick a destination you can drive to.

If you really think about it, you likely have friends all over the nation! I have college friends who have settled all over the place after we graduated. Some have stayed in the midwest like we did. One of my best friends lives in South Dakota and we don’t see her family nearly enough, so that was our choice destination for our trip!

The kids love road trips! 

A road trip can be lengthy but splitting it up into a few chunks makes it much more tolerable. For this trip, we drove three hours on the first leg of our trip and stayed with my family, then the next day drove a more sizable distance of five hours. We stayed in Tea, South Dakota for two nights before moving on to the next leg of our trip…Custer, SD! 

Toyota Sienna

happy kids on a road trip

If you take a road trip, I highly suggest breaking it into a few days, and it REALLY helps if the vehicle you take is something that’s equipped for entertaining kids, that’s spacious, and tolerable for long drives. The Toyota Sienna we used for this trip ticked every box for our family. There are seven seats so everyone gets a spot and then some. The DVD player pulls down and I can direct the volume to the back seat so I don’t have to hear it (YAY!) and I can even sync my music from my phone to the vehicle. The seats are very easy to wipe down, which is super important with kids. And there is lots of leg room.

Even more important than all of that? The safety features. The night we got to Custer, SD there was a really scary storm. We were driving on the back roads to get to our Airbnb and what normally would have been white knuckle driving wasn’t so bad with all wheel drive. I always panic when it rains and I’m driving but it was comforting to know we weren’t going to slide off the road. 

Research free/inexpensive activities.

I love when I can entertain my family at a low price tag. When we went to Disney World the kids had a blast but it blew my mind that they had just as much fun climbing around the rocks at the Badlands. The geological formations are pretty unique and amazing and the kids were just blown away. The cost to get in was only $20 for the whole family and provided a lot of entertainment for my family. It also gave us a lot of educational stuff to chat about with the kids; now they want to know all about bighorn sheep, fossils, etc. 

The Badlands

The badlands in South Dakotaposing at the badlandsThe badlands in South Dakota

the badlands in SDfossils at the badlands in South Dakota

fossils at the badlands in South Dakota


Another fun experience was going to Reptile Gardens. It’s a wild animal park in Rapid City, SD. The kids had an absolute blast seeing turtles that were over 100 years old. We were even allowed to touch them and their skin felt like tree bark. These majestic creatures have been around for a very long time and the kids absolutely loved learning more about them.

There were snakes to see and touch as well as alligators, birds, and beautiful botanical gardens. We learned a lot and it was very cool. We have a Milwaukee Zoo pass, but this was so different than what is offered in our community. We have spent a lot of time talking about the turtles especially since we got back! 

Reptile Gardens

reptile gardens in south dakota

prairie dog hole in Reptile Gardensturtle at Reptile Gardenscactus at Reptile Gardensflowers at Reptile Gardensgemstones at Reptile Gardens

Mount Rushmore was another great sight to see. We told the girls that former presidents had their faces carved into rock, and they were geeking out over it. It was so much fun to show them in real life. It was only $10 to get in at the door and we spent a good portion of time there. Going on the 4th of July was a really special treat as well. They do it up in Custer in a big way on such a patriotic holiday. 

Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore

We loved driving through Custer State park. They reportedly have 800-1450 buffalo in the park at any given time. We drove around and got out of the van to see the prairie dogs and saw a couple elk, and saw just a tiny bit of a buffalo out of the corner of our eye but were so disappointed not to see any up close. Towards the end of the day we were so excited to be driving by a farm that had buffalo. I had to snap a quick pic! But then on our way to the Airbnb later that evening, a buffalo crossed the road right by us! It was insane and such a special moment for our family. We had been hoping all day that we’d get to see a buffalo up close and we just had to wait until the end of our trip to experience it. I can’t believe how close we were able to get (safely of course) and I swear the thing looked me right in the eye! 

Buffalo in Custer, SD

buffalo at Custer State Parkbuffalo up close at Custer State Park

Buffalo up close at Custer State Park

Custer State Park

animals at Custer State Parkprairie dog at Custer State ParkCuster State Park

Needles highway was another really neat experience. There were lots of amazing scenic overlooks and narrow tunnels and really cool rock formations. This was one of my favorite parts of our trip. 

Needles highwayNeedles highwayNeedles highway

Travel with friends to split the costs.

If you’ve never traveled with friends, why not? We have traveled with the same couple a handful of times now and we always have a blast as a family. They have one child, and we have three and everyone gets along super well.

Another perk? Traveling together saves money. We split an Airbnb and groceries and everything adds up when you’re trying to take a trip for less. My friend did a great job finding Little Red Inn in Custer, SD and we couldn’t have asked for a better location for our trip. It was the perfect house for us to stay in and they had everything. There was more than enough living quarters for us, and even a laundry, fire pit, and bikes for the kids. It was tucked into a beautiful setting and I’m still going to be daydreaming about how peaceful our time there was for a long time. 

Little Red Inn in Custer, SD

Little Red Inn in Custer, SD

Pack the cooler.

Admittedly, this is something we could have been way better about. We intended to eat out of the cooler much more often than we did, but even packing snacks and not meals we really saved a ton of money. We brought pb&j, chips, juice boxes, bottled water, and a few other snacks in the van and it was really a godsend not to have to swipe the card every time someone was hungry. We planned to eat a few meals out and bought things for breakfast and coffee to enjoy at the Airbnb. 

Enjoy making memories together as a family.

I love that we were able to go somewhere as a family that was affordable that didn’t require us to save for a whole year. I don’t want to stress about travel. I just want to enjoy it! Keeping to a budget made this such a great trip for us. We taught the kids about money, and even hyped up buying ONE souvenir on the trip so they would be extra excited about it. 

Most families aren’t taking extravagant trips every year because they have other expenses. Plane tickets are expensive! We looked it up and it would’ve easily cost us over $1,000 to fly our family out, plus we’d have to worry about a rental vehicle and car seats. Sounds stressful! Not worth it to me. I liked the convenience of bringing our own vehicle with us.

the ultimate road tripping van

Making memories as a family can and should be fun. We had a great trip and didn’t sacrifice our savings account to go on it. Whether you’re taking a family vacation or looking for a new family vehicle, take the Toyota Sienna for a ride. You won’t regret it. It was the perfect road tripping vehicle for our family and we’re now saving up for one of our own! I’d even suggest trying to rent one just for a trip if you can. It’s a roomier, nicer ride than what we currently own and we just loved it!

If you want to hear more about the Toyota Sienna, head on over to my Instagram @justinalayne and click on the highlights labeled “my wheels” to check out even more! Where do you vacation? What are some of your budget friendly tips?



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  1. 7.12.18
    Tamra said:

    Great pictures, looks like everyone had a wonderful time!

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