Off-Season Travel Hacking for Families on a Budget

Even before I became a parent, I just wanted a fun but low-key New Year’s Eve focused on experiences rather than getting wasted in a bar and spending a small fortune on overpriced drinks.

I lived in New York City for 11-years right after college and forged a career as a freelance video editor and writer. And spending New Year’s Eve in Times Square was definitely the year’s end accumulation of amateur hour where swelling crowds crammed together in the cold and waited for hours, trying not to pee on themselves, and sneaking drinks under their jackets.

Another popular option for locals was eating insanely expensive, prix fixe, four-course dinners that charged a premium for a tiny dessert, New Year’s Eve hat and glass of champagne. I went home broke, exhausted and not very entertained for an expensive night out.

Nope. Not for me.

Hidden Pubs and Champagne Celebrations

Instead, my most memorable New Year’s was spending a few hours at a friend’s apartment who abhorred venturing out into the city on New Year’s Eve herself. She was content to stay in, order take-out and do whatever suited her fancy from doing the dishes to reading. We left her to her celebration refusal just before midnight, and found a tiny bar on the Upper West Side we had never noticed before. We ordered several glasses of champagne and a chocolate souffle; content to settle in for the night.

The jubilant staff was in the middle of a private celebration and were completely sauced. We asked what was going on. At the stroke of midnight, one of the bartenders would be the new owner of the bar and usher in a new era for the business.

We watched the staff celebrate like no one was watching until midnight passed, and my husband and I quietly said a cheers and shared a passionate kiss. Ten minutes later, the staff realized it was already a fresh new year, and decided to do the count-down right then followed by cheers and applause. By then, they had taken us in as honorary staff and continued filling our glasses to the brim with champagne. And when it was time to go home at around 2 a.m., the bartender put down a bill charging us $20 instead of the $75 we likely owed.

“Don’t worry about it,” he told us and gave a wave of his hand before disappearing into the kitchen.

New Year’s for Parents

Our early New York days are behind us; and now that we’re parents, our spontaneous nights out in Atlanta are few and far in between. And that’s just fine with us. Instead, we focus on treasured moments of quiet and conversation when it’s just the two of us. And when we’re celebrating with the kids, we focus on sharing experiences that last a lifetime. I’ve found there are very few things that bond a family together like travel.

It never occurred to me to take a family vacation on New Year’s Eve until the Panama City Beach tourism board sent a media invite to a family travel website I work with. My editor asked if I wanted to go and cover it for an upcoming story. I jumped at the chance to do something totally different and unique for the holiday.

A Chilly Beach & Spontaneous Explorations

So off we went with visions of warm breezes and beach side views. It poured the entire drive down and we arrived exhausted. But it was well worth it. Our room at the Wyndham Vacation Resorts Panama City Beach faced the shoreline and we could hear the waves crashing from ten stories up. The resort was set up like a condo and had a separate bedroom for Mom and Dad, plus a small alcove with bunk beds and separate bathroom for the kids.

My daughter, then a newly minted 4-year-old, wanted to immediately explore the property. We found a game room and despite telling her that her chances were slim to none of winning a stuffed animal at the claw machine game, she won. Not one, not two, but THREE at once. Unfortunately, she expected those same results again, and was pretty pissed off she could never replicate her success.

Our baby was then 6-months-old, and just wanted to scoot around on the carpet, look out the windows and eat wet sand at the beach while we tried to pry it out of his chubby hands. He got his wish. Panama City Beach for New Year’s certainly isn’t sunny and warm like a traditional beach side vacation. But it was warm enough one day to venture into the water and slip into warm clothes immediately afterwards.

On days where it was too chilly to dive into the ocean; we ventured along the loop in Panama City Beach full of mini golf, Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, Wonderworks, go-karting, and Gulf World Marine Park. We braved Wonderworks, and all of us suffered from sensory overload and games designed for much older kids. But ultimately my kids were more interested in the condo and playing with new Christmas toys than venturing into the attractions.

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Dropping 10,000 Inflatable Beach Balls

Panama City Beach’s crowning attraction is the beach ball drop at 8 p.m. designed with kids in mind. On New Year’s Eve, the streets around the shopping complex of Pier Park are closed off for pedestrian traffic and set up for live entertainment, games, a drop of 10,000 inflatable beach balls and New Year’s Eve fireworks.

My kids were dazzled by the activity, and my husband and I had that quintessential and spontaneous New Year’s Eve we were looking for. Lights, magic fun and totally unexpected adventures were all checked off our wish list.

Off-Season Travel Makes a Fun & Frugal Family Vacation

Although the tourism board compensated our trip, a trip to Florida during New Year’s can be cost effective, frugal and fun. Choose off-season locations looking to attract locals for a quick getaway and New Year’s Eve savings. For example, you’ll have an easier time finding seasonal discounts in Clearwater or Jacksonville, Florida than South Beach in Miami where night life is part of the lifeblood and culture of the city.

Of course, your vacation to Florida’s resort towns will look totally different in peak season during the summer than in the sleep wintertime. So if you want the same experience, you’re better of choosing a more traditional New Year’s Eve celebration location whether a party town like New Orleans or snow covered mountaintop village like Telluride. But you’ll pay a premium for those things.

But here’s the thing. I grew up in the Atlanta area, and Florida on spring break and summer was like watching an episode of MTV Spring Break circa 2005. That’s the last kind of experience I wanted with my family on New Year’s. The area has changed dramatically over the years, and works to accommodate more family and luxury travelers alike. And I found myself right at home on the beach on New Year’s Eve. There were enough people around to make it feel like a party, but the scores of tourists who cram in on summer weekends were absent. It was perfect.

New Year’s Eve Travel Discounts

A trip to Florida on New Year’s comes with an attractive price tag for family travelers. Panama City Beach has a wide range of budget and luxury hotels that will drop their prices during their off-season to attract tourists. The area is known for its vast array of beach front lodging at plenty of price points anyone can choose from. And the more hotels and vacation condos means more competition for your hard-earned dollars.

During New Year’s and off-season travel, you can expect 50% or more discounts on hotels and area lodging. And while you’ll find popular restaurants like the Saltwater Grill are crowded with locals; mass tourism clogging the streets and tucked away eateries are absent.

Unexpected Memories

Traveling anywhere with your whole family isn’t just a bonus, but often a necessity. But that doesn’t mean you have to compromise on memories made.

Here’s what my daughter remembers about our magical New Year’s Eve trip to Panama City Beach. She got to spend about $5 a day in the game room and happily plug in quarters and win erasers, stuffed animals and pencils from machines. The Wyndham also hosts a movie rental kiosk where she could slip in a token and retrieve a movie of her choice. On rainy days, we swam in the indoor pool or made a trip to Target to pick-out a special snack, grab a Starbucks or chose a small toy as a memento of the trip in place of a souvenir. But mostly she remembers her special bunk beds in her very own little room and view of the ocean.

What I remember is watching my 4-year-old drag her 6-month-old brother around by the feet, making him squeal in delight. It was the first time I witnessed her intentionally try to play with him, and the realization on her face of what it meant to be a big sister shone through.

That’s when it struck me. Those exhausting, foggy days of mothering an infant plus threenager phase was over. I could finally see the sparkling, silver linings of what it meant to be a family complete; enjoying each other’s company on our first family vacation together…