Parenting: Wanna' get away?

It's a Murphy kid during an autumn vacation, enjoying a break from school.

David Murphy says if you can stand to take the kids out of school for a week, off-season family vacations are a lot cheaper.
October 19, 2011 7:26:35 AM PDT
In the Murphy family, school has always been important. Homework trumps hanging out with friends. Bad grades lead to teacher conferences and extra attention to studies at home. But we also value family time, especially when it comes to vacation memories and this has led to some occasional compromises.

When the kids were young, we took them out of school one week every year to go somewhere. Initially, I was afraid of their teachers' reactions, but to a person, instructors were always supportive because they believed in the value of special family excursions, especially when a visit with cousins or grandparents was involved. Often, the trips took on an educational flair when we included a national park in the itinerary, another reason teachers tended to be supportive. Missed lessons were noted and assignments completed upon our return. In fact, that was part of the bargain we made with our kids: you miss a week of school, but you have to agree to some extra work when you get back. Fortunately, we had pretty fair students, which made it easier to pull the trigger on these trips.

Off-season reasons

The incentives for using a week in, say, October or March were multiple. First of all, it was a nice reward for the kids to have a special week away from their usual duties, particularly if they were keeping up with their studies. Secondly, off-season travel is far less expensive, meaning we could stretch our vacation dollars to reach more interesting and exotic destinations than we could afford to see in the busy (and pricier) summer. Finally, vacation destinations are less-crowded and more fun to visit when the summer crowds aren't there.

I kept a tally of airfares back in August to various vacation cities and just compared them to an arbitrary upcoming vacation period from Saturday to Saturday, November 12 to 19. In some cases, the difference in fares was marginal. From Philadelphia to Orlando, for example, a leading travel booking website offered non-stop flights at between $275 and $300 back in late summer. November fares are running between $223 and $272, depending on what time of day you're willing to fly. This represents a savings, but not very substantial unless you're travelling with a big family.

Other destinations, however, are now sharply discounted. Care to take the kids to Disneyland? Flights to Los Angeles are $475 in November compared to $762 last August. San Francisco has plunged to as little as $418, down from $968 a couple of months ago. Is your family into skiing or wildlife-watching? Denver plane tickets are $332 next month compared to $403 in August. A flight to the Arizona desert is off more than $100 (Philadelphia to Phoenix comes in at $392 next month as opposed to $476 at summer's end). Again, the cheaper fares mostly involve either very early or late day flights.

Sleep cheap?

Hotels are a mixed bag. Disney World considers November a lower season (outside of Thanksgiving week) and rack prices at company hotels are a bit cheaper ($30-$50 less per night in the deluxe category). It's advisable to check-out websites like for help with finding discount deals. In Los Angeles, however, a Hollywood hotel I stayed in last summer is listing virtually the same price for November, and whether you save probably depends on how hard you're willing to shop around.

Gas is almost always cheaper outside of the summer travel season and this year is no different with prices off anywhere from 20 to 30 cents a gallon from summer highs, so if you're driving somewhere or renting a car, you'll save a few dollars there.

Pick your spots

The off-season travel idea is not evergreen, however. It works best when the kids are younger. Once they hit seventh and especially eighth grade, it's less advisable to take them out of school because prospective high schools will be focused on their grades from these years, and your students' performance will be more important. We tended not to take the kids out during high school (in particular, 11th and 12th grades) for the same reason. The ante is upped substantially, what with college admissions officers keeping a close eye on grade-point-averages from those later terms.

---David Murphy

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