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Smart Money Podcast – Group Vacations: Affordable Accommodations, Cost-Splitting and Embracing Flexibility

by Staff

Welcome to NerdWallet’s Smart Money podcast, where we answer your real-world money questions. In this episode:

Discover tips and get answers to common questions for smooth group travel, from choosing accommodations to managing meals and costs for a successful trip.

How can you find the perfect accommodations for group travel without overspending? How can you split group expenses fairly? NerdWallet’s Megan Coyle and Megan Lee discuss the ins and outs of group travel accommodations and the logistics of planning a group trip to help you understand how to orchestrate a seamless group vacation experience. They begin with a discussion of lodging options, with tips and tricks on selecting cost-effective stays, balancing the convenience of hotels against the charm of vacation rentals, and splitting costs to prevent financial surprises. Then, they discuss orchestrating meals for large parties, managing group dynamics by rewarding those who take the lead, and crafting memorable group activities that cater to everyone’s interests.

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Episode transcript

This transcript was generated from podcast audio by an AI tool.

You’ve got a group of friends or family and you all want to go on vacation together, but where to stay? Today we continue our series on group travel by asking what are the best, most cost-effective ways to put a roof over everyone’s heads.

It would really depend on the type of location and the type of experience that you are going after. So if you’re staying in a big city, it might actually make more sense to stay in a hotel room where you walk out your front door and you have access to all the urban amenities and adventures that are right there. Whereas if you’re looking to get away from the crowd, you might be more interested in that Airbnb option.

Welcome to NerdWallet’s Smart Money Podcast. I’m Sean Pyles.

This episode continues our Nerdy deep dive into group travel in all its glories and frustrations. Meghan, honestly, when I think of group vacations, I have two main questions. One, where on earth is everyone going to stay? And two, what are we going to do the whole time? I suppose that second one is easier to answer if you’re doing a group trip to, say, Paris.

Yeah, it’s pretty easy to find things to do in Paris. But Sean, even if you’re camping in the woods or hanging in a cabin at the coast, sometimes where you stay is the attraction itself. We’re going to explore all the various options available to you for lodging if you’re with a group. From hotels to Airbnb, Vrbo, and other vacation rentals, if you’ve got questions about where exactly to park 20 people for some overnights, we’ve got answers.

And hopefully without spending a fortune.

Absolutely. There’s a lot you can do to travel on a budget with a group, and we’ll talk about how to split up some of those costs so nobody gets stuck with an unexpected big bill.

All right. Well, listener, we want to hear your thoughts about group travel. Are you organizing a trip for a bunch of friends? How are you going about it? And what questions do you have? Leave us a voicemail or text the Nerd hotline at (901) 730-6373. That’s (901) 730-NERD, or email a voice memo to [email protected]. So Meghan, who do we hear from today?

Today we’re going to hear from Megan, not me Meghan, but I’ll be talking with my fellow Nerd, Megan Lee, who also covers travel.

All right. Well, we will be back in a minute. Stay with us.

Welcome, Megan Lee, to the show. Thanks for being here.

Great to be here, Meghan.

The two Meg(h)ans on this travel miniseries. So let’s kick off with who do you usually travel with?

So I’m pretty lucky that I’ve kept in touch with a lot of friends that I’ve made over the years, so I have a really strong group of friends from high school that I do a lot of traveling with. My college friends like to get together about once a year, and then I’ve picked up a couple of randos along the way, and so it’s not unusual for me to make plans with some friends from when I lived in California or lived abroad in China. And then of course I love to travel with my family. We’re pretty lucky that we’re able to go on group trips and not necessarily want to rip each other’s heads off too much.

Generally speaking, we try to do a vacation rental. It’s nice to have everyone spend that downtime together, but if the occasion calls for it, when we went to Disney a few years ago, we definitely stayed at a Disney property and just all booked our own hotel rooms. And I’ll be honest, it was kind of nice to have a little more alone time, just to unwind from a very stimulating, busy day. But in general, I do tend to first look to Vrbo and Airbnb before I look to a hotel.

Is there any cost consideration in terms of whether hotels or Airbnbs or any kind of vacation rental might be cheaper for groups?

Airbnbs tend to be cheaper for at least stays of a week or more, and if you’re in a bigger group, I do find that being able to all stay in a single property and divvy up the costs and that cleaning fee tends to make it much more stomachable. But for shorter stays, hotels are great and of course they give you that privacy that you’re looking for, and they tend to have more on-site services than an Airbnb, where it’s much more self-serve. So it really just depends on what type of lodging will give you the type of experience that you’re looking for at the price point that you’re comfortable with.

Let’s start with hotels then. I know that they’re not as common for a big group to share, but they can be really useful in some situations. So what are some examples of trips that you might look into a hotel to house everyone?

It would really depend on the type of location and the type of experience that you are going after. So if you’re staying in a big city, it might actually make more sense to stay in a hotel room where you walk out your front door and you have access to all the urban amenities and adventures that are right there, whereas if you’re looking to get away from the crowd, you might be more interested in that Airbnb option. And I know that booking multiple hotel rooms can be expensive, but there are different configurations that you can consider like a suite or a two-bedroom that can help multiple family units or multiple couples be able to share and really divvy those costs up.

Another trick that I’ve heard people use, I haven’t tried this myself, but there are times that hotels will offer a timeshare room, and if they have overlap or if they have extra inventory, you’ll be able to book that bigger room through a major hotel chain but save the money of not necessarily participating in the timeshare program. And that can really unlock access to a lot of rooms that are much bigger and more configurable to accommodate a large group.

I also think that depending on how flexible your group travel members are, being able to sleep on a sofa bed or a rollaway bed can be a good option. And there are hotels with bunk beds, which I know is always a hit with a lot of little kiddos. In general, we try to, like when we went on a Disney cruise a few years ago, my friends and I all sat down and we looked at what block of rooms that we wanted to stay in and we all booked them simultaneously so that we could be neighbors, but I don’t think that necessarily works for every single hotel booking or room booking. And so as long as you get the right dates in the right place, I think it makes a lot of sense to just have every family book the accommodations at the location that fits their needs. And then you don’t even need to worry necessarily about splitting costs. Everyone can self-serve and then you’ll all be in the central location and go from there.

Now let’s switch over to vacation rentals. What are some considerations people should keep in mind when they’re looking for the perfect vacation rental for their group?

Gosh. For me, one of the biggest things that I consider is how many bathrooms are in the location. I stayed in a group Airbnb a few years ago and there was only one bathroom, and that just made every morning a bit of a struggle. So I would definitely say to consider the number of bathrooms and not only the number of bedrooms. And with different vacation rental platforms, they’ll usually include numbers about how many people can sleep here, but you really want to dig a little deeper because sometimes it’ll say yes, it can accommodate six, but then when you look, it’s like there’s one bed and there’s four… I don’t know. Maybe they get creative, like four couches. And so if that doesn’t work for your group, then you probably don’t want to book that.

Another thing that I think about is parking. Depending on if you’re all driving to a location or if you’re flying and picking up rental cars, not every Airbnb or Vrbo will have space for 16 cars, so you might as well be keeping an eye on what the parking situation looks like ahead of booking. Common spaces are important. Having spaces where kids can be kids, because they’re going to want to run around and be loud. Put them in the basement, great. Go hang out with the pool table, whatever have you. But similarly, you want spaces where adults can be loud and having fun too, so we really try to make sure that there are upstairs or downstairs accommodations that littler kids can go sleep in so that anyone on the main level can have a later bedtime and not necessarily need to have quiet hours that start at 9:00 PM.

Accessibility is a big one. If you’re staying with seniors or anyone who has any accessibility issues, you probably don’t want to stay in a treehouse that you have to climb a bunch of stairs for. These are all the things that I think about. It really just depends on the makeup of the group that you’re traveling with.

That is so cool that you called out having different spaces for different generations, essentially. It reminds me of being on a cruise where they have a kids’ club, areas where adults can hang out on their own. I never thought of doing that for a vacation rental where there is more space to make those separate.

It’s more fun for everyone, I feel like, you know?

Do you have any tips for feeding everyone? This part gives me so much stress when I’m on a group trip and I’m trying to find a recipe that’s easy to make for everyone or trying to find some place that can cater for as many people as I have over. What are your tips for feeding a group?

So I would say divide and conquer. If you have somebody who’s taking charge on booking the Airbnb site, which as an aside, that person should totally get the best room in the house. But anywho, if you have a similar person who’s taking point on food, what I like to do is have every party volunteer to basically host or lead a meal. So let’s say we’re getting in on Friday night, we’re not going to do a group dinner on Friday because people are coming in at their own time, but then Saturday morning brunch or Saturday morning breakfast, lunch, dinner, Sunday breakfast. Assign that meal to somebody in your group and have them be responsible for sending in whatever ingredients that they need so that a single person can be going to the grocery store to buy all the different food and ingredients that the whole group needs for the weekend.

And you can also be asking the group for ideas of snacks or community drinks, et cetera, et cetera. Just really trying to not put the onus of solving all the meals on a single person, even though you can have a single person who is responsible for doing the shopping, etc. And that really actually limits the need to collect receipts from a million people or be hounding, “Oh, input your grocery trip to the Splitwise app.” So I find that that typically works really well. I’m a big fan of picnics, and Mexican food is always a real hit. Grilling out. Making sure that you are accommodating the allergies or any other sensitivities in your group, but it doesn’t need to be the most creative meal of your life. It just needs to be tasty. Get some cheese puffs. Make it work.

I’ve also learned more is better than not enough. Whenever they’re like, “Oh, I might like this snack,” I just go ahead and get it anyway, just in case. The worst thing is being stuck in a vacation rental and there are no snacks.

How do you split those expenses for groceries? You mentioned that having a point person can help reduce the number of receipts you’re trying to keep track of, but also you have to split the cost of the lodging and maybe other activities that you book as a group. Is there an easy way to split those things?

We’re big fans of the app Splitwise. At least when I’m traveling with my peers, we all kind of “speak” online payments and uploading costs and none of this is a very big lift for my friends to manage. And everyone makes a judgment call of, “I bought $50 worth of snacks that I know are for my kid because my kid is particularly picky about this thing,” or, “I know that I really need salt and vinegar chips and no one else is going to eat them,” whatever have you. We try not to scrutinize the budget per se. Just have a good faith that everyone will be asking for reimbursement for what makes sense and not taking advantage of everyone’s generosity. That said, for traveling with my family, it’s like the wild west. I honestly couldn’t even tell you how it gets done. I just hope that I pay who I’m supposed to and no one’s grumpy about it, but who can say?

The other thing I’ll say is that when it comes to charging for lodging, I think that a per-room cost or a per-night cost can really help alleviate anyone coming and going early so that they’re primarily paying for the nights that they’re staying. But I also think it’s important to get buy-in from the group about that flexibility because sometimes it can be a bummer to suddenly have an extra charge because somebody decided to leave early or is suddenly coming in late. From my perspective, being in communication and getting everyone’s buy-in at every step of the way as budget and expenses change can really help mitigate the stress of unexpected bills at the end of a trip.

Tell us more about this big group trip that you are currently planning.

Gosh, where to begin? I have this wonderful, wonderful community in Colorado where I used to live in Fort Collins on the front range, and we just love spending time together and playing outside and being silly. So this summer we are throwing ourselves what we’re calling FoCo Friend Camp. It’s going to be a three-day weekend in the mountains. We’re just going to be camping in the backyard of a friend of ours who lives in Lyons, Colorado. As of right now, we’re planning on having everyone arrive in time for a cookout on Friday night and a talent show around the bonfire. Saturday is going to be probably breakfast burritos, something hearty and then some free time for the day, just so everyone can choose their own adventure. We have some mountain bikers, some hikers, some people who just want to hang out and chit chat or just walk around the property. It’s really beautiful, like most of Colorado,

We’ll give everyone enough free time that they feel like they get to have the experiences that they want while we’re around, and then that night we’ll come back together. Who knows what we’ll get up to? Maybe some color wars or some sort of organized fun just because it can be fun to play games and have a little competition. And then Sunday morning we’ll do a big brunch before everyone heading out. So it’s quite the experience. I think there’s 75 people on the invite list. It’s going to be-

Yes, so wish me luck as I coordinate this.

Oh my gosh. Good luck. Yes. What are you doing to keep track of all of those people and all of the logistics of where these people are going to stay?

Everyone will get themselves there. Everyone will figure out their own rental cars. If they want to collaborate with somebody else who’s traveling in to try to coordinate on that rental, great. We’re not facilitating any of that. We’ll probably do some flat fee for like a hundred dollars, we’ll get you your food for the weekend and we’ll also be pitching in for toilet paper or anything that might be taxed on the home that we’re staying in. But otherwise, people are bringing their tents and their Sprinter vans. It’s really on everyone who wants to come to coordinate those pieces and we’ll just hang out in the backyard and have a good time.

Oh, that sounds like so much fun. What are your tips for keeping people entertained in general? I think the 75-person trip is a different sort of beast, but even with smaller groups, I think you were a camp counselor in a former life, so tell us some of your tricks for getting people engaged and hanging out with each other.

This is my style, and this probably speaks more to the kinds of people I hang out with, but I think it’s really important to just make space for silliness and being fun and trying to let go of the… We all have busy lives, we all have responsibilities, we have a lot going on, and it’s nice to let some of that go when you can be really present and just hang out together. So I say that because some of my favorite activities that I’ve done on group trips are, my friends and I really like to go play miniature golf, but we do it where the first person does a weird way to hit the ball and then everyone has to try to hit the ball the way that person first did. So there’s lots of laying on your back doing spins and trying to hit the ball, and we just crack up the whole time. It’s always hilarious.

If you’re staying at your Airbnb or your hotel, I think it’s helpful to bring an HDMI cord so that you can connect your laptop to the TV itself. That way you can stream exactly what you want or put on the music that you want. Bringing board games, playing card games. With my college friends, we like to play some of our old favorite party games, drinking games. With my high school friends, we’ve done Disney trips and exploring a new city together. So it depends on, is the goal of the trip to just spend time together and hang out at home? Then you’ll want to bring more stuff to do at the lodging or maybe even pick lodging that has a lot of built-in amenities. Maybe a pool or it’s on the beach or it has a bonfire ring in the backyard.

But if you’re there to explore a city, then maybe you have a lighter amenity in your lodging, but you can walk out your door and there’s museums and parks and bike trails and things to try. And then, yeah, I do want to give a shout-out to the game Nature Toss, which is something that my friends and I invented where we stood on the back porch of our rental house and we just tossed sticks at another big stick. And the closer your stick got, the more points you got. It was a really good time. So I don’t know, make time for silliness. That’s the headline.

It’s like your own version of shuffleboard or bocce ball or something like that. I love it.

But you can play it anywhere.

You can play it anywhere. You can toss all the kinds of nature.

All right. Any final advice for people who are planning their own group trips coming up and they are looking at where to stay and what to do?

Having the hard conversation up front about budget expectations will really set you up for a lot of freedom and a lot less heartache as the planning comes together. If you know that different members of your party are able to spend at different price points, being able to try to flex in different directions such that everyone feels comfortable, but no one feels like they have to do everything. You might have somebody who’s like, “Yeah, I don’t really want to spend a bunch of money on fancy food or alcohol.” That’s fine. Come and hang out and hang out when you can, but don’t necessarily only cop to the person who has maybe the least interest in doing activities that cost money, because that means it could be a sacrifice for those who want to spend a little bit more money. And so I think being honest about your budget and then also creating an environment where it’s okay if we don’t do everything together will really allow people to create the experience that they want.

My friends and I often are racing to get the bill for a group dinner because we all want to get the credit card points. So if you are a traveler who also likes to earn points and miles, be like me and offer to put that big Airbnb on your credit card so you can reap the benefits. And then you get the best room if your friends are down with you booking the accommodations and giving you the sweet spot. And overall, I think a lot of people feel maybe intimidated by the concept of a group trip, but the more you do it, the more reps you get in, the more you build your comfort and travel style with your friends. And it’s just easier to fix. It’s easier to improve the overall experience for the group after you’ve done it once, because then you’re not dealing with theoreticals. You have real experience to point to and be like, “Oh, we didn’t really like all sharing a bedroom, so next time, let’s make sure we all get our own room.” And that’s so helpful to know, and it will make future trips go all the smoother.

I love that. To more group trips in the future. They can always get better and more affordable. All those things. Megan, thank you so much for joining us today and good luck with your trip to Colorado.

Thanks. Thanks everyone, and happy spending. Happy traveling.

So Meghan, my big takeaway from your conversation with Megan is flexibility. No matter what kind of lodging you want, what kinds of meals you want, or what kind of group you’re traveling with, build in flexibility so you can enjoy your trip and not spend too much time poring over receipts and counting every last penny.

That’s a theme in all of travel. If you want to book cheaper trips, be flexible with your travel dates. If you want to get the most out of your points and miles, you usually want to earn as many transferable points as you can so you’re not locked into one loyalty program, so it’s cool to see how you can apply flexibility to booking lodging as well.

So Meghan, tell us what’s coming up in episode three of the series.

Well, Sean, no matter where you stay, you’re probably going to need some transportation for this group vacation, unless you’re on a cruise, which we’ll talk about in a couple of weeks. Next episode, we’re covering rental cars, trains, RVs and public transit, all the transit.

So you do want to make sure that everyone in your group will fit. You also need to account for that luggage. Who of your friends are the over-packers who bring forward rolling suitcases, make sure that all of that can fit?

For now, that’s all we have for this episode. Do you have a money question of your own? Turn to the Nerds and call or text us your questions at (901) 730-6373. That’s (901) 730-NERD. You can also email us at [email protected]. Also, visit nerdwallet.com/podcast for more info on this episode. And remember to follow, rate, and review us wherever you’re getting this podcast.

This episode was produced by Tess Vigeland. I helped with editing. Kevin Berry helped with fact-checking. Sara Brink mixed our audio. And a big thank you to NerdWallet’s editors for all their help.

And here’s our brief disclaimer. We are not financial or investment advisors. This nerdy info is provided for general educational and entertainment purposes and may not apply to your specific circumstances.

And with that said, until next time, turn into the Nerds.

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