I am just catching my breath after a string of Jewish holidays that lasted nearly a month, and afforded quite a lot of in-between days that are commonly used for family outings. As a family living on a budget, we almost always choose to avoid any sort of entertainment one must pay for (be it amusement parks, zoos, petting zoos, or even the swimming pool).
There are more than enough places, we have found out, that we can visit, and pleasantly spend our time in, without paying a thing, or paying very little: beaches, parks, historical sites, farms that encourage visitors without charging a fee, and so forth. Furthermore, we take advantage of having many friends who farm or homestead, and visit them (and, of course, invite them to visit us in return).
The price of gas, naturally, is a consideration as well. There are some lovely places that open their gates to the public for free, but as they are so far from us, just the ride there and back is pricey. We focus, therefore, on our area, and always find something new to explore. You should try it as well.
If you have family or friends who have gone out on vacation themselves, and left an empty house, they might allow you to stay in their place for free (and will sometimes be quite happy with the arrangement, if you throw some pet-sitting or watering the plants into the bargain). This gives you a whole new area to explore, with a convenient, free base.
Another expense that people often don’t think of is eating out. When you go somewhere, after a couple of hours naturally you will begin to feel peckish. This is even truer for children, who seem to become insatiably hungry the moment they are strapped to the car seat. So make sure to pack up healthy snacks for the ride, a nutritious lunch for the whole family, and a big bottle of water. Ideas for non-mess food: egg and/or tuna sandwiches, cold pasta, sliced fruits and vegetables, cold sliced quiches, hard-boiled eggs, a trail mix of nuts and raisins, and salads with stuff like lentils, quinoa or beans will keep you going for a long time.
Vacationing and family outings in general don’t need to be budget-breakers. Just try it and see for yourself!