Have you ever been on a vacation with your parents, your family and your kids? Was it crazy expensive? Did you feel like you spent the entire time trying to coordinate a meet up and barely got a chance to enjoy yourself?
Did you need a vacation from your vacation by the time you got back? Did you spend a small fortune to run around exhausting yourself? I know your pain! We’ve done that a few times ourselves!
But, there’s one vacation that we take every year where that’s NEVER a problem. In fact, I’m writing this post from a breezy sunny balcony overlooking the pool and ocean. I have a budget of $350 for 7 days here and so far I’m way under budget.
My kids have vacation babysitters who are wearing them out for an early bedtime, and in a little while, when the sun starts to go down, my husband and I will take off, just the two of us for a sunset run on the beach. (Well, he’ll run… I’ll awkwardly jog like a drunken platypus but half credit for trying).
THIS IS THE BEST VACATION EVER.
How is this happening? I’ll explain the basic idea and then get into a lot of details at the bottom of the post to make it easy for you to implement for your family. Every summer, between 60 and 80 members of my extended family (and a few friends that we’ve adopted as family) descend onto the Mark I Motel in Wildwood Crest, NJ for our beach vacation. We take up every room at the little mom and pop motel and settle in for the best week of our lives.
My Aunt Donna and Uncle Gerry coordinate and cook the most AMAZING menu for all of us (including homemade mozzarella!), using the kitchens of 6 different rooms. We wake up every morning to my Uncle Jeff making us bacon egg and cheese sandwiches. The food here is absolutely amazing and costs each person only $110 for the full vacation (9 days), which averages out to be $12.22 per day.
This unique vacation was started 20 years ago with a “small group” of 25 members of the family and became a special tradition that grew and grew every year. As kids grew up, got married and had their own kids our family grew, and this year we’ll have just shy of 80 people!
Why this works so well for us:
- It’s super cheap! By cooking in bulk for so many people, the cost of the food is extremely reasonable. This is the cheapest vacation we’ve taken. Our budget includes $50 for fuel to drive here and back, $55 for a ferry ride, $210 for food, and $35 for entertainment, for things like the boardwalk and souvenirs.
- Thanks to my super generous parents, whose room is “apartment style” that sleeps 6, we were able to room with them for free this year. Even if you purchase your own room though, a vacation like this is still a bargain because of the food savings.
- Everyone has fun! Kids, young adults, moms, dads, and grandparents all look forward to the shore trip. With 80 people that you’ve known for years, there is always someone for you to hang out with. The 13-year-olds hole up in a room and play Xbox, the 7-year-olds spend 12 hours straight in the pool, the 17-year-olds hang on the beach or boardwalk, the adults read books by the pool. It’s multi-generational bliss.
- No more hassles coordinating large groups! If you’ve ever tried to take 10 people of different ages to a restaurant, you know what I mean. Coordinating events for large groups is a pain in the rear. This is the opposite, it’s like a summer camp for families. Everyone is here but they come and go as they please.
- Lots of babysitters! If you have little guys, you have TONS of people willing to lend a hand with kids! Since they’re family, they’re actually excited to hang with your kids for free!
- Quality time. You get to see your family in the relaxed moments, not just at dinners. Pool side chit chat, talking smack to Grandpa while you play left center right (which can be played with dollar bills), cheering on your cousins when you play volley ball. You get to see your family not just in an event setting, but essentially living with everyone for a week. Plus having the meals served outside draws everyone together three times a day.
- AMAZING FOOD. I mean seriously, amazing food. Granted, Donna and Gerry are like word class chefs. You can’t get better food in a restaurant but I bet your family has some pretty amazing cooks as well.
- The best vacation of your life! It’s so relaxing, rejuvenating, and refreshing. It’s kind of like summer camp for your whole family. It’s just awesome. (I can’t say that enough!)
What you need to pull this off:
- A great motel. You want a clean motel, with a pool, that’s very close to the ocean (close enough that older kids can walk there on their own), free ice, and a generous policy for what you plan to do (having everyone eat outside near the pool). You’ll need a full size fridge/freezer in at least some of the rooms, ovens in at least some of the rooms (we use 6 to store food and cook), and seating to eat/hang out outside of the rooms.
- A motivated and dedicated core group of vacationers. This likely isn’t something that you do the first year and master. This will take a bit to work out the kinks and get going. You’ll need a core group of your family that’s excited about the idea and dedicated to making it work. Like the saying goes, if you build it, they will come… As you get used to doing it and make it better and better… it will grow and grow. More family members will sign on, then friends etc.
- Someone that loves to cook and someone that loves to organize. If you can get those two people and have them be married or living close together, you have a great possibility of having world class food for this.
- A designated deep freezer. You’ll need a deep freezer to store all of the prepared food before you arrive.
The Mark I has a ring of chairs around the motel, as well as additional seating in the pool area. They also have a coin operated washer dryer available. Hint: Washing, drying and folding 9 days of laundry while you sip iced tea pool side is TOTALLY worth the $8 in coins that it will cost you and you’ll go home to having no dirty laundry!
What we spend our vacation doing:
- Games like Left Right Center
- Volleyball on the beach (there’s a net right next to the motel)
- Frisbee and kite flying on the beach
- Going to the boardwalk (rides, games, shopping). With 80 people here, you almost always run into people you know on the boardwalk.
- Ocean swimming, and pool swimming plus boogie boarding and body surfing.
- Mini golf, monster truck riding, zip lining and helicopter rides at the board walk.
- Parasailing for the brave.
- A free zoo that puts most paid zoos to shame.
- A day trip to Atlantic City for the gamblers.
- Fireworks on the beach and movies on the beach.
- A whole lot of hanging around, talking, and reading.
- Xbox hooked up to the TV.
- The boat ride (ferry) over if you’re coming from south of Delaware. Technically, this is a mode of transportation but my “almost 3 year old” thinks this is the highlight of the trip.
8 Steps to plan this type of vacation yourself:
- Start planning early. Donna and Gerry start planning in March for our July trip.
- Choose your core people. Who will likely want to come the first year?
- Choose who will organize and cook. If this is a husband/wife team even better!
- Choose your location and book your rooms. We book a year in advance at the Mark I! If you want to head there, Mothers Day to June 1st and the last week of August to the last week of September has more openings. You can try during the busy season, but places with a loyal following like this fill up really quickly and rarely have cancellations.
- Get an idea of how many people your core group will be bringing. This will just be a ball park amount that you can finalize later.
- Create a menu. For the first year keep it simple. Freezer cooking is the way to go! Check out Not Your Mothers Make-Ahead Freezer Cookbook for freezer cooking ideas.
- My favorites are macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, chicken parmesan, garlic bread, marinated london broil, baked ziti and meat balls, lasagna, and stromboli (Can you tell we’re Italian?). All of this is made ahead of time and frozen in foil freezer pans with tops, and dated. For larger groups, make sure you have variety; a simple pasta and sauce will appease picky eaters who aren’t ready for chicken Parmesan. We even have a vegetarian that can eat well for the week. Have side dishes like salads and vegetables. Try to aim for big dinners with smaller lunches so you can add your leftovers to lunch. I just ate lunch here, and we had chicken parmesan, beef spare ribs, london broil, egg plant parmesan, quesadillas, and buttered hard rolls. That’s the leftovers from last nights dinner combined with quesadillas with lunch.
- Get organized. Plan for how many people you’ll have, decide how much food you need, and start watching sales, grab food on sale and prep and freeze it as it comes. Also, look for sales on large coolers!
- Create a plan. A plan for what you need to buy, how much it will cost, and then try to beat your best prices. Look into resources for caterers since that’s basically what you’ll be doing. Places like Restaurant Depot, Sysco, and Costco. Work the sales… when chicken goes on sale and when soda goes on sale, clean them out! Consider investing in a catering book and a freezer cooking book to give you the blueprint to be successful in this.
- Hint: Once a Month Meals creates freezer cooking plans that you can adjust for how many people you’ll be feeding. At $19 for a month of service, this is a steal for the amount of work it saves you! I use this for our home freezer cooking. They do the shopping lists, labels, instructions (to save time) and scale recipes. You can check them out here.
Everybody helps… but only a few cook.
Cooking is important! You want the same people cooking year after year, because they’ll have the skills needed to pull this off. They will essentially have the skills of an amazing caterer when this gets going. Things like food safety are essential, but also the people cooking will have a system and “helping” them in the kitchen will likely cause them more grief then relief. But, that’s not to say that everyone doesn’t contribute.
Some people will wash dishes, some people will organize where food is being stored (we store food in 6 different rooms and serve food out of 2 rooms), some people will use their rooms to serve food, some people will help grabbing food during sales etc. Everyone contributes in some way, but certainly the chef and the organizer will bear the brunt of the work. Consider including a little extra in your food payment to reduce the amount of their vacation rental as appreciation.
Aunt Donna and Uncle Gerry are celebrities at the Jersey Shore for their work. They could ask for a kidney and have 80 people clamoring to give theirs up. You can certainly try to have more cooks to even out the work if you want, but I’m taking it from a very reliable source that this is the best way to accomplish this for a large group.
How much can you save on vacation?
A LOT! Our family of 2 adults and 2 children has an eating out budget of $12 for breakfast, $25 for lunch and $40 for dinner on our other vacations. Over a 9 day vacation, we would spend $693 for food for our family of 4, plus bottled water, sodas and a few snacks. With this vacation, we spend $220 on food and drinks for 9 days, saving us $473 off of our vacation budget.
The best part? Our normal weekly grocery budget that we would spend if we weren’t on vacation is $120/week. So for 9 days, we can actually replace our grocery budget with the vacation food costs, which means that $154 of the $220 would come out of our grocery budget. That Brings our vacation food costs for 9 days to… $76 for 3 people!
Don’t forget drinks!
We have a coffee room set up with a giant carafe of coffee, sugar, sugar substitute and creamers. It runs all morning, so you can grab your breakfast sandwich (they also have a fruit and yogurt parfait station there as well), then grab your coffee.
We line the path around our rooms with coolers filled with drinks. Waters in one cooler, sodas in another. We keep the cartons of drinks stacked up next to the cooler along with an ice bucket, so if someone sees that they’re getting low, they can fill it with drinks, or fill it with ice.
Why you don’t want a beach rental or a hotel:
Motels are really key to a large group function like this. A hotel will never work because there isn’t a central hangout. Here, at the Mark I, everyone has their own space to sleep in, bathrooms etc., but everyone hangs out just outside their doors at the pool and outdoor corridors. Without the proximity to the central location, it would be impossible to have the effortless interaction that we have here.
Dining is also really easy. Even at a beach rental, (unless you’re renting Windsor Castle), housing 80 people, while giving everyone their own space would be impossible. I always thought of motels as kind of run down cheap lodging but the Mark I completely changed my mind on this. I’ve stayed in some incredibly fancy hotels, and the Mark I motel blows them all out of the water.
This place is spotless. I just passed by the owner Chris, spot cleaning concrete by the pool. Everything is so clean and well maintained. I’m not paid to say that either (although I wish I was!). Mark I feels like my home away from home, and the owners Chris and Kathy feel like part of our extended family (my niece is playing with their daughter poolside as I write this). The Mark I just works perfectly for how we vacation.
If you’d love to do this for yourself at the Mark 1, you can book here… but be warned, they’re popular. You’re best chance at openings are from Mothers day to July 1st, then the last week of August to October.
What’s the best vacation that you’ve ever been on?
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