Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Travel Tips: Planning a cheap(er) vacation

Vacations and travel in general just aren't cheap, but there are certain costs you can cut or options you can explore to make seeing the world a bit more affordable.

Trim your food expenses. Food is often the most expensive part of a vacation, and perhaps the one you plan for the least. You go from eating at home most days to eating out for every meal, and that can add up considerably. There are a few steps to take to trim food expenses on the road.
  1. Think of food when picking a place to stay. If possible, book a hotel with a kitchen so you can cook a few meals or pack lunches. It may not be possible or desirable to hoof it back to the hotel every time you get hungry, but if nothing else, eat a large breakfast and bring a couple snacks to get through the day. If you do get hungry (and I realize that many people may get hungrier than me) grab some street food or an appetizer to hold you until dinner. If you find an affordable Bed and Breakfast--take it! Unless you think B&Bs are gross and cutesy (and they can be, but not all are), take advantage of that breakfast. I've stayed at B&Bs in the UK that offered a huge, delicious breakfast that left me stuffed for the rest of the day, for the same price as I would have paid for a regular hotel. Plus B&Bs are cozier.
  2. Shift you meals. Instead of eating three meals a day and spending so much time of your vacation sitting at a table, eat two larger meals and skip lunch. As I mentioned above, you can make a large breakfast in your room, and bring a few granola bars or other snacks along. Depending upon how early you had breakfast, you might even opt for an early dinner and cash in on a deal that way.
Save upfront. Depending upon where you want to go, you have a number of options for whittling down the cost of travel itself.

  1. Travel in the off season. Cruise vacations peak from January-March, but it's just as nice to get away in April. You can often book airfare and the cruise itself for considerably less because they just want to fill the boat. Likewise European travel peaks in August, but if you go over in May or June, it's still quite lovely, cheaper and less congested. Be mindful though when booking a Caribbean getaway that often it's cheap because it's hurricane season--do a little research first.
  2. Consider a stay-cation or a mini break. There are tons of destinations within driving distance of my city, and I don't get large chunks of time off work since I work part-time. I manage to sate my wanderlust by taking short daytrips or overnight stays. This past weekend, we went to the Berkshires, stayed with BF's aunt and uncle and visited one art museum and two author homes. It was a fantastic time, and the biggest expense was gas. Even if we had gone and stayed at a hotel, it would have been very reasonable because we only stayed over one night. When traveling locally also try to find some local deals before you set out. I mentioned before that my area has museum passes that offer free or discounted admission when checked out (for free!) from the library.
  3. Don't neglect your National Parks. I am a huge National Parks nerd, it's true, but they are "America's Best Idea" for a reason. What's better than natural, unspoiled beauty that you can enjoy for practically nothing? I've never met a park ranger who wasn't eager to answer all my questions (no matter how inane) and tell me things I never would have thought of. I'm not a nature girl by any stretch, but I intend to visit every national park before I die. With 58 parks in the US, there's no excuse for not trying it out--you'll be surprised what you might find.
  4. Don't forget about your house. Unless you have someone staying at your house while you're away, turn off your water, turn down your water heater and make sure everything is sealed up. A unexpected rainstorm while you're gone can destroy house and possessions, and why pay to heat water you're not using? The savings may seem negligible if you're not gone very long, but savings are savings.
Skip the souvenirs. Souvenirs, chotchkes, gee-gaws what have you--they're almost always overpriced and poorly-made. I like rooting through a gift shop as much as the next person, but I very rarely buy anything because I've learned over the years that it's fun in the moment, and two years later, I don't really care. If you collect a certain item, that's one thing, but if you're just buying something to have a memento--take more pictures instead. My one big souvenir is I like to get a pressed penny. For $.51 I can get a shiny penny imprinted with a logo from where I'm visiting. It's cheap, it's small and it reminds me of my visit.

If you feel like you have to get a souvenir for every relative and friend--reconsider. I'm not saying that to be a jerk, but buying souvenirs for adult friends and family seems silly. They weren't there, so the souvenir is less special in that regard; and I've had friends who have spent entire vacations agonizing about what to get for other people rather than just enjoying the trip. Your friends will understand.


  1. I agree that souvenirs are overrated. I spent so much money buying and shipping gifts home for everyone when I studied abroad in Italy. When I went to England earlier this year, no one got a gift. Instead, I visited people, showed them my pictures, and talked about the trip. No one seemed to mind that I didn't bring them back a gift.

    I seriously agree with traveling in the off season. I went to England with a friend in late December/early January (we spent the new year in Trafalgar Square). Not only did we get better prices, things were less crowded and we met way more interesting people than a bunch of American tourists.

  2. Do you have a National Parks "passport"? I saw them at the visitor center last time I was at a national park. I believe every time you visit a national park unit (or national historical site, national monument, preserve, battlefield, historical park, or most of the other sites under the National Park Service), you can get a different cancellation stamp in your passport. I think the stamps are free once you buy the passport(they're ink stamps). And I suppose you wouldn't even have to buy the passport; you could make your own.
    Also, apparently there are 392 different park units that make up the 58 national parks, and that's not even counting the other affiliated sites in the Park Service (where you can also get your passport stamped) - I had no idea.

  3. I sure do have a passport to my national parks! It's awesome, but when I recently visited the USS Constitution, I forgot to bring it. Never again! That thing stays in my adventuring bag at all times.

    The stamps are free, they're usually on the desk at the information station and other places around the park. It includes a list of all the parks broken down by region. The only think you have to pay for once you've bought the passport (which I think was $5) are national stamps--but I don't think I'm going to buy any of those.

    Fun fact: recently there was a stampers convention in Lowell, MA, which is the only urban Nation Park. Because of that, Lowell is the place where you can get the most stamps of any National Park--I think something like 18. When I was there last year, I got about six--have to go back....

  4. My cheap and easy souvenir is postcards. I have them from all over the place. Some of them are more expensive, but they are still in the three or four for $1 range.

  5. One of the important things to remember about a family road trip vacation is remembering that the vacation is about the entire journey, not just the destination. The time spent together in the car on a road trip is a significant part of the entire adventure. Your travel time can be magic, or it can be tragic, depending on how you well prepare themselves and their children for it.
    Frugality tips