Vacation on a Shoe String
“Better memories are not bought with more dollars!” – Robert Espe
Here at DFA we are always looking for new ways to cut back spending and save money. I know that lots of readers will probably go on vacation this year, and because vacations can cost so much, they are a great opportunity to save money. I am in fact, on vacation as I write this, so it seemed appropriate to discuss. This week I will present a strategy focusing on three key areas people should target to save money while still have an enjoyable vacation.
Back when I was younger (and poorer) following this strategy allowed me to plan a honeymoon for $300, and celebrate our first anniversary without breaking the bank. I may have more money now, but I still use this strategy to get the most bang for my buck while vacationing.
I know this article is about how to save money while actually ON vacation, but I would like to start by pointing out that the best way to save on vacations is not to go at all. Travel is expensive, and has gotten much more expensive in the last few years. For some people, it may be necessary to acknowledge that they just can not afford to take a vacation this year. However, that is too short for much of an article, and most people WILL plan to take a vacation no matter how hard I try to convince them it is an unnecessary luxury, so here are some thoughts about where you could go.
When choosing a destination, remember that closer is usually cheaper. For some reason, most people unconsciously believe they have to go somewhere else to have a good time. However, the more I travel, the more people I meet who think the places I used to live sound worth visiting. If you live in an area that bases ANY of its economy on seasonal tourism, chances are there is plenty of stuff worth seeing right in your back yard that you have never taken time to visit. This is especially true with some areas more than others… especially if there is a ton of tourism around your home. I have read that the average tourist in Chicago visits more in two weeks than one of its residents get around to seeing in their first year. If you feel you TRULY live in the middle of nowhere and there is absolutely nothing to see, I still think you could find some place new to visit a lot closer than you think. The difference in cost between a 2-3 hour drive to a locale near your home and plane tickets is considerable so give it some thought.
Fortunately, you don’t have to find these spots on your own. Every town that feels it is worth visiting already has an organization dedicated to helping people like you decide to come visit them. Hop on the Internet, and look up the Chamber of Commerce for your own town, and other nearby places you’ve never visited. They do a good job of making your own backyard look like a travel brochure, and may have some ideas on things to do you have never thought of before. Plus they have info on places to stay, eat, and shop while you are there. I did this in my own town, and the local chamber helped me find new things to do and see even after living there for 20 years.
Save on food
We all need to eat.. but eating is much more expensive once you are away from your kitchen, and since it often represents at least half the cost of a trip it is a great place to save.
First I would point out that while eating out is fun, nothing says you are not allowed to visit a grocery store while on vacation. While you may not be able to create the same type of meals you can with a full kitchen, eating simple meals even once a day on your trip could save you some big bucks. This is especially true the longer your trip is, and the more people you have with you. When travelling by car, I always keep a good cooler in the trunk, and I also look for a hotel that has at least a small refrigerator in the rooms. This not only allows me to keep groceries cool, but provides a place to store leftovers from when you do eat out, since most restaurants serve way more food than one person can eat. Speaking of hotels, I always choose one that serves breakfast, and on this trip am staying at a Marriot that serves dinner as well – 4 days a week. Depending on the number of persons you travel with, free meals may offset the more expensive room.
When you do eat out, consider drinking water with your meal. When most of us were growing up, drinks were a cheap part of eating out. These days it seems like a simple soda or lemonade will add $1.50-$3.00 to each persons bill. If that was for fresh, hand-squeezed lemonade, it might be worth it, but as it is usually the same syrup water you can get at the store for pennies on the dollar, I find it easy to pass. If I do buy something to drink, I always order the small size of something with free re-fills.
Be sure not to overlook dollar menus, or splitting entrees. Two dollar menu sandwiches are usually larger than their $4-$5 counterparts and since most entrees are too large for one person two people can split one, find room for desert, and still come out ahead. I also find that on days where I am not very active, say I spend all day driving a car, or sitting in the hotel watching TV, I can skip lunch all together, without getting truly hungry. If I am not thinking about whether I really need to eat, I may spend more just because it is lunch time.
Most people love to shop. I am blessed with a wife who is not a big shopper, but when we go on vacation, we still like to go out to stores and see what is out there. This is one area where the tourist industry can be a negative, because it seems like the more “touristy” an area is, the less likely it is to actually have anything worth buying. Regardless, it is still fun to browse through shops that are not available where you live, and for me, that is usually as far as it needs to go. Window shopping can be a great saver, you get the enjoyment of the shopping experience, and a day of walking around… without the expense. Now if you are thinking that you can’t go shopping without spending, here are some tricks to help.
First, and this applies to when you are at home as well, separate shopping from buying. When you are out browsing, decide in advance that no matter what you find in a store, you will not buy… at least not right then. Simply go into the store, look around, enjoy yourself, try things on, make a note of anything you want to buy, then leave. Do this at all the stores you visit. At the end of the day, have a look at the list you made, and decide if there is anything on it worth going back to that store to buy. This eliminates impulse buying, and can save you bundles when you are surrounded by $26 T-shirts and other expensive nick-knacks you know you don’t need. Even if you decide to buy something, you will have had a chance to find the best deal.
The most important thing about any vacation are the memories of good times with family and friends, and better memories are not bought with more dollars. So pack the camera, and enjoy the time for what it is, a time to refresh and relax. You will be even more relaxed if you know that you will still have money in the bank when you return home. We would love to hear about any places you have visited that were off the beaten path, or any other creative ways you have found to save money while on vacation.