Vacation Planning – Better memories are not bought with more dollars!

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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.

Vacation destinations

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

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1 Budgeting in the Fun Stuff

Great ideas…we actually have used almost all of them!

We have some great memories from our $250 3-day weekend in San Antonio (we’re from Houston). We packed a cooler, went with another couple, spent a day at Schlitterbahn, and saw the sites like the Alamo, Riverwalk, and Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum over the next couple of days. It was great!

In fact, we just took a $2000 cruise…we had an awesome time, but it wasn’t much better than the trip above. Honestly, just getting away with my husband makes a trip great…all the other stuff is just extra.

2 Matt Jabs

Wow… my wife and I are actually heading down to the Houston area (Conroe) the first week in April to visit family. We are planning a day/several day trip to San Antonio and will be hitting the Schlitterbahn too (along with the Riverwalk and maybe the others.) 🙂

3 Budgeting in the Fun Stuff

My grandparents live right outside of Conroe (New Waverly). 🙂

Enjoy Schlitterbahn, it was great!!! Take a camera for the Alamo…there’s a huge tree in the compound that is very cool!

4 Robert Espe

The tree is VERY cool, they also hold a mass there on Sundays (the Alamo originally being a mission), but it fills up fast so you have to get there REALLY early.

5 Kevin@OutOfYourRut

We mostly drive to where we vacation; plane tickets for a family of four is prohibitive, and you still need a car when you get there.

We do the same thing, going to hotels that include breakfast in the room charge–price for room and breakfast are substantially lower than the places that offfer the room only!

We also shop for food, and try to limit meals out to 1-2 a day. It is nice to eat out on vacation but who says you need to do it three times a day? It wastes a lot of time too if you have to go to a restaurant, wait for a table, wait for your food, then wait for the check.

On the lemonade for 1.5-$3.00–get a glass of water with a lemon slice. Squeeze the lemon into the glass, add sugar to taste and presto–lemonade! I prefer this to plain water, and you can’t beat the price.

6 Matt Jabs

I LOVE driving and HATE flying. I do not like quick travel (for vacation) I like the travel to be part of the experience and think that flying robs me of that. I know others “just like to get where they’re going,” but personally… the journey is the most fun for me. I love adventure…

7 Robert Espe

That is exactly what my wife likes to do with the water/lemon/sugar!!! She’ll be glad to know she’s not the only one.

8 Neil

A big item you missed is saving on accommodation. Spending even $100/night on a hotel is like having a $3000 rent. And how many hotels only cost $100/night once you add taxes, parking surcharge, and various other unadvertised fees. For that, you get a tiny room with a tv…woopy. While hosteling is often the cheapest option (and has some side benefits it you want to meet people through the “international 3-question friendship ritual”), I usually find that somewhere in between, you can stay at B&B’s, guesthouses, and similar grades of accomodation, often for $40-$75/night including breakfast. The rooms are often much nicer than a hotel, as well.

Even cheaper is couchsurfing (, which can be fabulous. Our biggest couchsurfing score was 3 nights in an oceanfront room, and a free dinner (we cooked one night, as well), and great company…all for the low, low price of $0.

9 Matt Jabs

Great additional information Neil. Couchsurfing would be the way I always traveled if I were single, but I’m afraid my wife would not enjoy this.

If possible, we try to vacation where friends live so accommodations are free. If we this is not an option, we search for reasonable B&B’s.

10 Neil

You just haven’t toughened her up enough yet. 😉 The first time my wife and I went on vacation together, the first place we stayed was a $3 hostel in Cairo. Which was good enough, but definitely the low point of our traveling lives…everything has been uphill from there.

More often than not, I find that couchsurfing results in a room comparable to a B&B at no cost. But maybe it’s just because I’m picky about who I send requests to.

11 Matt Jabs

You know… now that you mention this “toughening her up,” I think I’m going to do just that! 🙂

I mean, traveling w/o the cost of accommodations affords you the ability to travel MUCH more often.

12 Robert Espe

I agree that hotels are expensive, although in the areas I’ve been, B&B’s tend to be even more so (although I do like them). My personal solution is to bring my wife along when on travel for work, that way the rooms are paid for, and that generates some reward points that can be used for non-work-related travel.

13 myfinancialobjectives

Great points, many of which I live by every summer when head down to Ocean City, MD with a couple of friends. We take 2-3 weekend trips down there during the summer always packing plenty of PB&J, and drinks, staying the the cheapest hotel we can find that’s close to the beach, and that’s about it (minus at least ONE trip to the all you can eat buffets hehe :)… But it’s really NOT that expensive for an awesome weekend with friends!

Budgeting in the Fun Stuff, I just went on a cruise recently and spent a bit over $600 and had quite possibly the best week of my life!! I posted a long article attesting to why it was so amazing on my site!

14 The Rat

I’m super-addicted to looking at last minute deals on vacation websites, even if I’m not even planning on vacationing any time soon. I think it’s because when I do plan on going on vacation, I’ll have an idea as to what to look for when the time arises.

I think you’re right in that the best of times are not financially related I remember some of my fondest memories to be in college when I was a starving student living off kraft dinner. Some of the best vacations can be inexpensive ones. Simple things like renting a vacation location and eating where you’re vacationing vs eating at restaurants can make a big difference on the wallet in the end.

Nice post.

15 JMK

We do all sorts of vacations as a family. We camp, we do weekend trips to visit relatives at their homes and cottages (6hrs each way in all cases). We pack sandwiches and snacks for the road so we don’t have to resort to roadside fast food. Coffee is the only thing we pick up on the way. We have offered to contribute financially when we stay at the cottage when they are not there, but they’d rather we contribute our work. We do some minor repairs, weed the garden, powerwash the boat, etc. If you don’t have access to a family cottage, renting a place can be very cost effective. Get a big place and go with another family and split the work of meal prep.

When we take a big trip about every 2 years I spend a LOT of time researching discounts, reduced admission days to attractions, hotels that include breakfast and have inroom refrigerators etc. By having breakfast at the hotel, doing a picnic for lunch (hit a grocery store for buns, coldcuts and fruit) and only eating out at dinner you can really reduce the food costs.

Our last big trip was Summer 2009 when we took our 2 kids to Europe for a month. We started with a few days in Rome, then took a 12 day mediteranean cruise (Italy, Monaco, Greece, Turkey) ending in Venice where we stayed a few days. Then we took the train through the alps to Munich for a few days. Then we rented a car and drove through Germany for nealy a week. We covered a huge amount of ground and saw a staggering amount. All together we spent $12k which is a lot of money, yes, however that works out to $750/person/week, which I feel is extremely reasonable for Europe in peak summer season. We flew on points earned on our CC, bought the cruise tickets through an online discounter, researched extensively to find the best deals, discounts and tricks for skipping lines at busy sites (Colosseum in Rome), picniced for many meals on land to balance the extravagant meals on the cruise. All in all a great time and wonderful memories.

16 Matt Jabs

Will you adopt me? I want to go on your family trips!! They sound awesome.

17 Budgeting in the Fun Stuff

Adopt me too!

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