Financial Friday

Financial Friday: Cheap(er) Vacations

Part of my motive in blogging about financial matters is to get more people talking about money—it seems like money is usually the giant giraffe in the middle of the party that no one’s talking about. I’m sure most of us have heard at some point in our lives that it’s rude to bring up one’s finances in public, but it sure might solve some “keeping up with the Jones” issues if people were more forthright.

Or maybe it would just make things worse because you might realize how much poorer you really are than somebody else.

But I digress.

My real purpose of today’s post is to talk about traveling on a budget, which is one of my great loves. Ever since I visited Florida at 15 with two of my best friends, I’ve been bit with the traveling bug and am determined to see as much of the world as possible.

Unfortunately, being on a teacher’s salary and having my husband be a full-time student are definitely drawbacks when it comes to making big travel plans. However, since the bug in me will not be satisfied, I have managed to come up with a few strategies for getting to go on some awesome vacations without dropping a ridiculous amount of money.

Tip #1: Travel to a location that’s within a reasonable driving distance.

The rising price of airfare never ceases to burn a hole in the pit of my stomach, so because I just can’t stand the thought of dropping $1000 (or more!) to fly where we want to go, we usually just opt to drive to a location that we can reach in one day of driving (preferably fewer than 7 hours). Since most people (I would wager) have not seen the gems and exotic locales close to their own backyards (that other people often travel thousands of miles to see), I think that most of us–wherever we live in the world–would be hard pressed to not be able to find a new, exciting traveling location within a 7-hour driving radius.

Some people might argue that with the rising price of gasoline, it is more worth it to fly. I guess this one would depend on the length of your drive and the gas mileage of your car, but for a 300-mile driving trip (600 miles round trip), you probably still won’t have to spend over $100 in gas unless your car gets really terrible gas mileage.

For a point of reference, our 260-mile trip to West Yellowstone (520 miles round trip) cost us about $70 in gas, which is a heck of a lot better than shelling out $800 (or more) for two plane tickets.

Tip #2: Travel in the off-season whenever possible and book your accommodations early.

Luckily for us, Matt’s spring break (which is when we’ve been taking most of our trips) is always in March, which happens to be the off-season for many of the places we’ve been visiting lately. The beginning of March is especially a good time to visit Yellowstone price-wise because most of the people who come for the snowmobiling and cross country skiing are gone (because the winter season is practically over), and the summer crowd hasn’t shown up yet.

Also, I’ve found that the earlier you book your lodgings, the cheaper your rates (generally). For both this year’s vacation to Yellowstone and last year’s to Bryce, we were able to book deluxe rooms with a king-size bed and amenities in nice hotels for about $250 (for three nights).

I usually always book through a site like because I’m signed up through Ebates, which gives me cash back anytime I make a purchase online. So, by booking early and online, I basically get an automatic “discount” of sorts in the form of cash back. (Seriously, I love Ebates! I wrote more about it here.)

Tip #3: Book a hotel that has a decent continental breakfast that’s included in the price of the room.

Since the cost of food on trips can add up VERY fast, we try to always book at hotels that are known for serving a good-sized continental breakfast at no additional charge. The place we stayed at last week (The Stagecoach Inn) had an amazing variety for their breakfast–in addition to the usual pastries, muffins, and fruit, they had the mix to make your own Belgian waffle, loads of varieties of cold cereal, yogurt, oatmeal, and even hard-boiled eggs that were ripe for the picking. Because we loaded up each day on the hotel’s breakfast, we saved money later on by not having to buy as many meals.

Tip #4: Book a room in your hotel that has a microwave and a fridge.

Along the same vein of saving money on food, I’ve found that it saves quite a bit of money to get a room with a microwave and fridge and bring your own snacks and even some food for meals. We stocked our fridge with string cheese, fruit, Powerade, and other snacks for between-meal munching, and we even packed simple meals we could heat up in the microwave, like avocados and melted cheese on tortillas with hot sauce. We were in Yellowstone for 4 days and needed to have basically 11 meals (since we left late enough on the first day to eat breakfast at home). The continental breakfast took care of 3 of them, the meals and snacks we’d brought knocked out another 5, so we only ended up going out to eat 3 times on the trip.

Tip #5: Research out the available activities in the area beforehand, and see what’s available for free and what’s worth splurging on.

We could have done a better job at this one when it came to our trip to Yellowstone, but we still were able to keep activity costs relatively low by sharing a snowmobile. If you’re visiting a national park, check out beforehand if your library offers national park passes for check-out, which will waive the price of the park pass for you. Also, many venues often offer coupons or special discounts if you check them out online beforehand.

Also, never underestimate how much fun it can simply be just to walk around and admire the general splendor of the place you’re visiting, whether it be out in nature or along a row of cute shops.

Tip #6: Ask money-saving tips from people who have already traveled to where you’re going.

Had we talked to somebody who’d traveled to Yellowstone recently and been snowmobiling into the canyon, they could have told us we really didn’t need to buy the special outerwear that the snowmobiling company rented out. Although the employee that worked there claimed we’d be miserable without it, we had dressed warmly enough to have been able to avoid renting it had we known beforehand that we weren’t really going to get wet at all (since it didn’t snow on us).

That tip alone (had we received it from someone else) would have saved us $30.

Tip #7: Learn from your mistakes in the past.

Even though this has happened twice in a row (actually, make that three times in a row), I think maybe I’ve *finally* gotten it into my head that we really don’t need to go so crazy when it comes to buying treats and snacks for the car ride there (and to store in the hotel room). We over-bought snacks by about $30 this last trip, so I’m going to try really, REALLY hard to keep myself in control next time.

In conclusion, here is the breakdown of the total cost of our 4-day trip to Yellowstone:

Gas  —  $70
Snacks/ Groceries — $50 (could have easily been $20)
Hotel — $275 (w/ tax)
Eating Out — $65
Snowmobiling — $230 (could have been $200 w/o cost of renting outerwear)
Other Excursions (nature center, park fee) –$40

Total Cost — $730

I know you can definitely do vacations for a lot cheaper (hello camping!), but for what we were able to do, I’d say we were able to keep it pretty cheap.

What are your tips for keeping costs down on vacations?

Treasure Tromp

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