Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Take a Cheap Vacation

#9 Saving Money Tip - Take a Cheap Vacation. There are extravagant vacations - a week at Disney, a Hawaiian Cruise, two weeks in the Caribbean, a trip to Europe. Those are easy to plan. And there are cheap vacations. I'm not talking about spending a week at grandma's sleeping in her basement. I'm talking about nice inexpensive family vacations.

One of the best ways to take a cheap vacation is to travel during the off-season. I know, I know. It's hard to get out of school, blah blah, blah. But vacations don't have to be long and off-season can be in the summer. Or missing a few days of first grade won't kill ya. Seriously, if you have kids in school, most teachers are quite unhappy if you take them out for a vacation. But you don't have to. Look at the school schedule. Work around it. Many schools have a few days off that other schools don't have. Take vacation then. Or do it during the summer - in the beginning if your schools get out early or in the end if your schools go back late. If your school ends in the middle of May, then take a vacation the week before Memorial Day. The weather is beautiful, hotels are usually half to 3/4 of the in-season rate, and the crowds are minimal. If your schools don't go in session until after Labor Day, take a vacation during the last week of August. Try to go somewhere where the schools have started. You'll find the crowds smaller and the prices better.

Find a place you can drive to. I know you can't drive to the Caribbean, but there are plenty of beautiful beaches most of America can drive to. Even with the price of gas, driving is often cheaper than flying, especially if there are many of you in your family. The greater the number of people, the cheaper it is to drive there.

Go somewhere where prices are cheap. The South and Midwest are usually cheaper than the Northeast and West Coast. You can save a lot of money going to a town in the South versus in the North. Hotels and restaurants are often cheaper as well as entertainment options.

Try going to a city during a holiday weekend and a beach during the week. Citiy hotels are expensive during the week because of business travel. But on the weekends, they often have very good discounted rates. And while the beach is almost never cheap in season, the weekends are always the priciest. Even off season, rates may be cheaper during the week.

Bring snacks with you. If you are already driving to your destination, it's easy to throw extras in your car. How about a cooler or portable refrigerator? Bring some drinks and snacks so a stop for the bathroom doesn't turn into a $20 food fest.

Do your research. Look up coupons before you go. Oftentimes you can find discounts online for restaurants or attractions. It pays to be prepared. Even if you can't find coupons online, you should research the town or city you want to visit. If you know you want to go to a particular museum, you may find that on certain days admission is cheaper or free. Plan your vacation days around the discounts.

Follow the frugal rules you follow at home. I know vacations are meant for splurging, but you shouldn't go into debt to take a vacation. So if you eat frugally at home, then you can eat frugally when you are away. A local pizza place is a great place for dinner and relatively cheap, too. How about Mexican restaurants or other ethnic dining options? Oftentimes, local joints are inexpensive and good. Find a hotel that includes breakfast. Many hotel chains offer breakfast. I find this to be a quick and easy option. You don't waste as much time in the morning eating out and oftentimes you can find a hotel that includes breakfast for the same price as one that doesn't. Again, you can do research online before you go.

By following these rules, you should be able to cut your vacation cost in half of what it would be by going in high season, eating in expensive restaurants and going to high-priced destinations. And your enjoyment factor will be just as great. I promise.

In Real Life (IRL) - I love vacations. I really love traveling and getting away. And I've done quite a bit of it - when I was single, when I was married without children, and now with three children in tow. And I've always managed to do it on a fairly frugal budget. When I was single, a friend and I wanted to travel out West from the East Coast. We (read "I") would research an itinerary before we went and map out the trip. We would rent a car and start and end at the same spot, making a big loop and seeing lots of sights along the way. For example, one time we flew into Salt Lake City. We rented a car and started our trip there seeing the city. From there we headed south and explored some of the great National Parks in Utah. Then on to Arizona where we visited the Grand Canyon. Then into Las Vegas for a quick stop. Next was California - San Diego and LA up the coast to San Francisco and wine country then back into Nevada to see Lake Tahoe and then back to Salt Lake City. We covered a lot of ground. It was a 15-day trip. But we did our research. We could have flown into a number of cities on that loop, but at the time, Salt Lake City was the cheapest. We rented the car and returned it to the same city so we saved money that way. We traveled in mid-May. The hotels in the National Parks were in value season rather than "in" season. The crowds were minimal thanks to schools being in session most places. And the weather was beautiful as it often is in May. I don't have a tally of the cost of that vacation. But I can tell you if we traveled in July and flew into one city and out of another or didn't investigate which city offered the best deal to fly into, we would have spent twice as much and had to battle heat and crowds.

When I got married, my husband suggested Hawaii for our honeymoon. I've always wanted to go there, but frankly I'm not a big fan of flying and coming from the East Coast, Hawaii is a looong plane ride away. Not to mention, it's expensive. So I researched other island destinations such as the Caribbean which is a lot closer. But we vetoed some of them because my husband had been to several of them, and even though it's cheap to fly there, everything on the island is expensive. Oh and it was going to be hurricane season, too. Instead, we heard about Costa Rica becoming a poplular vacation spot. So I researched it and it sounded like the perfect place. A short plane ride, inexpensive once you are there and beautiful beaches, waterfalls, and volcanos - maybe not Hawaii, but much, much cheaper. We went for 10 days and I think we spend under $2,000 for our honeymoon. And we didn't skimp. There were great package deals through a travel agent for hotels and airfare. Once we were there we rented a car and did a loop throughout the country similar to my trip out West when I was single. The food was not only delicious, but cheap! We took advantage of local cuisine such as beans, rice, plantains, and local fish. We ate some fabulous meals without spending much. Sometimes dinner for the two of us was just $8 or $10. We couldn't have done that in the Caribbean, let alone Hawaii. October was also the "green" (read "rainy") season in Costa Rica, so prices were cheaper than high season. Even though it was their green season, we had beautiful weather and I don't even recall much rain.

Traveling with kids always presents challenges. ("Are we there yet?") But family vacations can be fun and makes for some great memories for your children. I know some of my fondest memories from my childhood are some of the vacations we took. Two summers ago when we were a family of 4, we took a trip to Gatlinburg and the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. We had been wanting to do a family vacation and we have friend in Mississippi who we wanted to meet up with. Gatlinburg was a great family option. We traveled at the end of August before our schools were in session but after many schools in the south had already started back. Therefore, crowds were minimal. The hotel offered good prices and the weather was cool (we were in the mountains). August in the South usually cannot be described as cool. Anyway, we could have met our friends in DisneyWorld and we would have easily spent $2000 for our 5-day trip. Instead, we spent about $600. Our hotel was only about $80 per night (using a AAA discount researched in advance). We had pizza one night for dinner, barbeque one night, and Chinese food one night. Gas prices were cheaper two years ago than they are now, so I think we spent less than $150. For attractions, we went hiking in the Great Smokies one day (free) and saw bears and a waterfall. One day we did a drive through the mountains following one of their loops and saw some old homesteads, beautiful mountain vistas and a working grain mill. We did do an amusement park one day, but it was the cheap one where you pay for the number of rides. And because our kids were young, we only did a few. Each afternoon our kids swam in the hotel swimming pool. And at night we walked through Gatlinburg's somewhat honky tonk touristy town. It was a great vacation done planned well for relatively little money.

The key is to look at your options, find an inexpensive destination, in an off season that you can drive to and you will save lots of money on your vacations. Travel safely!

No comments: