There really are ways to have vacations and mini-vacations while on a tight budget
This post will be the first of what I hope will be many about fun and reasonably priced things to do with the kids. We love being able to do things with the grandkids – just as we loved being able to do things with our daughters when they were young. As with most people, our budget is far from unlimited, so being able to find low-cost adventures is important.
Our travels are usually by car, and always within the continental United States, so most of my suggestions will be from that frame of reference. However, some of my tips will fit most any kind of travel.
One obvious cost saving for family vacations is to trade the hotel room for a campground. Growing up in Michigan, the daughter of teachers, we started camping when I was three years old. Dad and mom invested in a pop-up type Apache camper that comfortably slept all five of us. Many years later my husband and I bought a very similar camper, used, that had been maintained in very good condition. We paid $350 for the used camper, and literally wore it out, touring all over Washington, California, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada and Montana over the course of about ten years. Since the camper was paid for, our vacation costs involved only camping fees, which are usually nominal, gas, food and any incidental fees for sightseeing activities. With current hotel costs that could amount to well over a thousand dollars for a one week vacation today. A really good tent can be purchased for less than $300, and there are many deals on campers and trailers that would still save money over the cost of two weeks in a hotel each year.
So you’re thinking to yourself “Camping, well, ahhhhh, no. Not for me.” I can give you all the jillions of reasons why camping is the ultimate vacation, but that’s a whole other post! I do get it… not everyone is in to hearing the birds chatter at 5:30 in the morning as the sun is coming up. But fear not. There are still lots of ways to save on hotel and motel costs.
The first that comes to mind is to use a service such as the American Automobile Association, better known as AAA. They provide members with wonderful guides that have hotel and motel listings with ratings, local attractions for all the major and most smaller cities within the state, and even dining suggestions and restaurant ratings. Most hotels and motels offer discounts to AAA members. What’s even better, the guide allows you to find hotels by price, and gives you the local phone number so you can book direct. Many hotels and motels offer further discounts if you book directly with the hotel and don’t go through a third-party service. Sometimes that discount can be significant. For example, on one trip we made with my sister and brother-in-law to Florida, they made their reservations for the hotel through one of the major online travel sites. I called the hotel directly. I paid about 30% less for our room, which was identical to theirs. But do your homework! Check out what the prices are online, then call the hotel. If you find a price online that is less, let them know. If they are worth their salt they’ll match that online price.
If you travel a lot, especially for business, make sure you sign up for the various hotel chain‘s preferred customer cards. They all offer points for stays, and those points add up a lot quicker than you might think. I never recommend using a credit card to get points, so please don’t think that is what I am suggesting. I’m a huge proponent of living on a cash basis, and the cost of those “rewards” credit cards is beyond crazy – frequently in the 23 – 25% range. That’s a huge waste of money. Pay for dinner at a nice restaurant for four, at a cost of $100, and by the time you pay the interest on it you’re paying $125. Ouch…
But I digress. What I’m talking about is utilizing the loyalty cards that so many companies now have. There is no cost for these cards, and the products or services are usually no more expensive than any of their competition. They want you to be loyal to their brand, so they offer you perks for coming back to them time and time again. One of those perks is points that you can use toward future travel. When I travel for my work it is usually to visit our home office. We have a preferred hotel close to the office, so that’s where I stay. Every time I am there I rack up points on my loyalty card. The last two years I’ve had enough points, to cover the cost of our hotel room for mini-vacations to the Houston / Galveston area. Again – two vacations for the cost of gas, food and incidentals.
Food is another area where the frugal traveler can reward themselves with significant savings. Years ago we used to plan in to our travel budget money for “incidental” food purchases, which basically meant cokes and snacks at the convenience store a couple of times each day. Eventually I got smart and figured out the cost of those snack stops. For a family of four the cost is probably around $30 to buy snacks and drinks twice a day at a convenience store. I think that may actually be a bit low. You can invest in a good cooler, pack it full of bottled water and soda, and pack a box full of snacks, for a fraction of what you pay at a convenience store. You can also pack much healthier snacks when you bring your own, which makes it a double win.
If you are camping you’re most likely going to be cooking outside, over a fire or a camp stove. You’ve already benefited from the savings on food, since you aren’t going to be paying for restaurant food. But for those non-camping vacations, you can still eat frugally at restaurants. Again, many restaurants offer loyalty cards, or e-mail rewards clubs. Take advantage of these. I’ve signed up for few of them, and I can usually count on getting a few half-off or BOGO offers every month. The offers are usually good for thirty days, so I can save them up the month before vacation, and we can eat at good quality restaurants at a discount throughout vacation.
We also find coupons for dining in travel magazines that you pick up at the highway rest stops. They are loaded with great deals! We have found some really excellent local restaurants by using coupons in various travel publications. Also, as I mentioned before, the AAA tour books have information and ratings for local restaurants. These are excellent sources to find good food at many different price points. Probably our very best savings when on a hotel vacation is on breakfast. We always stay at a hotel that offers free breakfast. The offerings usually include waffles, yogurt, cereal, pastries and baked items, and an assortment of fresh fruit. The kids love hotel breakfasts and we normally save around $30 a day on our food budget.
One of the very best ways to keep to a budget while on vacation is to involve the entire family in the process by incorporating saving money as part of the adventure of the vacation. Our daughter learned to read the AAA tour guides and was in charge of finding the least expensive motel/hotel she could that was still AAA approved. The granddaughters work around our house for a month or more before vacation, and the wages they earn are used for any souvenirs they want to buy. We all get involved in searching for local attractions and dining options that are good, fun and economical. With everyone involved in the planning it truly becomes a family vacation.
I hope some of my suggestions, while nothing new and earthshaking, inspire you to start planning your next vacation. It is such a great way to build memories and strengthen family ties. Here’s to the good old-fashioned family vacation!
- Traveling with Tots in Tow? Book a Vacation this winter with Motel.com to get the Best Discount (prweb.com)
- Pop-up campers make travel affordable: Never pay for a hotel again (Video) (examiner.com)
- Important elements to consider when setting a travel budget (planegrazy.com)