Over the years my wife and kids and I have been fortunate enough to be able to afford, and take the time off, for some pretty memorable vacations. We have camped all over our state of Iowa as well as quite a few surrounding states. We have vacationed in the Black Hills, the Grand Teton Mountains and the Rockies, just for some highlights. During all these vacations (and the extensive preparations for them) we got to be pretty good at staying within a small budget. Following are some of the ways we learned to travel and lodge frugally while still having a good time. These tips are primarily for those that travel by car, so if you like planes, trains, bikes, busses or boats they might not work for you.
Bring Your Own Food – Depending on how long you will be gone, and how many there are, you might be able to cover the whole trip. We have been able to survive for a week with very few additional supplements to our menu (2 adults and 2 kids) before we had to break down and hit a local grocery store. We would take along food that didn’t need to be warmed such as salads, the fixings for sandwiches, cold chicken, chicken strips to make wraps, chips, fruit, etc. We would also budget in a few restaurant stops to break up the routine. Hey, it’s a vacation, not boot camp!
Cook Your Own Meals – This one is usually not a problem when tent or RV camping, but it is worth asking if it is allowed before booking a stay in a cabin or hotel. Most of the cabins we have stayed in would allow cooking inside (many had their own kitchens) while a hotel will usually only allow you to warm up food in the microwave, so plan accordingly. If we know we will be able to cook inside we always pack our electric skillet, in our experiences the single most versatile cooking appliance.
Stay In a Central Location – Many times when planning our vacations we would decide what attractions we wanted to see and then try to find a place to stay that was centered among them. That way we could stay in one cabin, hotel or campsite for several days and not have to move while making small road trips in different directions to take in the sites.
Travel In the Off Season – If you have kids in school this might not be an option unless you can plan time off around teacher in service days or holiday weekends. If kids are not a problem you could save a nice percentage off of hotel and cabin stays, as well as some attractions. Check the web to find what the off season is for where you want to go.
Reward Programs and Membership Discounts – Reward programs and membership discounts are offered by airlines, hotels, gas stations and AAA. Also make sure to check Groupon for discounts to restaurants, museums and other attractions where you will be visiting.
Have Your Car Tuned Up – There is nothing like breaking down in a strange town, or worse, in the middle of nowhere to kill the vacation mood, and if it is something serious the time and money spent to fix it could even kill the whole vacation. While some things can’t be planned for budgeting for a tune up just before you leave is well worth the money. It won’t hurt to also tell your mechanic where you are going, as he might pay special attention to certain parts. For example: do your breaks have plenty of life left, because you use them a lot while driving in the mountains? Or, will your vehicle coolant be able to handle desert temperatures and do you have decent tires for inclement weather?