Vacationing on the Cheap

Updated: Nov 29, 2020

I love traveling. Ever since we moved out west 5 years ago, I have had this continual burning desire to explore and see new places. In the past 5 years, we have been countless places. Every summer we make it a point to go on a two week plus vacation somewhere new. In 2016 we road tripped it to California, driving over 3,400 miles, through Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Sequoia and San Diego. In 2017, we ventured to the northeast to explore the great state of Maine (one of my all time favorites), New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. This year for 2018, we finally made the trek up to Montana to explore the amazing Glacier National Park and then headed further north into Canada to see Banff. Along with our big trips, we strategically utilize vacation time to take long weekend trips that vary from 30 minutes away to 6+ hours to spots throughout Colorado or neighboring states. Additionally, we can always hop in the car spur of the moment on a Friday and head westward for a few nights of crisp mountain air, if we get the itch.

Now, my first question to you is this. What do you envision when you see the word vacation? If VACATION equals EXPENSIVE, you’re doing it all wrong. Do you think of a trip to Disney world, staying in 3 or 4 star hotel, with a rental car and flights? Or perhaps a trip down to Cancun, Mexico to an all inclusive resort, with flights, hotel and food all included in your price. Whatever route you take, or whatever your dream vacation is, the $$ can definitely add up quick. I’m here today to tell you how you can save money on your trips, which will ultimately allow you to go on more of them.

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First and foremost, you must PLAN. This is the #1 most important thing to do when planning a trip. It is even more important, the larger and more complex the vacation is. For example a trip to Europe for a month, is going to involve a significant amount of logistics. Planning flights, buses, rental cars, hotels, Airbnbs, etc., in advance, will likely be the most cost efficient route you can take. Also, this should go without saying, but make sure to secure the time off with your employer.

Next, set a budget. This is of significant importance. You’re all familiar with the saying “but, we’re on vacation”. Ya, so what, it doesn’t mean you need to drain your bank account. This doesn’t mean you can’t have fun or “splurge” on certain things. You just need to do due diligence before hand, pick a handful of things you want to do and execute. An example would be staying at an all inclusive resort in Mexico. I’ve done it and it’s a great time. The resorts often offer unlimited food, drinks and entertainment (including nightly shows, pools, games, etc.). For an added cost, there are a multitude of guided tours available. You can go to the Mayan ruins, Chichten Itza, or even take a short boat ride to Cozumel. By planning and having a budget, trips like this can be much more attainable.

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When setting your travel budget, I recommend having a number in mind that you would like to keep your vacation cost under. First, start with fixed costs, then add in the variables. A good first step in the planning stage would be to buy plane tickets, rent a car and secure nightly accommodations. Set a number to spend on food and fun excursions that you would like to do. It is important to plan for a bit more than you plan on spending to make sure you are able to execute. It is always a good feeling to come back from a vacation and spend less than you had planned.

How to Analyze Vacations

First I’m going to show an example of a what a realistic family vacation might look like for your typical American family of four. I’m not saying by any means this is what I would do. I’m simply looking at costs. I’ll then analyze some other options and how to make your vacation more affordable.

Let’s say a family of four wants to take a trip down to Disney World. Before booking plane tickets, analyze if it is more cost efficient to drive. In most cases, depending on where you live, it probably is. However, there is a time component to driving versus flying. And, I don’t know about you, but time is money. In this example, we’ll assume the family is going to fly and the trip will be 7 nights and 8 days. We’ll go with $250 per person for flights, $100 a night for a hotel and $400 for a weekly rental car. Additionally, you’ll need to add in the cost of a park pass. Let’s assume for this example that both children are 10+ years of age. For Disney, the price decreases the more days you are at the park. Let’s assume you get a 7 day pass for each person. Total cost with tax will set you back $1,736.52. For those of you that might think 7 days in the park might be a bit excessive, feel free to go the “cheaper” route and spend $1,590.84 for 4 days. Yes, that’s 3 days less in the park for a mere savings of $145.68 or $36.42 per person. So, to rehash, our total fix costs are $1,000 for plane tickets, $700 for the hotel stay, $400 for the rental car, and $1736.52 for the park passes. This gives you a grand total of $3,836.52 in fixed costs. Now, don’t forget your variable costs, like food, souvenirs, gas, or anything else you might like to do. For food, let’s assume $50 per day per person. This comes out to $200 per day, times 8 days, for a total of $1,600. For gas, let’s assume you rented a fairly gas friendly vehicle, but still an SUV of some sort for your family of 4 and you get 24 miles per gallon at $2.50 per gallon. Assuming you drive 500 miles on your trip (let’s hope you’re making good use of your park passes and not doing a ton of driving), this will only run you about $52 total (not too bad). Lastly, let’s account for souvenirs and any other miscellaneous items. I’ll be conservative and allocate just $150 per person, for a total of $600 for the family of 4. Now, everything added up comes to a total of $3,836.52 (fixed), plus $1,600 for food, $52 for gas and $600 for miscellaneous/souvenirs for a grand total of $6,088.52. That’s $1,522.13 per person for your weekly outing. Insane. Absolutely insane. Rent Harry Potter and call it a night, in my opinion, or have your children corn de-tassle or get a job after school if they want to meet Mickey Mouse that bad.

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Now, let’s look at another vacation. How about a road trip? I might be a bit bias, but they are my favorite. I am going to analyze this trip from a “travel hacking” perspective. So, that everyone can analyze this trip from the same perspective, imagine a location no further than about 6-8 hours away. We’ve done road trips where our final location was 16-17 hours away, but admittedly, you likely need more than a week’s time for a trip like that. For this example, we will do 9 nights and 10 days instead of the 7/8 discussed above. The reason for the extra couple of days is part of the hack, which I’ll get to below. We have several opportunities for destinations from Denver that we like, including Salt Lake City, UT, Jackson, WY, Rapid City, SD (Mount Rushmore area), and Taos, NM. For this example, I’m going to choose Jackson, Wyoming. This is around 8 hours from our location in Denver, CO. It’s also home to the Grand Tetons and just outside Yellowstone National Park. A family of four could easily spend a week here and only see a fraction of the area. I.E. the opportunities for exploration are essentially endless.

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Again, let’s start with step one and PLAN ahead. Because we are planning ahead, we are going to start this vacation on August 30th, 2019. This is the Friday before Labor Day. Plan to take off after work or just leave work a few hours early that day. For example sake, let’s take a half day of work and plan to leave for the trip around 1 PM. The reason I like to do this for trips of this distance, is because you can literally knock out most (if not all) of the driving that day and get to your destination late at night, so that all you have to do is hit the sack and wake up and you’re ready to explore. Additionally, I personally enjoy the drive (after you get out of the Denver traffic). Driving through Wyoming is quiet, scenic and tranquil.

For proper preparation, you’ll want to pack the car in the days prior and complete the majority of packing the night before you leave. Everyone involved needs to understand the plan and be ready to roll. For example, if you are taking a half day and work 8-12, you will literally drive home, grab any last minutes things and be ready to leave at 1 PM. This is extremely important as to avoid traffic and stick with the schedule, especially if reservations are in play.

If you leave on a Friday and return the following Sunday, you are maximizing the amount of vacation time you can utilize without having to take additional “vacation days” from your employer. Additionally, most employers will pay you for Labor Day and it’s a scheduled day off anyways. For my example, you would be on vacation from August 30th, 2018 through September 8th, 2019 and utilize 36 hours (or 4 1/2 days) of Vacation. This would include the 4 hours for the Friday before where you do most of your driving and then 32 hours for the Tuesday-Friday. This saves you 4 hours of PTO and you’re also able to extend your trip 2 days through careful planning.

Throughout my example, I want you to get in the mindset of how to vacation frugally. That is how we think when we hit the road. We’ve gotten better and better throughout the years, but I’m super excited to see how low cost we can make some of our vacations in the coming year. Our Glacier/Banff trip we took this past year cost the two of us about $1,700 for 17 days, or $100 a day. That’s pretty good, but admittedly, if we were more conscious of our spending, I’m confident we could have cut that nearly in half.

Back to the example. The next steps are figuring out fixed costs. The most important things to nail down are rental cars and nightly accommodations. First, keep an eye on rental car prices. These will fluctuate. Do not wait until the last minute, especially for a busy holiday weekend. The prices will sky rocket and you might not even be able to make a reservation. One tip for if you are flying in from somewhere is to rent your car off the airport grounds. Yes, it’s a bit more of a hassle, but can save you hundreds of dollars. Just a quick side story-when we went to Seattle last Thanksgiving, we landed and took an Uber to our Airbnb. The Uber cost was free, because we have hardly ever used it and you get a free ride up to $21 for your first trip. The Airbnb location we chose was about 5 miles from our rental car location. So, I killed 2 birds with one stone and woke up the next morning and literally ran to the rental car location. Not a bad way to see Seattle for the first time, save money on a short trip to the rental car shop and get my workout in.

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I did a quick search and found an “Intermediate sized vehicle” for $315 total for the duration of the trip. I like to hedge my bets on this one. You want something a bit larger than a compact vehicle, especially for a family of 4. However, if you were to get an SUV, it would set you back $536 dollars. Book the intermediate and try and finagle your way into a free upgrade. Call in the days beforehand and see what their availability is like. More often than not, they can squeeze you into a better vehicle. You can also book several rental cars in advance and just cancel with enough notice to give yourself more options for the free upgrade.

Next, book your nightly accommodations. I’m going to look at two options here for example sake. First, I hope you like to camp. If you don’t, it’s costing you significant money when you travel. It literally pains me to cough up $80-$200 bucks a night just to sleep for 6-8 hours. In my opinion, it’s really silly if you think about it. However, we’ll look at the cost of staying at a hotel/Airbnb, along with camping to give two perspectives and costs. I looked at the Antler Inn in Jackson, WY. This is probably the most affordable option in the area. Total cost over this time frame is about $200 a night. I’ll admit, I had sticker shock when I saw the cost, because we stayed at this very motel a couple years back over New Year’s and it cost us no more than $60-75 bucks a night. I thought with ski season, prices would at least be similar in the winter, if not more.

Now, let’s analyze the cost of camping. If you camp outside of the National Park in National Forest land, you can stay in areas known as “dispersed camping”. These are locations you can stay for free. This is our go to for almost all times that we camp out here in the west. It’s not going to have your amenities that campgrounds have or that nice secure feeling of someone next to you in the wild. This is off the beaten path, in the rugged wilderness, but more peaceful and relaxing in my opinion. If we were planning a trip to the Grand Tetons in the summer, we would likely camp 4 or 5 nights in the Park and the remainder would be dispersed out of the Park. Remember, time is money. Just to save a few bucks and stay out of the park is going to cost you an hour to an hour and a half each day of travel going back and forth.

I was able to find several campsites that are available in the National Park on the Park’s homepage. While, 2019 camping information is not yet available, it would be extremely wise to monitor when bookings become available, as these sites tend to fill up quickly. For the Jenny Lake Campground, the cost is $29 per night, plus fees. Let’s assume around $35 a night total with fees taken into account. Additionally, let’s just assume the entire 9 nights are booked inside the park. Total cost: $315. If you do decide to try some dispersed camping for maybe 4 of those nights, it would knock your bill down to $175 total.

So, in summary, you can stay at the motel for $1,800, or you can camp with showers and “real” bathroom facilities for $315 (or $175). Your choice. I’ll go the camping route.

Next, we need to figure in costs for food. This can vary greatly, but we’ll assume all meals are prepared by hand and from purchased groceries. I think $10 a day per person is a fair assumption. So, $40 times 10 days, gives you a total food budget of $400.

Now, let’s calculate for gas. This trip involves a good deal of driving, so this portion will take up more than the Disney trip example I mentioned above. From our place to Grand Tetons National Park is about 510 miles. That’s a straight shot. So, 1020 miles round trip. Because the park is large and with Yellowstone being nearby, I’m going to be conservative and triple the mileage, to account for 1,530 miles total. Assuming the SUV scenario above that gets 24 mpg at $2.50 a gallon, this will run you about $160 for gas.

Last, but not least, you need to account for additional miscellaneous expenses, like parking, a park pass (if you don’t have one this will run you $80 for an annual pass that allows you access to all National Parks in the US, $35 for a weekly pass (you’d need to buy additional daily passes if you were in the park for 10 days), or a $70 Grand Teton National Park annual pass. We’ll assume the $80 pass for this scenario, along with a small reserve for some souvenirs of $120. This brings the total for the miscellaneous budget to $200.

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Now, let’s add it all up. Let’s assume you camp in the park each night. You have a cost of $315 for the rental car (this keeps the wear and tear off your personal vehicle), plus $315 for camping fees, plus $400 for groceries, $160 for gas, and $200 for miscellaneous. Your grand total in this scenario would be $1,390 for a family of 4. Or, $347.50 per person. Even if you decide to splurge and go the motel route instead, your total would be $2,775, or $693.75 per person. These are both a far cry from the $6K plus that the Disney vacation cost.

For us, we could probably cut the camping down to $175, by staying some of the nights on National Forest land. I’m sure for food, we could knock down to $125 for the two of us by filling up a cooler before we leave and making one trip to the store to resupply, and we could keep the miscellaneous component to about $50. Our grand total would likely be somewhere around $825 total, or $412.50 per person.

People ask me sometimes how we can afford to go on vacations so often. Well, that’s how. Additionally, when we do a quick trip to the mountains say, Breckenridge for example. We literally, pack the car up with some food we already have, all our camping gear, etc., find a dispersed camping spot and we are literally only paying for 2-3 hours worth of gas for driving for a weekend trip. I’m fairly confident that the cost for that is equal to or less than a family of four going out to a movie on the weekend. Now it’s your turn to see how you can travel hack your next vacation!

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