In the last year, D and I have been on 17 overnight trips. So many people are amazed by this fact and ask how we do it because, ya know, traveling is expensive. Well, unlike the average American, as our (my/D’s) income increases, our vacations continue to get cheaper. Instead of revolving around tourist attractions and fancy food, our vacations now are centered on physical activity and for the most part free events. Whereas D and my first vacation together in 2005 involved at least $600-700 for a few days in Disney, our recent almost week-long trip to New Hampshire cost us $350 total for two people and a dog including gas, food, and “accommodations” (our Subaru Outback). We could have made it another $100 cheaper had we brought dinners to cook on our camp stove and spent an extra hour on the road avoiding tolls (holy cow- NY and MD tolls are expensive!!). Here are the ways we cut corners to go on as many trips as we do.
1) Plan, plan, plan!
All of the below require planning or you’re liable to spend way more than you originally thought. You will also likely find you are able to accomplish more with less energy during your trip. Studies are also showing that we are happiest when planning a vacation than even during it (Read more here)! My planning technique is extensive, involving a whole write-up with information about cheap but healthy food along the way, climbing gyms in the area (back-up plans), climbing crags, climbing routes, places to stay as plan A and plan B and C, etc. We don’t ever stick strictly to “the plan” and there is no way to accomplish hitting up all the items on the list, but we pick and choose when we get there, play it by ear, and have fun with no planning while we are there.
2) Stay with friends or family, in your car, at a campsite, or rent a cabin with a bunch of people instead of a hotel.
What I’ve found is that the best way to travel cheap is by taking advantage of connections. Staying with friends, family (or even friends of family or friends) provides not only free accommodations, but also often free food, a nice place to stay, and awesome time to socialize. If you don’t know anyone in the area, sleeping in your car is free. We’ve done it with two people and a dog and it’s honestly not that uncomfortable as long as your middle seat can fold down. Advice: bring pads for your hips/back! Campsites are often reasonable, $5-10 per night per person. Some even have wi-fi, game rooms, etc. If you have an RV or trailer (lucky you!), you can even find places that will let you park for free: I hear most Walmart’s allow overnight parking as do some rest stops. You have to check with them first.
3) Bring/cook your own meals.
This is one of the easiest concepts, but the most difficult to execute (in my opinion). This all of course depends on your accommodations.
If you have access to a fridge and microwave: Your options are endless! Bring sandwiches, salads (like this salad in a jar concept), home-cooked hot meals, etc. Eat leftovers and be merry.
If you have access to a portable stove, but no fridge: You can either buy dehydrated foods that you can boil water for and add to (this can get pricey too) or make easy small meals on the stove like mac and cheese, rice and beans, etc. If you have a dehydrator, you can dehydrate veggies and fruits and sauces and bring those with spices and pasta and quinoa, lentils, etc. and cook those together in the stove. You can also put dehydrated meals into separate freezer bags and add boiled water into these as quick on-the-go meals. (See this video for an example.)
If you have no access to stove, fridge, or cooking supplies: D and I lived on bagels with almond/hazelnut/peanut butter for breakfast and clif bars with apples/oranges for a week. We ate dinners out, but could have easily eaten PB/J sandwiches, canned foods, etc. Another idea is bring a cooler if you won’t be going on a trip more than 4-5 days and bring most food to your heart’s content.
4) Choose cheap (or free) activities.
Almost any outdoor activities are free or cheap (as in pay for parking and/or gear rental and that is it). Exploring towns and villages and window-shopping is free, but fun. Hooking up some more connections with friends could yield fun things to do without paying. Look online for free or cheap concerts, shows, or festivals in the area you’re visiting. There are countless activities out there that won’t break the bank.
5) Bring friends.
One of the things that has cut down on expenses the most for us is bringing others along. Instead of splitting gas or accommodations between two people, we split it between four or five and that is two to three times more the trips we can make in the future with that money saved. If you share food supplies, costs get even cheaper. Plus, it provides you with awesome experiences with friends who become closer every trip you take.
6) Find the bargains.
D and I start planning trips months ahead of time. Why? Because if we’re going to fly or get a hotel, it takes a while to find the best deal. It requires loads of research at numerous websites (I use Kayak, Orbitz, Travelocity, Expedia, CheapoAir, and Southwest to compare flights and sometimes hotels and rental cars too) and just the right timing to get cheap flights. Also, you have to be flexible. If you have it planned out that you want to go to Denver (for instance) sometime in the next year, wait until those 72-hour travel discounts come up and book then. We got tickets for D and I round-trip to Denver for under $450 total in this way. Tip: The best time to travel is a few days to a week after a holiday or big event. For instance, Jan 4- wow, everything will be empty! Sept 6 (when school starts)- awesome! Also, don’t miss the great websites out there that allow you to have nice accommodations for cheaper like CouchSurfing and AirBnB.
7) Be prepared and flexible. (insert picture of us snowshoeing)
How is it possible to be flexible and book a ticket anywhere at any time? By being prepared for anything. We are going to CO very soon and right now it’s looking like a cold trip. We plan on climbing, but we’ll be prepared to snowshoe or backpack if the weather isn’t holding up or worse case scenario go to a climbing gym and hang out inside. Because we go with the flow and especially the weather, we aren’t disappointed with any situation and we don’t end up spending money on redundant items (like sweaters or raincoats) because we didn’t bring warm enough clothes or rain gear.
8) Take pictures and memories back with you, not souvenirs.
Souvenirs are for the birds. Seriously. Unless you collect specific things from every trip you take (like a sticker or a postcard because those are cheap :-)), do you really think a way-too-expensive ornament you bought in a gift shop on your trip is going to mean anything even a few days after you get home? In my opinion, the most important things about trips are what we experienced when we were there: the beautiful scenery, the sunsets, the challenges, and the people we spent our time with. Those can be remembered by photos and reminiscing with the people we experienced the trip with. So next time you go into a gift shop to buy a souvenir, take a picture of your friend in the crazy hat you saw instead. It will mean so much more years later. 🙂
9) Barter for pet or child care.
Pet care is expensive. Way too expensive for my liking. I love Winter and want her to be in a safe place enjoying herself while we’re away, but I just don’t think it’s necessary to send her off to doggy daycare. We have plenty of friends who love Winter too and enjoy having a pet for a week. We are immensely appreciative, of course, and offer them gifts in return for taking care of her. Some even stay at our place with her while we’re away. I would much rather know Winter is in safe hands and not be spending a fortune than leave her with people I don’t know and break the bank on pet care instead of saving it for future trips. I don’t have children, but it seems like many family members or other friends with kids wouldn’t mind taking in your kids for a weekend while you have some time alone in exchange for reciprocation or just love and cookies. 🙂
10) Make friends for future trips.
We’ve almost always met at least one new person during every trip we go on. Sometimes, those people become friends who we continue to meet up with every time we visit their home town. In CO, we have some friends who have been generous enough to open up their home to us almost every time we come into town and even offered us a Thanksgiving meal! It’s so nice to have a “home away from home” and people to visit and connect with during every trip.
11) Do the math.
When you actually calculate out the multiple ways of getting to a location, you will find there are a lot of factors that influence the amount spent. Driving is often cheaper than flying, for instance, especially if you have multiple people in one car. However, if you’re spending a whole bunch of gas on just bringing yourself somewhere, it can be as expensive as flying. If you get a flight on a deal (or with mileage), it can even be cheaper than driving. Driving halfway or all the way across the US even with multiple people can still be more costly (and of course less efficient) than traveling by air. Mileage of your car is also a factor in expense. Bundling a hotel or rental car with a flight can make things cheaper as well (but not always!). The point is before your trip (months before if this is not a quick weekend trip), calculate each method of travel and all the deals available and determine which is the best for you on your budget so there aren’t any big surprises after you come back home or worst of all during your trip!
In the end, traveling in more efficient ways makes your wallet happy and your mind too. It makes you creative and forces you to experience novel situations. Moreover, it is good for the soul to vacation without the tourist traps. When you spend time on the “back roads” so to speak, it is possible to experience a location in a new, exciting, and possibly more authentic way.