Cheapskates on Vacation: 10 Thrifty Tips for Your Summer Travel Budget

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by Daisy Luther

Lots of folks of the spendthrift variety imagine that we of Clan Frugal sit around our houses all the time with the lights out humming to ourselves in the darkness so we don’t waste money on electricity. Imagining us doing something so normal as taking a vacation would blow their minds.

We take vacations. We just do it a little bit differently.

Instead of a week-long free-for-all that will take our credit cards an entire year to recover, we have some little tricks that help us go do something fun without breaking the bank.

NOTE: This is an excerpt from my book, The Cheapskate’s Guide to Living Large on  Tiny Budget. This is the last week this book will be available until 2020 because it was purchased by Skyhorse Publishing. If you want to grab the PDF before I take it off the market, this is the time! Click here to make your purchase.

Here’s how to have an awesome summer vacation while still achieving Cheapskate nirvana.

Have a budget.

Don’t start a vacation without a budget. Figure out how much you can afford to spend (without putting any of it on plastic.)

I like to withdraw cash for most of the expenses, although I do use a debit card for fuel (pay-at-the-pump is so much easier) and for hotels, who think cash is sketchy.

If I’m planning to give money to the kids, I dole it out ahead of time and I let them know that this is it – I won’t be giving them anymore for the entire week, so they should spend it wisely.

I use the envelope method to ration out my spending money each day we’ll be gone and only use my card for the two expenses mentioned above. If I know that one day I’ll be paying for pricy admission to some kind of attraction, I figure that in and pull a bit of money away from the day before and the day after.

The easiest way to do this?

  1. Figure out how much you’re spending.
  2. Subtract the cost of accommodations.
  3. Subtract the cost of fuel to get to your destination.
  4. Divide whatever is leftover by the number of days you’re going to be gone.

It’s that simple.

Don’t use a vacation as an excuse to abandon your common sense.

One thing I see over and over is the justification, “Well, I’m on vacation.” People seem to think that this makes it okay to buy all your drinks at convenience stores along the way or to buy ridiculous and unneeded items that you’ll throw away within a week of returning home.

While you are on holidays, continue with the same tactics that allow you to save money during normal, non-vacation times.

Vacation doesn’t mean that food has no calories, nor does it mean that money has mysteriously appeared for your entertainment. (Despite the fact that it would be AWESOME if that were to happen.) Stick to your plan, Stan, or you’ll be paying for this trip with staggering interest for the next 2 years.

Make a plan ahead of time.

While part of the joy of being on vacation (at least for me) is the spontaneity, it doesn’t mean that I don’t have a general plan. While I rarely make reservations at hotels for a road trip, I have a general idea of where we’ll be and the approximate cost.

I know there are certain things that will cost more money (admissions, outings, events) and that allows me to have a good idea of how much the whole shebang is going to cost us. You don’t want to spend all your money on the second day because you didn’t plan wisely and then sit in your hotel room eating peanut butter and crackers for the rest of the trip.

Bring food with you.

This is probably a no-brainer for my fellow Cheapskates but bringing your food can save you TONS of money. If we are traveling for long, we like to stop at a grocery store in the morning and grab some food and snacks for the day ahead to stash in our cooler. I like to stick to my normal weekly grocery budget when I’m away and that means I’m going to be having a few cheap-o meals so I can also enjoy some nicer ones.

I usually get food that is a little more “junk food-ish” for a trip so that the young natives don’t get restless and beg for drive-thru food. At the same time, it’s a vacation, so we do budget for some meals out while we’re gone.

Consider eating outside to make things more fun. Now that my kids aren’t little, they aren’t as jazzed about the humble picnic as they used to be, but younger kids love to sit on a blanket on the ground and eat lunch in a park.

The way it usually goes is this: the hotel where we’re staying provides breakfast, we eat lunch out (most restaurants have specials at lunchtime), and we eat snacky stuff in our room for dinner.

Bring your drinks.

A family of 4 buying drinks at a convenience store all day long can rack up a hefty chunk of change. If you get 4 drinks throughout the day (which is not outrageous and is actually probably low) at the price of $1.50 per drink, that’s $24 per day.  If a couple of those drinks are $5 coffees from our favorite stop with the green and white cups, you’re hovering around the $50 mark. At LEAST.

We have a mini Keurig that we take on road trips. Yeah, I know, K-cups aren’t the cheapest way to drink coffee, but it’s convenient on the road and a heck of a lot cheaper than drive-thru coffee. We keep cream that I’ve presweetened in the cooler so that we can doctor up our coffee on the go.

This has saved us a fortune over the years even after the price of the coffee maker and I strongly recommend it. (We are a road trip kind of family, so we use this a lot.)

If you drink lots of water like we do, bring 1-gallon jugs and refill your individual containers from them. A single bottle of water is about a dollar and so is a 1-gallon jug – easy math!

Think outside the box hotel room.

All vacations don’t have to be spent in a hotel room that hasn’t been redecorated since harvest yellow and avocado green were in style. There are all sorts of other options.

  • Camping – if you’re an outdoorsy family, this could be the whole vacation right here
  • Airbnb or VRBO – These are nice because you have a whole apartment and most importantly – a kitchen– to yourself. Be sure to watch for sneaky add ons like “cleaning fees” and “service fees”
  • Trailers – Some campgrounds have trailers that are all set up for you to rent at a fraction of the price of a hotel room. You may need to bring your own bed linens and towels
  • Hostels – if you don’t mind sharing a room with strangers, you can snag a bed for a quarter of the price of grabbing a hotel

There are all sorts of creative options out there for your accommodations, so check all of them out before booking a room.

Use public transit. 

If you’re traveling someplace urban, you can spend a whole lot of money just parking your car.

We usually park at the hotel and leave our vehicle there the entire time. Then, we take public transit to get around the city. When looking for a place to stay, free parking is always high on the list of desired amenities.

Particularly if you’re headed to a bigger city, public transit is the way to go. When we went to New York City, we stayed in New Jersey near the Holland Tunnel, walked 10 minutes each morning to the subway, and spent about $4 each round trip to get into the city.

Find out if you’re eligible for any discounts.

There are all sorts of discounts for which your family members may be eligible. Here are just a few:

  • Senior citizen/AARP
  • Student
  • AAA
  • Memberships in professional organizations
  • Memberships in travel clubs
  • Costco

Do a little research before taking your trip and see if the cost of certain memberships will be canceled out by the savings. Make sure to bring all potential saving cards with you, like student IDs for the kids and membership cards for other organizations.

Look for free things to do.

This is why I love the internet. In the afore-mentioned trip to New York City, we were able to plan our itineraries around which museums had free admission on which days. We didn’t pay a penny to get into some of the best and most famous museums in the country due to our planning.

Throughout the year, different locations hold events to draw tourists and they can generally be found on the cities’ websites – just look for the Calendar of Events. We’ve gotten into concerts, museums, and festivals without spending any money using this little trick.

There’s an app for that.

If you’re a smartphone user, there are all sorts of apps that can help you save money traveling. Some of my favorites are:

  • GasBuddy – Finds the least expensive gas in your vicinity
  • TripAdvisor – Get reviews so that you don’t waste your money at a cruddy motel or restaurant.
  • Expedia or Kayak – Find the best prices for motels at your destination (often far cheaper than you’ll pay at the desk)
  • WAZE – This is a community-based traffic and navigation app. It uses a fair bit of data for navigation but if that isn’t an issue, it will reroute you around delays and notify you to slow down if there is a speed trap ahead.
  • Google Maps – Free navigation to help you get where you need to go.
  • Groupon – Get discounts for dining out, accommodations, and activities on Groupon.
  • Field Tripper or Viator – Find things to do and get discounts and VIP access with these apps.

As well, some travel destinations have their own apps to help you get the most out of your trip. Beware of using too much data though, depending on your phone service.

Enjoy your trip!

If you are like me, sometimes the extra spending I’ll be doing on a vacation can be stressful. By planning ahead of time and budgeting carefully, I’m able to relax and enjoy the time I’m spending with the people I love.


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