5 Tips for Penny Pinching Vacations

by David Ning · 0 comments


I come from a family that believes in the deluxe vacation experience. My mother likes to joke that she thinks she’s roughing it when there’s no chocolate on the pillow each night. However, with gas prices at $4 per gallon, airline ticket prices spiraling upward, and the cost of hotel stays making me feel weak in the knees, I’ve had to learn how to vacation on the cheap — or not vacation at all. Even on a budget and in a tough economy, it is possible to have a great family vacation without having to take the ubiquitous “staycation.”

1. Stay with friends or family. Our family vacation this year will be a week-long trip to see my sister and brother-in-law in Norfolk, Virginia. Our last vacation was a 10-day trip to visit friends who live in the San Francisco area. Both of those destinations not only offer some of our favorite individuals, but also lots of great tourist attractions. By crashing on the futons/guest beds of friends and family, we’re able to visit areas of the country we couldn’t otherwise afford to see, and we have local guides, to boot. Obviously, you want to make sure you’re the ideal guest in this situation, so don’t invite yourself to their house, and do pay for your own groceries, help out around the house, and offer to take your host out for a nice meal as a thank you.

Don’t know anyone outside of your hometown? You can find someone to host you on vacation at www.couchsurfing.org. (And not to worry, despite the name, you probably won’t be sleeping on a couch.)

2. Bring your own food. One of the biggest vacation expenses is food. While it’s certainly a lot of fun to dine out for three meals a day while you’re on vacation, it really eats into your budget. If you’re staying with friends or family, it’s very easy to simply eat your normal cereal for breakfast and have cold cuts on hand for lunches or dinners. Even if you are staying in a hotel, you can still make sure you have food on hand in a mini-fridge. Finally, having a granola bar or snack pack of almonds in your purse or camera bag can save you a lot of money when a snack attack hits and you’re in the middle of a touristy area.

David’s Note: Whenever we stay at a hotel, I always make an effort to go to a nearby grocery store or pharmacy to buy a large jug of water. I notice we are basically the only ones to do this, which is strange, considering how the hotels charge $3 for each bottle of water.

When you do dine out, be smart about it. Lunch is generally a cheaper meal than dinner, not to mention less crowded. Eat where the locals go, rather than the hyped tourist destinations. You’ll probably have a better meal, and it will certainly be less expensive, too. Here are a few ways to spend less money in a restaurant.

3. Go to free attractions. Some of my favorite memories of our San Francisco trip were from simply taking walks around the city and admiring the beautiful architecture. In Virginia, we plan to spend a day or two at the beach, teaching my 9-month-old son how to make sand castles (and then keeping him from eating said sand castles). The entertainment value of a vacation activity does not have anything to do with the price. Before you head out for your trip, find out what local attractions are free or low-cost, and plan your itinerary around them.

4. Decide how badly you need a car. This might not work for every vacation, but you may find that there is no need for you to rent a car to get around. Between local public transportation, bicycle rentals and your own two feet, you may find that you see a different side of a vacation destination when you’re not whizzing past it in a car.

5. Relax! Sometimes you come home from a vacation and feel like you need another vacation. One benefit to being a penny-pinching vacationer is that you don’t have the cash to make sure you see every single sight. And that means you can sit back, relax, and watch the world go by one afternoon. Heck, you could even take a nap! When you don’t feel the need to fill every moment of your vacation with activity, you may find you enjoy your whole vacation a lot more.

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