Updated on 03.11.16

Eight Things to Pack for a Frugal Vacation

No matter where you're headed, planning ahead can save you money.

While the price of a spring break or summer getaway can vary drastically based on where you go and what you do, most parents are keenly aware that spring travel — especially during a school vacation week — isn’t usually cheap.

According to travel site FareCompare.com, certain days of the week – most notably, weekends – command much higher prices for airfare than others. If you plan to fly Saturday-to-Saturday, for example, start mentally preparing yourself to pay quite a bit more. Plus, nonstop flights and flights to certain high-demand destinations will cost more in 2016. So, if you want to go where all the “cool kids” are going, you might pay considerably more as well.

Not flying? If that’s the case, your travel budget will mostly depend on the destination of your choosing, what type of hotel or lodging you go for, and the type of activities or excursions you decide to splurge on.

Depending on your travel goals and how deeply you dig to find discounts, the final price tag on your trip could add up to something very manageable — or quite a lot.

Eight Items to Pack for a Frugal Vacation

Still, the amount of money you’ll spend along the way can be whittled down if you know what to pack. Whether you’re flying or driving, staying in a condo or hotel, or simply visiting family for a weekend, filling your bag with some key items will help you save money on any trip you take – no matter what.

Before you leave town, here are some items you should plan to bring along:

Snacks

Whether you’re driving or flying, you’ll want snacks to consume along the way. And if you have kids, snacks are an absolute must if you want to avoid picking up pricey processed junk food at the airport or stopping at gas stations or convenience stores. Most of the time, both will be stocked with mostly expensive and often unhealthy foods. By planning ahead, on the other hand, you get to decide what your kids will eat.

While you can’t bring liquids from home on an airplane, you can fill up a reusable water bottle once you’re beyond airport security, and you can pack your own snacks in your carry-on bag or purse.

When it comes to my family (and many families I’ve seen), most lean towards snacks that aren’t messy and travel well – things like granola bars, Ziploc bags with a favorite cereal, graham crackers, mixed nuts, and dried fruit.

Sunscreen and bug spray

Traveling to a tourist area can mean shelling out big bucks for “extras” like sunblock and insect repellent. In many destinations in the Caribbean, you’ll often see sunscreen for $35 or more for a standard-sized container! It kinda makes you want to let yourself burn, or just stay inside instead.

Fortunately, both sunscreen and bug spray are easy to bring along if you drive, and easy enough if you fly. If you’re driving to your spring break destination, you can easily pack anything you want – and as much as you want. If you’re flying, plan on packing your sunscreen and bug spray in your checked luggage, particularly if it’s in an aerosol can. If you want to bring sunblock or bug spray in your carry-on bag, they must be in containers that are three ounces or less.

pack sunscreen

Don’t get stuck paying $20 or more for a small tube of sunblock – pack your own. Photo: Peter Dutton

Cheap games and activities

They say that idle hands are the devil’s workshop, but on spring break, idle hands can cost you money! When there’s nothing to do, we tend to fill our time with shopping or activities that cost cash. The best thing you can do to avoid spending lots of money on activities is to bring some with you.

For most typical spring break getaways, that could mean bringing a football to throw around, packing some board games to play with the kids, or bringing some beach and pool gear, from blow-up rafts to water toys.

Taking a few decks of cards along is almost always a smart idea when you have a week or longer to kill. After all, who doesn’t like a game of Crazy 8’s?

Books and magazines

If reading and vacation go hand-in-hand in your world, you’ll want to bring your supplies with you. Magazines and books are drastically marked up in airports and gas stations, but you can pick up some cheap stuff at home and bring it with you – or even buy a few books on Amazon and have them shipped to your hotel.

Better yet, dig through your book collection and bring along something you already own but haven’t gotten around to reading yet. Or hit your local library for enough free reading materials to keep you busy for a week or more.

Either way, reading and doing Sudoku or crossword puzzles while on vacation can be a cheap and relaxing way to stay busy during your trip. Plus, they can give you something to do while you’re actually traveling – whether you’re getting to your destination on a plane or in a stuffy car all day.

Activity coupons, and a plan

Whenever my family goes somewhere on vacation, we normally look for coupons or discounts several weeks beforehand. Top sites to check out include TravelZoo and Groupon, which both sometimes offer discounted prices on attractions and parks we may want to visit anyway.

You can generally save some money by picking up a discount ticket early instead of paying at the gate. Just remember, if you go with a deal you find on a site like Groupon, Living Social, or TravelZoo, you should always read the fine print! Make sure there are no exclusions or rules that would make it difficult for you to use the discount during your trip.

A cooler

A rolling cooler is the perfect tool to bring along for a frugal spring break. In the car, you can pack enough snacks, drinks, and meals for the duration of your drive. If you fly, simply check your cooler like a bag, filling it with clothes, shoes, or whatever else fits.

Once you arrive at your destination, you can use your cooler to bring snacks and drinks along wherever you go. At the beach, a cooler stuffed full of ice, snacks, and drinks is an absolute no-brainer. But even at pricey Disney World, you can save a bundle on food by carting around your own cooler inside the park.

If dragging around a big box of ice sounds miserable to you, or you’re staying at a nicer resort where a cooler by the pool might be frowned upon, you can bring an easier-to-carry (and more discreet) backpack cooler. My husband and I just did that at the pricey JW Marriott Resort & Spa in Cancun over winter break, and it worked well. We paid for our trip with points, and didn’t want to fork over $10 apiece for drinks!

A Bubba mug

Speaking of drinks, failing to plan ahead can cost you big time. Whether you’re drinking water, soda, or your favorite cocktail, you’ll want a way to keep it cold – and deter yourself from bellying up to the bar to buy more.

That’s why you’ll see many people on vacation carrying around giant Bubba mugs. This type of mug can keep your drink cold for hours on end, and has a lid so you can bring it with you wherever you go. Even if you’re just trying to stay hydrated, a full Bubba mug can keep you from buying pricey bottled water all day long.

A meal plan (and your own silverware)

Whether you’re staying in a hotel or vacation rental, you should be able to make and consume some meals in your room. This might be something as simple as peanut butter and jelly with veggies for lunch, a banana and yogurt for breakfast, or a simple sandwich you make yourself out of cold cuts.

Having a refrigerator in your room helps if you want to stock up on some simple groceries, but your cooler can also work in this respect. Just remember to bring your own silverware along (disposable or otherwise) if you plan to make sandwiches! After eating many, many meals in a hotel room with my family, I can tell you that finding a disposable plate is usually a piece of cake – but finding silverware to eat with can be nearly impossible!

The Bottom Line

Our spring break is coming up, but we still have time to figure out a few ways to save some money along the way. For my family, that means brainstorming things we’ve been forced to buy on vacation in the past, and bringing them with us instead.

Anything you can bring along for free is something you won’t have to buy when you arrive. And if you plan and prepare thoughtfully, the savings can be mean the difference between getting home with money still in your wallet – or going home broke.

What do you have planned for spring break this year? Are there any particular items you bring along to save money?

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