Some Thoughts on Inexpensive Vacations

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This past weekend, my family and I travelled to Chicago to visit one of my first cousins and her two children. We stayed at their house and enjoyed a few activities in the Chicagoland area.

I had originally planned on doing a Chicago-themed follow up to last year’s article, Frugal Vacation Notes: Great Free Things to Do in the Dallas/Fort Worth Area. However, as the long weekend rolled on, I realized that several other things popped into mind that were worth noting rather than just pointing out free or inexpensive things to do in the city.

Instead, here are six useful things I learned about an inexpensive and still very enjoyable vacation over the last several days.

It’s all about the people.
Most of the enjoyment you experience on a vacation will be generated by other people, regardless of whether you’re traveling in a large group or by yourself. It is those human interactions, whether with people you know and love exploring a new environment or with people you’ve newly met, that add the spice and enjoyment to almost anything you do while on vacation.

It is out of recognition of this that we often schedule our vacations so that we can visit friends and family that are spread across the United States and elsewhere. Yes, it’s enjoyable to see and experience things on our own, but the opportunity to see and experience those things with people you love and care about – as well as the people you just happen to meet during the trip – adds something incomparable to the trip.

Try scheduling vacations where you travel to visit others, even staying in their home. Similarly, offer your home to people you know who are traveling to your area. Doing this not only saves money on lodging, but adds some great additional flavor to your vacation.

Don’t overload your days.
It’s easy, when visiting an area, to come up with an enormous list of things to do and schedule each day tightly with tons of activities. Avoid that temptation at all costs.

Instead, try to underschedule days, giving activities plenty of time and room. This allows you to spend extra time at a museum if you wish, or enjoy extra innings at a particularly exciting baseball game without throwing your scheduling way off pace. This also saves you money because you’re not investing in the cost of extra activities and travel to get to them.

You can have a list of “floating” activities that you can get to if you happen to have time on one of the days. We usually schedule one or, at most, two events per day, giving them each plenty of overrun time. If it turns out that an event ends quickly or isn’t appealing, we have a few ideas already floating around to fill in the rest of the day.

Keep the “peak-end rule” in mind.
Whenever a person thinks about a significant event in their life, they usually first remember the “peak” event that occurred and generally reflect on the event based on how it ended. For example, my immediate memories of the trip to Chicago center on the day I took my son to his first major league baseball game (and the harrowing trip away from the ballpark) as well as the wonderful steak dinner at my cousin’s home the final night.

What’s amazing is that this same “peak-end rule” works with almost every vacation I’ve ever taken. Sure, I can remember more things about each vacation if I stop to think, but my first reaction to each vacation usually involves a single peak experience and a sense of how it ended. I could make a long list of these, actually.

Keep those principles in mind when you plan your vacation. Don’t try to fill every day with the best possible activities – you won’t savor or remember them. Instead, make sure you have a “peak” experience – the biggest and best thing you want to do – and a good “end” experience, meaning you close out the vacation with something very pleasant and memorable.

Most of your best memories will come from unplanned things.
My strongest single memory from almost every vacation I’ve ever had was from something completely unplanned – sticking my feet in some frigid water with my sister-in-law in Victoria BC, walking with Sarah along a desert path to look for petroglyphs in Arizona, climbing a tall hill overlooking the city in Edinburgh, and, this last time, getting lost on foot in Chicago and meeting some interesting people while doing it.

This is yet another reason not to overplan your vacations. Allow some time to simply wander in interesting areas to see what you find. Don’t use your GPS to find a specific location and just drive there – use it to just browse what’s nearby.

What you find is often far more interesting than the hyper-planned stuff.

Make one meal a day special.
In the past, I’ve vacationed with people who desire to eat exquisite meals three times a day. What I found was that at the end of the vacation, I had just gained a bunch of weight and I didn’t remember most of the meals we’ve eaten.

If you love a great meal on your vacation, that’s wonderful. Just don’t overstuff your days with them. Have one great meal a day, then eat healthy minimalist meals at other times during the day when you’re hungry. This will not only help you to feel better when you’re on vacation, but will allow you to more deeply enjoy the great meals you do have instead of merely having them be the ordinary thing.

On our vacation, we simply ate many meals at my cousin’s home, aiding her in preparation and some ingredient buying.

Take a backpack wherever you go.
Water bottles. Granola bars. Raisins. Sunscreen. We never left our cousin’s home without a backpack containing these items. Often, the pack included sandwiches and a GPS unit as well.

Why have these items? The biggest reason is that they simply save money, keeping you from hitting a vending machine or something similar to sate your thirst or hunger while out and about. It’s also convenient, as you can just sit on a bench and pull a sandwich and a bottle of water out of your pack at lunch time instead of having to locate a restaurant or some other service to provide you expensive items.

This left us more time for exploring interesting things and more money was left over after the trip was finished.

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39 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Inexpensive Vacations

  1. Good advice, but also not my thing. Except for maybe the last one, take a backpack with you whereever you go.

    If it’s the kind of thing you enjoy, Camping can be the ultimate cheap vacation. While it can be a relatively expensive hobby if you let it get that way, compared to vacation expenses it’s cheap.

    All of my backpacking equipment cost a little over $1000. Maybe $1500-2000 if you count a camera and some other gear that’s used for other things. All the expensive items are high quality gear that will not wear out for years to come.

    From that expenditure I’ve had at least 6 memorable vacations for little more than the cost of gas or airfare and about the same that I’d be spending on food at home. Yosemite, Yellowstone, , Arches, the Ozark Highlands Trial etc. A number of minor trips too.

  2. About the unplanned events are the most memorable — when we went to Orlando and went to Disneyworld, we got stuck in a huge rain storm. We remember that more than any one event, ride, or fireworks display.

  3. The one here that I really disagree with is packing your days. It depends upon the trip. If you’re with small kids, take it slow, agreed. We’re planning a trip with two toddlers. I forsee many parks and slow days. On the other hand, my parents have done some slow tours and some super-packed tours and they’ve enjoyed the super-packed tours A LOT.

    Specifically, when they’ve gone to China, they felt like they didn’t want to miss anything, and packing three or four sites in to each day might be tiring, but it makes the trip exciting and memorable, and makes for fantastic photos.

  4. For me, when I go on vacation I’m more interested in the daily lives of the people. I love to try the local street food. It’s not recommended for everybody but if you have an iron stomach like me, give it a shot, some of the est food I’ve had, had been street food.

    As a bonus, street food is usually much cheaper then dining at a fancy restaurant and I believe you get a better feel for the culinary culture of the country your visiting.

    Dynamite Resume

  5. I like the idea of “peak experience”- I’d also add to pace their days around an after-lunch lunch lull- whether you actually nap or not, age 1 to 100, everyone is better for some after-lunch quiet time!
    As for the backpack, after many a day trip with my sister’s kids, I recommend a “you want it, you pack it” rule for everyone over the age of 3. Moms (and aunties!) tend to carry way too much of everyone’s stuff and end up sore and cranky. Backpacks come in all sizes, and packing at least diapers, a wipe or two, clean clothes and a small water bottle for a child to carry in their own backpack means a mere pound for them, but a HUGE load off of the adult’s backs! Attaching a ribbon or belt to fasten it to the back of their shirt or belt loop helps keep little “fiddle fingers” from taking it off and leaving it somewhere helps too.
    I also assigned the older kids a pencil and a few “mad libs” games for playing while waiting in line- very helpful!

  6. This is how my family always “vacationed” when i was growing up. Sad to say, i mostly remember it as hell on wheels. But then, my family wasn’t particularly healthy. We would drive 5 long, long days across the country as fast as we could. I remember being rushed out of the car to look at & snap a picture of Mount Rushmore or some other scene, & then back in the car for hours upon hours of travel. It was miserable.

    I think another family could do this & make it enjoyable, but that is not how i remember it at all. I did enjoy visiting with cousins once we arrived. I will admit that i wish that just once or twice my family could have done something that wasn’t just visiting family/friends. But considering how screwed up we were, we probably would have screwed that up too.

    All that said, however, it IS largely what i consider a “vacation.” My hubby & i took a lovely trip to Yellowstone & spent a bit more money than we ever would otherwise, but that was once in our 6 years of marriage. I imagine it won’t happen again until we’ve been married 10 or 15 or 20 years. I doubt we’d ever go on a cruise or to Jamaica, & probably not to Hawaii either. But that’s ok with me, it will make those rare trips special. Because of our lifestyle, just being home is a treat for me. I still have trouble considering visiting family/friends as a true “vacation.” (Introvert, stress.)

    Still, it surprises me to learn that folks i know, friends or family have visited this area (So. Cal.) on vacation & never even bothered to call. But i suppose those are the folks who don’t want to be bothered with visiting while they are vacationing.

  7. Don’t forget that everyone is different. These are good ideas based on your values, but not everyone is interested in the same things. Sure, I might go to visit friends or family away sometimes. That can be nice. But for me, vacations are *not* primarily about the people. Vacations are about the experience and the scenery. I would way rather climb an interesting mountain that meet an interesting person.
    I would alter your guidelines to suggest “look back at your previous vacations, and think about what parts really stood out; what really matters to you. Plan your vacations around those parts.”
    For different people, the important thing (people, mountains, cultural experiences, beaches) will be different.

  8. My wife and I were discussing your post tonight. She reminded me that on our honeymoon to Hawaii, she surprised me with a box of cereal from home. This is when I realized the extent of my new wife’s frugality. We had cheap breakfasts so that we could enjoy splurging for dinner.

  9. I totally agree that It’s All About the People. I traveled all over the world before I married my husband, and much of that time I was solo. My husband has never met a hitchhiker he didn’t like, and being with him has opened my eyes to the depth of experience you have when you make a human connection.

  10. And leave the GPS unit at home. I’m hating traveling with people with GPS. Wandering around in a new city, getting minorly lost, taking new routes, and finding your way back is the best way to experience that. GPS kills that experience. Get a map!

  11. It is NOT always about the people! I am a mom of 2, and just spent 5 wonderful days camping alone in bear country.

    Fourteen bucks a night, and food from the reg grocery budget- I made a fire and cooked. And frozen home-made blueberry pancakes are fine thawed/cold for breakfast.
    My biggest expense? Gas. And I went and saw “Predators” at the nearest town (40 minutes away), which was kind of a mistake so close to returning to a pitch-black solitary campsite!

    Mostly just hiking, swimming, cooking and reading. All free. 5 days cost me $150 incl. gas and tolls, even 5 hours away. Chance to clear my head, come back refreshed, happy, and relaxed? Priceless.

  12. Unplanned experiences are often the best.

    I totalled a car in South Africa (almost drove it off a bridge and was lucky it didn’t teeter off and drown us). Anyway, some farmers picked us up and hosted us in their home for 2 days while we were getting a replacement rental.

    Literally the most memorable moment of that vacation. Sometimes peak moments are negative but then they end up being funny as time passes.

  13. Vey intuitive comments. I think its almost human nature for people to “overplan” their vacations and try to make everything, and I mean everything, about them, memorable. Maybe its because we vacation for shorter periods of time and less than most other nations.

    Keep them simple and allow for rest time I always say.

  14. I agree with Kai that everyone is different. My husband and I have settled into a routine with traveling so that we don’t overload days. That would drive my parents nuts (which definitely explains my tendency to want to overload days even though I end up cranky and unhappy). But there are several points here that will definitely save money, especially the take a backpack rule. Just be careful if you are traveling into another country…you may have to throw some of the contents away, i.e. apples.

    Definitely agree with the memories coming from unplanned things: one of my favorite memories in London was getting on a bus, getting off whenever the mood struck me, getting back on a bus on the same route and then eventually heading home.

    triLcat: did your parents take a tour when they went to China or did they strike out on their own and do all that they did? I would think it would be much easier to pack in a lot of sights if someone else was directing the whole show.

  15. The best vacation I ever took was several years ago with my husband’s mom and step dad in Hawaii. I think what made the trip so wonderful was that we stayed a week and did absolutely nothing. Growing up, my parents had always done short trips, packed full with things to do. In adulthood I had unconsciously done the same thing and thereby made most of my trips abroad and elsewhere not very relaxing. Even to this day, my parents will go to Europe and see four countries in seven days. It’s madness.

    Even though my husband and I can’t afford the same Hawaiian vacation on the beach for a week with our kids, I hope to do equally relaxing trips for them when they are older. It might just be at lake an hour away in a rustic cabin, but I want them to have what I didn’t as a child.

  16. If you live near a major city (this probably works if you don’t, too) and you have enough freedom in your life (no family/kids), I find it really refreshing to take small mini-vacations on a regular basis. Just spending the day somewhere new, getting away from the daily grind and everything that represents your normal routine, can be very refreshing and a great, inexpensive way to recharge your batteries.

    For example, I live on Long Island, and this past weekend I took a day-long trip to New York City. Transportation was $25 for a round-trip train ticket; entertainment while I was there cost $12. I focused on things that were mostly free (luckily NYC has lots of these; the NYPL, museums, etc..) and food cost possibly $15.

    So for about $50 what I got was a fun day that was completely refreshing; and I didn’t have to go far, either.

  17. So I assume that you saw nothing wrong with asking your cousins to house and feed you for most of the vacation?

  18. But Apu, they “On our vacation, we simply ate many meals at my cousin’s home, aiding her in preparation and some ingredient buying. “!!!

    We do not have spread out families here (no need to sleep over) but amd not a huge fan of spending 100% of my time with the people we are going on vacation with. It’s nice to be able to split into smaller groups.

  19. In most circles, it is customary for the house guests to take the hosting family out for a meal, as an immediate thank-you, and to provide a break from making double-sized meals. Usually toward the end of the visit, when the hosts grow tired.

  20. Great ideas! I would also recommend visiting the local mom-and-pop markets – it’s so much fun to see the different foods available in different parts of the country and the world. It’s great to pick up a loaf of intriguing bread, a bottle of something you’ve never heard of before, or whatever catches your eye, and just enjoy. Especially during good weather, there’s nothing like nibbling on local treats while people watching.

  21. When I grew up we lived far away from family. Every vacation we took was to go visit my grandparents. I felt slighted. Now I don’t even consider visiting family a vacation. I am careful to balance those family trips with actual vacations that focus on togetherness and enjoyment for just the five of us. I think pacing is all a matter of preference. My husband goes a little nuts if we are not go go go all the time. We’ve tried the slow pace, but the kids get antsy and end up bickering. We pack our schedule and it works great for us. We also like to plan mini-vacations that wrap around single day activities. If we go to the closest amusement park (1 hr away) we camp close by in a state park for about $12 a night for the night before and that night. It makes it more of an experience. We also try to take an adults only trip every other year (3-4 days). It really benefits the whole family by taking us out of the constant mommy/daddy roles and focusing on our commitment as partners.

  22. I love to take time online before taking a trip to come up with a huge list of things I/we could do while on the vacation, such as museums, sites, monuments, etc. I always make sure to mark when certain places have discount or free days. Knowing full well that I would need several weeks or more to hit everything, I plug this list into my phone and just see where the wind takes me. That way, I can check it on the go, and also not have to worry about carrying around printed copies of anything (or city/transit maps). I love technology sometimes.

    As far as unexpected memories? Chicago, Hancock Tower Observatory, 4th of July, 11PM. We had planned to visit the tower at night and just happened to end up there on the Fourth. We had absolutely no idea that we would be able to see fireworks as far as you could imagine. That might be the best however-many-dollars I’ve ever spent.

  23. I kinda of disagree, my vacations are always about getting AWAY. I want to go away to a remote island AWAY From people and camp for the weekend with no one to bother me :p

    It’s just me and my husband, relaxing and enjoying our time together, just US. Of course, I only get a mini-vacation once a year, so it’s very important to unwind with the person closest to me.

  24. I totally agree with Kai(#4). Everybody has different values and different vacation styles. My (solo) vacations are not about people. I go to see scenery and experience places and things, and people may or may not make an impression on me.

    Being someone’s houseguest is not a vacation to me. I don’t like to impose, and it wouldn’t feel much different than staying at my own house. I’d rather be frugal elsewhere in my life and “splurge” on a hotel room.

    To each his/her own.

  25. Loved your take on meals. A lot of our family get-togethers end up being about the food. Instead of planning our next activity together, we end up just planning where we are going to eat, and bloat, next. One special meal would be lovely.

  26. Everyone has a different opinion of what is considered a vacation. I myself consider everyday a vacation and try to enjoy every minute of my day.

  27. I liked this blog. I have some wonderful stories from vacations and they all have to do with unplanned events and people I have met. Some of the best vacations I have had were ones where we just kind of “winged it”.

  28. I have to agree with some of the previous posters, in that I don’t like staying in other peoples’ homes that much. A couple days isn’t too bad, but I do have a hard time relaxing because I have that sense of imposing, even though it was their offer to let us stay in their home. I think it’s important to make sure you’re on the same page with people you’re visiting or vacationing with. My in-laws love nothing more than to visit my husband and I, and sit around and talk. Personally, I can’t stand that much sitting. I’d rather be out doing things, especially if I have taken time off from my job to be with them. Everyone has their own ideas of what makes a good time, and if expectations are laid out ahead of time of a schedule, what to do, how much time to spend together, things will go more smoothly. I love having visitors but I do NOT love having them with me 24/7. Quality time, not quantity for me!

  29. Kai’s point was excellent: look back at what you’ve enjoyed before, and plan your next vacation that way.

    Planning for what suits your individual style and values should go without saying. Of course, if you don’t KNOW what your individual vacation style is because you haven’t been able to really plan a getaway according to only your own wishes, some mini-trips to sort things out would seem to be called for.

    It would suck to book the bargain cruise only to discover that you hate being pent up in a floating hotel for 3, 5, or 7 days, released like a kid on recess to visit a tourist-trap port once a day.

    It would also suck to plan a week of walking tours in a new city only to discover that you actually kind of wish, the whole time, that you were lolling on a beach instead. :-)

    Regardless of taste, most of Trent’s tips apply no matter what kind of vacation you plan.

  30. Unplanned things are reallly memorable. Last easter vacation y took my wife and 2 year old son to Disney World. We live in Dominican Republic. On our way back to Davie, FL, where we were staying, I took a wrong turn and ended up driving through the town of Celebration. It proved to be a wonderful sight, and very memorable, since my wife had never visited the US before. She loved the traditional design of that little town so much it is almost her ‘Peak’ moment of the trip.

  31. Visiting my family is a nice visit, but not a vacation. Mr. BFS and I have done road trips and cruises and even visit Las Vegas. All of those trips were fun because we were together, relaxed, seeing new stuff, and enjoying each other’s company.

    We seem to enjoy medium-packed trips…not too little to get bored but not too much to get stressed. We really enjoy cruises since there are a variety of activities available the whole time and the port excursions are excellent (whether you book through the cruise line or not). A cruise last year helped me discover an inherent love for snorkeling. Living close to Galveston means that I never knew how cool it is to see under water. :-)

  32. We often stay with family and friends while traveling, and have found ways to not feel like we’re imposing. We might do the grocery shopping, walk the dog, invite our hosts out for a nice dinner – or even help with some small household projects.

    When we’re on our own, I always prefer bed and breakfasts to hotels. Cozier, cheaper, and much more contact with the locals. I just read about a site, http://www.airbnb.com that offers room and apartment rentals all over the world.

  33. Several years ago, my sister’s neighbor and his wife went to China and Australia. I was excited for them and said “Wow, Ralph, China and Australia, what a neat trip!” He proceeded to tell me every meal they ate! I don’t think he even noticed the Sydney Opera House or the Great Wall of China, they were just a backdrop that got in the way of his meals!

  34. Ad lib some time, if you can. Don’t be afraid to get lost–I’ll never forget being lost in Harlem at sunset on a Saturday, looking for the George Washington Bridge–and years later, finding it again in a Sonny Rollins CD. No souvenirs, but rural garage-sale items which are loved mementos of several vacations. Museums are free, and you can discover on your own what makes an Old Master great. You may remember a picnic meal spent with campground neighbors long after the expensive meal is forgotten.

  35. Really like your consideration of the pace of the holiday or trip, I travel a lot with work and on my own personal time and I am always amazed by people who expect me to be a tourist 24/7, sure you can be conscious and look for the cool stuff but there has to be a rhythm to the journey… full throttle non-stop would be *no* fun whatsoever.

  36. Definitely stay with friends and family! I just spent a month abroad for under $2k (plane ticket not included) because I was able to stay at friends’ places (and eat their food for breakfast….). I judiciously stayed a few nights in hotels when I needed a bit of alone time, but for the most part really enjoyed the conversations that can only happen late at night.

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