Updated on 06.29.07

An Inexpensive, Fun Family Vacation Idea From My Childhood

Trent Hamm

amtrakWhen I was young, my family did not have a whole lot of money for trips. Most of our “vacations” were trips to Grandma’s house – she lived a few hours away and had a big house that even had a hidden tunnel in it that let you sneak from one bedroom to another through a door in the back of a closet. To me, this trip (we would stay for four or five days) was the highlight of my summer most years.

However, we did take a few trips besides these. They stuck in my memory then because they were so much fun, but looking back on it now, the ideas behind the trip were pieces of pure genius from my family. Here’s what we did.

We would travel by Amtrak to another part of the country. Most of the time, these trips weren’t particularly far, actually – we were only on the train for a few hours (at least in my mind’s eye). However, one could schedule a trip to almost anywhere in the continental United States using this logic.

We would bring along camping equipment. On this Amtrak trip, we would bring along camping equipment – a tent, sleeping bags, and such. Our actual luggage was usually pretty light – t-shirts, shorts, sandals, and so on.

Upon arrival, we would completely play it by ear We would usually get off in a rural place at mid-day and from there we would completely play it by ear. My father would keep cash on him and he’d simply ask at the train station (or at the nearest business we could find) about local state parks and campgrounds. He would also usually inquire about transportation to this campground – most people would feel most comfortable with a rental car, but he usually asked about a car repair place, headed there, and offered some cash for use of the “loaner” for a few days – the cheapest rental possible, basically.

What did you do? Once we were camped out, we would often see local attractions, particularly free ones. It was trips like these that made me fall in love with Americana – things like the world’s largest twine ball, for example. Things like these are completely kitschy fun. We also enjoyed the natural beauty of the state parks – exploring the trails and such. The best part of rural state parks is that they’re quite safe for families – we were basically allowed to wander wherever we wanted in the park, even at a young age, and we would rarely see other people at all.

We’d usually spend at least part of the time learning how to do something new, usually something bordering on survivalism. We would start fires using nothing but the materials around us, make fishing poles with nothing but a Swiss army knife and what we could find, and so on. We’d catch fish, dress them ourselves, and eat them for supper. It was incredibly fun, challenged us all to be creative and learn new things, and yet it was incredibly relaxing – our biggest worry would be finding another piece of fallen wood for the camp fire.

What did it cost? There would be seven or eight of us on these trips and we would stay for a week. What did it cost? According to my calculations, some of those trips to another part of the country for a week, including travel and food and other supplies, would be less than $500 in today’s money (assuming you had the basic camping equipment). That’s a frugal vacation – and one your family would talk about for years to come!

If you take nothing else from this, remember that the fun of a vacation is in the time spent with people you love, not in the places you go. You don’t need to blow thousands on a trip to DisneyWorld to have an amazing vacation.

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  1. Ted Valentine says:

    You really need to post those calculations.

  2. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    It was pretty simple. My father would buy a packet of round trip tickets from a broker in a package deal and when we arrived, we would prepare all of our own food or bring vegetables from home from our garden. Amtrak was the biggest expense by far for the trip, easily making up half of that amount, and if you poke around you can get Amtrak tickets very cheaply.

  3. Ted Valentine says:

    I just checked the weekly hot fares on Amtrak.com. From Chicago to Bangor its $54 ea for 2 adults with 3 children and 1 infant and $67.50 ea from Chicago to Grand Rapids, MI. I can see why it was pretty simple for you.

  4. kim says:

    I both agree and disagree with this post. I love the idea of a trip together just for the sake of taking a trip together. My family does a few of these small trips a year. I would also advise not just writing off some of the bigger dream destinations just because of frugality or a tunnel vision like goal to save for retirement or a big house. All my life I dreamed of taking a vacation to disney world. We never had the money growing up. We took my children there this year and I cried as I showed my little ones the castle for the first time. It was a dream moment for me – money well spent.

  5. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Kim: I mention this as an option for people. Growing up, this was the kind of vacation we could afford.

    Ted: Yep, those were the packages he would get, stuff like that. He’d just get a package that was on special and that’s where we would go.

  6. MVP says:

    Fun! Yep, it’s really all about time spent together and bonding over new experiences. My husband and I have even batted around the idea of having a vacation at home – no, not just using vacation days to get more house chores done. But actually putting all those chores off, making fruity blender drinks, pretending we’re on a deserted island (in our backyard, of course), creating rules against using cell phones, the computer or TV. Dust off those old board games, cook together, paint a picture. Whatever makes us happy. Sorry if this gets off the subject a bit…
    Also, I tend to be an over-planner, so one of my all-time favorite and most relaxing vacations was road-tripping for a week around Oregon last summer – without any sort of schedule. Just some saved-up cash, a GPS, camping gear and a cooler full of food and frosty beverages. It didn’t take long to find adventure.

  7. Rachel says:

    Here is how we have started to do vacations. Instead of deciding we want to go here, and it will cost this much for all we want to do, we think of some places we would like to go, then we decide how much we feel comfortable spending. Last summer we felt comfortable spending $1,000, and our son wanted to go to Universal Studios. He had never been there and he was turning 13. My husband and I knew that we would not have that many more vacations with him. We spent the first night in Jacksonville, visiting with our daughter and her boyfriend. The next day we made a stop in St. Augustine for the morning, then went on to Orlando in the afternoon. We spent 4 nights in hotels, and two days in Universal Studios. Also, we ate all meals out. The one thing we did not have the extra money to do, but really wanted to do was Medieval Times, the dinner show. So we went to a timehsare presentation and got two free tickets for me and my husband, and only had to buy our son’s ticket. That saved us $100.00. A long get away weekend a couple of years ago to Svannah, Georgia was $300.00. That was what we felt comfortable spending, and when the money ran out, we came home.

  8. Adam Donkus says:

    There is something to be said for low budget vacations. The amtrack camping trip sounds like a lot of fun. Love the idea of getting a loaner car from a car repair shop…have you ever practiced that one or was that just your father?

    We often times will go to places off season, and get fabulous rates as well.

  9. kim says:

    If you like to travel on a budget, consider taking a part time job at a hotel. For a time, I worked at a Comfort Inn. While I was an employee, I could stay at any hotel in the Choice hotels family (comfort inn, sleep inn, clarion inn, comfort suites, roadway inn, and econolodge for just $25 per night. We took lots of little weekend getaways for very little money!

  10. vh says:

    Sounds like great fun, as long as your kids have a high tolerance for endless delays delays, for incredibly long hours on trains that have run out of food, and for surprise transfers to the bus. I’ve heard that Amtrak service is better in the East…sure can’t recommend it in the West, though! Specially not with kids.

    The extra cost of gasoline for a car trip is worth it.

  11. !wanda says:

    “Sounds like great fun, as long as your kids have a high tolerance for endless delays delays, for incredibly long hours on trains that have run out of food, and for surprise transfers to the bus.”

    Kids have a higher tolerance for these things, if they are well-managed. They’re not so invested in everything going perfectly. Besides, you can stand up on a train or bus or while waiting, while you’re strapped in in a car.

    This is my cultural snobbery poking through, but why Disneyland or Universal Studios for a kid? It’s better to take them overseas (it’s cheaper once you get there- find out what the locals do, and argue argue argue to get lower prices) or somewhere educational. I really hated it at the time, but getting taken to de-Communizing China and being forced to write exhaustive diary entries every night was probably good for me at the time.

  12. m360 says:

    My family utilized the trains a lot when I was a kid, it was a lot of fun but I could see where unrully kids woudn’t have the same experience. One year we took the auto train to Florida and took the car with us. I’m not sure how much we saved but my mom is frugal so I assume we at least broke even. I’m not so sure about the savings compared to driving or flying anymore though. I considered taking the train instead of flying at christmas but I found a cheaper flight from ME to DC. To drive there cost me about $100 but the wear and tear on my car is something to consider as well. It is a lot more relaxing to take the train though (and you don’t have to strip down and go thru the bs security process)

  13. Susan says:

    About a month ago found a fare on Amtrak from NY to Montreal for $50 each way. I googled ‘Amtrack discounts’ and ‘Amtrack coupons’ and kept trying different codes at check out until I hit on the right one. I was very surprised as Amtrak has a reputation for being expensive, you just have to research and make it fun.

    For more travel ideas and advice visit http://www.theinnovativetraveler.com

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