An Inexpensive, Fun Family Vacation Idea From My Childhood

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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