Updated on 06.05.14

Helping A Soldier Plan An Inexpensive Vacation

Trent Hamm

I received a very interesting note from a reader who really deserves a vacation:

I’m in the Army National Guard, currently serving in Iraq. I am scheduled to get home around mid-July, and my wife and I want to take a nice vacation. We’re planning on going to Ireland next year, so we’re not looking to do anything absolutely huge. But, after a year in Iraq, I want to do something very relaxing. Have you ever used a travel agent? We’re considering that route as a possibility, since neither of us have used one, and it would be nice to have someone plan a vacation for us. We’re also considering a road trip to Missouri or Ohio (we live in Indiana), but we have no family to visit, so some of your road trip suggestions don’t really work for us. We’re willing to spend about $1,000, up to $1,500 if necessary, for a nice vacation…

For a small domestic trip like this one, I would not use a travel agent. They’re useful for planning big trips (I used one when planning our honeymoon in the UK) but for smaller trips like this one, it’s not worth the money. Instead, I would do the following:

Have your wife and yourself separately write a list of twenty (or so) places in the United States that you’d love to see. Do this separately, and try to be honest and also creative. My wife and I did this for our 2005 summer vacation (we actually wrote a top 50 list because we really got into it) and we both found that the more honest we were about what we would like to see, the better the trip became. Include visiting relatives and friends on this list.

Once you’re together again, figure out where all of these places are on a US map. Mark them all with thumbtacks so that it’s clear where they all are. This will give you a visual indication of where everything is. We literally used a bulletin board and used two different colors of thumbtacks, one for me and one for her.

Go to the area where the largest grouping of thumbtacks can be found. For us, this turned out to be southern Nevada/western Arizona, because we wanted to visit Las Vegas, Hoover Dam, the Arizona desert, and the Grand Canyon. This area had four tacks pretty close together and they were an equal balance of our colors.

Research that area online and find out the cheapest way to get there and the cheapest place to stay there. For us, we stayed in Las Vegas because we went during the week when the hotels were cheap and the flight there was very cheap. There are lots of sites online for doing such research – Priceline, Expedia, Hotdeals, and so on. Don’t hesitate to look into camping, too, because that can be a very economical option.

Don’t spend more than half your budget getting there, sleeping, and getting back. That means try to keep the travel and lodging under $750 at all costs, leaving you $750 to do things you’ll actually remember. One of our best memories was an amazing breakfast that my wife and I had on that vacation; it was ridiculously expensive, but somehow wonderful. The parts we didn’t remember were when we were sleeping or traveling (other than my wife forgetting stuff at the hotel when we arrived at the airport).

Our Nevada/Arizona trip was by far the cheapest vacation we’ve ever taken, but it was almost our most memorable one, too (behind our honeymoon). Good luck planning your own trip.

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  1. MK says:

    Have you considered a cruise? Anymore this is the only type of vacation my husband and I take as the price is basically all inclusive and we get to see all kinds of great places at really low rates. For a one week cruise to the Western Carribean last month we spent $325 each for airfare (Seattle to Miami RT) and $550 each for the seven day cruise. This cost covers the room (which thankfully moves with you as you visit various locations–no need to pack and repack), all of the food you could possibly eat, morning to night entertainment which is completely optional, and people waiting on you hand and foot. Best of all, you can choose to be as busy or lazy as you like. We usually book online through Travelocity and search the “best deals” under cruises.

  2. Eric says:

    A trick to visiting Jamaica is staying in the cheap cheap Sandals resort ( basically a hotel ). Nothing spectacular on premises, but across the street is the ocean and you can use the facilities of all sandals resorts on the island including golfing!

  3. kim says:

    With that budget, definitely consult a travel agent. They can get fantastic last minute deals. Have you considered cruising? This is a relatively inexpensive vacation with meals included. If you cruise, definitely sit down with a travel agent who can educate you on all of the charges, as some tend to be hidden. Ask for military discounts.
    Beginning in late August DisneyWorld is offering free dining, which is a nice savings! You could do a budget week in Disney for two with that budget!

  4. marc b. says:

    For your map, I suggest downloading and using Google Earth. You can put in electronic thumbtacks and also layer in roads, geographic features, points of interest, etc.

    After using it last summer, I can’t imagine planning a road trip any other way.

  5. Mark says:

    Inform the reader that the easiest way to figure out how much the reader can expect to spend on their trip is how much driving they will do if they are staying local.

    Using a spreadsheet, I was able to formulate how much it would cost to drive each day considering it is a long ways from Indiana to Ohio or Missouri.

    If their car gets 20 miles per gallon, and gas prices are 3.50 a gallon, to drive a mere 100 miles would cost 17.50 dollars, likewise, 200 miles would cost 35.00.

    If their car gets more miles per gallon, and gas cost 3.50, they will be able to go a little further.

    Considering their location, I would suggest the Ozarks in Missouri if they want to spend a relaxing time outdoors. They would be able to stretch their dollar if they combined a few days camping and a few days at a hotel.

    This is assuming they spend no more than 100/day for 15 days.

    And with the price of gas, if they drove 100 miles a day, on a 100/day budget, that leaves them with 82.50 a day to spend.

    I have logged over 250,000 miles driving all over the country so I can understand their concerns and desires for a relaxing vacation.

  6. Patricia says:

    How about the Ozarks for you reader … although it doesn’t always have the greatest reputation, Branson is beautiful (and relatively cheap). There is also a ton of stuff to do.

  7. Don’t forget to check out the vacation rental by owner type websites. They can be much cheaper than hotels and just as nice. I made a post with a review of a bunch of the sites on my blog in this post:

  8. !wanda says:

    I would say not to book through a travel agent or go on a prefabricated tour when traveling anywhere in the developed world (if, of course, you have the time to comb through the Internet). I really like Trent’s ideas for planning a road trip. Do you really want to go on the same vacation as everyone else? That’s what you get through a tour or a travel agent.

  9. Pierce Presley says:

    Couple of things:
    Driving is always cheapest, but only if you’re laid back while doing it. If any form of travel stresses you, just say no.
    Trip planners can be a lot of fun. I use the “optimize stops” buttons a lot in Microsoft Streets and Trips (I have 2K4, but I can’t imagine they’d get rid of the feature). You can do something similar, with fewer waypoints, at http://www.mapsonus.com.
    Eating can eat up a ton of budget in itself, so I recommend saving money by making the majority of your breakfasts, lunches and snacks simple, prefabbed or easy-to-make. Like breakfast or granola bars, PB&J or lunch meat sandwiches, chips, jerky, popcorn, etc. A two-quart container, some water and packs of Crystal Light mixes means good drinks and no calories.
    Finally, in addition to Branson, I’d like to add Springfield, Mo., as a great visit (Bass Pro can be a day unto itself if your into the outdoors); Rogers, Bentonville, Springdale and Fayetteville, Ark. are booming and have a ton going on; Eureka Springs, Ark. is a little out of the way, but if you like eclectic charm, it’s gotta be on your list; Highway 7 takes you down from the Ozarks to the Ouachitas in one of the prettiest drives you’ll ever see in any season (though fall is wondrous indeed, and my favorite); and finally, go to Hot Springs, and soak those war-tired bones in natural hot spring waters straight out of the ground, and remember that there are those who honor our warriors, no matter what we think of the war.

  10. Any ideas if where you want to go is overseas?

  11. I would suggest http://www.couchsurfing.org/ as a way to find people willing to host you.


  12. chazzman2000 says:

    I’m in the process of getting out of debt, but still wanted to have some good experiences with my wife and two daughters without spending a lot of money.

    I picked up “1,000 places to see before you die” from Half.com for $5. It is a great read with places all over the world and my wife and I have gone through the book and declared (different colored highlighters) places around the world that we’d like to see. I’m not worried that we don’t have the money right now, it gets both of us involved and it gives us a lot of ideas for future vacations.

    For the short-term, we found a ton of places in the U.S. that we never considered. For this year, we plan to drive to Chicago and we have our whole family helping out on the decisions.

    Hope you have a great vacation and a safe return from Iraq.

  13. jackie says:

    If you are looking for cheap airfare I recommend checking out http://www.kayak.com. The website checks all travel sites (ie. expedia, travelocity,etc.) and airline websites to give you the best deals. Kayak does the same for rental cars and hotels, but it doesn’t seem to work quite as well. Good luck with your travels!

  14. Mardee says:

    The problem with travel agents is that they send you places where everyone else goes, even overseas. If you really want to get off the beaten path, go as an independent traveler. I just got back from 2 weeks in Turkey that I did on my own, and can tell you that traveling independently gives you a sense of spontaneity and freedom that you could never achieve by having someone else plan a trip for you. And you can spend as much or as little as you like – in my 2 weeks (actually 16 days), I spent approximately $1600 (not counting plane fare), which is around $100/day. The places I stayed at were nice places, too – nothing fancy but clean and safe.

    Granted, Turkey is one of the cheaper countries, but you can travel on your own quite cheaply just about anyplace in the world. There are hundreds of internet sites that give great information and advice on overseas travel. Most of the major guidebooks like those by Lonely Planet and Rick Steves have message board forums with posts by other travelers, where you can gather a ton of information. I spent about 2 months researching my trip and when I was ready to go, knew so much about the country that I could change my itinerary and my plans with no qualms.

  15. miguel says:

    I like to rent a house in St George Island Florida (a 7 hour drive from ATL) every year. If you go with lots of friends and family, it ends up being cheap. We’re going for 11 days, with 11 people (it’s a big house on the beach). It ends up being $30.00 a night per person. Plus the house has a real kitchen, so you can cook. The island is not commercial at all. There is not a single Walmart, Mcdonalds, or national chain on the Island… except for an old BP convince store.

  16. Ken Girard says:

    If you happen to be in the St. Louis, MO area for a day, spend some time at the City Museum (http://www.citymuseum.org/). It is not your normal museum. It is much more a place for the entire family to play and explore. Neat things like a 5 floor slide, a plane hanging 3 floors off the ground that you can climb in to, a circus, and more.

    You can easily spend 8-10 hours there. Not bad for $10.

  17. Amy Haden says:

    Once you pick a destination for your road trip, hit your local library for travel books and then check out the state tourist bureaus on-line (most will send you free maps & guides).

    At tripadvisor.com you can check out travellers’ reviews of specific attractions & restaurants in an area, and if you have a specific question, you can see if it’s already been answered, or post it in a forum yourself. I use it when planning my vacations & also post answers to questions that folks have about visiting the city where I live (Charlottesville, Virginia).

  18. Kim says:

    I am a travel Agent but of a different kind, I do my best to send you to places that are different.
    I call myself Your Travel Concierge, and I have a million ideas for you. For romance I start with staying in a Bed & Breakfast when traveling in the USA, and there are so many to choose from. Secondly, air will probably be your best fare when going further than a 5-8 hr drive, usually.
    If driving how about following a path along the Erie Shore from Ohio thru the top of PA into NY ending at Niagara Falls on HWY531 to HWY 5 stopping at the wineries over several days. Just a sample of things I know as a professional, and I can do it all for you, leaving it as a surprise for her.

  19. Kim says:

    I have a question for you, why would spending $1000 to $1500 not be considered as spending alot on travel? Using a professional can assist you in chosing just where to go. We use many of the same companies as you in addition to having access to trusted wholesale vendors to price your vacation and who can price match if found to be lower. If a situation arises you have someone to call on to rectify things, and we are not paid by the customer. With this in mind…. How about a train trip? You get on and off privledges and book in a sleeper car, it is all inclusive while traveling. So many ideas…may I please be of assistance to you

  20. kathy says:

    I had a son over in iraq that came home on leave and we were able to get free rooms at pearl river ressort in ms for his leave, and also we were able to get military discounts for his rooms at places in fl. People were more than glad to give us good rates, or free rooms, and this can be helpful. All you have to do is ask and let them tell you what they are willing to do for you.

    Now my way to enjoy as much stuff as i can for my buck, includes trips to casinos. I dont spend more than i would on food, drinks and rooms to gamble, but i get those things for free when i go. So if you are really careful, you can enjoy a really good time on what it would cost you to just rent a room at a nice hotel and these places are the best for things to do, and near good places for things a family can do as well. Just my two cents on how i have fun. And of course people always are telling me about me being so broke and still doing these things, those same people dont hesitate to pay alot of money for eating out, and things they want to buy, and i manage to make what little i do have go a long way and still have fun enjoying some of this life we have. I get great food, we just came back from a trip and i ate really well for a week, i gained about four pounds back that i had lost on my economic diet. I have lost 54 pounds by cooking from scratch and making portions last for three people on fixed incomes. And at home if i dont cook there is nothing to eat for the most part. I have come up with my own recipies for candy bars from things on hand, and making bisquits from scratch and cornbread and our greatest dishes are the taco salads and the french bread or homemade pizzas or casseroles by the dozens i have learned to make. They work on making it last and everyone getting full.

  21. ~M says:

    Hi Trent,

    I would like to see a post about how to plan and execute an overseas vacation…tips, how to save money, etc.


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