Helping A Soldier Plan An Inexpensive Vacation

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.