Some Thoughts on Inexpensive Vacations

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.

6 Useful Tips for a Frugal Vacation

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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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