Updated on 10.08.14

Frugally Planning a Summer Vacation

Trent Hamm

Things to Look For, Thanks to Readers

After my recent post on planning summer travel, I received a lot of emails from readers near the places we are planning on traveling to: Seattle, Boston, New Orleans, and Orlando. These helpful readers all offered up some great ideas for inexpensive travel to those areas and I saved all of them for future reference (because all but the Seattle trip is more than a year away).

One big thing I couldn’t help but notice, though, is that many of the emails contained very similar tips for inexpensive vacations in those cities. The specifics were different, but the general ideas were identical.

Here’s what I learned from those emails in terms of general tips for traveling inexpensively to a new city.

Ten Things to Look For When Planning a Summer Vacation

1. Hang out with locals that you know.

They’ll almost always guide you straight to great deals, such as the best “bang for the buck” restaurants. Sometimes, they’ll even cover a meal for you while you’re traveling. If I know I’m going to a city where I know people, I’m always sure to contact them well before the trip and set up some sort of event with them, whether it’s meeting for lunch or whatever.

2. Look for local hotels, not national chains.

Generally, these have stellar rates as long as you’re not traveling to the city during a key tourist time, like going to Mardi Gras. Local hotels often have rustic rooms that play on the history of the city, while large chain hotels have rooms that look more or less identical to every hotel in that chain. In Las Vegas, I would take this tip to mean to avoid both chains and hotels directly on the Strip.

3. Know the mass transit.

If you’re staying in a large city, the mass transit system will likely completely take care of your travel needs (aside from perhaps going back and forth to the airport). Buy a seven day pass and let that take care of all of the travel you need within the city. It’s far, far cheaper than renting a car for that long.

4. Grab the local papers – especially the free ones.

They often have huge lists of cultural events and attractions going on in the city. I’ve seen free concerts and gone to free museums in the past due to simply gazing through local free newspapers shortly after my arrival.

5. Visit areas near universities.

In almost every city where a university can be found, the blocks around the university are full of the best “bang for the buck” food you can find, particularly if you like ethnic foods. Not only that, universities often have interesting cultural events going on that you can freely attend.

6. Take advantage of the staff at the local hotels.

They usually know the area quite well and can point you towards options that you probably never considered before arriving. On our trip to Las Vegas in 2005, we stayed at the Artisan, a small hotel off of the strip. The staff was beyond helpful in suggesting things for us to do, even pointing out roadside free things to look at as we drove on to the Grand Canyon.

7. Do something completely alternate for housing, like camping.

For example, if you’re staying in Seattle, consider camping in the Olympia National Forest or on Mount Rainier and then just go into town on days when you want to sight-see. The cost is much lower, particularly if you have someone in the area from which you could borrow a tent and some sleeping bags (like, for instance, the “locals that you know”).

8. Make a big list of the free sightseeing options.

For example, on our Dallas trip, our list included Pioneer Plaza, the Dallas Farmer’s Market, Dealey Plaza, the Fort Worth Stockyards, Jazz Under the Stars, the Crow Collection of Asian Art, the Farmer’s Branch Historical Park, the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, and Thanks-Giving Square. We couldn’t possibly make it to all of this worthwhile free stuff, and the sheer size of the list gave us options for spontaneity.

9. Check out museums, zoos, and other cultural and educational attractions in the city.

Museums are almost always a cheap way to spend a day, and it’s often easy to make it cheaper by planning your trip on days with even lower rates – or on free days. Most cities have a noteworthy museum or two and the largest ones (like Chicago and New York) have several.

10. Search around for tickets for events.

If you know you’re going to, say, Disney World, don’t just wait until you’re at the gate to buy tickets. Keep your eyes open for better deals on tickets by buying them early, often through some sort of promotional package. A few years back, my parents were eyeing hugely discounted tickets through their credit union, for example.

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  1. cv says:

    I’m a big fan of camping (and I’m planning to camp on several upcoming vacations), but it’s a totally different kind of vacation than a city sightseeing trip, and I don’t think they’d mix very well. I went to Olympic National Park last summer, for example, and it costs $35 in ferry tickets and half a tank of gas to get to the city and back, plus it’s 2 or 3 hours in each direction and you have to have a car (which a Seattle vacation otherwise wouldn’t require – they have good public transit). The park’s campgrounds don’t have showers, either, which makes going in to Seattle for a nice dinner a little tricky.

    I loved my vacation because I love hiking, camping and other outdoor activities, but I wouldn’t recommend trying to camp just to save money on an otherwise city-focused trip.

  2. Ashley says:

    I would consider subscribing to the Groupon or Living Social sites several months prior to going on the trip, particularly if you’re into museums and restaurants. Granted, you could save even more by not indulging in these, but for me at least, they’re two of my favorite things.

    Keep in mind that some of the most expensive cities can also end up being very cost-effective. For example, many of the hotels in DC and the inner ring suburbs are high priced, but most of the museums and sites are completely free.

  3. Lisa says:

    Thanks Trent these are great tips,ones I use myself quite a bit! If people are a bit more trusting, Couchsurfing.org is amazing for free accommodations with locals worldwide. I’ve had nothing but good experiences hosting people for 3 years and staying places. Airbnb.com is another way to go for accommodations. I also purchase those group buying coupons (such as on Groupon) for several cities I visit regularly when traveling. When I visit, I can eat cheaper and sometimes take in activities for a lot less!

  4. I was going to comment on the same thing #1 did…so, I guess those little factoids are out! Haha!

    But I’ve stayed at both the campgrounds you mentioned and have to say that of all the places we stayed during out month-long road trip out west, camping in the National Parks was always the most memorable.

    I couldn’t tell you the names of any of the hotels we stayed in or even which cities but I can remember the parks and the things we did while we were in the area. Camping makes memories…hotels, don’t. At least not in my mind. Your mileage may vary.

  5. kristin says:

    Do not rely on public transport in NOLA. Ride the streetcar to see the garden district. But for your safety avoid the bus. Also, NOLA has a lot of conventions, a lot of festivals (essence, jazz, French Quarter), and a lot of major sporting events that lock up out hotels and/or make them quite expensive. If you are looking to save money on hotels here our peak tourist season is thanksgiving (bayou classic) until first weekend of may (jazz fest). A lot of people like to see the cemeteries and I would suggest a tour rather than just walking around by yourself (for safety). I’d also suggest not walking around looking like a tourist (for instance don’t wear beads). Tourists are targets for theft…this applies wherever you go.

  6. Amanda says:

    If you have a public radio or TV membership, you recieve a membercard for your city. For about 7 bucks, you can order one for traveling. It will pay for itself in benefits. Last year I went to New Orleans and got a membercard for there. (I live in Chicago.)

  7. wren says:

    All great ideas, but I do have a problem with the tone of the first one. Nothing pisses me off faster than a friend or family member assuming we’re going to feed or house them just because they want to save a buck on THEIR timetable. Yes, by all means, ask for suggestions to local restaurants and accept a freely-given invitation to dinner. But to assume someone is willing — or able — to “cover a meal” so you can travel cheap is simply tacky.

    (And if my brothers-in-law are reading this, which they do, I don’t mean either of you. My BILs alway invite US to dinner when they visit and never automatically assume we’re going to put them up or even hint that we should. The fact that they don’t assume everyone else exists to subsidize their travel means they are always welcome and often do get treated to dinner.

  8. Katie says:

    I’m all for non-chain hotels, but I think staying on the Strip in Vegas is a different beast entirely. It may or may not be worth it depending on what you want, but if you’re in Vegas, you’re presumably there for the spectacle (unless you’re just passing through) not for quaint authenticity and nothing beats being right in the action. Also, it saves you expensive cab rides and/or car rental.

  9. LeahGG says:

    #7 Wren, you’re right. While asking friends to give you tips on what to see and where to eat is very nice, if they’re not the kind of friends you expect to be hosting yourself sometime soon, don’t expect them to host you.

    A tip that got left out here is using supermarkets. When I was a kid, if we were traveling, at least one meal a day was a loaf of bread, a salami, a jar of pickles, and a bottle of mustard.

    When my family was in Finland last summer, and kosher salami wasn’t available, we went for good bread, cream cheese, and lox for at least one out of every 4 meals.

    We actually went traveling for 3 weeks and ate two meals in restaurants… but that has more to do with keeping Kosher than with frugality. We probably would have had a pizza or something if we’d had the option.

  10. Janis says:

    Leah, good point about picking up picnic fare at local grocery stores. Our vacations usually involve a road trip with a couple of kayaks strapped to the roof of our car. We pack a picnic basket and a cooler, which we replenish as we go.

    Another thing we do, if we want to splurge on eating out, is to eat breakfast or lunch or even afternoon tea (when available) at a restaurant as those are generally much less expensive options than dinner. For instance, we wanted to dine at the historic Ahwahnee during our visit to Yosemite, but were put off by the high dinner prices. It turned out that we could get much of the same wonderful fare at lunch time (and have the dining room pretty much to ourselves as it was the “off” season) for less than half of the dinner prices.

  11. Lou says:

    Check with your faith community, especially if it’s a numerically small one. Quakers and Unitarian-Universalists have directories of host families who offer hospitality to members from out of town. This only works if you are a member, as you need a letter of introduction from the leader of your local congregation. In a few cities,Quakers have tiny B&Bs that offer incredibly low room rates. The small journals of many faith communities list vacation rental homes and apts that are cost effective.

    Don’t forget that your workmates, friends from political and professional organizations, members of your congregation or PTA, your FB friends and your pastor may all be able to connect you with residents of the city you’ll visit. Talk up your trip & ask around.

    Best hotel choice will have a microwave & fridge in the room & free breakfasts downstairs. For $10 more on the room rate, you save much more than that on 2 meals a day & snacks.

  12. Janis says:

    When lodging at smaller establishments, ask about discounts for multi-night stays or for paying with cash/traveler’s checks. We’ve often had our 7th night free. For shorter stays, paying with cash will usually get us a discount.

    We’re less likely to stay at a big chain hotel, but even they will have discounts for the asking, whether it’s because of membership, points program or the like. I have received some very nice (free) upgrades just by being friendly and asking nicely.

  13. bella says:

    we love to travel and do a lot of house swaping , we use homelink for more then 12 years and have had many great holydays that way. we are also menbers of couchsurfing and that really great too. its cheap but also you get to meet lots of differents people.
    have a trip

  14. Diane says:

    “Take advantage of the staff at the local hotels.”
    Please, for their sake, only take advantage of their knowledge ;).

  15. valleycat1 says:

    We have found some great places at good rates via vrbo.com for extended stays.

  16. Alice says:

    I second the person who suggested avoiding camping in the Olympics if you want to go to Seattle. The Olympics are good if you want to see the outdoors, or do a Twilight tour in Forks, but they aren’t convenient to the city as you either have to take the Bainbridge or Port Angeles ferry, or the Tacoma narrows bridge, which easily add several hours. Rainier is also far off. If you want to camp closer to Seattle, I’d recommend going east on I-90 towards Snoqualmie. I also heartily second the University district recommendation for Seattle – when I was living there for college, I realized pretty early on that it was cheaper to eat Chinese than to eat in the dorms (which didn’t have kitchens). I recommend Thai-ger Room if you like Thai food or want to try it out, or Big Time Brewery (both on University Way, “The Ave”) if you like local beer and brewpubs. Have a great trip!

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