Frugally Planning a Summer Vacation

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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