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Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Frugal Vacationing

Everybody loves to take a vacation, but sometimes finances seem like they may be a hindrance to being able to take one.  You CAN take one and have a great time with a little planning and creativity.  We live for our vacation every summer.  It's the one time where we are together as a family without the pressure of everyday life.  Instead, our time is devoted to fun and relaxation.  

You don't have to go far.  Even a staycation can be fun or, if you really want to go somewhere, consider a short drive to either another part of your state or another state that is nearby. 

As soon as we finish one vacation, we start planning and saving for the next year's vacation.  We decide where we want to go, what we want to see, and then begin planning accordingly.  We put a couple of bucks aside every paycheck.  If we do something like have a garage sale or sell a household item, that goes into the vacation fund.  We have pecan trees, and we sell the pecans and bank that.  We've even picked up aluminum cans, cashed them in, and put that into our vacation fund.  It all adds up, even a little at a time.  We guard that vacation fund! 

We are the outdoorsy types.  We love hiking and getting back in the wilderness.   A day spent hiking back into the woods is the ideal ticket for us, but others might enjoy being near the ocean, a lake, a river, or out in the desert.  These are my personal recommendations for what works for us.  Hopefully, you will find some ideas to spark your imagination and help you plan a fun-filled yet inexpensive vacation for your family.

Plan your trip near a state or national park/monument.  Most offer a flat admission price.  That admission includes access to all the visitor centers, information, hiking trails, guided tours, amphitheater programs, and sights.  Some parks don't charge any fee at all!  Our choice, this year, was Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.  The admission price is $20 per carload, and that is good for one week.  Also, certain days of the year the National Park Service has free admission days.  Check this link for days:  Other parks we visited were Capulin Volcano National Monument and the Great Sand Dunes. 

Rent something with a full kitchen and cook all your own meals.  See below on how to pack/take food.  Take a pyrex measuring cup and some cheap measuring spoons, just to be sure (this is what's usually missing when we rent). 

Consider renting a townhome, cabin, or condo during the off season at a resort.  For example, in Frisco/Dillon, Colorado (near many ski resorts), you can rent a luxury condo for as little as $149/night.  Durango, near Purgatory Ski Resort and Mesa Verde National Park, has condos for as low as $105 a night.   If it's normally a summer resort, consider going in the winter and vice versa.  Off-season rental prices can be as much as half or more off the usual price. 

Pack as much of your own food as possible.  This may sound daunting, but it's actually fairly easy.  I make sure that anything we rent has a grill and/or an oven.  I plan meals ahead, make a menu, and then freeze almost everything.  Examples of freezable items are:  Boneless/skinless Chicken breasts, hamburger meat, hot dogs, steaks, lunch meat, cheese, butter, and bacon.  I even freeze milk and use it as my major chunk of ice in the ice chest (when it is thawed shake the milk for 1 minute continuously to remix if it separates).  We pack the frozen items into an ice chest, pack it full of ice, and by the time we arrive, some items are partially thawed and ready to be placed in the refrigerator to thaw further. 

For side dishes, I usually take 5 lbs. of potatoes, cans of baked beans, packets of rice/noodle side dishes, canned vegetables, and I usually also pack salt, pepper, sugar, and my own coffee and powdered creamer. 

Hoard packets or small bottles of condiments to take with you.  Jif makes single serving packets of peanut butter that are excellent to take on hikes.   See if a local restaurant would be willing to sell you a few packets of individual jellies to take, as well. 

Pack and take nonperishables such as:  Granola bars, Pop-Tarts, trail mix, peanut butter crackers, bottled water (some local water tastes icky), Capri sun, canned soda, chips, pretzels, and any other snacks you might want.  Think ahead:  If you're tempted to buy it at a convenience store on the way, pack it beforehand and save yourself a ton of money.  Homemade Chex mix tastes just as good, if not better, than Chex mix from a convenience store.  Buy whole packages of candy bars for what you'd pay for one on the road. 

Buy perishables and other unpackable items at  a store just outside the area where you will be staying.  Grocery stores near resorts and tourist attractions tend to be more expensive than in outlying cities, so stop for your perishables before you get too close.  Also, I am an avid couponer, so in the weeks before we go on vacation, I start using my coupons to get items I know we'll need for our trip.  I also keep coupons for perishables that I know we'll need when we arrive.  

On our way to and from, we stay in hotels that offer a free meal of some sort.  Usually breakfast.  Our favorite is Holiday Inn Express.  They offer a free continental breakfast that includes bacon and eggs, biscuits and gravy, sausage, toast, bagels, cinnamon rolls, fresh coffee, oatmeal, and fresh fruit.  Indulging in this can save you a significant amount, as even a run to McDonald's can be $20 or more.  Another place where we stayed offered continental meals for all 3 meals.  It's not gourmet, but it's not half bad, it's free, and it fills you up. 

Save those discount food coupons you get in the mail for places like Arby's, Sonic, A&W, Taco Bell, etc.  Use those if you must stop for food or hit the dollar menu.  

Pack picnic lunches when you go out.  PBJ, lunch meat, bread, chips, and a couple of drinks are all you need for a quick lunch without spending a ton of money.

Redeem any points from websites, credit cards, etc.  I use Swagbucks.  I make purchases and web searches through them and earn points.  I then redeem my points for gift cards.  My favorites are the Walmart E-Gift cards.  You can print out the gift card, take it to Walmart, and use it just like a regular gift card (instructions are on the bottom of the printout).   I used my Walmart gift cards to buy a good portion of the perishables we bought when we got there.   Hubster has an American Express card that he uses for business, and at vacation time he redeems his points, as well.  His favorites are the American Express gift cards.  We use those toward the end of vacation when we want to treat ourselves to eating out once or twice. 

Know your destination.  Do web searches to see what local attractions are in your area and what you can see/do for free.  There might be concerts or plays in the park,  city museums, city or state parks, hot springs, waterfalls, interesting rock formations, festivals, and other things going on that can be extremely fun.  The experiences are what you will remember.  

Be sure to stop at local visitor centers and check for coupon books.  These may be attached to maps of the area, or be on the backside of flyers and pamphlets that are usually in a cubby nearby.  We've found coupons for half off admissions, buy 2 get 1 free admission, percentage off at restaurants and other attractions.  Also, if you will be visiting something specific, check their website to see if they either offer coupons or discounts for purchasing tickets in advance.  

We drive and pack everything into a regular family car.  If you are pressed for space, devote your space to taking food.  If you are going to be gone for a week, pack enough clothes for about 4 days, then pack enough laundry soap and fabric softener sheets to do a couple of loads of laundry.  Some of the cabins we rent have a washer/dryer in them.  Other times, there's a laundromat nearby.  If you wear clothing only slightly, and it's not sweaty or smelly, then hang it up and wear it again.  Don't pack full-size cosmetics or shampoo/conditioner.  Most rental places also usually have a hair dryer available, so it's not necessary to pack that. 

Skip souvenirs; take pictures instead.  Our one indulgence is T-shirts because we wear them until they're worn out.  Each year we each buy one souvenir T-shirt .  If you want proof you visited something, consider stopping and taking a photo of yourself or your kids near the sign announcing the park, state, or sight.  Hang onto maps, ticket stubs, and pamphlets.  These make fun additions to scrapbooks. 

Consider keeping a diary while you travel.  If you are driving, note gas prices in various towns, interesting sights, places where you might get lost, funny things you, your spouse, or your kids do/say.  Note if you stop somewhere to eat, what you had, and the prices.  This may not seem important, but it can help significantly on your return trip and helps you remember why you took that photo of that goofy looking scarecrow in a field. 

Take tons of pictures!  Most cameras are digital now and can be downloaded to a computer.  Use free software to edit your photos, such as Picasa, GIMP, or IrfanView, then upload to some place such as Snapfish, Shutterfly, MyPublisher, or even local places such as Walgreen's.  Before you go, sign up for e-mail newsletters from photo processing places, and they will often send you coupons/discount codes for freebies.  Walgreen's often has a coupon for a free photo collage or 8 x 10.  Get free photo books, mugs, photo magnets, etc., and use those for gifts for grandparents, family, and friends.   I use interesting photographs, turn them into black-and-white, and hang them for decorations in our home. 

Find crazy, out-of-the way places along your route to visit and counteract boredom.  In Kansas, there are old salt mines that are now used for storage of movie archives, called the Kansas Underground Salt Museum.   There are hundreds of wind farms with huge wind turbines.  Us this as a teaching opportunity to learn about alternative energy sources.  When we come home, we usually journey through the panhandle of Oklahoma.  There is an area called No Mans Land that was at the heart of the Dust Bowl Era, and there are hundreds of abandoned homes on the prairie that make gorgeous photos and have an interesting tale to tell.  There are the Gloss Mountains, which are Oklahoma's own version of the painted desert.  They look like they are covered in sparkly, broken glass because of selenite in the soil.

Your vacation can be an adventure and vastly more entertaining than feeling like you have to go to a resort or some place touristy.  You and your kids (if you have them) will long remember the hours spent hiking, learning about wildlife, and discovering interesting rock formations much more than how much money was spent.   These are memories that will last a lifetime. 

1 comment:

  1. Michelle, I always enjoy reading your blog. You have some great money saving ideas. Makes me want to plan a vacation and just get away from the regular grind for a while. I will certainly take note of your suggestions.