Thursday, April 7, 2011

Budget Travel: Details on the Trip to Florida, Part 1

So, as you know, we enjoyed a lovely spring break roadtrip to Florida, last week.  It's always hard to rejoin real life after a great vacation, but I'm almost there.  (And no, for anyone who needs an update, I haven't found my wedding/anniversary/this-is-the-ring-that-says-I'm-married band yet.  And, as long as I'm following up on things, Hunter the Dog did see the vet, and he is now recovering nicely.)

Perhaps because it's hard to leave a good vacation behind, I'm reliving it this week on the ole' blog.  Cheap therapy is one of the reasons I blog, remember?  I'll warn you that this is a wordy one, so if you're not interested in the money-saving details of our recent trip, feel free to move on!  Monday you got the vacation recovery post, Wednesday you got the oh-man-that-was-fun post, and today you're getting.....

A Trip to Holland's Trip to Florida on a Budget
First, I have some 'splainin to do.  (Say that like Ricki Ricardo from I Love Lucy.)

The Bionic Man and I really, really like to travel.  We've made it a priority to try to see as many different places as we can, since we've been married.  And, we've made it a priority to take our children along with us to most of those places.  It does cost money to travel.  While we aren't financial brainiacs, we have made travel a priority in our budget.  

How do we do that?

Well, mostly we do without some things and do some things ourselves, when it comes to general household expenses, which helps us have that money available for fun things, like travelling.  In other words, we don't have cable television, we don't drive new cars, the kids don't have cell phones, the Bionic Man does most of our car repairs himself, I sew and thrift some of our clothing, and I make a lot of our food from scratch.  When the Bionic Man's salary was a leaner, we had to reeeeeaaaallly stretch those travel dollars.  Nowadays, we don't have to stretch quite so far, but we choose to stick to budget travel options so that we can do more vacations more frequently.

I guess that's my disclaimer--I realize that everyone has different financial priorities.  You have to do what works for you.  Here are some of the things that work for us:

Plan, plan, and plan some more.  Around here, we're planners--we like to make big plans for all kinds of things.  This can really come in handy when it comes to saving money on vacation.  "But wait!" I can hear you saying.  "What about all those last-minute travel deals I hear about?  Isn't that the way to save?  Isn't it better to be spontaneous?"  I won't deny that those deals aren't out there, and that we haven't taken advantage of them.  However, if you have a place in mind that you want to visit, just starting to research information on the places to see and things to do there will help you be ready to take advantage of the occasional last-minute-deal that pops up.  The reality is, the further in advance you plan a trip, the more likely you are going to be to get the reservations you want at the prices you want.

How else can planning save you money?  Planning eliminates a lot of surprises.  Knowing that it frequently rains at your vacation destination, for instance, may cause you to pack rain gear that you'd otherwise have to buy at a premium at your vacation destination.  Learning not only what the available activities are in your vacation location but also what the actual costs of those activities are will help you stick to your travel budget.  It's no fun to come home from a vacation burdened by debt.  

Formerly, I would look up info on the places we wanted to go, and jot down notes and numbers on sticky notes and random papers.  I might throw them all in a folder, or I might just lose them.  My ultra-organized Bionic Man has recently converted me to spreadsheets, so now I fill out one of these babies as I research potential vacations.  This is the one for our recent trip to Florida.  I have another one I'm filling out for a trip we'd like to go on to Prince Edward Island, some day.

You can't see it on there, but that list even included restaurants we planned to visit, with ballpark menu prices.  We didn't do all the things on my spreadsheet, but that list was a handy reference tool as we decided what we'd like to do.  When you can look at the costs of all potential activities in advance, it is much easier to make judgements on what you are willing to spend money on.  Once you are on vacation, you are far more likely to make spending decisions based on emotions, not logic, unless you've planned ahead.

Think outside the suitcase--er, box.  Low-cost travel requires some creative thinking.  You might figure out ways to save on meals by bringing food with you.  You might think of ideas for finding the best deals on souvenirs.  For us, we tend to focus on creative ways to save on lodging, as that tends to be one of the costliest aspects of travel.  I've discovered that by doing a little research, we don't have to be stuck in flea-bag motels. 
Camping - if you are willing to sacrifice indoor plumbing and a soft bed, camping can be a great option.  I know it is not for everyone, but it can be a surprisingly fun way to enjoy a destination vacation.  State parks are usually a waaaaay better option that commercial campgrounds (with a few exceptions).  The state parks we've camped at have great locations, terrific scenery, and very clean facilities.  The price of $15-30 per night at a state park, compared to the cost of a hotel, is an obvious money saver.  At that price, you can even afford restaurant meals, if cooking outdoors isn't your thing.  
Our campsite was just a short walk from the beach, down this beautiful boardwalk.
RV Rental - for some locations, it just makes sense to rent an RV.  While I was originally willing to camp in a tent on this trip, the convenience of an RV was undeniable.  We faced two dilemmas that would make tent camping difficult:  we failed to make campground reservations early, so spots were limited and we had to change sites everynight AND the spring weather in Florida can be unpredictable.  Rather than spend $250+ per night on a small beachside condo rental in Destin, we spent a little over $100 per night to rent the RV.  Since we rented close to our camping location and had another vehicle available, our mileage and gas costs were very low.  The kitchenette in the RV made it possible for us to have quick meals without spending money on dining out.  We had both heating and air conditioning in our RV, making it easy to deal with the unpredictable weather.
This was our second experience with renting from Cruise America, and we've been really happy with their service.  They frequently have promotional deals, and I understand that the further in advance you reserve your trip, the more money you can save.  Click here to see what our RV was like.  
Hotels - sometimes we do stay in hotels.  Years ago, when my husband started travelling for work, he signed up for the Marriott Rewards program.  He gets points for Marriott stays and purchases he makes on the Marriott credit card that he uses for reimbursable business travel.  We use those points for our vacation travel.  Even lower-budget Marriott hotels do not disappoint.   When a Marriott isn't available at our destination, I rely on the website Trip Advisor.  Trip Advisor provides hotel (and restaurant and cruise and activity) reviews based on customer reviews.  Reading the Trip Advisor reviews, sometimes I discover that a "budget" motel has a higher customer satisfaction ranking than swankier ones in the same location, so I feel confident in booking a stay there.  When we travelled in Europe, we often opted out of hotel stays and did something other tourists did not do: stayed at farms and homes that rented rooms (like a bed & breakfast).  We loved the homey atmosphere and personalized service.
So, with all this planning, are our vacations run like a precision military operation?  Hardly.  I doesn't matter how much planning you do--going someplace new requires flexibility.  Our little spreadsheets of information and plans make us feel like we have more flexibility.  If we need to make a change of plans, we can easily check for alternative options within our price range.

All the planning that we do often spares us in advance from having a less-than-ideal vacation.  Sometimes, as we start researching a "dream" vacation, we discover along the way that it might not be the right vacation at the right time.  For instance, when Endeavor, Justone, and Superkid were teeny-tiny, we got a hankering to go to Disney World.  In trying to find the lowest possible cost for such a trip, we discovered that particular dream vacation would probably be more dreamy if we waited until our children were older.  We opted for a much more relaxed, low-pressure vacation spot that year, and never regretted it.  It's perfectly okay to make plans and put them on hold.  (I have to admit, spreadsheets are great that way.  Thank you, Bionic Man!)
 Rocky Bayou State Park, our first stop in Florida.

Still interested?  Stay tuned for tomorrow's post, when I share how we save on food, souvenirs, and other travel expenses.

My friend, Kim, has a great website full of resources for low-cost travel.  
Check out her Budget Travel Tricks.

1 comment:

  1. Great tips! I especially love the spreadsheet. Now *that's* organization at its finest! I love to travel too but because my husband doesn't I haven't taken many trips in the past few years, but I eagerly read your post to get some tips about any future travel plans I might have.