Like I said yesterday, if you aren't interested in thrifty vacations, feel free to skip this one! This is my second post about
A Trip to Holland's Trip to Florida on a Budget
Yesterday, I told you how lots of planning and some creative thinking help us to keep our travel costs down. Today, I'm going to tell you about how we find ways to save on expenses that occur during the vacation, like travel, activities, and souvenirs.
It's important to consider the daily expense of food when you plan a vacation. For any trip we take, one of the ways we cut down on food expenses is to bring a lot of food with us. It is simply less expensive to buy food at the bargain prices you are used to finding at your favorite close-to-home store. It's also a time-saver to bring things along. We usually bring a large bin of non-perishable items with us, as well as a cooler of perishable foods. Even if the hotel room doesn't come equipped with a kitchenette, we find that keeping a cooler of food in our room filled with ice from the machine down the hall works well.
A vacation should be a vacation for everyone in the family, so I like to take a break from cooking when we are away from home. To eat out every meal would be an unnecessary drain on our trip budget, so we've found other ways to keep the cost and the prep time down. Buying convenience foods at local grocery stores (precut and washed veggies and fruits, for instance, or frozen entrees) during the vacation is a lower-cost, healthier alternative to eating out every meal. I purchase lots of easy-to-serve foods and snacks before we leave on vacation, to bring along with us: mini bagels, cheese sticks, dried fruit, nuts--these become nutritious meals on the go. Even when we're camping, I find ways to get out of big-time cooking duties, like cooking soup from a mix, or bringing along the fixin's for taco salad.
Living on sandwiches for a week isn't fun for anyone, so we try to budget for a few restaurant and/or fast food meals during the trip. Restaurant meals are a terrific way to sample local fare and specialties: we've enjoyed lobster in Maine, blueberry pancakes in New Hampshire, pulled pork in Arkansas, and German food in Milwaukee. There's a place for fast food, too, which can come in handy on long driving days.
- many schools and organizations do fundraisers with gift cards for national chain restaurants. Sometimes the gift cards are even discounted. Stock up and save later when you dine out on vacation.
- Restaurant.com sells discounted gift cards for restaurants nationwide (usually local restaurants). Typically, you can purchase a $25 certificate for $10, on this site--sometimes less, if they are running a promotion. Check their listings for restaurants at your vacation location, then check out those restaurants on Tripadvisor.com. One caution about this money-saver: the certificates sold are more like coupons that gift cards, so pay attention to the restrictions listed on them.
- Order creatively. Remember, when you are on vacation, it is unlikely that you'll actually save your leftovers. Kids meals are usually less than $5, but consider ordering one appetizer and one entree to to split between two adults--trust me, there will be plenty of food! Drinks always add up, so order water or bring in your own soda. (Corny, I know, but doable.)
- Avoid eating at the cafes in museums and amusement parks. These places typically charge premium prices for low-quality food. If you can bring in a small cooler or take a lunch break back in the parking lot at your car, do it. You'll save money and avoid gross food.
The boiled shrimp we ordered at Destin's beachside Back Porch Restaurant.
Our family loves fresh seafood, so we knew that we wanted to eat at least one really good seafood restaurant while we were in Destin. We checked online restaurant reviews and locations in advance, until we found one that was going to give us good food in a fun location. My theory is: if I'm going to splurge on a dining experience, it had better be worthwhile! Planning in advance where we would go spared us the time-waster and potential gamble of driving around looking for a place that "looks good". The Back Porch Restaurant did not disappoint, and we loved the gorgeous view of the ocean we had as we dined on the deck..
Souvenirs are another luxury item that can add up, too, if you let them. Our children get a pre-paid debit card with an amount from their savings that they choose to spend before our vacations. (We can do this for free through our bank.) They understand that the money is theirs to spend for souvenirs. Frequently, this results in the children being very selective in their spending, knowing that they are spending their own money. It takes the emotion out and puts the logic into their vacation spending (and ours). I can't tell you how much whining and begging this eliminates. Instead of begging us for cheap China-made kitsch when we pass through a gift shop, our children ask us if we think the items that catch their eye are "worth it." It's a fantastic switch: instead of being the bad guys who tell our kids "no" over and over again, The Bionic Man and I get to serve as friendly advisors to our little shoppers.
I know moms who plan in advance and purchase things like t-shirts with the destination logo on them online at discount prices before leaving on vacation. This is a terrific money-saver for anyone going on, say, a Disney vacation. Rather than pay the premium prices inside the park, get your kids their Disney-fied wardrobe selections in advance. You save money while they get to sport the gear like so many others they see in the parks. One mom I know found thrifted Disney princess dresses before their trip, and brought along her own supplies for a "princess makeover" that she did for her girls in their hotel room, rather than pay $80-300 for the professional Disney version.
Mandy, the blogger at Sugar Bee Crafts, made outfits for her kids to wear during their Disney vacation for a fraction of the cost she would have spent to buy the Disney brand items. Read about them here and here.
On the flip side, we've learned that there are a few things that it's just not worth it to try to haul around on a vacation. Case in point: plastic beach toys, like buckets and shovels. They are bulky, hard to pack, and when you try to bring them home, they get sand all over everything. We've learned that it's okay to spend $5-10 on plastic beach toys at a local Wal-Mart once we arrive at our destination. We feel zero guilt about leaving them behind or passing them to another family we meet at the beach on our last day.
One of the most important things I have learned about vacationing on a budget is that you just can't put a price on the value of spending time together as a family, away from the typical distractions of daily life. While we do have lots of fun doing things like hiking up mountains, touring museums, and looking for dolphins, some of our best memories have been made on the way to those places. Our kids still laugh and tell stories about what happened at the rest stop in upstate New York, or the funny thing Daddy said when we were driving through Missouri. Those things just can't be planned.
And when it comes to planning, our kids are at a point in their lives where the most important thing to them about our vacations is that we have planned to spend time together. Doing that does not require all-inclusive resorts or cruise ships. One of my favorite memories from our recent Florida vacation wasn't something I planned. One morning, Endeavor, Justone, and I got up early and went jogging on the beach together, barefoot. We ran down the boardwalk together, then ran down this end of the beach
and all the way back to this end of the beach.
It was so fun to run, with the waves chasing us, as the sun grew brighter in the morning sky. Endeavor and Justone are still talking about it. It was free, it didn't require any planning, and only made me a little sore. But it left us with memories we'll treasure for a long time. And that, my friends, is priceless.
Check out my friend Kim's website full of resources for low-cost travel. Budget Travel Tricks.