25 Ways to Have the Best, Cheapest Summer Vacation
When I decided to leave my 9-to-5 and work from home, I knew it would take some financial trickery. I went over our monthly and yearly budgets over and over again to find room and determine areas where we could cut back. One of the first line items on the chopping block? Summer vacation funds.
Not having much to spend on travel doesn't have to be the end of your great summer adventure, however. My family has found some rather crafty ways to get around and enjoy the sights and sounds of new places on the cheap. (See also: Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards)
1. Explore Locally
When I think travel, I often let my mind go wild with far off places. What I've discovered most recently is that there are tons of fun places to visit within my own home state. Head to your local welcome center (you know, the ones on all the major highways) and check out the promotional pamphlets for attractions near you. Then make your bucket list and go!
2. Set an Early or Late Date
Mid-summer is peak season at a lot of popular spots, so if your dates aren't strict, try different combinations. Many hotels offer (sometimes wildly) different rates depending on when most people have time to trek. Early June to the week before July 4th or early September after Labor Day are awesome times to get great prices on summer hot spots. Bonus: They'll be less crowded too! (See also: Easy Ways to Save for Vacation)
3. Be Counterintuitive
Along those same lines, head to the slopes this summer! Tripping in the off-season is a fun way to get to know a place more intimately. For example, I know for a fact that Vermont is just as gorgeous — if not more — in the warm months than it is when all the ski bunnies descend in droves.
4. Road Trip It
Part of the fun is in the travel itself. Rather than jet around from location to location, pack your car with necessities (and lots of snacks!) and plan a route that's worth the drive. One dream my family has is to plot out a road trip visiting with family and friends, which will be both frugal (free places to stay and free tour guides!) and fun. (Related: 10 Ways To Save Money on the Great American Road Trip)
5. Try Camping
The first trip my husband and I took together was to the southern coast of Maine, and we camped there for five blissful nights. If I remember correctly, our site fee was around $30 a night and we cooked most of our own food, making for quite an inexpensive trip! If you're not totally into roughing it, check out KOA campgrounds — you can find one near most cities and big attractions in the US and Canada. Most have a selection of tent sites, cabins (with TVs!), and even more luxurious accommodations that are cheaper than hotels.
6. Cook In
Wherever you stay on vacation, it can be tempting to go out to eat for every meal. Last year when my family visited NYC for a week, we got a taste of local food without the added up-charge. Find a great local market (in that case, we stopped by Eataly daily) and assemble your own meals with local, fresh ingredients if you're staying someplace that will allow it. Our shore rental has a grill, and I can't wait to use it!
7. Mind Your Perks
Along those same lines, check out hotels that offer free breakfasts or other meals to guests. Growing up, my parents always chose Embassy Suites for their bountiful warm breakfasts (for free!) and evening receptions that kept both adults and kids satiated. Smaller hotels may also have discounts with local restaurants and attractions, so be sure to do your research ahead of time to get the best hookups.
8. Buddy Up
Chances are, you're not the only one looking for a change of pace. If you have close friends or family with similar interests, try planning a joint vacation and splitting some of the costs. We go to the Jersey Shore each year with family and everyone pitches in for food and the vacation rental. Setting ground rules ahead of time can help avoid uncomfortable situations, so making lists and designating different responsibilities accordingly is the key to keep everyone happy.
9. Try a Rental
That's right — our family shares a rental home for our beach trip. It's a heck of a lot less expensive than a hotel. Plus, rentals offer an impressive number of perks — like full kitchens, beach tags, community pools, etc. — that might help save you money in the long run. Try sites like Vacation Rental By Owner (VRBO) if you're new to this thrifty idea (and, of course, Airbnb).
10. Make It a Quickie
If you have your heart set on a certain place that happens to be expensive, consider shortening the trip to cut down on hotel, food, and entertainment costs. A weekend getaway is often just as refreshing as a whole week's trip, but with less than half the cost. (You can also save some of your vacation days by planning it in conjunction with a holiday — just beware that hotel and travel costs change as well.)
11. Plan Ahead
You can occasionally cash in on this year's rates for next year by locking in your vacation at checkout. Some hotels (and vacation rentals) reward loyalty with a small percentage discount, so it's worth a check if you'd like to frequent your destination for years to come. Plus, it feels sort of great knowing the fun is already on the calendar so far in advance.
12. Survey Flight Options
There are a host of considerations related to flight, not limited to fare fluctuations, baggage check fees, and hub of choice. If you're flying where you want to go, make sure you get the best fare by checking apps like Yapta to get alerts when ticket prices are low. Try airlines like JetBlue, which offer free baggage checks. And investigate options with flights from both large and small airports for price comparison.
13. Stay Off the Beaten Path
It's true that major cities and other vacation favorites offer lots in way of entertainment and fun, but sometimes sticking to more rural locations can be a breath of fresh air. Whether it's scoping out the national parks or just visiting a less frequented beach or smaller city, you'll enjoy a bit more room to relax and a thicker wallet.
14. House Swap
Do you have a friend or family member in a far away place (or not so far away) who might be willing to switch residences for a week or two? House swapping is a fun way to see a new part of the country without spending outrageous lodging costs to stay there. By staying in someone's house or apartment, you'll be sure to have a kitchen and other necessities that simple hotel rooms can't afford you. Just be sure to water plants, get mail, and feed the cat so your friend will return the favor.
15. Offer Your Services
There are costs at home associated with travel that often get neglected in the planning. Things like animal boarding, house-sitting, lawn care, and other responsibilities can cost if you don't have a plan in place. Offer your services to cat sit and water plants for a friend and he or she will likely return the favor.
If you'd like to bring more meaning to your summer vacation, consider checking out these free and low-cost opportunities to volunteer abroad via VAOPS. Sure, your trip won't consist of days on end laying on a beach towel, but you'll be investing time and energy into an area with the reward of an amazing experience.
17. Consider Your Options
Before choosing a destination, search around for all the opportunities for free entertainment. Washington D.C., for example, has a plethora of free museums to keep you and your family entertained for days. Beaches can sometimes charge hefty parking or entry fees, but those off the radar are often free and much less crowded. Look beyond those popular spots for the most savings.
18. Utilize Resources
There are a number of travel websites with deals and steals on vacation packages, airfare, and more. If you don't know where to start, just check out our 40 Most Useful Travel Websites — they can save you a fortune!
19. Ask Around
Once you get to your vacation spot, resist the urge to hit up all the ritzy tourist destinations. Instead, ask some locals for their favorite restaurant and entertainment picks. Usually these options are less costly and allow you to become more immersed in the place you're visiting.
20. Park Your Car
One of my favorite things to do when I get someplace new? Walk or run around town and identify places I might want to go. My family tries to stay somewhere central (even if it might cost slightly more) so we can leave the car behind. That way, we lower our gas bill, parking costs, and even those unexpected parking or traffic tickets. Those are pesky costs sometimes piles up when speed limits and meter rules are somewhat elusive.
21. Exhaust Alternatives
Have you ever checked out community marketplace Airbnb? It's sort of like VRBO, but it's more unique. You rent from people in over 34,000 cities and 192 countries. Better yet: You can rent out your own spaces to make some extra money for travel as well.
22. Frolic to a Festival
One of our beloved summer vacations is to a local music festival each July. The tickets go up for sale in the beginning of the year, so we try to sign up early to get the best rates. From there, there's a small onsite camping fee — but otherwise, food is the only major expense (and we bring most of it with us for what a week's worth of groceries would cost). All that's left to do is sit back, relax, and listen to the tunes waft through the breeze.
23. Pack Smart
If you know you're going to be driving through rest stops or waiting long hours at airports, try to resist the usual temptations. All those magazines, books, bottled waters, fast food meals, and other comfort items add up. Pack your travel bag the smart way and bring your own supplies — snacks, neck-pillows, library books, etc. — from home for free.
24. Fuel to Your Advantage
Now's the time to use your credit card that earns points for gas and other travel purchases. Apps like GasBuddy, SmartFuel, and Fuel Finder can certainly save you some major dollars on fueling that will accumulate to big bucks over time.
25. Stay Home
I think by now we've all heard the word "stay-cation," right? The idea? If you're really strapped, you don't need to go anywhere to get some rest and relaxation. Sometimes just taking a few days off and living it up in your hometown does the trick. Much like with traveling locally, you'll want to make a list of things to do. Now's the time to check out that new restaurant that opened downtown. Hang your hammock and enjoy!
How do you save on summer travel? The more tips the better — I'm sure we could all use a vacation!