8 Great, Cheap Summer Vacations

By Anna Newell Jones on 11 April 2012 (Updated 9 July 2014) 14 comments

The sky is brighter, the air is warming up, and the layers of clothes are getting peeled off. That can only mean one thing — summer is near.

One of the things that I love most about going on vacation is the chance to break out of my everyday routines, eat crappy foods guilt-free, and stay up blissfully late watching as much trashy reality TV as I please. Setting aside daily responsibilities, trying new things, being in a different space, and having care-free fun is refreshing. But while it'd be nice to go to Fiji or another distant tropical paradise, that just isn't reality for a lot of us.

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So what do you do when money is tight, you don't want to get further into debt, and you really need a vacation? You still take a vacation, but just a frugal one. One that your budget will love. Here are eight frugal summer vacation ideas to get you going.

1. The All-American, Almighty Road-Trip Vacation

About ten years ago, my husband was able to travel through thirty different states in the span of a month-and-a-half with a friend in a $400, 1982 Chevy Sprint. It's an experience he'll never forget, and while gas prices do get high in the summer, the road trip is still one of the cheapest options for frugal vacations.

Grab a map, pack a large cooler, stop at grocery stores along the way, sing cheesy songs, tell stories you've never told before, watch the sun rise and set, and make yourself some memories. (Can be combined with the "I Had No Idea There Were Over 400 National Parks" vacation below, if you're feeling adventurous.)

(See also: How to Take Frugal Road Trips)

2. The Infamous Staycation Vacation

Set a time frame. If you can only get two to three days off from work (or less), that's okay!

This is how you do it — turn off the phones, put an auto reply on your email, turn off the computer (and really keep it off), don't check your usual social media feeds, and really allow yourself a break from everyday life and the technology that comes along with it.

Then, go to the grocery store and get sundae supplies: ice cream, candy toppings, hot fudge, caramel, whipped cream, and why not throw in some cherries too? You are on vacation after all! Rent those guilty-pleasure movies you've been wanting to see, and settle in for a movie marathon. Those books and magazines that have been stacking up? This is the time to read them! Those museum exhibits you've been dying to see but just don't have the time for? Go check 'em out! Hanging with friends on a patio on a random Tuesday night? Go for it!

The point is to have fun, indulge in some pleasures you normally don't get to, and get out of your normal routine.

3. The "I Had No Idea There Were 58 National Parks" Vacation

You can purchase an annual National Parks pass for $80. The pass provides access to 58 National Parks throughout the United States with big-name attractions like the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, the Everglades, and Yosemite. Once you're in the parks, you can hike around and obtain a spot to setup a tent for a very low fee.

4. The Survivalist "Is This Really Considered a Vacation?" Vacation

I know some people like to be non-stop busy on vacation, and then they need a vacation after the "vacation." If you're one of those people, then a backpacking or biking trip might be just right for you. Borrow gear from a knowledgeable friend, talk to your local outdoor pro, and take an adventure along the Pacific Crest Trail, Great Divide Trail, or Appalachian Trail. Just make sure to take all of the necessary precautions and do the necessary training prior to attempting this one.

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5. The "You Wanna Switch Houses?" Vacation

Talk to other families to see if they need a break from their daily life too. Swap houses (or apartments) with each other for the weekend to get a change of scenery. It's simple and free. (See also: Free Accommodations With Home Exchanges)

6. The Traveling Mooch Vacation

Think about who you know in other cities, and go visit them. See if your friends will let you crash at their place and show you around their town. This vacation can be combined with the next vacation on the list, "The Greyhound Bus Adventure Vacation," for added frugality. (See also: 11 Rules to Be an Excellent Houseguest)

7. The Greyhound Bus Adventure Vacation

When I was a college student, I would ride the Greyhound Bus all the time to go and visit my family. It was a rough, cheap ride, and I got to meet a bunch of people I normally wouldn't get a chance to. (See also: The 5 Best Travel Reward Credit Cards)

8. The "You're Already On Vacation" Vacation

Hone your meditation skills to transport yourself to another dimension at any time. Meditating can be used to take a break from everyday life without leaving your house or taking time off from work. Bonus — it's free, and no packing is involved.

Disconnecting, breaking out of the daily ruts, and infusing some extra fun is all it takes to make a vacation a vacation, whether you're going near or far, and being frugal or not.

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Meg Favreau's picture

I LOVE road trips, and I'm going on a mini one sometime in May. The one I took last summer when I moved from the East Coast to Los Angeles was one of the best things I've ever done. I made sure to structure a couple of extra days into the trip so I could stop and see things I didn't plan on.

Readers -- have any favorite frugal vacations?

Guest's picture
Thrifty Writer

If you're on the East Coast, Washington D.C. can be a great destination. Round trip bus rides there can be had for $30, and all the government-run museums and institutions are free (the National Gallery, the Air and Space Museum and the FBI Building stand out in my memory). If you have a friend who will let you crash on his/her couch, or don't mind hostels, it can be a great, cheap, trip.

Guest's picture
Hannah

We are planning a vacation in the downtown area of the our city (we live in the suburbs). We are using hotel points my husband got from business trips to stay for free, and will do cheap tourist things and eat at hole in the wall restaurants. It's inexpensive, easygoing (no pressure to do everything since we can always go back!), and only requires a couple days off of work.

Anna Newell Jones's picture

Love it... you get to see and experience your city with a whole new perspective. Can't beat that.

Guest's picture
Thrifty Writer

A variation on The Greyhound Bus vacation is The Megabus/Bolt Bus vacation. I've found them to be more reliable, and depending on how early you book, even cheaper. Megabus goes to more cities, but Bolt has more reliable WiFi plus power outlets at almost every seat. And I always combine it with The Traveling Mooch vacay, since I'll reciprocate:-)

Meg Favreau's picture

Being on the West Coast now, I miss the Megabus and the Bolt. Ultra-cheap travel with outlets and Wi-Fi? Yes please!

Anna Newell Jones's picture

Oh wow, we need a Megabus and Bolt out here... that sounds like a major upgrade from the buses I've experienced.

Guest's picture
Thrifty Writer

Oh, and I almost forgot! You can combine the bus/frugal mooch with Groupon/Google/Living Social-type offers in the city you're visiting. It's a great way to treat your hosts to a nice dinner out, an evening of bowling, a sunset cruise, or something else fun. You may also find discounted offers on events and places to visit yourself. If you're not sure whether a restaurant is good, check it out on yelp.com.

Anna Newell Jones's picture

That's such a good idea to use a Groupon in the city you're going to visit.... hadn't thought about that idea before. Very smart!

Guest's picture
scoutmaster

We take several mini vacations a year. in order to afford this we "SHARE" vacations with others. Last week a few of us rented a fully furnished cottage at the beach, signed up to provide one meal for the group and the result was....Only $50. per family total room cost, the cost of one meal to share & the rest of the time all our meals were cooked for us!! (cheaper than restarants) including gas out whole trip was less than $100. for the family & we had 6 full meals provided (other than the one we did) when we want alone family time...we camp or find new places to travel to useing restarant.com & groupon.

Guest's picture
ABones

Well this just has me wantin' to take a road trip. Maybe follow the Lincoln Highway or Route 66 this summer.

I like how you said "grab a MAP," too. No mention of GPS. While these devices have their place when you've got somewhere to BE, I think they take some of the romance and fun out of vacations and road trips. I still get a new Rand McNally's every five years or so (although using an outdated one can lead to adventure as well). There's something extremely...I dunno, American?...about being lost-but-not-really-lost under that wide blue sky. It's like being Lewis & Clark and Kerouac and a pioneer and a punk all at the same time.

I will add one thing: to properly undertake any road trip vacation, "I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide" by ZZ Top MUST be listened to at some point while driving. Load your MP3 player, make a disc or (if yer old school) make a tape, but never let a road trip go by without it.

Anna Newell Jones's picture

A paper map is the ONLY way to do a proper road trip;)

Guest's picture
Danielle

Travelling with my family as a child has created some of the best memories! Now that I'm starting my own family, I look forward to those vacations...but not the cost. I found this blog to have some helpful advice on summer vacation savings: http://www.clearpointcreditcounselingsolutions.org/tips-and-tools/articl... - check it out!

Guest's picture
Troy Reynolds

My son and I took the Greyhound from Upstate NY to NC last year to go see family. We saved tons of $$$$$ ! Every bus had WiFi so he was totally occupied, most of the bus terminals have been updated and are just as decent as an airport for layover purposes. And I have to say the were on time at every stop. The money we saved allowed for some splurging on a few souvenirs and we did not have to go into debt to finance a nice get away.