9 Fun and Affordable Vacation Ideas


Not every vacation you take has to include multiple theme parks, lavish nightly dinners, and free-flowing drinks until dawn. Those expenses add up quickly, often necessitating a vacation to recover from the vacation, right after the guilt of spending so much money subsides. But there's a lot you can do without depleting your savings — you just have to know where to look. Here are a few ideas to get you started. (See also: Best Travel Reward Cards)

1. Take a Day Trip

No matter where you live, there's an uncharted area (at least, uncharted by you) nearby.

For instance, I live in New York City, and there are plenty of interesting areas nearby that I have yet to visit. The local rail system — New Jersey Transit — travels down the New Jersey shoreline, and for $30 roundtrip I can head to breezy beach areas to enjoy an afternoon of sun and surf. Trips to the closest beach towns are around an hour and a half, which means I can have a full day of fun if I leave early and come back after dark. And if you pack a lunch, snacks, and drinks, you'll save money throughout the day since you won't have to fill up on expensive restaurant fare.

Another option is to hop on a bus and hop off in a town you've never been. You can book this trip easily online (I can personally recommend Greyhound's express service, which usually features free Wi-Fi) by choosing a new-to-you destination and hittin' the road whenever you need a little adventure in your life.

2. Book a Discount Cruise

For all that cruises include (all-you-can-eat 24-hour buffets!), I think they're relatively inexpensive compared to other types of vacations. I'm not saying that cruises are cheap — but they can be if you strike while the iron is hot. (See also: Questions to Ask Before You Book a Vacation Package)

I often get flyers in the mail for deep cruise discounts, and cruise lines are known to offer last-minute super deals to fill the last few remaining cabins before setting sail. And let's not forget that when cruise lines experience a string of bad press, like they have in recent months, sales begin to sag, forcing the lines to offer truly amazing deals. Also, if you're a past cruiser, you're usually entitled to an incentive — a cheaper rate — so don't forget to mention that when it's time to book.

3. Extend Your Business Trip

When my husband invites me on his business trips, two words come to mind: Free vacation! Alas, if you're not the lucky one who's tagging along but rather the one working, you can still look forward to this work perk by extending your trip to take in the sights.

Most companies pay for roundtrip travel — so ask your boss if you can fly back a few days after your work duties are done. That way, you can stick around your conference location for a couple extra days to unwind and soak up the local culture. Granted, the boss probably won't pick up the tab for the extra nights at the hotel, so you may have to lower your expectations in terms of accommodations, but thanks to Airbnb and other micro-subletting sites, you can probably find an affordable crashpad within a few miles of wherever you are.

4. Play the Local Tourist

If your city has public transportation, throw caution to the wind one day and catch a ride to someplace new. Buy a day pass and hop on and off to see and experience things you never knew existed in your town. If you make one of your first stops your local tourism office, you can pick up brochures and coupons to semi-plan your day and save money along the way. (See also: Why You Should Travel Off the Beaten Path)

5. Embark on a Road Trip

I've written a couple articles on how to do the road trip right, and I still think it's an affordable summer vacation idea. If you pack a few friends in the car, it becomes immensely more fun and affordable since you can split the good times and fuel expenses among the group.

Depending on where you're headed, someone in the car is bound to have a connection to someplace you can crash — preferably a friend's or relative's place who will let you snooze on the floor for free. If that's not an option, you can always pack a tent and set up camp along the way, or catch a few winks at a roadside rest area before continuing on your journey. (See also: Frugal Road Trips)

6. Swap Homes With Someone Else

For two years in a row — on Memorial Day weekend, no less — my husband and I have swapped homes with a nice lady in Connecticut. She gets our two-bedroom condo in Manhattan, and we take her large lake house without either party exchanging a single cent. This is by far the most amazing and affordable vacation idea I've found so far. (See also: House Swap for Free Accommodations With Perks)

If you have a decent place at which you think someone else would enjoy staying, this is an opportunity to pursue. You can try Craigslist with caution, but it's much easier if your home is already listed on a site like Airbnb since those listings are fortified with security measures and references.

7. Set Up Camp Close By

KOA-branded campgrounds offer free camping nights or weekends throughout the year for various occasions — kids camp free on Father's Day, for instance — but you don't have to pack up your gear and head to the nearest commercial camping spot to get a good deal. Instead, set up camp in your backyard, complete with tents, sleeping bags, and a campfire with hot dogs and s'mores for a fun and frugal "getaway." Not only will you avoid the weekend travel hassle that almost always increases your stress level when you're meant to relax, but you'll save big bucks by turning your own backyard into a wilderness retreat.

8. Offer to House Sit

When my husband and I go away to places where we can't take our dogs, we usually ask a good buddy of ours to stay in our home for the days that we're gone to make sure everything goes smoothly and to keep the dogs happy and healthy. It's a bit of an extra expense for us (although about 50% less than formally boarding the dogs, so we're saving there), but for him it's a mini-vacation. He gets to stay at our place (and any place you stay besides your own is a nice respite so long as the accommodations are decent), watch TV and play games, enjoy cuddle time with the dogs, and make some fast cash just by lounging around and keeping the pups entertained. If this sounds like the perfect vacation to you, put your feelers out to see who among your friends is in the market for a house/dog sitter. With the extra money you make, go someplace inexpensive that's been on your list. You earned it.

9. Plan a Staycation

A staycation isn't as fabulous as a five-star hotel or a breezy Caribbean cruise, but there are plenty of ways to have fun and relax without going anywhere. Before the staycation starts, research what's happening in your area on your days or week off, specifically searching for free events that won't cut into your budget. Also, stock up on groceries and snacks to make the downtime at home a little tastier. Staycations can be really great if you plan them properly.

Do you have other ideas for fun and affordable vacations? Let me know in the comments below.

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