How to Have a Frugal Vacation and Still Treat Yourself

Photo: Nora Dunn

I recently found myself in Melbourne Australia killing some time between a sponsored trip and my next caretaking gig. Suddenly, I was on an official “vacation”! But as a Professional Hobo, I travel full-time, work in trade for accommodation, and earn money through the internet to cover off incidental expenses. So I had to keep my “vacation” expenses down since I don’t exactly have a fruitful income to live lavishly on.


So this experience brought up an interesting quandary: how do you vacation frugally, yet not allow your budget to compromise your traveling experience?

On one hand, you’re on vacation, so you don’t exactly want to squeeze every penny until it screams. The very idea of going on vacation means treating yourself to a special experience, seeing new things, and meeting new people. If you refuse yourself that museum admission, or that meal at a restaurant you’ve been dying to try, or the tour you’ve dreamed of taking, then what is the point of even leaving home in the first place?

Then again, if you go to town and spare no expense while on vacation, you may compromise your finances, and come home to a mess that may not only take a long time to clean up, but may also cause you to think twice about going away again.


Here are a few tips to help you balance out that vacation to enjoy the things you want to do, while keeping your chequebook balanced.



Meals will make up one of the most expense parts of your trip. If you are unable to cook for yourself in a hostel, you are relegated to eating largely at restaurants, which will in turn eat up your cash pretty quickly.

  • Go to that special restaurant, but for lunch, not dinner. Oftentimes, the menu items and portions are similar, but the price can be as little as half as what you would pay for dinner.
  • Scrimp on breakfast. At home, you probably have a fairly plain breakfast: toast, or cereal. But when you go to a restaurant for breakfast, you’ll likely end up ordering the full meal deal, and not only roll away having eaten more than you are used to, but also having spent way more money than you needed to. Instead, pick up some groceries at the local store (ideally a grocery store, not a convenience store!). Most hotel rooms have a mini bar fridge where you can store anything that requires refrigeration. Not only will you save time by eating something quick on your way out for the day, but you’ll also save money.
  • Never eat breakfast at a hotel! Unless it is included with accommodation (and we’ll get to that pitfall in a minute), hotels usually charge exorbitantly for breakfast, knowing that it is easiest for you to start your day with a meal right on your doorstep. If you insist on eating a full breakfast at a restaurant, then take the time to find an inexpensive diner where the locals eat. You’ll likely pay half the price.
  • Buy prepared foods at a grocery store. Many grocery stores have sandwiches (some of which are made to order), soups, salads, hot meals, and even sushi. Pick something up to go, and have a picnic while you are out and about. Or if it’s dinnertime, take your meal back to the room and serve up your inexpensive meal by candlelight. Create your own ambience, and you won’t have to worry about tipping the server or being pushed out the door if you want to linger over the meal.
  • Beware of snack foods and concession stands. It seems that hot chocolate, roasted peanuts, or ice cream stands are strategically planted in front of every major tourist destination around the world. If you wouldn’t get that snack or beverage at home, then don’t do it on vacation. You’ll probably pay too much for that ice cream cone anyway. (And if the kids won’t let the ice cream idea go, then go to a local convenience or grocery store and buy a box of pre-packaged ice cream cones or popsicles and pay less than half as much money).



This is the number one expense you will incur while on vacation (unless you are flying). The range of prices depend not only on the establishment and amenities, but also the location and time of year. Choose carefully.

  • Beware of the free breakfast. Although it may be enticing and convenient to have a free breakfast, you are paying for it one way or another. And if the breakfast turns out to be stale muffins, weak coffee, and some fruit, you may be losing money hand over fist. Even if the breakfast is glorious, compare how much you are paying for accommodation with breakfast versus without. Would you eat a full breakfast like that either way? If so, how much are you willing pay for it? If not, then why bother?
  • Location, location, location. It stands to reason that the hotels located in the middle of it all will charge a pretty penny for the convenience. By staying somewhere a little further out, you may get a better sense of the city and its people by taking public transportation, and/or by walking more (which never hurts when you’re eating all those rich vacation meals).
  • Choose your amenities. Although a pool, spa, exercise room, wireless internet, rooftop patio, and bathrobes may sound luxurious, will you use them? As much as I love seeing a bathrobe in my suite, I almost never use it. Why would I lollygag about in my room wearing a robe, when I can go out explore the place I came to visit? And as much as I’d like to sit in the sauna, I probably won’t. Look for the more basic accommodation, you’ll save lots of money.



Renting a Car

  • If you are visiting a city, don’t bother renting a car. Lots of city-dwellers don’t have cars, so try living like they do. Take public transportation, and walk lots.
  • If you must, go with a compact option. With the cost of fuel skyrocketing, the luxury sedans we like to get upgraded to will end up costing dearly. Do your pocket book and the environment a favour: keep it small, and don’t drive it unless you need to.




Sure, you need to be frugal, but don’t sacrifice the things you really want to see for the expense of seeing them. If you want to see the Great Barrier Reef, but balk at the price of the scuba diving trip, then consider a snorkeling trip instead. Or, book the boat trip from a further-out and lesser-known port. If you come and go without seeing it because of the cost, you’ll be kicking yourself all the way home.

  • Make a list. Each person in the family should choose one thing they really want to do on the vacation. Put it all on a list, and discuss the options and costs. This is a great way for the whole family to participate in the trip-planning process, and for children to become aware of the financial balance and compromise required not only on vacation but throughout life. If everybody gets a chance to pick one special thing to do, then they will assume ownership of the trip and enjoy it all the more.


Here’s another way to break the budget, to be sure. The best way to avoid going overboard with souvenirs (or to disappoint the kids by insisting they can’t have anything they see) is to avoid the souvenir shops altogether. Many of the goods in such shops are mass produced, overpriced, and not authentic.

Instead, try choosing one or two things you want to take home with you that will remind you of your trip and be a special memento. Or, like your tour choices above, get everybody in the family to pick one thing they want as their own personal souvenir from the trip. Everybody can research the destination prior to going to find the trip memento that characterizes the trip best for them, and will be all the more pleased with the end result.

For example, my souvenirs from Australia are a black opal and personally hand-crafted digeridoo. From South Africa, I have a mask and piece of blue tanzanite. From Thailand: a silk shirt and photograph of a monk praying. These are all things I can enjoy in my home, or use practically and have fond memories of every time I use it.



The best way to avoid sticker shock when you return is to budget the trip to begin with. There are a number of ways you can stick to your guns while on the road:

  • Leave credit cards at home. By bringing travelers checks and spending only those, you know exactly what you’ll have left over when you get home. No nasty surprises. When the checks are running low mid-trip, then you’ll figure out where to scrimp if you need to.
  • Set daily meal cost limits. Accommodation, flights, and tours are often fixed prices and you know before you even leave home how much you’ll be spending. But meals can throw the budget out the window if you’re not careful. By setting a daily limit for how much you can spend on food, you can keep this variable expense under control too. If one day you go out for that special (and more expensive) lunch, then you’ll have to make due with a smaller breakfast and budget dinner to make the day’s budget balance.


Like so many things in life, your vacation is about balance. You’re on vacation: so treat yourself to the simple pleasures in life you have worked hard and saved up for. You want to return home energized, refreshed, and with lots of happy memories. Don’t waste time scrimping and saving on every little thing. But don’t throw caution to the wind and return home to a series of surprising bills, statement shock, and uncontrollable debt. Make sure your vacation is pleasurable, from the initial planning stages to the lifetime of memories afterwards.

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Guest's picture

Wow, you really have some great ideas here. This is great for me as I am looking at going on holidays this weekend and I am also looking to go overseas in the next 12 months so this will definately save me money.
I am a struggling entrepreneur so a dollar saved really is a dollar earned for me. So thankyou for this

Guest's picture

Have you actually tried using them lately? I don't know about using them domestically (in the US), but they were nearly impossible to use in Europe four years ago. My in-laws had to actually sign them over to us so we could deposit them in our European bank account, and we gave them the cash in euros. I don't know that they would have been able to get cash for them anywhere else. They had tried several places.

It's a nice concept to limit spending, but I'm not sure it really works. Just an FYI.

Guest's picture

leaving your creditcard at home is not always a good idea. In a lot of countries it's a convenient way to pay for about everything and you sometimes need it for legitimization if you (for example) rent a car.

The rest are all great tips!

Guest's picture

I don't think eating a big breakfast is a bad thing. While on vacation in Chicago over the 4th of July weekend I feasted at breakfast -- it's usually the cheapest meal of the day on a menu. Eating a big breakfast fills you up, gives you (or at least me) energy for the day, and I ended up eating minimally for lunch and dinner because of it. I'd rather pay $10 for a hearty breakfast than $25 for dinner, if I can help it. (Of course, the-maybe $3 that hearty breakfast would have cost me to prepare it at home would be even better...)

Guest's picture

And that feast was eggs, oatmeal, coffee, fruit, a chocolate croissant.

Guest's picture

I agree that bringing the credit / debit card with you is a good idea. You get the most up-to-date exchange rate if you use that versus cashing all your money in for checks at the beginning of your trip. You pay transaction fees, but if you contact your bank in advance, they will tell you how much these will be, and you can factor that into your budget.

Andrea Karim's picture

I don't travel nearly as much as I used to, but my parents, who are not food snobs, frequently saved money by renting a place with a kitchenette. Then they'd buy local groceries and cook all of our meals. We might go out once or twice, but more often than not, we'd snack throughout the day.

This is especially helpful now that we're all of drinking age- much cheaper to buy bottles of tequila in Mexico than to go out to a bar.

Guest's picture

Thanks for the great pointers on keeping incidentals down to a minimum! I'd also suggest eating like a local- it's so expensive to try and get your McBurger when you're abroad, and eating local food is a huge part of the experience of travel. This is hard to do when travelign with a pickey eater or with kids, but there are bland and basic options in every country- you just have to look.


Guest's picture

Great tips Nora! It is good to see you are back. I have been keeping up with your other blog, but I always enjoy seeing what you have to say on Wise Bread.

Hope all is well!

Austin Hike and Bike

Guest's picture

I have to disagree with your tip about avoiding the free breakfast at hotels. We just traveled cross-country for a few weeks with our 4 kids, and I never saw a positive association between the price of hotels and whether or not they offered a free breakfast. You'd call around to several hotels in a given town, and often the place with the free breakfast was cheaper than the place without it. The real differentiator was how much availability the hotel had. If they had lots of unfilled rooms, you could push them on price.

Plus, free breakfasts are great when you travel with kids: let them eat the free food, and then grab tastier food with your spouse before you leave town!

Here's a surefire tip to cut your costs while traveling: leave your kids at home!

Guest's picture

I love traveling too and those wrer some excellent tips how are your accommodations when you travel? I remember staying in this one hotel that smelled like being downwind of a row of porta-potties, mixed with cigar was disgusting! Have you ever had any bad experiences, OMG please share!

Check out this funny video, called "Ballad of a Traveler", it is hilarious. He totally sums up the travelers experience:>

YouTube - Ballad of a Traveler

I work with Hampton Inn, and I'd love to hear your horror stories! What's the worst experience you've ever had at a hotel? (I always get a kick outta this!)

Nora Dunn's picture
Nora Dunn

Thank you for all the comments, and thanks for the warm welcome Jib!

It's nice to be settled down again for a bit after traveling actively (and living out of a backpack) for the last few months.

re: Credit Cards - I'll admit, I do tend to travel with my credit card, and appreciate the convenience, emergency backup, and current exchange rates. But the transaction fees tend to be annoying and overpriced, and anybody without a solid discipline for whipping out the plastic only when needed could find themselves in trouble. 

re: Breakfast - Going for the big breakfast and then grazing through lunch and dinner is also a great strategy. Lots more time for touring around if you don't have to worry about eating either! Sadly for me, the bigger the breakfast I eat, the hungrier I am at lunch. If I spring for a big brunch instead, I can usually make it to dinner without snacking. 

re: Traveler's Cheques - I figured that cashing in a wad of cheques at the bank or exchange centre at one time and simply carrying cash would be a logical way to use the cheques. I certainly wouldn't try to cash them at businesses...that would be aggravating. And yes - you may lose a few bucks in the exchange rate, but then again you may  make a few bucks, depending on what the dollar is doing. Either way, the exchange rates don't usually change that much over the course of a vacation. 


Thanks for the comments; keep 'em coming! Suggestions are welcome. 

Guest's picture

Paying with credit cards at foreign restaurants, cafes and even souvenir shops saves you the trouble of carrying different currencies and wondering what to do with the leftover money when you return home. I use this option when only a couple days in one country. There's no additional charge and you can see on your monthly bill both the amount in local currency and USD.

Don't use your credit card for cash. If you want to keep transaction fees to minimum and avoid the danger of carring too much cash with you, use your debit card at ATMs. I ususally get the maximum allowed per transaction, costs me $2 and is safer than exchange bureaus.

Guest's picture

Great article, but I have to be another to disagree on the scrimping on breakfast thing - breakfast is the most important meal of the day for me as a traveller, it fills me up enough to give me energy to keep me going throughout the day, meaning I don't normally need to eat lunch, and can even cut back often on dinner. And I'm sure I've read research that shows people who eat a big breakfast tend to eat less overall.

Guest's picture

Unless if we're camping out, I always find we spend more than we wanted to on accommodation! It just adds up so fast. But I will say that there are times when we find a place for the right place that is more than just a room to sleep in and store your luggage. We've made friends with innkeepers, gotten travel ideas from breakfast table conversations, and ventured further off the beaten path (and loved it!) - all from picking the right inn or b&b.

Guest's picture
mio amor

When we go on a tour with the rest of the family, we bring extra foods that we can easily carry and eat while traveling. We only eat and go to restaurants or a near 7"11 store when we don't have enough food for all of us. This is for us one way of being thrift but still enjoys the fun of a retreat.sedona tours

Nora Dunn's picture
Nora Dunn

Thanks for the comments, and awesome tips! I'm learning lots (you never stop learning as a traveler - that's half the fun!)

Guest's picture

These are great ideas! You make a great comment about watching hotel costs with free breakfast, but if the price is close, it is worth it. I have a family of 5, and breakfast can get costly quickly. We have definitely brought out own and put it in the minifridge as you suggested, but sometimes eating a hearty breakfast in the hotel that can include some healthy options like fresh fruit helps keep lunch cheaper later.