Travel Well on a Budget, Part 3

Financial Freedom in 2021! Take Action: Day 27

Today’s post is all about maximizing vacation fun without blowing your budget. After putting in all that time to get the best value on transportation and lodging, you don’t want to let activities put you over the top. The good news is that every town and city has free or cheap things to do. You just gotta know where to look.

Check Local Blogs

Bloggers offer all kinds of information for free. 😉 You can find the best playgrounds, hiking spots, beach access points, climbing hills, swimming holes, and bike trails by reading a local blog. If you search “free things to do in _____”, scroll down past the Google maps, Trip Advisor, and big magazine publisher suggestions. You wanna hear from the locals! Once you find blog articles, check the dates to make sure it’s a recent post. It’d be pretty disappointing to head to a local swimming hole only to discover it’s been covered by a parking lot since the article was written. Also, search for a few other kid-friendly favorites, such as “free museum days in (location)” or “free festivals in the month of ______”. If you’re traveling to the Austin area or Texas Hill Country, I recommend Dripping with Kids!

Use the Yelp App for Dining Out

I don’t usually use Yelp when I’m at home, but I find it useful while on vacation. Not only does it help me to find restaurants that are highly recommended or great for a family, but because these are places I’d be checking into for the first time, I might get a free appetizer or BOGO offer for trying them out.

Order the Souvenirs in Advance

If you know your kids will want a sweatshirt or a magnet or a stuffed animal as a souvenir from the amazing place they’ve visited, look for great deals online BEFORE you go. The souvenir shops are usually over-priced, and once you set foot inside, you’ll likely cave and buy a lot more than you budgeted for. Who can really resist a cheesy painted sign that says, “Resting Beach Face” or an ornament with Santa riding the ski lift??

Deals on Tickets

This is a tough one! If you’ve planned your vacation around going to a theme park for several days or a week-long music festival, you have no choice but to spend a big chunk of your travel budget on tickets. Right?

I’m still working on how to get the best deals in these areas, but if I can’t find discounts directly through the venue’s website, I always check Groupon. It often offers discounted tickets for festivals, small amusement parks, museums, or concerts.

I’m also a big advocate for zoo memberships if you’re like us and enjoy checking out the local zoo while visiting a new city. Most zoo, botanical garden, and aquarium memberships offer reciprocal admission, saving you 50% to 100% on admission fees.

Another tip is to check with other memberships you have, such as PTA, AAA, AARP, etc. or with your hotel concierge. My final tip is to compare the cost of a season pass to day passes. If you’re planning to visit an attraction or resort (such as for skiing, fishing, or boating) for more then 2 days, it might be cheaper to buy a season pass.

Save on Parking

Many attractions charge high parking fees. Look for ways to skip that added expense. Your hotel may have a shuttle or public transportation nearby. Or there may be street parking a little further away, so most of the family can get dropped off at the front and then Mom or Dad can go park the car.

Save on Food

Check the food and drink policy for the venue or park before you travel. Many will allow you to bring in your own snacks and drinks. If not, though, most have picnic tables for you to enjoy a cheap meal just outside their gates and save the rest of your cash for something better.

Today’s action step is to jot down on your travel budget spreadsheet some of the activities you would want to do on vacation. Place a star next to the ones you could potentially do for free (or really cheap). Then, do a little research to estimate costs of the other activities. When you actually book the trip, do a deep dive to try to find discounts on them.

Travel Well on a Budget, Part 2

Financial Freedom in 2021! Take Action: Day 26

There are so many options on where to stay while on vacation these days… from luxury hotels to extended-stay motels to RV resorts to cabins to vacation home rentals to tent-camping. Even with a large family, many hotel rooms can now accommodate everyone. It can be really hard to narrow down the choices and make a decision.

The good news is that when there are various options and abundant supply, the buyer often benefits from all that competition. You just have to be prepared to do the research.

Once you’ve settled on which type of accommodations will provide the best value and experience for your trip, the following list can help you save money on them …

Check Rewards First

Just like shopping for airfare, check with your credit card rewards and/or your hotel chain membership to determine whether you have enough points to book a night or two at a hotel. If you don’t have a hotel card or rewards membership, but your trip is several months away, consider applying for a card with a great bonus offer so you can collect and redeem miles at least a month before your travel dates.

We recently applied for the Hilton Honors AMEX, thinking ahead to two destinations this year with excellent (but expensive) family-friendly Hilton resorts. Because of the bonus offers and by using the card to pay for part of the stay (thus maximizing the points per purchase), we should be able to get 4 nights covered with points this year.

Get the App

Hotel apps can also help you earn free nights faster or offer upgrades and discounts. I like the hotels.com app. I’ve earned two free nights (1 free after 10 nights) and taken advantage of significant savings due to “secret prices”. Also, if you access hotels.com through the Ibotta app, you can earn cash back for your hotel purchases.

Map It

When searching for a hotel or vacation home, I always use the map function to make sure I understand where a hotel is located before clicking to find out more info. The maps on the search sites often show tourist attractions, the airport, and parks in the area so it’s easy to determine how close the hotels are to everything.

If your goal is to minimize transportation costs, stay close to it all. If your goal is to minimize lodging costs, stay a bit outside the city or in a small town nearby.

Take Advantage of Filters

When it comes to a hotel, I look for at least 3 stars, a very high review rating, and amenities that will save us more money, such as free breakfast, free wifi, free parking, in-room kitchen/ette, free airport shuttle, etc. Bonus if there’s a nice pool, water park, playground, and/or hiking trails onsite… something that can entertain kids between other planned activities.

Keep Your Options Open

When I find a great hotel at a decent price, I book… but only at the free-cancellation rate. Then, I set an alert/reminder in my phone to go back and check hotels again just before the final cancellation date. I re-do my hotel search then to see if the hotel we booked has a better deal or if another one has dropped in price.

Alternatives to AirBnB/VRBO

Looking for a vacation home rental but don’t want to pay the excessive fees? Ask your friends or put up a post in Facebook groups. Often times, a vacation home owner will be willing to rent it out without going through these sites (especially if you’re a friend or acquaintance).

You can also try local property management companies or Vacasa to find the same homes listed on AirBnB or VRBO at slightly cheaper rates (and fewer fees).

Another tip is to find a few homes you like in the area on the major rental sites, then reach out to the owners directly to negotiate a lower rate, especially if the homes are still available less than a week before your travel dates. Send an email to 4-5 owners offering the price you’re willing to pay. Chances are, at least one will agree to take less than their listed rate rather than make nothing on a vacant home.

In summary, finding great deals on vacation lodging requires a bit of time, research, comparison shopping, and possibly some negotiation. It’s worth it, though, to save that money to put toward activities while on your trip or to have enough left in the budget to book your next vacation!

Today’s action step is to continue to do research on the places you’re interested in traveling to this year. Add estimates for accommodations to your travel budget spreadsheets.

Road Trip Checklist

If you’re a frugal family that likes to travel, you’re no stranger to road trips. Despite the bickering, bathroom needs in the middle of nowhere, and numb bums, road trips are good for the soul… and the travel budget.

Not only does road tripping allow you to save on airfare and a rental car in your final destination, your own vehicle also provides you ample space to bring all the extras that wouldn’t typically fit into your carry-on bag. This is where the real savings comes in.

With the following road trip checklist, you can prepare for those often unanticipated expenses that pop up while traveling with kids.

Road Trip Essentials

  • Clothes, separated by location or travel stop, rather than by person (We finally learned that when going on a multi-destination road trip to pack for each location rather than by each person. We pack one bag with bathroom/PJ items for everyone, and then we will pack and label a single duffle bag with everyone’s clothes for each location to prevent having to bring in ALL the luggage at every stop.)
  • Extra pair of tennis shoes for each person
  • Your Essentials Car Kit, suggested by Dripping with Kids
  • Medicines and creams (anticipate it all!) – Itch cream, antibiotic ointment, lots of bandaids, Benadryl and other allergy meds, pain relievers, Tums, aloe, and Rx meds
  • Travel or toddler potty if traveling through open country (can work for adults too … just remove the collection bowl)
  • Individualized snack boxes or coolers that can slip under the seat (To prevent impulse fast food stops, pack each person his or her own heaping pile of favorite healthy and unhealthy snacks/meals. For younger kids, pack homemade happy meals in easy-to-decorate white paper sacks with crayons, stickers, and other little surprises inside.)
  • Gallon of water for refills
  • Road Trip Bingo and other favorite family games
  • Joke, riddle, and/or trivia book to read aloud
  • Spiral notebook and markers for each child with age-appropriate journal prompts, blank pictures to color (glue them to a page), and/or interesting facts related to the places you’re visiting
  • Surprise magazine, book, or busy hands activity, such as lacing cards, play-doh, and sliding puzzles.
  • Small pillows and blankets, plus a family-friendly downloaded audio book
  • Binoculars
  • Electronics and headphones
  • A list of activities for each stop that you found on a local blogger’s website
  • Cash
  • Emergency tool kit, extra set of car keys, and inflated spare tire

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