Budget Travel! How to travel when you’re not wealthy!

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My lovely bride and i headed back east via Tioga Pass in Yosemite National Park

My wife and i get asked frequently how we have been able to travel as much as we have over the past several years. We’re not wealthy, nor are we destitute either though. We fall solidly into the “working-class” descriptor. Here are our top Five strategies for traveling on a budget

1) Give up your “relaxing” vacation: 
There’s a lot to be said for a relaxing vacation where you get to kick back and unwind. You leave behind all the day-to-day stress of your regular life and just chill. Even more so when you have your vacation plan in place: You know the condo or the hotel you always stay at, you know which restaurants you’re going to grab dinner at, which desserts you’ve waited a year for… You get to put your brain in rest mode just like your body!
i get it! There is something appealing about that familiar vacation spot, you don’t even use the GPS to get there or navigate around once you’re there…
In contrast: our vacation time is almost never this relaxing. We’ve traded in relaxing vacations for the chance to see more places and things! Here’s what our vacations look like: Every morning we load up the car and hit the road we drive anywhere from 5-10 hours, normally with a big stop to explore in there, we get to where we are going to bed down for the night and we unload and collapse into a cheap hotel bed or a sleeping bag. Then it’s wash, rinse, repeat!
We’re often tired, sometimes lost, but always seeing new things and having new experiences! We get home after a week off work with aching muscles and a suitcase full of dirty laundry.
We also get home with cameras full of new photographs and a slew of new memories. We’ve tried new foods, seen new places, met new people. When i return to work the following week i may not be physically rested but i’m recharged. i’m reminded that the world is bigger than the office i work from.

2) Squeeze every opportunity:
i’ve had so many great travel experiences because i exploit every opportunity to see new things.
Example 1: Our biggest trip to date was work related, a cross country drive (both ways) as we set up a new operation for the company i worked for in 2016. My wife and i were going to be there for a month and running the cost comparison of driving vs flying it was a wash when you factored in renting a car for a month while we were working in CA. Both legs of that drive took us through 20 different states and is still one of the highlights of my life!
Example 2: My first trip to San Diego was to work a contract for a company doing an event during Comic Con SD. When the company was arranging our airfare i asked them to schedule our return flight for two days after the event ended instead of the following day. We had more than 24 hours to tool around Southern California and it was amazing and magical!
Example 3: Another work trip took me to the Bay Area i made a similar request and used the extra time to rent a mountain bike and ride Camp Tamarancho, the birthplace of the sport! It too was an amazing experience.
Example 4: My best friend worked a stint in Washington state. When it was time for he and his wife to return home she had to fly home to take care of an emergency. i scratched together enough money for a one way ticket, flew to Washington, and drove back with him. We camped in a tent for a few nights of the trip (on the roadside) and then because i had to be back at work drove from the eastern end of Glacier National park back to central Virginia with no real sleep (we did make some great pit stops along the way).
Last Example(maybe): It really it all started when my wife and i were married. We decided to fly to Vegas to get hitched! (Sort of the ultimate Americana experience) While there we rented a car and over the week of our honeymoon we drove that car well over 3,000 miles. We saw the Grand Canyon, crashed in a friends house in L.A., walked the hills of San Francisco, and generally packed in as many things as we could in the week we were out west. It was there that our partnership began legally and then that we fell in love with the West Coast.
These are just some of my experiences. Every life will offer some opportunities to see little slices of the world. Maybe not as dramatic as these (which are admittedly some of my better opportunities) but little chances count too. i stumbled across my favorite distiller of Bourbon* on a work trip because we needed to kill three hours before an event. Sure you’re tired when you’re at a work convention or even working out of town but grab at least the little opportunities when they arise.

3) Enjoy the cheaper joys of life:
Sure all those pesky social media influencers** show travel that is fit for a Sandals resort sales pitch but for those of us who are “normal” people, travel rarely looks like that. Travel is long periods of boredom punctuated by amazing moments. Travel is a great analogy for life in general. Most of my travel experiences are not Instagram material, unless you like videos of a man cursing because he spilled coffee down the front of his body because he was holding the coffee cup since all the other cup holders are engaged in other beverage corralling functions.
You don’t need a luxury suite to experience the world. You don’t need to eat at restaurants that sport Michelin stars to explore the tastes around you.
A solid 75% of my travel is directed by the location of the National Parks System. My wife and i are big believers in the National Parks. Every year we make the $80 investment in a parks pass, then we set out to make that a value purchase for us. Some years that’s a challenge, we live on the East Coast where parks are more sporadic or don’t charge for entry, but we make it work.
Another thing we do is we try to eat where the locals eat. If there’s a restaurant that looks a little sketchy on the outside but the parking lot is full of cars and you don’t see any out of state tags, that’s likely a winner for you! Don’t ask locals where to get X (x being whatever regional cuisine you want to try), rather ask them, “When you want X, where do you go?” i’ve found that the answers are often different. Locals know where the tourists go for X, but they often (not always, but often) go somewhere else. It’s also usually cheaper and less flashy.
We also like to walk, when we’re not in the car we spend a lot of time moving at the speed of feet. Lots of great stuff is on street level and you’ll miss it driving through. It’s also super cheap to get out and walk around a place. Often your only real cost is parking in larger metropolitan areas.
If getting neck deep in the nightlife of a new city is appealing to you, know your budget and make that a splurge. That’s not my bag, but sometimes i’ve been known to drop some cash on a meal if it’s particularly meaningful. Or an attraction if it’s something of interest to me***.

4) Pinch those pennies 
So here’s the brass tacks! The real practical advise for you. Pinch those pennies!
If you’re doing big mileage: drive the car that gets better gas mileage, it may not be as comfortable as the bigger car but MPG adds up FAST when you’re logging big road trip miles.
Meals: If i’m alone i eat 2 meals a day when on the move. Typically i’m traveling with my wife, then we eat the normal three BUT we’ll split almost every meal. We travel in the US mostly so there’s almost always enough food for two people on the plate.
We’re National Park junkies. i prefer to pack my lunch into parks (but when with my bride we’ll splurge and split a meal in the park). My dad and i did a lap of Colorodo in 2018 that had us in a park almost every day, we ate PB&Js and/or PB&Banana sandwiches pretty much every day. i can say with 100% honesty that a PB&J with the smell of a loamy aspen grove and a view for days is a fine a meal as i’ve ever had in the nicest restaurant.
Lodging: Before we were surprised with a tiny human i our lives my wife purchased a nice tent. She got a deal on it, and it’s saved us hundreds and hundreds of dollars since then. Let me get real with you for a minute: i could be a professional hobo. i don’t mind sleeping outdoors, i’ve hiked nearly 1000 miles of the AT in longish sections, showers are almost a luxury to me. My lovely wife on the other hand, while she is willing to endure discomfort to see new places, is NOT a person many would describe as “crunchy”. She loves to be outdoors, she loves the wilderness, she’d spend her days hiking if she could. She also likes 2 showers a day and places a high value on the comfort of her bedding. Our strategy when deploying the tent is typically thus: Camp a night, get a room a night, repeat. Most “campers” these days are pulling mini-homes behind them so tent spots are pretty affordable. They’re also often in odd places at camp sites, with the exception of most state and National parks who still typically have really nice tent spots.
If you want a room… “Don’t fear the Cheaper” (that’s a feeble attempt on a “Don’t fear the Reaper” pun). Use whatever deal site you like (i like Priceline for rooms for no other reason than i get to see William Shatner’s face) you’re going to basically get the same deals from all of them. If you use whatever “deal finder” they offer, double check that you can’t find a better deal NOT using it. Cheap rooms are often near airports in larger cities. When you have a candidate start reading the customer reviews. i look for one thing, and only this one thing: “Clean Rooms”. That’s all you need. There can be a 1000 complaints but they typically mean nothing. People are crazy, they’ll post a 1 star review because their $39/night room didn’t have a hot breakfast. As far as cheap places that nearly always deliver for me: #1) Motel 6! They renovated nearly all their locations a few years back, they tend to have laminate floors in them now (that means clean floors because carpet is nasty), and they almost always have a mini-fridge in the room. #2) Extended Stay America: This is a great find and you’ll get solid deals here on the weekends. Weekdays they tend to fill up, but the rooms are bigger and tend to be clean and you get a kitchenette! Both Motel 6 and ESA tend to have laundry machines somewhere on the property as well, which can be a real utility on longer trips.
Souvenirs: Leave em! or at least get yourself a plan. We do magnets, we display them on a board in our home. My wife gets small stickers that she keeps in a travel sticker journal of sorts. We rarely get tshirts or other items, we don’t really bring gifts back from our trips. Those things are nice and let people know you were thinking about them but in a year where are they? No really, where did they go? They’re lost or tossed, so save dat Money!****

5) If you can’t travel far, travel near:
In 2017 we found out that we were the winners in the unplanned pregnancy lottery. In 2018 our prize was delivered near the end of February and suddenly travel was just a touch more difficult than it was before. We spent more time exploring closer to home, anything within a 3-4 hour drive became a target for us. Long term we plan on moving West at some point (hopefully just before this tiny human starts school). This has left my wife with a healthy case of FOMO in regards to the region we live in now. She doesn’t want to be chatting with a friend in Wyoming who asks if we ever saw some amazing thing that was 45 minutes away from where we live now.
Wherever you are, there are amazing things nearby. If you’re having trouble finding things in your region, use social media to your advantage. Most states have active tourism accounts on social media: follow your state’s account. Follow the neighboring states’ accounts. These have been a gold mine for us and will lead you to other solid sources for ideas!

 

If you read this to the end! Kudos! Let me say that any recommendations i’ve made are real and the only benefits i get from making them are the warm feeling of helping other travelers! Happy traveling to you and here’s the footnotes:

*Buffalo Trace. It’s the best mid-shelf bourbon you can pick up. They also make my favorite readily available top-shelf as well: Eagle Rare.

** Social Media Influnecers are one of the few things i struggle to not “Yuck”- as in “Don’t Yuck someone else’s Yum”. When life is primarily about appearances and not realities we’ve lost something very important… That’s all, old man rant over.

*** #1 attraction i’ve ever dropped money on: House on the Rock in Wisconsin. It’s a close as you can get to experimenting with psychedelics without actually taking anything. For real, if you’re ever in the neighborhood of Spring Green WI go, buy the “big ticket” to see it all.

**** lil Dicky shout-out intended. Save Dat Money could be the best rap song ever made!

 

 

 

Colorado and Amicable Silences

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The Balcony House- Mesa Verde National Park

My dad is fascinated by the cliff-dwellings out West. This makes perfect sense, he dedicated his working life to building homes for countless people over his career. He’s one of the most proficient and passionate carpenters i’ve ever know and i owe him an incalculable debt because of the skills he’s handed down to me. So these brick and stone dwellings wedged into cliff faces naturally hold a special appeal to him.

He’d been to Mesa Verde a few times but never been able to tour the dwelling sites. Mesa Verde National Park sells tickets, very affordable tickets too, but they have to be purchased on site or in the nearby town of Cortez. The Park has a fine way of handling these ticket sales as you can even purchase advance tickets, up to two days prior to your visit. Alas, his visits to Mesa Verde have all been shall we say “pass thru” visits. Once he was on his way to Alaska on this used RV he had purchased, the second he was on a road trip by car, but neither trip had enough time for him to wait a day or two for a slot he could take. So he’s been fascinated by them but unable to see the dwellings in Mesa Verde up Close.

So talks began for he and i to take a trip to Colorado so he could finally tread where the builders of these sites had tread! We had a weapon in our fight to get the tickets we needed: i have a friend who lives in Cortez! She agreed to acquire the tickets we needed a day or two before so we booked some airfare to Denver and set out!

Denver, you question? Well, if you know where Mesa Verde is located and where Denver is located you probably do question. But yes, Denver. We figured if we were going to fly out to Colorado we may as well make some sort of road trip out of it! So road trip we did! We drove an amazing circuit of Colorado in a rented Buick Regal… Don’t get me started on that car (either i’m getting really old or the Buick Regal isn’t what it used to be! Probably my favorite rental car i’ve ever had and i’ve driven a lot of rentals).

Over the course of our Colorado road trip we drove through Rocky Mountain National Park, Gunnison National Park, of course Mesa Verde National Park. We passed through a handful of National Forests, Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and San Juan to name drop three of them. We drove 30 miles on a gravel road that seemed to be leading to nowhere (actually did that a few times, but the 30 mile stretch was the longest one). We drove what i contend is the prettiest stretch of interstate highway in America, Interstate 70 West of Denver. We hit the Aspen leaf change perfectly! All the while that sleek and luxurious rental car carried us safely through it all, even to the top of Pikes Peak where the blizzard-like conditions at the peak meant we could see nothing- also we were the only car we saw that didn’t have to stop and let our brakes cool down at the brake check station! Was it the car… or the driver? i’ll let you decide (it was the driver, who was me).

 

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Of all the amazing experiences we had i don’t think anything was better for me than the morning we crawled through Balcony House and strolled in the grandeur of  Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde. My friend came through with tickets to what she dubbed the two best tours in the park! For me the cliff dwellings were very interesting, but the real payoff was being a part of making sure my father got something he wanted in this life. He’s at that age, and has had a measure of success in life, where if he wants something he probably has it. This man who had worked to feed and house me when i was growing up, who handed down as much of his encyclopedic knowledge of building as my brain would hold, to see him have this experience he’d been so close to having but missed before… That was as good as any Rocky Mountain view.

 

We spent a lot of time in a car that trip. We’d ride for a while, get out and look at the mighty Rocky Mountains. We’d eat Peanut Butter and Banana sandwiches in a National Park or a National Forest and find something hot to eat every night, sleeping at whatever deal Priceline would find us for a motel that night. We talked about frivolous things, serious things, and we didn’t talk at all. Some hours we’d just ride in amicable silence and watch the mountains crawl past, and it was a magical week in Colorado.

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My Dad and i- Rocky Mountain National Park

Acadia, a love affair begins!

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Ocean Path Trail: Acadia National Park

It was Fall of 2015 and my lovely bride and myself were poking around New England. Little side-note: weather conditions in 2015 had peak foliage rolling into the North East abnormally late, a fine piece of serendipity for us as it put us up to our eye-balls in a New England Autumn display! We were visiting a friend in Maine and since we were in the proverbial neighborhood made a few short day-trips into Acadia.

Before Acadia my experience with the National Park Service centered around the Appalachian Mountain chain; primarily the Blue Ridge Parkway (the NPS’s scenic byway through Virginia and North Carolina) and a foray or two to Smokey Mountain National Park as a kid with my parents. Acadia was the start of a much deeper relationship with our National Park Service than i’d had before. As we entered the pay-gate we splurged for the yearly pass and have been yearly NPS pass-holders ever since.

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Birch, Acadia National Park

We found ourselves smitten by the rugged beauty of the Maine coast-line. The way the mountains roll right into the rich fishing waters of the Atlantic here. We watched the sun rise from the windy ridge of Cadillac Mountain, then watched it set at the Bass Harbor Lighthouse, we walked beaches made of sand and stone. i even got to squeeze in a short road ride inside the park and rode my old trusty CAAD9 up Cadillac just for good measure!

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CAAD9, 3/4 of the way up Cadillac Mountain!

Being from the Mid-Atlantic region of the East Coast; shorelines have always held little appeal to me. The beaches that are relatively close to where we live are bland flat stretches of sand wrapped in a thick blanket of humidity. To get to them you have to leave the Blue Ridge Mountains (a place dear to my heart) and drive East and away from the vistas that inspire. You pass through the low flat regions of Virginia or North Carolina and into high-traffic, bastions of commerce. i know people absolutely LOVE those Eastern Beaches – evidenced by the population boom of the Norfolk area. Also, the fact that my own sister willingly left the more mountainous parts of the state we grew up in (Virginia) and moved to the beaches of North Carolina, a face that i do try not to hold against her… i try. That context of coast-line made Acadia so absolutely awe inspiring for us. i have a soft-spot for the rugged parts of the world: high mountain passes, craggy granite drop-offs, all of Wyoming, so the rugged beauty of Maine’s Atlantic abutment was good for my heart to experience, and i think it’s safe to say my wife felt the same.

Acadia really was a magical place for us. A place that launched our love of the National Park System. We didn’t get to spend nearly as much time in Acadia as we’d have like to, it’s on our list to make a trip to Acadia and dedicate more time to hiking it’s many trails and spending some more intimate time with this gem. This gem of a National Park that sparked our love of parks!

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Sand Beach, Acadia National Park

The trouble with scale…

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Badlands National Park

Ever taken that photo of that amazing breath-taking vista and then later looked at it and been overcome by just how underwhelming it is?

Me too!

It’s the trouble with scale. When you’re there things FEEL big and grandiose. You snap a few photos to remember the awesomeness of the moment at some later date. But the photos don’t capture what was really there. Those mountains seem so plain and boring, so small and distant. That photo snapped from the ledge feels so flat. That geological feature that loomed over you just feels, weak…

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Grand Canyon

At the risk of sounding pompous and possibly over philosophical, i think life has a scale problem.

Moments that SHOULD be grand and overwhelming sometimes slip away and are forgotten. At the very least they get poorly remembered and buried under the minutiae of day-to-day living.

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Sequoia National Park

Then moments that shouldn’t even register wind up being these rich and full moments in our lives. Maybe a time you were driving alone in a car and just had a realization. That night you were hanging out with friends doing the same things you almost always do and the gravity of your friendship just landed on you. That fight over some nothing (you can’t even remember what it was about) you had with a loved one that left a scar in that relationship for years.

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American Bison, Yellowstone Nat Park

i remember clearly small moments like fighting with a friend because he was being a total dong and tossing his drink out the car window (first i NEVER litter, and second we had just driven into town to buy said drink). He responded in kind by chucking my own beverage out the passenger window!

i remember a moment laying on a couch, the room pleasantly warmed by the late winter sun. Reading a book (which book? i don’t remember) while two much loved dogs slept nearby.

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Road to the Sun, Glacier Nat Park

Sitting in my car as a teenager after work listening to the same album i’d listened to a thousand times before.

But important things, life altering moments,  wriggle away from my memory… Births and deaths, first days of school and first day on new jobs, or last days on old jobs.

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Monument Valley, Yosemite Nat Park

 

Those moments when you stand at the base of that mountain, or at the precipice of that drop that affords you a view to take your breath away; or those moments when you’re overwhelmed by this new development in your life, or the closing of some door: live in that moment. The problem with scale is that it doesn’t always photograph well….