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!