This article is by staff writer William Cowie.

It’s been a long time since my wife and I had the luxury of thinking in terms of vacation. When we came to America more than 30 years ago, we also discovered two things:

  1. People in America work very hard, probably harder than anywhere else in the world. Two weeks’ vacation seems to be the norm here, while in Europe and the rest of the world anything less than a month is inhuman, insane, or both. (I am not convinced they’re wrong, by the way.)

  2. With all our family on other continents, we needed to spend those two precious little weeks every year with them. That led to employing all manner of strategies and devices — like accumulating as much vacation time as we could and squeaking out an advance on the coming year — so we could spend two whole weeks with our family and another week just for travel, there and back.

The upshot is that, every year, we saw the people around us “take vacation.” Some went to Jamaica, others to New York, Washington or France. It’s like when you go to the movies and you see millionaires stepping from a private jet onto a yacht on the Riviera: It sure looks nice, but I guess it’s not for us.

Vacation strategies for working folks

That doesn’t mean we didn’t get to travel. Don’t get me wrong. We were fortunate to be in a business that did things around the world — and we got to see places most only dream about, but only for two or three days at a time. Every now and then we would tack a day or two on at the end of a work trip and steal what we came to call micro-vacations. Most of that was free for us because the travel and accommodations had already been paid. But it wasn’t like having a real vacation.

Retirement — the vacation paradigm shifts

That all changed last year when my wife retired. I had been kind of semi-retired, which means I stay busy doing things I like doing (like writing this post). For the first four or five months she caught up with the garden and spent nearly every day having lunch or tea with the long line of friends who had never gotten the time of day from her, what with her American work schedule and all. But that eventually wound down and we realized, “Hey, we have time to take a real vacation! What are we going to do?”

Surprisingly, that turned out not to be an easy question to answer. To me at least, it is a lot like the other related question facing everyone when the big day arrives and they retire: “What do I want to do when I grow up?”

I had lunch recently with J.D. Roth as he and Kim visited some family in Colorado. As you may know, they are on a tour of the country in their motor home. As we talked, he admitted he is wrestling with that exact same question: What do I want to do when I grow up?

The all-inclusive vacation

We thought about taking a cruise. When you consider the fact that it is a hotel and all meals are included, cruises are not unreasonably expensive. I don’t know. We may eventually take one, but I just can’t help feeling it will be boring, being confined in one space like that. Some of the latest ships are enormous, with lots of stores and stuff, but still.…

Vacations reflect your situation

When you’re trying to figure out what you like, most of us only have our past experiences to draw on. We know what worked and what didn’t. Both my wife and I, growing up, loved road trips. Family summers at the beach was second, but that would have to wait until Christmas. (Our families live where Christmas is in summer, like the 4th of July here. Last year that didn’t work out because everyone had different plans, but it looks like we might pull it off later this year.)

So we decided to take a road trip, simply because we could. Then we discovered how expensive accommodations are. We typically stay at budget motels because we’re only there to crash for a night before we move on. And anyway, it’s of more value to us just to pull up to our room than to have a concierge, bellman and a plethora of other people attempting to serve us.

We discovered that you can stay at nice-enough hotels for around $70 a night or so, at least in the places we like to go in the West. But on a two-week trip even $70 a night adds up too quickly. Every now and then you can’t hit that budget and, on a ten-day trip, you are out a thousand dollars. That’s just too ouch for frugal, old us.

Cheap vacation ideas emerge

We were contemplating this conundrum when (as I described elsewhere) my wife’s nephew and his family came to visit. They are super-frugalistas and extreme minimalists. He lived with us for six months in California when he was in high school. He arrived wearing a T-shirt and a pair of jeans. In his backpack was one pair of underwear and another T-shirt. That was it. And that’s what he left with six months later, plus one more T-shirt I think he got. Anyway, they are tent campers, and they love it. We are too old and stiff for this sleeping-on-the-ground stuff — but the camping seed was sown.

I started to do my research, and what I found warmed the cockles of my cheapskate heart: You can camp in the western United States for next to nothing. Moreover, you have more choices than you can shake a juniper stick at!

National parks

The West abounds in national parks. I think about 20 of the country’s 59 national parks are either in or west of the Rockies. Our favorites are mainly in California and Utah. I believe each one of those parks has more than one campground. For those who are able to plan out their lives, most work on a reservation system. Typically, reservations open up six months ahead of time, so you need to get that reservation in early.

We are still very new to this because our lives have always been too unpredictable to plan anything out more than two weeks ahead of today. Nevertheless, we got lucky last year and scored a spot in Death Valley for the week before Christmas.

This was the view we had from the site in the morning over breakfast.

They have nine campgrounds, ranging in price from free to $18 a night. For us old fogies, that translates to $9, because the week after I turned 62, we hightailed it up to Rocky Mountain National Park for my birthday present: a $10 lifetime senior pass which gets us into all of the national parks for free, and gets us 50 percent off the camping fees to boot.

So, we spent $45 for the week at their top-of-the-line campground which features running water, drinking water (not the same thing), flush toilets, fire rings and picnic tables. This is what it looked like after we huffed and puffed and set up our pop-up camper.

Another great park to see is Yosemite, which has 13 campgrounds, seven of which require reservations (the others are first-come, first-served style). That’s a popular spot, though, so it requires more advance planning.

Kings Canyon is an overlooked park, which makes it easier to get into. Not all campgrounds are open year-round, so you need to research which ones will be open when you can go.

Southern Utah is a veritable paradise of scenic parks with campgrounds. Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, Zion and the Grand Canyon are all within spitting distance of each other. I think the highest price is $20 a night. Some accept reservations; others don’t. They are easy to research, though: Simply type the park’s name and “camping” into your favorite browser.

National forests

Sometimes I don’t even think the National Forest Service knows how many national forests there are, they have so many. Sometimes you even have two or three forests, hundreds of miles apart, with the same name. In California, some forests hardly have a single tree.

Regardless, all of them offer some sort of camping experience, and generally they are cheaper than the national parks. But you need to do your homework with these. Pick an area that interests you, then look on a map to see which national forests they have. Then go online and look up their camping sites and rules. They range all the way from a clearing on the ground to nice campsites with hookups and showers. If you search for “national forest camping” you will find several resources to guide you.

Bureau of Land Management (BLM)

The BLM administers tracts of land owned by the federal government but not designated as a national park or forest. They also offer camping of all descriptions. On our recent trip to Moab, we stayed in a BLM campground for $5 a night, and it was terrific. All you need to search for is “blm camping” and add the state. I heartily recommend it.

State parks and forests

If you think it’s hard to count the national forests, don’t even try to count the number of state parks that exist. In California, most of the best coastal campgrounds are run by their state park system. Most require reservations and, because they are so popular, they’re rather expensive, meaning they may run you $20 a night or thereabouts. Conventional lodging is more expensive there too, so they are still a bargain, relatively speaking. Again, your best bet is to type in the state of your choice and “state park camping.” Sit back and enjoy the deluge of options.

Something you will discover about the various state parks is that they don’t offer the deep discounts the national parks and forests offer. Whatever discounts they do offer tend to be geared toward state residents.

Commercial campgrounds

Every natural attraction usually has a multitude of commercial campgrounds offering amenities like hookups for water, electricity, sewage and WiFi, as well as showers, laundromats, and so forth. Some are in nearby cities or towns, which means you also have close access to stores. Of course, these sites are not as cheap as publicly owned facilities. Personally, I think for $70 I would rather stay in a hotel with air conditioning and more space than in a commercial campground, but that’s just me. The point is, commercial campgrounds are also available for those whose needs are better served that way.

Saving money and making memories

If you want to spend quality time with your family while saving some money, few things beat camping. This being America, you can define camping any which way you want, whether it’s a luxury million-dollar rig pulling a Suburban to a small tent, from microwaved TV dinners to a freshly caught fish on the grill. Being frugal but old, we elected to go the pop-up camper route, and so far we have kept to various publicly owned campgrounds. We like the fact that we eat pretty much what we would have eaten at home and get to enjoy the scenery we like … all for a mere pittance. And you have to know that that last point always warms the cockles of my cheap heart!

What’s your favorite way to have a cheap vacation? How far in advance do you need to plan to get the reservations you want? Share your tips in the comments!

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