Bargain Summer Vacation Destinations

My recent series of interviews with author Tim Ferriss has given me the travel bug. I find myself plotting grand vacations (or mini-retirements). But I don't have the money to spend on a trip to London or a cruise to Alaska. My sights are set a little lower.

Fortunately, several recent articles have addressed this subject. On Sunday, The New York Times published a list of 31 places to go this summer.

“The summer of 2008 is starting out like a cruel joke, with air travel increasingly a nightmare and with wildly escalating gas prices threatening to make the road trip all but obsolete,” the authors write. “The summer vacation is still an inalienable right, however. And there is no reason to forgo it this year. It will just take a bit of creativity — and perhaps the willingness to stay a little closer to home this time around — to pull it off in 2008.”

The Times list includes places like the Texas hill country, Chesapeake Bay, the San Juan Islands, the San Francisco Bay area, and the Canadian province of Manitoba. There are even three (-and-a-half) recommended destinations in my home state of Oregon.

This article has 218 reader comments offering other suggestions for great low-cost vacation destinations around the United States.

If you're feeling more adventurous — or have a bigger budget — Adventure Travel has a list of 10 bargain destinations around the globe. These include Kuala Lumpur (“the world's best travel bargain”), Utah's Zion National Park, and Buenos Aires (“the Paris of South America”).

Finally, Matt Gross, the Frugal Traveler, is doing his thing again this summer. In 2006, he spent $4,000 for three months of world travel. Last summer, he drove nearly 12,000 miles across the United States in a $1,600 station wagon.

This year, Gross is making a Grand Tour of Europe. His goal is to spend 12 weeks traveling the continent on less than 100 euros (or roughly $160) per day. In his most recent update, he describes making friends (and dinner) in Paris.

All of the Frugal Traveler's adventures are well-worth reading if you've ever wanted to take a big vacation on the cheap. Gross does a fantastic job of documenting the tools and resources he uses to cut costs and have fun.

As for myself? Europe is just a dream. Even a road trip would be too expensive this year. We're spending money to upgrade our home's electrical system instead. In August, I'll take a weekend backpacking trip with some buddies. Later in the year Kris and I may try to find time to visit Seattle or Victoria, B.C. But mostly 2008 will be a year for me to live vicariously through the travel experience of others.

That's okay, though. I wasn't raised in a family that took vacations. We couldn't afford it. As an adult, most of my vacations have been funded by Kris' very generous parents. I may travel in the future, but for now I'm happy to stay at home, puttering around the yard and spending time with friends. That costs less, anyhow!

What about you? Do you have any favorite bargain travel destinations? What web sites do you use to plan your trips? Do you have any tips and tricks you can share with other Get Rich Slowly readers?

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Eric
Eric
12 years ago

My wife and I just spent 3 weeks in Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Absolutely beautiful, $450 round trip flights in and out of San Jose, CR. Our tricks are simple, but staying in hostels, eating street food, and even adopting a semi-vegetarian diet save us a LOT of money on trips like that. Plus, taking public transportation everywhere. It’s a bit scary, and can be tough to figure out, but it’ll give you some great travel stories!

st
st
12 years ago

Belize is a great bargain. Try the Placencia peninsula. Try vrbo.com (vac rentals by owner) and search Belize. Great way to save a ton of dough. In most vacation cabanas, you can make meals in your own kitchen with food from local shops. And when you’re there, be sure to go cavetubing!

pakalolo
pakalolo
12 years ago

I second the Costa Rica idea. Just got back there from 9 days with my oldest (8 yrs) son. $289 airfare each, stayed with friends, expensed part of the trip by doing some work for the office. A great way to spend some awesome time with a great kid in a beautiful country.

Amy
Amy
12 years ago

As a lifelong British Columbia resident, I would say Victoria is a lovely city, but if you really want a great holiday I’d highly recommend getting out of the city and into some of the wonderful parks and natural spaces on Vancouver Island. There are plenty of tourist traps (and expensive hotels) to take your money in the city, but the parks are free and *gorgeous*!

Bargainbtch
Bargainbtch
12 years ago

Thanks for a great kick in the butt, JD. Very informative and inspiring info and links. I’ve wanted to travel all my life but have actually done very little (California, Canada and a few local states). Turkey and Kuala Lumpur are on my world travel destinations – who knew they were bargain destinations!?! I am going to stop putting it off and start a travel savings goal for 09 and apply for a passport. Thanks for the kick in the butt!

Sam
Sam
12 years ago

I just got back from the south west and highly recommend the new US national preserve Valle Caldera. This preserve was unlike any other national park or preserve that I ever visited in that they limit the number of people (to a small number – @ 200 a day) who can hike, fish, horseback ride, etc. You have to make advance reservations. We did a 6 hour hike and we were the only folks on the mountain. The preserve is 89,000 acres and is west of Los Alamos which is west of Santa Fe. The cost was $10 a person,… Read more »

Corey
Corey
12 years ago

My tip is to extend a business trip if you can. I’m busy using every penny to pay off debt this year, but I have to go to San Diego on business in August. So, why not extend my stay? The airfare is covered, and San Diego can be very affordable. The BF and I can have a great adventure for 3 extra days on just a few hundred bucks.

angie
angie
12 years ago

Portland’s listed as a place to go this summer – go on a really close vacation and try some of the things the NYT recommends, if you’ve not before.

Industry and Frugality
Industry and Frugality
12 years ago

I spent a month in Europe after graduating college and did it for much less than $160 / day. I traveled in a group of 4. We were all military, so we got free space-a air travel over to Spain and back from Germany. That was a huge help. We also were eligible for the youth month long Eurail train pass. We found hotels and hostels online. Most of the time Priceline Europe had the best deal. For single travelers though, I’d recommend the hostels. We ate at small restaurants and grocery stores and took public transportation everywhere. Almost all… Read more »

Gnorb
Gnorb
12 years ago

Heading out to Montana. We’d planned to go, then found out we were buying a house (oops!) then tried to cancel and couldn’t, so we’re going. We’ll figure out the house thing when we get back. Total cost of vacation: ~$3000. Includes everything for 12 days. Like you, J.D., I didn’t come from a family that did a lot of vacationing, and this is by FAR the most expensive I’ve taken (even my Honeymoon, 4 years ago, was under $1000.) Gee, when I put it that way, it sounds a whole lot less planned and accounted for than it really… Read more »

Rob W
Rob W
12 years ago

A fairly cheap and fun vacation is camping at the beach. A few buddies and I go camping at a camp ground near Charleston, S.C. every summer. It cost about $30 a night to pitch a tent. Bathrooms and showers are included. Bring along cheap eats and good beer and it’s one of the best times of the year.

Aryn
Aryn
12 years ago

We’re going to Belize, too. We used LuxuryLink to buy a package for 50% off, and plan to eat in the nearby town for most lunches and dinners. We’re going right at the start of the shoulder season, so the weather should be decent, but it shouldn’t be jam-packed.

If anyone is planning to go to Zion, wait until fall! Do not go to southern Utah in the summer. I was there in July and it was very hot and very dry, with occasional monsoons.

Richard
Richard
12 years ago

As `Industry and Frugality` said above, the Eurail pass is a great way to see Europe if you’re under 26. We rented an apartment in Austria one summer when my wife was doing a study abroad program. She had Friday, Saturday, Sunday off each week, and several longer breaks. Every weekend we would see how far from Austria we could get on the pass. We’d ride at night, tour a city, then ride again when it was night time. We only spent a couple of nights in hostels, and ate from supermarkets and markets wherever we went. Not a trip… Read more »

Beth@paydaytree
12 years ago

When I can’t afford to leave the state, I go camping with a big group of friends. We usually never go farther than an hour away but we always have fun. We play games, cook out over the campfire and have tent parties.

It may not be Europe, but if you don’t mind being in the great outdoors, finding a local campground and some people to go with is a great way to spend the weekend.

gousalya
gousalya
12 years ago

I am from Kuala Lumpur and always had taken it for granted. Now I wanna go home for a short sweet stint. Yes it is a great place to visit and please please check out the local cuisine.

China Airlines and Eva offers the best rates so far from kayak.com.

Nyomi
Nyomi
12 years ago

When I was younger (4-14 years ago), my parents would take me to China every other summer–for the entire summer. The plane fare ran from $800-$1000, and that was by far the most expensive part of the trip. All the hotels we stayed at ranged from $20-$30 a night, took the bus wherever we went, and had a great and healthy time just doing walking tours of the cities, and lost weight despite the fact that I ate everything in sight (at about 50cents-$1 for a meal). Even though the exchange rate has drastically dropped–from 10yuan=$1 to 6yuan=$1, it’s still… Read more »

plonkee
plonkee
12 years ago

For me eastern Europe is a great budget destination – less than 3 hours flight, budget airlines so tickets are cheap, and beer and food are much cheaper than home.

My plans this year involve Egypt, and the Oktoberfest in Munich. Neither is especially cheap, but you can always cut costs on unimportant things.

Don’t forget that Europe is planning on still being around when you’ve all saved up.

Pamela Grundy
Pamela Grundy
12 years ago

I live in West Michigan, half an hour from Lake Michigan, and right in the middle of vineyard country. You can’t run to the store without tripping over an inland lake, and we live walking distance from an 800 acre nature preserve. I could spend the rest of my life just visiting cool stuff around here and still sleep in my own bed most nights. And as if that isn’t cool enough, it’s cheap here!

Mrs. Micah
Mrs. Micah
12 years ago

I just don’t like vacations much anyway. We took them but I was never fond of them. Great way to save money, not liking them. 😉 What I’m trying to learn is what kind I would like so we can save up for that.

DC’s a great place for frugal (free!) attractions, though hotels cost a fair amount. There are hostels, though. And it’s easy enough to get metro passes which allow you to ride the bus and rails unlimited for a day or week, etc. Specifics were recently, changed but I think the options are still available.

Ty
Ty
12 years ago

I took my first trip to Brasil in 2003. It was actually because of this trip that I learned how to save money for a goal. The first couple of years after, I was just for saving for the next trip for a different country. After that, saving for other things — emergency fund, maxing out on 401k, investing — became so much easier.

Penelope @ Our Fourpence Worth
Penelope @ Our Fourpence Worth
12 years ago

We just went to Disneyland a couple of weeks ago and it was fairly low-cost as vacations go. We took our dogs with us so I started by doing pet-friendly hotels around Disneyland and I compared prices between Expedia and Hotels.com. I was about to book the hotel through Expedia, when on a whim I decided to check the hotel’s own site, and it turned out it was a little cheaper, because Expedia charges more taxes and fees. As for the Disneyland part, we’re So Cal residents so we drove (2 hours) and saved by buying So Cal resident tickets… Read more »

Annie
Annie
12 years ago

We just got back from a week in Sunriver (Bend), Oregon. My husband’s family has been vacationing there for 20 years. If you want a dose of fresh air and PAQ this is the place. Paved and relatively level bike trails right out the back door, canoeing, rafting, hiking, horseback riding, golf–its fantastic. I don’t particularly care for nature myself, but even I love this place. Tons of young families and even more retired folk vacation there. We saw countless 50 couples riding bikes everywhere. If you live in the Northwest, give this place a try. I think we like… Read more »

Tess
Tess
12 years ago

Good post and a very interesting topic! I see that nobody has mentioned any country in Africa. This blog post comment is for the adventurous traveler wanting to go outside the borders of USA. With the current exchange rate the dollar would go very far here for you, especially in the Victoria Falls area (Zambia/Zimbabwe). Traveling to Southern Africa is more expensive than holidays close to your home, but you’re in for a life time experience to a reasonably good price right now. I live in South Africa, in beautiful Cape Town, and I would recommend everybody to start looking… Read more »

Chad @ Sentient Money
Chad @ Sentient Money
12 years ago

All good ideas. I have really been itching to get out and about, but haven’t had the opportunity.

Joba
Joba
12 years ago

My wife and I recently vacationed in Oxford, Mississippi believe it or not and fell in love with the town. It’s a lot more than just William Faulkner (though that part is great). An unbelievably charming town square, great shopping, fantastic restaurants and a nice music scene too. The U. of Mississippi is located there which is a beautiful campus. I recommend this as a destination if you live within a day’s drive. (You’ll have to fly in to Memphis and drive from there, otherwise.) If you go, don’t miss Bottletree Bakery for breakfast!

icup
icup
12 years ago

JD, you should go to the Oregon Mystery Vortex: http://www.oregonvortex.com/ I have 2 thoughts on summer travel. The first is that even though gas is expensive, I think taking a road trip is still a very frugal way to vacation. You just have to be smart about it and do more planning. We are going on a 10 hour road trip at the end of this month, and I’m not worried at all because we planned it for a year and saved cash to pay for the gas. The second is, Eastern Europe is still pretty cheap and increasingly popular.… Read more »

Vicki
Vicki
12 years ago

By planning backwards you can save some of your hard earned cash! Start by finding what cities the airlines are putting up for sale! Then do your research on where to stay and what to do! I have never traveled anywhere here or abroad where I couldn’t find a few days worth of free sightseeing which really save you $$$– and then once there plan on staying somewhere with at very least a microwave and mini fridge!! making picnic lunches and breakfast in your room will save on the food $

deonne
deonne
12 years ago

I definitely recommend going anywhere off season. You may not get the absolute best weather of the year, but the tradeoff in cost is worth it. I just got back from eight days in Tulum (on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico). The plane ticket was steep (about $600) but once you get there it’s relatively inexpensive. Apparently the hostel there is great (and ultra cheap), but I went with a stylish, inexpensive hotel a couple kilometers from the beach (www.teetotumhotel.com – I’m in no way affiliated with the hotel, just a fan.) I’m not a huge partier, so beyond that… Read more »

L
L
12 years ago

If you’re thinking of BC, don’t forget East BC, along the Rockies. I’ve just come back from a long weekend there and it was absolutely stunning. There are hundreds of campsites if that’s your thing, and lots of great reasonably priced accommodations as well.
You could even cross into Alberta and see the start of the Columbia river.

Michelle
Michelle
12 years ago

My husband and I are known for our inexpensive vacations. The key is that we see accomodations and food as a means to an end, not a luxurious part of the experience. We camp out or sleep in truck stops, and eat grocery store food out of a cooler. Like at home, restaurants are a rare treat.

Our “greatest hits” include two cross-country road trips, a month each, for under $3,000 a piece.

sfordinarygirl
sfordinarygirl
12 years ago

Oregon Coast is beautiful in the summer! Newport, Astoria, Seaside, Canon Beach, Lincoln City are really nice in the summer. Minus the gas prices, you could have a bonfire, picnic or just hang out and read a book.

Summers in Bend lend itself to lots of outdoor activities – there’s fishing, hiking at Smith Rock, horseback riding and more. There’s a really cool Indian reservation called Warm Springs and sometimes they have festivals in the summer.

There’s also the Shakespeare festival in Ashland.Portland offers lots of attractions. There’s also Mt. Hood and Mt. Tabor.

Teresa A
Teresa A
12 years ago

My husband and I are plannning a trip to Asheville, North Carolina this summer. To cut costs we are: 1.) Getting one night free by using my Hilton Honors Points that I have accumulated. 2.) Getting a second night free by redeeming “My Points” points for a Marriott Gift Certificate. (mypoints.com) 3.) Camping one night for $25.00. 4.) Redeeming more “My Points” points for gas cards that will pay for about 3/4 of our gas to get there and back. 5.) Packing a cooler with snacks and beverages 6.) Purchasing dining certificates for area restaurants at Restaurant.com. All this saving… Read more »

Teresa A
Teresa A
12 years ago

Rob W: I love your idea. I am not all that fond of camping, but I do love the beach, and that does sound like a lot of fun.

naughtylittledebt
naughtylittledebt
12 years ago

I use http://www.fuelcostcalculator.com to calculate the cost of gas to drive to Disneyland this year. Not as bad as it is to fly there.

Foobarista
Foobarista
12 years ago

For us, the cheapest vacations are those my wife wins as incentives from work 🙂 We went on a Hawaii cruise last year and she’s far in the lead on winning a trip to Martha’s Vinyard this year (a place I’ve never imagined going to, although if uber-rich political types hang out there, there must be something to it…) As for other trips, we aren’t all that exotic; we do lots of backpacking and day-hiking in the Sierras, and occasional trips to Hawaii. Our best advice: look for condo rentals over hotels, fly and rent cars midweek-to-midweek, and buy groceries… Read more »

anne
anne
12 years ago

Teresa —
GREAT tips. Thanks a lot. We’re taking a road trip to Savannah in August and I’ll need all the money saving tips I can get.

TJ
TJ
12 years ago

If you are headed to Seattle, you might as well drive up here to Yakima and enjoy a few of the wineries! If it’s not one of the planned getaway weekends, where everyone from Seattle travels over, you can have a lot of fun, and there are some pretty inexpensive places to stay.

We drive down to the Oregon Coast, and always have 3 families split the cost of a house. That way we do all our own cooking and save that way.

Trevor Mauch
Trevor Mauch
12 years ago

Hey J.D.,

Man… all of this time I had no clue you lived less than 10 miles away from me here in Portland.

Small world huh? I’ve been reading your blog for about 6 months or so and love your insight.

Keep up the good work and maybe we’ll bump into eachother here in PDX sometime (I’m just across the river in Lake Oswego).

Chat w/ ya soon!

– Trevor

telly
telly
12 years ago

I’m a huge fan of Authur Frommer’s Budget Travel magazine…lots of great deals to be found on their website as well.

I’ve also found http://www.virtualtourist.com to be a wealth of information, whether from previous visitors or home town folk.

I second some of the above recommendations for Cuba (I’m a Canuck 🙂 ), Mexico and Eastern Europe (eg. Montenegro). Places like Disneyworld can be far, far more expensive than even a week in Paris.

Research is key for frugal vacation planning.

Chris
Chris
12 years ago

My family and I have enjoyed an annual week vacation at the beach for the last few years now. We recently returned from Ocean Isle Beach in North Carolina. It is a beautiful relaxing town in the southern tip of NC and it is only a few minute drive from Myrtle Beach. We found some amazing deals at http://www.sloanevacations.com. They’re a locally based company and their staff was very friendly and helpful. My wife and I are definatly considering in making a trip there without the kids later this summer.

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