Ideas for a cheap vacation


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!

More about...Frugality, Travel

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Tina in NJ
Tina in NJ
5 years ago

Two weeks of vacation is what people start with. They get more as they increase in seniority. When my father got to four weeks of vacation, he packed up the family -mom, dad, 3 kids, 2 cats and a dog-into a mini motor home and we set out to see the country. Camping was the way to vacation with a family on one salary. It was that or go visit the grandparents in Maryland.

Mike in NH
Mike in NH
5 years ago
Reply to  Tina in NJ

Two weeks is what fortunate people start with. Sadly, we live in the only country in the developed world that does not mandata employees be given vacation time.

Mike in NH
Mike in NH
5 years ago
Reply to  Mike in NH

*mandate…sausage fingers on the keyboard today

Tim
Tim
5 years ago
Reply to  Mike in NH

Yes I started with zero and I am up to 2 weeks after 3 years!

Patrick
Patrick
5 years ago

Don’t forget the Corps of Engineers Campgrounds. COE is the largest landholder in the nation, Our water resource projects provide camping, fishing, boating, and just about every other outdoor recreation opportunity!

William Cowie
William Cowie
5 years ago
Reply to  Patrick

Thanks, Patrick. I didn’t know about those. Good addition! 🙂

Michelle
Michelle
5 years ago

We love going to national recreational areas. We have a annual parks pass so it makes for a cheap and fun trip!

Julien
Julien
5 years ago

“People in America work very hard, probably harder than anywhere else in the world.”

That statement is interesting. It’s probably missing some proof. Working hard or harder doesn’t always mean being more productive and there is research showing that getting more vacation could increase your productivity.

https://www.conference-board.org/productivity-competitiveness/index.cfm?id=30761

http://www.forbes.com/sites/tanyamohn/2014/02/28/take-a-vacation-its-good-for-productivity-and-the-economy-according-to-a-new-study/

https://www.americanexpress.com/us/small-business/openforum/articles/why-germans-have-longer-vacation-times-and-more-productivity-1/

https://www.americanexpress.com/us/small-business/openforum/articles/how-more-vacation-time-can-increase-productivity-1/

Beth
Beth
5 years ago
Reply to  Julien

I was tempted to make a snarky comment about Americans’ opinions of themselves, but I think you make a better point. Volume of work doesn’t necessarily translate to quality of work, effort or productivity. Income doesn’t necessarily represent “hard work” either. (Does a sports star work harder than a nurse or teacher?)

I work in a field where burn out can be an issue if you’re not careful. Taking breaks to recharge makes the hours you work more productive.

akoilady
akoilady
5 years ago
Reply to  Julien

I don’t believe this statement was meant in any sort of boastful way. At least I took it that way. There are studies that prove that well rested employees are more productive and have higher job satisfaction. Our country’s “work culture” has been changing to one in which people don’t feel they can take vacation, or they don’t have enough time accrued among other things. Almost every worker will tell you that their company continues to expect more for less–many, many Americans feel overworked. I am not proud of this trend. I work in it and I’m tired and worried… Read more »

B
B
5 years ago
Reply to  akoilady

I agree that his statement didn’t seem boastful. It was more of an observation from some one who had arrived in this country more than thirty years ago.

Also, my husband has worked at the same company for many years, and has finally earned four weeks of vacation a year. However, we will never be able to take four weeks off at the same time.

Roxanne W
Roxanne W
5 years ago

I wouldn’t rule out a cruise, but I would put money aside for an excursion. I like to make my vacations really packed to get the most out of them and I didn’t find a cruise boring – we went to Mexico and I got to see ancient Mayan temples and drive around Cozumel. The other days were actually nice and relaxing. We went in October/November so it was off season and very cheap.

Tricia
Tricia
5 years ago

Camping would be a form of torture for me, although the lodging prices do sound appealing. We’ve found some really great vacation bargains on some deal websites. Our last two vacations were $1500 for a family of 5 for one week and included everything from the hotel, to the food, to the gas, to the entertainment/sightseeing. We’ve also taken some very inexpensive weekend getaways using deal sites.

Shobir @ Millionaires Giving Money
Shobir @ Millionaires Giving Money
5 years ago

As a family we tend to take vacations together and everyone gets invited to our house where we have a slap up meal everyday. We all get together and contribute towards the food and we enjoy each others company. We don’t really see the appeal going abroad for a holiday when everything that matters to us is close to home. Great post, thanks for sharing.

Stephanie
Stephanie
5 years ago

If you’re traveling with a family or large group, or traveling as a single – house sharing programs like AirBnb are often great ways to save money (or at least bump up the quality of traditional rentals).

Brian @ Luke1428
Brian @ Luke1428
5 years ago

We love to go camping although accumulating all the gear to take care of the six of us was a bit pricey. And no way will you be bored on a cruise…especially the first one. There is plenty to do/see…totally worth the price imo.

Bryan@ Just One More Year
[email protected] Just One More Year
5 years ago

We love to go camping as well. We are located in northern AZ with a lot of great places in the area to explore. This is one of our bucket list items, doing exactly what JD and Kim are now, taking a long term road trip. We bought our truck and trailer combination about 7 months ago and have had 4 nice shake down trips so far. We are still learning but will feel confident by the end of the summer to experience longer trips. Our camping will be using a combination of forest service, BLM land, and commercial camp… Read more »

phoenix1920
phoenix1920
5 years ago

To me, a large part of the problem is the fact that most people aren’t free to take vacation when it works for them. If you have children in school, you are confined to very limited periods of time, and much of it is unusable because of the heat. I would love to take my family to many places in the US, and last year, we went out West. But traveling to the national parks in Utah in the summer was almost unbearable. We live in the very south of the US so most of the places nearby for vacation… Read more »

Marie
Marie
5 years ago
Reply to  phoenix1920

I couldn’t believe it when friends told me that they had to apply for approval from their child’s school in order to take vacation. Since when does a school district get to tell a grown adult what they can or can’t do with their own kid? This country is nuts.

Sanjeev Shrestha
Sanjeev Shrestha
5 years ago

William, Always love your post. I love National Parks. Ken Burns documentary “National Parks: America’s Best Idea” inspired me to go National Parks.I have been to Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon (west and south rim), Hot Springs Arkansas. I am planning for Olympic, Glacier, and Smoky and Acadia national park next. For me, my wife and a son of 6 years old, Camping is somehow a hassle. I stay at bed and breakfast hotels near the park. To get better price, I reserve at least 3 months in advance. After long day of hiking, walking, we like to have good beds… Read more »

Tim
Tim
5 years ago

Yes started with zero and I’m up to 2 weeks after 3 years!

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