It’s summer vacation time!!! Or at least, it’s summertime. I’ve traveled frugally and not-so frugally. I’ve vacationed with my kids and without them. Although with them, it’s more of a trip and less of a vacation…
I polled the Frugalwoods braintrust to see how you all travel and what you advise. Per usual, I learned new things, I made notes, and I was amazed at your resourcefulness. In today’s Reader Suggestions, we explore all things travel!!
Welcome to my monthly Reader Suggestions feature! Every month I post a question to our Frugalwoods Facebook group and share the best responses here. The questions are topics I’ve received multiple queries on and my hope is that by leveraging the braintrust of Frugalwoods nation, you’ll find helpful advice and insight. Join the Frugalwoods Facebook group to participate in next month’s Reader Suggestions!
Hack It Till You Make It
Three words for you: credit card points. This is my first and best travel tip because, as I discuss in this post, credit card points give you something for nothing. When you use a travel rewards credit card to buy things you were going to buy anyway, you accrue points that you can later exchange for free flights and hotels. What could be better?!
I am not a travel credit card maven, but I have managed to stay in hotels for free the world over by using the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card (now called the Marriott Bonvoy), which has a great hotel points system.
For me, hotel points make a ton of sense because where I sleep matters to me. A lot. Like, a whole lot.
When I backpacked around Europe with my friend during college, staying in hostels–in shared rooms on a bunk bed–was just fine. I didn’t mind the sonorous snores of strangers or the inconvenience of a shared bathroom. All I wanted was somewhere dirt cheap that would allow me to see as much of the continent as possible.
Now, however, I am not so flexible and not so amenable to the grittiness of hostel life. Now I require such extravagances as clean sheets and my own bathroom.
Hotel points are further ideal for me because I love staying in the same hotel chain worldwide because that way… I know exactly what I’m going to get (in-room coffee maker for the win!).
I also appreciate a free breakfast and, at one point, we were traveling so frequently that we had platinum status, which earned us hotel room upgrades and–something that goes down in Frugalwoods family lore–a free breakfast buffet overlooking a canal at our hotel in Amsterdam. We started every morning with smoked salmon, capers, custom espresso drinks, champagne, homemade pastries, omelettes-made-to-order, bacon, champagne, smoked salmon, espresso, champagne, and uh… we got our points worth on that one.
For some folks, where they sleep while traveling is immaterial. The cheapest is fine and they don’t plan to be in their room very much. For me, at this phase of my life, I feel quite differently. If my husband and I have our kids with us, we want a large hotel room (ideally a suite) that has space for two cribs. Plus, hope hope hopefully the room has a separate space for the kids to sleep so that my husband and I can watch TV and eat junk food after they’re in bed… just being honest.
If we’re traveling without our kids, one of our primary goals for the vacation in the first place is to SLEEP. To sleep late. To take naps. To go to bed early. To recline in bed. To watch TV in bed. Really to be in bed a lot. Since our daily lives are hectic and very much filled with our two little children, on the RARE occasions we travel without them, we like to take full advantage of the time to relax in our hotel room. Sleeping all day is not out of the question. Given that, a nice hotel room is a priority to us.
If you travel a lot (or at all) and if you can manage a credit card responsibly, then I highly recommend exploring travel rewards card options. There are lots of different cards that offer different types of points and rewards for different types of purchases. It’s good idea to sniff out a travel rewards card that matches your travel patterns. Some travel cards charge an annual fee, but, if you travel a lot and utilize the points, the annual fee can be totally worth it.
My friends who are into travel rewards told me that these three cards offer excellent rewards and are also ideal for accruing points that transfer to lots of different airlines and hotels:
- Capital One Venture Rewards Card (you can read more here)
- Chase Sapphire Preferred Card (you can read more here)
- The Platinum Card from American Express (you can read more here)
If you want to analyze and compare travel cards, take a look at this list and figure out which one matches your travel patterns.
Note: my credit card links are affiliate links.
My Other Frugal Travel Hacks
If travel rewards cards aren’t your thing, fear not. There are tons of other ways to save while still traveling to the fullest. Here are a few more top line ideas:
1) Travel at off-peak times.
When is “off-peak”? Depends on where you’re going. A ski resort is off-peak in the summer. A lake is off-peak in the winter. You get the gist. Pre-kids, my husband and I booked cheap airfare by flying abroad at Thanksgiving because… very few people are LEAVING the United States at the beginning of Thanksgiving week.
More about that strategy here: Travel Cheap By Being A Thanksgiving Weirdo and also here: Weekly Woot & Grumble: Why We Celebrate Christmas In January.
2) Eat like a local.
Buy food at the grocery store. Prepare your own meals. Eat in restaurants frequented by locals, not at overpriced, bland tourist hotspots. Back in our halcyon days of annual international travel, Mr. Frugalwoods and I saved boatloads of money by hitting up grocery stores everywhere from Amsterdam to Zagreb.
It’s cheap, it’s an awesome way to experience a local culture, and it allowed us to feel like locals for a week. More on how to do that here: Travel Cheap By Eating Like a Local.
3) Sightsee strategically.
I don’t automatically sign up for every tour or every museum or every “must see” sight. Research ahead of time to determine: free days, non-traditional museum/sights that are less expensive and less crowded, and identify the sights you really do want to fork over the money for. Don’t be a tourist lemming.
How Frugalwoods Readers Vacation Fabulously and Frugally
Alright, alright, ENOUGH from me. Let’s see what YOU all had to say. I sorted your responses into general categories, but most contain ideas pertaining to other categories as well. So basically, just read the whole thing to get the most thorough advice.
Caroline wrote, “it’s our winter, but in summer we usually go self-catering to a seaside town within 2-3 hours of where we live (which is Cape Town, itself an amazing holiday destination). This is so that we can drive and get there quite quickly and in an uncomplicated way and also so that we can do most of our own food / drinks prep… and we deliberately choose places that aren’t too high-end…because we have 3 kids and it wouldn’t be much of a holiday if we were somewhere immaculate and then had to try and keep it that way! Short travel = lower travel costs on everything from fuel to snacks and more time ”there” rather than in transit.”
Bring Your Own Food
Molly wrote, “In August we’ll be having my BFF’s bachelorette party at the lake which is unintentionally frugal! We’re staying in her former co-worker’s lakefront vacation home free of charge (we’ll all chip in $15-$20 and make a donation to her favorite charity as a thank you). There aren’t any restaurants super close by, so we’ll bring all our own food and drinks and make all our meals at the house. I’ve hit up Target’s dollar spot and got all sorts of cute summery items to put together gift bags for the girls. I can’t wait to float on the lake with an adult beverage in hand all day and play games under the stars every night with my besties 😍”
Laurie said, “We rent a cottage on Newfound lake every year with my in-laws. We split the cost and the cost of food. We have so much fun swimming, relaxing, reading and we cook all our meals there. It is frugal and a great getaway. We also take a trip to Cape Cod and stay with friends. Again we make all our own food and can walk to the beach from their house. The rest of the summer is spent swimming in our intex pool that we got for free. We have been using it for 5 years now. Every summer we pull it out and put it up. It is a lot of work but well worth it. Summers for us are very laid back. They are more about spending time with each other. We also use free passes from our library for day trips and bring picnic lunches for those.”
Holly said, “We just got back from a vacation to mackinac island and upper Michigan where we made sure to bring easy open cans of soups and precut cooked food for the hotel fridge since my kids tend to become conveniently starved right before bed. We did an expensive meal for lunch (because everything’s expensive there) so we got a cheap pizza for dinner, subway the next day for lunch and then a pricier dinner. Just tried to balance without obsessing too much.”
Cindy said, “Baseball. Baseball baseball baseball😂 my grandson plays for a traveling team, we take our food and drinks, I don’t shop, eat out, run around to save on gas…it all goes to baseball…but the learning experience is worth for those boys…builds character, and it’s FUN!”
Clelie wrote, “Another super key thing to reduce costs is to reflect and understand what your family will want to eat while it’s travelling. Over the years, I’ve been trying to hone in on exactly how much and what kinds of road foods we enjoy and actually eat while getting places in the car. Having food so that we don’t have to buy food on the go save so much $! Then we can still plan to buy a few treats, but it is much more affordable. And also planning on where you will eat out on the road trip- so you can look for reviews, menus etc.. You can waste a lot of time and gas trying to find a place that will suit.”
Cindy said, “Road Trips! Heading out to Indiana to visit my in-laws in late June. Frugal factor? Snacks and lunches and drinks for the ride, and LOTS of library books. Oh, and a free place to stay! In late summer, we’ll be heading up to New Hampshire. My husband is planning that trip, which involves camping and hiking and one night, maybe two, in a hotel!”
Kirsten said, “I live in New Zealand and am soon off to England. As it’s always exciting to buy momentoes while travelling I make a note of things that I will soon need (current list is eye shadow, kitchen whisk, tea towels, pair of shorts) and I’ll buy these on holiday. Giving me that sense of holiday spending but knowing that when I get home these things will bring up lasting memories for me of my holiday without filling my house with trinkets or spending money on things I don’t need for the sake of creating a memory :)”
Drive Instead Of Fly
Sarah shared, “We’ve got a few bouts of travel planned this summer, including a trip to the beach, a wedding, and a backpacking trip. We keep things cheap by driving whenever possible (for the wedding we’ll be driving 11 hours, but it’s way cheaper than flying five humans to and from Chicago), packing our own food–we’re a big fan of Aldi’s snacks, so we usually will go and splurge on packaged foods that we wouldn’t usually buy so that we aren’t tempted to stop for fast food. And finally, we stay with relatives or friends whenever possible. For our beach trip we’ll tagging along with generous friends who rented an Airbnb and had an extra room, and for the wedding we’ll be staying with relatives. And backpacking is always cheap, once you have the gear! We’ll probably pick up some groceries, but otherwise the only other expense is gas to get to the trailhead.”
Blair wrote, “My friend and I are on a years-long journey to see all of Shakespeare’s plays (18 down, 20 to go). We go to free Shakespeare in the Park in any city within driving distance during the summer. Our patented system is to get on the road early Saturday morning, see the city, see the play Saturday night, see more of the city Sunday and drive home. Our only costs are gas, one night in an Airbnb, and some inexpensive food- about $150 each. At 4-5 trips a summer, we get to see and do a lot for just a few hundred dollars.”
Staycations For The Win!
Shenoa said, “We don’t go anywhere for the summer but we do try to have fun. National Calendar Day is a website dedicated to listing out all the national holidays. A fun and unique way to keep the kids entertained this summer is to have them make a project pertaining to that day’s holiday whether that’s by making a new recipe, doing a kind deed, or making a craft. Coincidentally, today is National Creatively Day!”
Maren wrote, “This year we will replace the metal frame pool that had too many holes last season… A large expense at first, but so many hours of fun comes with it. The kids keep occupied, friends come over and we stay put at home.”
Rachel said, “I’ve got a season pass to my back patio.”
Take Just One Vacation Per Year
Kyra wrote, “We take one big vacation every year to a small coastal town in SC. It’s not super frugal, as we do go out to eat and stay in a rental cottage, but we make cuts where we can by enjoying mostly free activities (we have a state park pass) and buying groceries for the week when we get there, so we’re eating dinners out but not every meal. Where we go (Beaufort – beautiful place, check it out!) is also much less touristy than other places in SC, including nearby Hilton Head, so we try to “live like locals” and are able to find inexpensive ways to enjoy it. We just moved back to Connecticut from South Carolina, so this summer will be spent exploring hiking trails and other natural features – hopefully lots of camping as well 🙂 we did the same when we lived in the South.”
Laura shared, “I am a teacher so we take full advantage of the summer! I’ve been taking my now three-year-old camping regularly since she was born, so we’ll be spending lots of time camping in a tent or in our Subaru Forester. We always bring lots of vegetables to grill (or eat raw) and spend our days in the forest or by the water.”
Jon said, “We camped all over the U.S. what saved us the most money was fixing sandwiches and cooking our own food.”
Elizabeth wrote, “We love tent camping, and we really took it up as our only means of traveling/vacationing to save thousands of dollars. We usually go on a few smaller, more local camping trips over summer weekends. About once per summer we do one longer trip to a state park near a beach. Many of the state and national parks we’ve visited offer free educational programs with the rangers that add to our fun and learning. It’s not exactly easy and definitely not luxurious, but our kids always have a blast. We have been doing this for several years, and we regularly talk about the great memories from these trips”
Use Rewards Programs
Christine wrote, “We go to NH every summer..I have three children ages 8 and two are 3..staying on a budget is a must for us without skimping out on fun. We try to pick places to stay that give the most for our money..one of our favorite places is the Hampton Inn in North Conway..we get the king suite with an open up sofa bed-they give pack and plays for free for the twins (this year the’ll be in cots also free) they also do free full breakfast and have an indoor waterpark that is no additional cost..we signed up for hilton honors to get the lower rates and they allow free cancellation up to 24 hours before just encase our plans fall through..once we are there we always go to Santas Village (we skip Storyland it’s overpriced over crowded and just not that clean) we always go at 3pm and stay until the park closes and we request our ticket to be validated so we can come back the entire day the next day or anytime really..the twins have been free the last two years..north conway is full of shops, they have a really cool train station museum that you can walk through for free..they have a huge park and splash pad for the kids..we ride up to the Omni Mount Washington Hotel and walk the grounds,play at their park, we also sit on their back deck and share a desert. They have horses that the kids love too. We do strawberry picking and eat at places like Friendlys. We usually go during the lupine festival too which makes really nice backdrops for photos. Sometimes if we stay longer than a weekend we will get the NH funpass which gives admissions to all different places throughout the area. The Sugar Hill Sampler (Im not sure if they’re still open) is one of our favorite places to visit..Mount Cranmoore also has really fun activities on the mountain like summer tubing, moonwalks, ziplining, toboggan slides, etc and they’re tickets are cheap. Also the Christmas Store in North Conway is fun to walk through. Its like a little town with robotic animals and music etc.”
Carrie said, “I travel hacked plane tickets for my family of four and my father in law and sister in law to meet in Las Vegas. Our tickets have two free checked bags. So, We are renting a minivan then camping near the Grand Canyon, petrified forest and other national monuments. We are paying for cheap accommodations in Vegas the night we land and before we take off, but split between us it isn’t much. We like to have a plan to get the kids ice cream or something fun like that, but everything else we will get at grocery stores and cook while camping. We also love to go camping in the PNW, lots of cheap sites with beauty all around!”
Susie wrote, “My husband and I have been bitten pretty hard by the travel bug, and will typically take one international trip every year, as well as a few trips within the US. We try to frugalize our habit by:
1) Traveling on points/credit cards whenever possible
2) If not traveling by points, flying on budget airlines – We will fly with just a personal item, and I’ll even drive down to the airport to buy in person to save on booking fees.
2) Traveling at night if possible (saves on a hotel/AirBnB night and gets us to a new place)
3) Getting AirBnBs instead of hotels – bigger spaces with kitchens for cheaper
4) Traveling with friends and splitting accommodations/Ubers/etc
5) Picking cheaper international locations so we can eat out and see lots of things while still saving money (relative to life in the US)
6) Using public transportation and rideshares instead of renting cars (I’ve done the math and we’ve always come out ahead)”
Stephanie wrote, “We (husband, 2 year old son and me) are headed to The Netherlands for 10 days at the end of August. We have used airline miles to pay for the flights and used capital one points to erase the taxes (savings of $1000 per person). We are still figuring out the Airbnb/ hotels but will be using points as much as possible to go for as cheap as possible but no sacrificing!! We also plan to use public transportation as much as possible and then use Chase Sapphire points to erase those charges when we return. We are hoping to only pay for activities and food while traveling. Usually we head to the grocery store when we arrive and grab food there for the trip and eat at restaurants a few times to limit costs. I am really looking forward to this vacation!”
Victoria said, “I’m taking my boys camping in three National Parks nearby where they can practice their new bike riding skills. We’re capping off the summer with my Graduation celebration in San Diego where we’re staying for free at a 4-star resort, thanks to Credit Card Points. Add student & military discounts, and Legoland is going to be an impressive and easy cherry on the top!”
Katie shared, “I’m traveling to Ireland in two weeks and this is probably the most frugal I’ve ever traveled. I booked my ticket using credit card points and will be staying a variety of accommodations to reduce costs, like university dorms with kitchen access or AirBnBs that include breakfast. What many people don’t realize is that many European universities rent their dorms for summer travelers, so they’re a great option for someone who doesn’t need first class accommodations. Also, while traveling I’ll use local grocery stores for most of meals, but I’ll treat myself to at least one or two nice lunches or dinners. Ireland has something called the pre-theater special or early hour special, which is similar to our early bird special. They usually require that you vacate your seat by a certain time though, so that people paying full price for their meals can be seated.”
Allison wrote, “We belong to our city’s art museum, which is part of the North American Reciprocal Museum Association – with our annual membership, we get in to many museums for free across the country when traveling. It could be strategic to join a local museum if traveling somewhere with a lot of museums you want to visit.”
Nancy said, “We never travel in the summer. It is so expensive and crowed. We don’t have kids so we don’t like to be around kids, traveling off season is way cheaper. Europe in the winter is amazing just dress in layers and you will be fine and don’t break the bank 😉”
Travel ALL Year Round
Linda said, “For the last 15 years or so we’ve been traveling. I live in an RV and last year at this time we were on our way to Florida to visit children. Right now I don’t care if we ever go anywhere again! We’ll stay put and discover San Antonio and the hill country. We’re in our 70’s and still love to picnic.”
Aurelia said, “It’s not a very frugal hobby, but my husband and I love sailing. My husband bought a salvage boat after hurricane Sandy and restored it to it’s former glory. So that’s where our vacation budget goes, we do get to use it quite a lot all summer long ( at least 3-4 times a week) and it’s so much fun to be on the water! No tv, no distractions, phones are tucked away, so it’s just the two of us sailing, reading, talking ( possibly enjoying some cold beverages too😊).”
Penny shared, “We are in Central Florida so for us we book “week of” weekend cruises for rock bottom prices! They want to fill the ship in hopes of you spending a ton of cash on board!! NOT!! Norwegian is “all.inclusive” so no extra fees on their island or drinks except bottled water! We cruise for less than a weekend at a beach! Our fun way to enjoy summer!”
Work While You Vacation
Clelie shared, “Our family attends a couple of gatherings every summer. Both are a week long and we camp in tents. Our main frugalising tip is that they are working vacations for either my partner or both of us. These are festival/ camping style events with organized food and lots of workshops and adventures for all ages.
The adults in our family take on service roles to the greater community- but it is really, really fun- we get to do work that is our passion and we always learn lots and we still have lots of time to participate and enjoy the event. I love, love that there are fun things for my kids to do and friends for them to play with. It is so wonderful to get a week long break from cooking and the food really is top notch, super healthy delicious food that meets all the criteria we have at home, but even better.
Us adults also get lots of socializing time with our peers all in a gorgeous setting with the river to jump in and campfires to gather round at night. Since we are working, the registration cost is covered for the adults and sometimes some for the children and we sometimes even get some of our transportation costs to get there covered as well.”
Jill wrote, “I just got home from a vacation with my family. Best savings were staying in an Air Bnb and hotel rooms with a full kitchens so many meals were made there. We all packed a carry-on only so no luggage fees. We wore our heavier clothing on the plane to allow more room in suitcases. Lots of hiking and free activities. My Mother used her senior park pass to get all of us into three different National Parks. I also used credit card travel rewards points for airline tickets.”
Clelie shared, “It’s a funny balance b/w planning ahead and having some freedom and spontaneity during your vacations. Reflecting on what makes a vacation actually restful and fun has really helped. And this will change as the children get older etc… I think it’s important to consider who will do all the work to make the vacation fun happen. There’s an article I’ve seen around that is all about how some vacations are just more domestic work for the carers in the family, just with a different view- finding vacation options where you can actually take a break from some of the tasks of every day life can be a godsend.”
Traveling is a priority for me and for a lot of the respondents today. But it might not be a priority for you. I think vacations can serve as an enticement to “keep up with the Joneses” and inflate spending just because everyone else you know went to Hawaii last summer and so you think you should go too.
Nope, no, nope. Travel and vacation if YOU want to and if YOU can afford it without going into debt or without sacrificing your longterm financial goals. No vacation is worth mortgaging your future for.
Some people are surprised at how much my husband and I travel, but it’s something we prioritize putting our money towards. Sure, I cut my hair at home, rarely eat in a restaurant, and wear hand-me-down clothes, but I’ve also traveled to fifteen different countries and hope to visit many more in the future. That’s not to say that travel is the “right” or “best” way to use your money, just that it’s one option.
There are so many different ways to construct a meaningful life and, if travel matters to you, you’ll find a way to create a sustainable budget that allows you to do just that. And hey, if you’re looking for ideas on how to save more money so that you can travel more, you might consider taking my free Uber Frugal Month Group Challenge, which starts on July 1st! More about that here.