Save money while traveling
A frugal vacation is almost an oxymoron, but there are some small ways that our family has developed to reduce travel costs. Frankly, my idea of a vacation involves staying home . . . so maybe there is such a thing as a frugal vacation. Anyway, my job and our current financial situation do not allow for traditional vacations in the sense that we go to a particular location for the purpose of relaxation and entertainment. Our vacations merely consist of traveling to see family – we live roughly a thousand miles from both major relative groups – or work related trips. We spend a great deal of time on the road.
Sometimes my job allows me to combine work and play, so I try to book a “job” in a place that my family might like to visit and then take them along. As a result my three children, currently all under the age of seven, have accompanied me on trips to Georgia, Illinois, Florida (Orlando and Miami), Colorado, Wisconsin, Kansas and South Dakota – all via the road. The longest trip that we have taken as a family involved over thirty hours of driving. One of the worst trips that we ever took involved a four hour traffic stand-still in 20 degrees-below-zero temperatures in the middle of Iowa.
There is no way to really avoid spending money on the road, especially if your trip is long enough to require overnight stays and meals and there are times when traveling with three young children, that we throw frugality out the window and just get whatever will keep the kids quiet . . . admit it, we all have those moments. However, well planned trips can keep costs low. Here are a few suggestions:
Pack snacks that are satisfying and don’t mess up your car. My top three car snacks are baby carrots, string cheese and apples – filling and relatively inexpensive. Take sandwiches in a small cooler for at least one meal during the day. If you pack a good lunch and a few hearty snacks, you can avoid expensive restaurants or fast food for at least two meals.
Visit your local grocery store and splurge before leaving on your trip. The most expensive snacks in your grocery store are far cheaper than anything in the gas station convenience store.
If you must eat out, make sure you carry plenty of coupons. If we have to eat out on the road, we decide where to go, by looking at our coupon folder.
Impulse buying will destroy your traveling food budget.
Have plenty of water with you so that you don’t have to spend money on something that is almost free in your own home.
Glblguy will not like this one, but we use a cash back credit card in order to purchase gasoline on all of our trips. It is the only way we really can save money in this area. The best scenario occurs when my employer reimbuses me for travel expenses. My card gets me 3% cash back on every purchase, when I turn in my receipts, I am reimbursed for the full amount spent. On a $100 gasoline purchase, I make an extra six bucks. Not a huge amount of money, but I’ll take what I can get.
Once again, this blog as a whole is not a “fan” of credit cards – our family has strictly defined budget categories for credit card use and we pay off our balance every month.
I have also found that I get much better gas mileage with higher grade gasoline. This is probably different with every vehicle, but if the price difference between the regular grade and the mid grade gasoline is less than 10% of the regular grade price, I purchase the mid grade. I have found that my vehicle gas mileage improves over 10% with mid grade gas, especially on the freeway.
Once again, money spent on hotels is almost never well spent, however, I have a few strategies for keeping costs down in this area:
Purchase your hotel room online as far in advance as possible through an online cash back portal like Ebates or MyPoints. This could save you anywhere from $5 to $25 per night.
Become a member of every hotel chain loyalty club, purchase your room through Priceline or some other discount broker and then make sure that you are credited with a night’s stay through the loyalty program when you check out of the hotel. I keep all of my membership numbers written on a card in my wallet. The catch with loyalty programs is that you become committed to that particular chain, even when they do not offer the best price in town, but if you are a member of several programs, you can simply go for the lowest price. Eventually you will start to earn free stays.
If we are not certain how far we will be able to travel in a particular day, I get online and write down the phone numbers for several hotels along the route, near where we think we might stop. When we get an hour or so away, we start to call the various properties to see who has the best deal. Sometimes we can talk hotels down in price, sometimes we can play them against each other – especially later in the evening, and sometimes we end up driving an hour or two further in order to get a better deal. Once, when I was on the road by myself, I employed this strategy and discovered that all of the hotels in eastern Nebraska were completely booked. I spent the night, sleeping in the back of my pickup at a rest area in 80 degree temperatures, 100% (at least) humidity and mosquitoes . . . Fortunately, that has not yet happened while my family was along.
We always stay at a place that includes breakfast. For a family of five, a free breakfast can save us a lot of money.
All I can say here is, when nature calls, do your best to stop at the highway rest areas, they are typically cleaner and will not tempt your family to purchase overpriced, unhealthy items.
Not-so-frugal travel suggestions:
If you have small children, take special note of large malls with play areas along your route. If your kids really need a break, there is no substitute for a play area at a mall. If you can resist the temptations posed by the stores, food court and coffee shops, so much the better.
The older I get and the more I stay in hotels, the more I value hotel cleanliness. I will often pay an extra $20 to $30 for a hotel room in a chain that I am confident will be clean. Not the most frugal suggestion . . . but if I can avoid cockroaches, greasy bedspreads, and strange hairs in the restroom for twenty-five bucks, I will do it.
By all means, stay alert. You need to figure out your limites, but if you are falling asleep on the road, pull off, get a room or at least spend some money on an energy drink.
Our favorite on-the-road restaurant is Chik-fil-A. Costs a couple of bucks more than the Wendy’s or McDonald’s dollar menu, but it is a smidge healthier and typically much cleaner.
Photo by Toastie14