How to Travel on a Budget: Big Vacation for a Small Price

Couple laying on hammock looking at ocean.

Are you trying to figure out how to travel on a budget this summer?  I’m going to be completely honest with you.  As this post goes public, I’ll be sitting on a beach in Florida soaking up the rays (much like we were doing in the picture above) so vacation is fresh on my mind!


In 2015 alone, Americans left 658 million vacation days unused.  I’m sure there are close to 658 million explanations for that, but I’d bet one significant reason we don’t take advantage of our time off is the cost of traveling.


When you consider the price of a hotel, plane tickets, fun things to do while on a trip, and all the food you will eat, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and scrap the idea all together.


This is the wrong play.  While many of you may think you can’t afford to take a vacation, the truth is you can’t afford NOT to.  Rhythms of rest and replenishment are crucial to longevity in our careers, and without regular R & R we can’t perform at our best.


Vacation Doesn’t Have to Be Travel


Before we go further, let’s just establish a working definition for vacation.  In this post, I will be giving tips focused specifically on how to travel on a budget for vacation without spending a fortune.  However, vacation is simply taking time to completely unplug from work and your normal rhythm of life to re-boot.


A vacation can be spent at an all-inclusive resort in the Caribbean, at a cabin in the woods outside your city, or in your own house with your phone on airplane mode and your laptop closed.  What’s more important than where you go is whether or not you’re taking time to “re-charge your batteries.”


What follows are some tips that we use whenever we travel to make sure that our vacations are refreshing, fun, and friendly to our money goals.


Actually Travel on a Budget


That’s right.  If you’re going to travel on a budget, actually have a budget.  You should NEVER take a trip without first deciding on a reasonable amount of money you plan to spend and then planning how it will be spent.


Do a little bit of homework to plan for expenses.  Hop on Google Maps to figure out how many miles you’ll drive so you can estimate gas costs.  You may feel like your vacation is causing you to work extra before you take it, but having the plan laid out before you go is so worth it.


Be sure to make your budget as far in advance as possible of your trip.  This will allow you plenty of time to save up money.  Please don’t go into debt to take a vacation.  This includes loans and credit cards.  I can imagine few things worse than trying to relax on a trip knowing in the back of my mind that I’m going to be paying for it for months to come.


So in practical steps, first establish a ball park figure for the total cost of your trip.  Then, list out the categories that will require spending like lodging, transportation costs, things to do, etc.  If you don’t know how you will fit everything into the total you can afford, read on to see how you can cut some costs and keep that budget manageable.


Stay With Family or Friends


One of the biggest expenses of a trip tends to be the place you stay.  Hotels aren’t cheap, and even on sites like Air B n B costs are creeping higher and higher.  It’s easy to look up after booking your lodging only to realize you have no budget left for anything else.  So what do we do?


One of the strategies we’ve employed that has worked extremely well is to travel to places where we have family or friends close by.  In doing this, we’re able to stay at a place for free or significantly less than a hotel cost.  Either staying with family or friends or at a place they have a connection with can drastically free up some room in your travel budget.


We’ve taken a couple of all-inclusive Caribbean trips (honeymoon and a debt-free celebration), but the rest of our vacations we’ve stayed with people we knew.  Doing so doesn’t take away from your ability to unplug.  The ease of stress because you know you’re saving money actually helps you relax that much more.


Strategize Your Food


Food is a sneaky cost on a vacation that can really become your second biggest expense behind lodging.  When traveling, few of us want to put any effort into making our own meals, opting instead for the convenience of a restaurant for every one.  There’s nothing wrong with eating out on vacation, but be smart.  It’s easy to eat way too much of your budget when it could go to something with more return.


What we do is plan which meals we will eat out, and then buy groceries for the rest that are simple to put together.  This works hand in hand with the first tip, because we normally stay at places that have appliances like a refrigerator for storing groceries.


This allows us to estimate costs for the amount of dinners we will eat in restaurants and the amount of money for groceries we will need.  Just a thought: the less you spend on restaurants, the more you have for more memorable experiences.


Drive Instead Of Flying


Depending on how far you’re going, this can be a sticking point.  However, let me give you a kick in the pants…don’t talk like a broke person.  “Oh, we have to fly because that drive is just not an option,” is something a broke person will say before following it up with some excuse about how their miles and cash back are saving them money.


After buying plane tickets and renting a car for the length of your stay, you will not convince me that flying is cheaper than driving your own vehicle to your destination.  If you’re debt free and investing at least 15% of your income for retirement, fly wherever you can pay for with the money in your vacation budget.  But for the rest of you that are paying off debt, building emergency funds, and saving down payments on homes, you’re far better off driving.


Don’t Shop


It always amazes me how many people will travel hundreds, if not thousands, of miles to a place they’ve never been, with sights they’ve never seen, and spend a fortune at stores they have at home.


Don’t let the excitement of a week away feed a money spending craze in a mall or at the outlet stores.  Again, there are so many other ways to spend money on vacation that have a higher rate of return for you.  You probably already have enough clothes, you don’t need those expensive sunglasses, and they want too much for that watch you’re eyeing.


It’s your vacation, so if shopping has a place in your budget, that’s up to you.  But for me, it seems like an awfully big waste of money that could have provided me with a unique experience that I can only get in the place where I’m traveling.


Think Like a Local


Try to ask around and do research before your trip to see what your destination has to offer.  There are probably some great things for tourists, but the real gems are found where the locals go to hang out.


Look for parks, historical sites, and landmarks that you can visit.  These typically are cheap and can provide a fun outing.  Seek out the things locals do for fun.  If you’re going to the beach, you could eat at Joe’s Crab Shack like every other tourist for over $20 a person, or you could find the local hole-in-the-wall place that’s half the price and twice the quality.


Do a little bit of work and try to assimilate into the local life in your time away.  You never know what cool things you’ll find to do and what awesome people you’ll connect with.




Fun and memorable travel on a budget is possible, but you must be willing to have fun with the process and make intentional, money-conscious decisions.


If you set a budget and make your trip fit into it, you’ll have a great vacation.  Plus, it won’t follow you around for months afterward in the form of monthly payments.


What are your vacation plans this summer?

Have a Question or Comment?

4 comments on “How to Travel on a Budget: Big Vacation for a Small Price

Great stuff! Enjoy Florida! My wife and I went on our first traveling vacation there in August after 4 1/2 years of vacation. Before that it was all staycations as we saved and got on top of our finances.


Thanks Shane! Yeah rest and time off are important, but can be achieved without traveling or spending a ton of money. Vacation should never put financial stability and progress in jeopardy. But it sure is nice when you get to the place where beach trips are an option over staycations!


Aside from doing your research before the trip, asking around from the locals helps a lot, too! Locals know a lot of great places that aren’t always advertised online and can give you great tips and tricks.


So true! I definitely do so when traveling in familiar places. However, I’m the super cautious type when it comes to overseas travel…I usually assume everyone is trying to kill me haha. Thanks for reading!


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