Frugalista’s Guide to Great Travel
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Frugalista’s Guide to Great Travel

9 Proven Trips for Great Travel on a Blue Collar Budget.

I take several vacations a year. When people read or hear this, they think I must have an unlimited supply of money or a secret stash of maxed out credit cards. The truth is, I don’t make a lot of money and I have no credit cards. I have just made myself an expert on traveling on a very tight budget. There are a few rules and tips that make travel less of luxury afforded to the fortunate and more of a reality for anyone.

The Rules:

Rule 1: Be open minded.

Most people have an idea of what type of travel they want to do when they sit down to try to plan a vacation. It may be a trip with the kids to Disney or a romantic getaway to a top beach resort.

For many people, these type of vacations are a fantasy that their reality can’t keep up with. As clich√© as it sounds, you have to think outside the box. I’m not saying that you can’t find the vacation of your fantasy on a budget, but keeping an open mind about alternatives can really save you money and become an unexpected surprise.

Change your thinking about what a vacation is.

Never tried tent camping? Try it. You might love it and your checkbook love, love, loves it. Camping is often free and if it isn’t, it’s always close. There’s no shame in bringing your inflatable mattress, comforters and plush pillows. They’ll wash and you’ll be comfortable.

Think you need to go far? Read your local travel guides. Consider that other people travel to where you are to vacation.

Need Luxury? Create your own. Bring luxury with you instead of paying for it. Cheaper hotels don’t prohibit you from bringing your own plush items.

Kids like all sorts of things. Don’t limit yourself to the typical destinations or activities that you think the kids will enjoy. Look around and find alternatives that are less popular, but pack maximum interest for your children. (Same applies for your spouse!)

Real Life Example:

The plan: Florida Vacation for my family of five

My children immediately thought Disney. I immediately thought, cha-ching! My reality didn’t include Mickey. Instead, I looked for things that my three boys would get excited about that didn’t include the hefty price tag. I found the Kennedy Space Center and booked all five of us to watch a Space Shuttle Launch inside the Space Center with a two day ticket to the park.

The total price tag for five: $169.00. A very small amount of research and a really great sales pitch to the children led to an inexpensive experience of a lifetime that my three boys can talk about for the rest of their lives.

We ultimately spent two weeks in Florida and traveled from Orlando all the way down to the Keys throughout the two weeks. Total price tag for the entire trip (flight, hotel, entertainment, food, gas, rental car ): Under $2000.00. (Pay attention throughout this article for hints on how that happened)

Rule 2: Be very, very flexible

I am fortunate to have a really flexible schedule that allows me to pick the dates I want to travel and don’t always have to stick to a set date. This isn’t the reality for many. Planning far enough in advance that you can really look at a lot of different options can make a very big difference.

Spring Break, for example, should really be called Budget Break. Although a lot of places run specials for Spring Break, traveling at predictable times like Spring Break can cost a lot more than adjusting the dates. I, personally, stay away from any flights or hotels during these predictable periods.

Use alternatives during these periods like traveling to lesser known destinations or driving instead of flying. Travel mid-week to mid-week, even for spring break. If you can manage a couple of extra days off before a heavy travel period, flying out during the week before can really make a difference.

Real Life Example:

The plan: Winter Break get AWAY.

The holidays are a very, very busy travel time. We wanted to take advantage of the time off but our budget was very, very tight. A little research led us to a week-long three state vacation complete with private hot-tub cabin and a day on the slopes. Total price tag (including gas and food): $450.00. We drove to Rocky Mountain National Park and found the place abandoned.

The resorts competed heartily for our Christmas business and we ended up with a fantastic buy two get two nights free deal. We checked-in on Christmas Eve and checked out three days later. Predictable period, unpredictable day and unpredictable destination.

We spent four days snow-shoeing ($10.00 rental), cross country skiing ($10.00 rental), winter hiking (free), sledding (free), and exploring the beautiful national park in winter ($20.00 entry fee good for one week.)

We saved so much that we expanded our vacation and were able to go drive up to Wyoming for winter sight-seeing (4X4 recommended and adventurous spirit required) and then hit a New Mexico ski resort on the way home to spend a day snow-boarding before we returned home.

Enough about the rules. You came here for real tips on how to do it. Here they are.

Tip 1: Travel during the week. Travel off season. Travel unusually.

Weekend getaways are great, weekday getaways are more budget-friendly. Everything you require for travel is cheaper on Wednesday. Go right now to any travel search site. Put in a trip for the weekend and then put in that same trip from Tuesday to Thursday. I’ll wait. See the difference? It’s as easy as that.

Have you ever priced a tropical trip in hurricane season? Where can you go snow-skiing in the summer time? Think about the times that everyone doesn’t want to be there.

Tip 2: Research, research, research!

Time is money, but not like you think. If you invest some time in planning your vacation, you will reap big reward. Don’t think that all discount travel sites will give you the same results. Don’t think that planning far in advance gives you the best price. Don’t think that you get all of your options from commercial search sites.

Some airlines (best example: Southwest Airlines) rarely (if ever) show up on sites like Travelocity or CheapTickets. Spend the time and do at least 10 different searches before booking.

Pay attention to forecasters (best example: Sidestep) and put a little brainpower into your plan to maximum your results.

Use the travel websites and use them all. If you have to set up a designated email address (which I recommend) to capture all of the travel websites emails, do it. Sign up for every newsletter, every forecaster, every email alert that you can get your mouse on.

If you think you’d like to go somewhere in the future (I keep a list on my refrigerator), set up an email travel alert. Look at the emails. It’s easy to let them build up and forget them. By the time you get in there and look through them, the perfect vacation deal at the perfect price has expired.

Tip 3: Don’t be shy. Haggle away.

Hotwire give you a great rate? Call the hotel, ask to speak to the manager, and ask for something better. It doesn’t always work, but sometimes it does and it can mean significant savings! Real life example: On that Florida trip I talked about earlier, I booked with hotwire for a hotel at $18.00 a night in Orlando. After some work, I payed $9.00 a night for a double room a few blocks from Disney. It wasn’t the Ritz, but it was clean, comfortable, and family-friendly.

Many people don’t haggle because they either believe it won’t work or they are just too shy. It’s worth the try. And it’s best to have some other options to point out to the person you talk to. For example, tell the manager that you have an offer from another hotel where you can stay for x amount of dollars and ask if they can beat that. I’ve had more success in calling during typically non-busy times for the person who’s answering the phone.

Don’t call a hotel manager in the morning hours, they are busy. Ask for their internet rate or find out what it is before you call. Ask about their specials. Ask if they can beat the best price you found on any webpage. Take the best price you get, whether it is from a person or online.

Tip 4: Reward programs

Sign up for all of them as long as they are free. They don’t require time, extra money, or any significant work on your part. They do reward you with discounts, free flights and specials. Participate.

Tip 5: Find it FREE

Free activities at your destination can be truly abundant and very easy to find. Search the internet, call the local travel bureau, read the local newspapers, ask around when you get there. You never know what you’re going to find for free.

Favorite freebies: Concerts, theater, park or street performances, planetarium showings, animal feedings or conservation efforts that can be publicly viewed or participated in, museums, tours, and my most commonly used freebee – a day at the beach. Best I’ve ever found: Free surf lesson at Pompano Beach, Florida every Sunday. Show up and grab a board. 100% free with no catch.

Tip 6: Pick your activity, but not your destination

Searching by activity can sometimes take you unexpected places with great results. Everyone loves it when they find a ‘treasure” that no one else really knows about. But if no one really knows about it, the destination is competing for business and their rates are low. The easiest way to do that, do what you want where ever you can find it at the best price.

For example, beginning skiers and snowboarders can start their skiing experience at Durango Colorado’s Chapman Hill for $10.00 adult or 8.00 child for their in town’s small hill. Expert skiers can go out and hike up for free in hundreds of places near Durango. Just want family snow fun, take the drive between Durango and Silverton with an inner-tube or sled in tow and find any safe hill free.

Tip 7: Move around

It isn’t always a reality to drive where you want to go for less money, but you can get further if you rent a car when you get there. Maximize your vacation time by starting in Malibu at the beach and ending in Yosemite.

That can be one vacation, not two or three. See a state from top to bottom if it’s your first time there. You can always plan a more involved vacation later at the one place that really got you going. And you can always change your plans when you get there. If you are booked at a hotel chain, ask about transferring your reservation to the same chain in another city.

Find a great airfare deal into a city within a few hours driving distance, rent a car then drive the rest of the way. This can save you literally hundreds of dollars. For example, fly to Vegas and rent a car and go to Lake Powell.

Enjoy them both or just save the money by flying to one of the cheapest places to fly in America. Return the car when you get there and rent another for the drive back. Fly to a big Island and take a boat to a more remote island.

Tip 8: Don’t be afraid to go international

One of the most shocking things I’ve learned in my journey was that international travel can beat domestic travel. They have mountains, beaches, history, jungles, animals, tours, hotels, and airplanes all over the world. Fair watching for deals overseas can become a very welcome surprise. Expand your horizons and realize you can find that special vacation spot anywhere in the world.

Finally, remember why you want a vacation.

If you want a vacation because you’re bored and need some excitement, plan accordingly. Don’t book one hotel for 8 nights. See Tip 7. If you want a vacation for relaxation, see tip 5 and realize that the beach is free and relaxing. No matter how much of a budget you are on, don’t plan a vacation that you won’t enjoy in the name of saving money.

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