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How I Take Frequent Vacations on a Limited Budget

By , November 26th, 2007 | 17 Comments »

vacation on a budget

Ah, it’s that time again. Time to begin planning yet another vacation (the sixth for this year). And time for well-meaning (I think) friends and family to ask, “How do you afford to go on so many vacations each year when we can’t even afford one? You must be putting it on credit
cards or cashing out your home equity, right?”

“Nope, not even close,” I say.

“Then you must be staying in flea bag motels and using courier flights or something, right?”

“Nope,” I say again. “I like to travel well.”

My questioner just shakes his or her head and mumbles something to the effect of, “I know you’re lying. Nobody can afford that many vacations.”

So how do I afford so many vacations, even though I don’t make a ton of money? First, and most importantly, I prioritize. After the bills are paid, I have a finite amount of leftover money to cover my “wants.” Travel is a priority in my life and I give up a lot of other “wants” to be able to do it. I try not be short with people when they ask me how I’m affording yet another vacation, but it’s difficult when I see some of them drinking coffee from Starbucks every morning, heading out to the movies every weekend, or eating out five meals per week. If those things make them happy, then that’s great. But they need to be aware that there are trade-offs.

Unless you are super rich, your discretionary money is only going to go so far. If you spend it all on other things, there’s none left for travel. If travel’s not what you want to do, then all is well. But if you want to travel, you’re probably going to have to give up some of your other wants in order to do it. That, or win the lottery.

My ability to travel often is helped by the fact that I don’t carry a lot of debt. Without those monthly credit card and loan payments, I’m able to free up a good portion of my income for travel. I realize that this isn’t easy for a lot of people, but it goes back to the priorities I mentioned above. If you want to travel often, prioritize and pay down your other debt to free up more income for travel.

I have a separate high-interest rate savings account set up for my vacation fund. That account is off limits for everything but vacations and dire emergencies not covered by my regular emergency fund. I have a set amount direct deposited from each paycheck so I don’t have to think about saving for vacations. I also put any “found” money into that account. Found money includes rebates, refunds, money from Get Paid To sites, and spare change. To spur the growth of this account, I never spend change or one dollar bills. I keep that money and deposit it into my vacation account. I also track my coupon savings and put the amount I save into my vacation fund. It all adds up quickly.

I budget and plan carefully for each trip. I do enough research beforehand so that I know exactly how much each component of the trip will cost, and then I hunt for deals and coupons to get the prices down further. The deals are out there, even in this economy, you just have to be willing to look. Yes, this is time consuming, but for me it’s part of the vacation fun. I like nothing better than coming out of the library with an armload of guidebooks, or sitting down to an evening spent researching on the Internet. I know many people who don’t plan or budget at all and then complain when the bill comes and it’s far more than they expected. They say, “I had no idea it would all be so much!” Planning and budgeting beforehand prevents those shocks.

While I like to travel well, I don’t need luxury. For some reason, a lot of people who ask about my vacations assume there are two kinds of travel. The first is “budget travel” which resembles a college spring break with ten people crammed into a Yugo for eight hours, then sharing a flea bag motel room and eating fast food at every meal. This is the sort of traveling they think I’m doing. Then there’s “luxury travel” which is staying in a five star hotel with a spa, eating five course meals and flying first class. This is the sort of travel they think I’d like to do, if I could “afford” it.

What people don’t always realize is that there is a middle ground. There are many nice hotels, restaurants, and attractions that don’t cost a fortune, but aren’t so cheap that you have to wear a flea collar to visit. You may have to seek these out in some destinations, but it’s well worth it to be able to travel well and affordably. A plus is that in many destinations, such places are locally owned and operated so you gain exposure to local cuisine, culture, and hospitality that you won’t get at the mega-resorts.

Finally, I don’t buy many souvenirs. Souvenirs eat up a large chunk of a vacation budget and aren’t worth it to me. I don’t need another t-shirt or tchotchke cluttering up my living space. Plus, getting stuff home can be a challenge. One well chosen item and a lot of
photographs are enough for me. I also keep a travel journal so I can look back and remember the details of my vacation and I collect a lot of freebies to “accessorize” my journal such as guide maps, ticket stubs, matchbook covers and programs.

Frequent travel is possible on just about any budget, as long as you are willing to make it a priority in your life. Once you make travel a priority, it becomes surprisingly easy to create a budget that makes it possible. You find yourself willing to give up other things in exchange for your next great trip. It becomes a personal challenge to hunt down the best airfare and hotel deals you can find. And you enjoy being the one “in the know” about all the great local restaurants and sights that can be had for little money. The only downside to frequent travel? Friends and family will start asking you how you afford all those vacations.

Image courtesy of mnadi

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  • Joan.of.the.Arch says:

    To me, the mystery is–how do you get enough time off work to travel six times per year? Are these very short trips, timewise?

  • Teri says:

    It’s a really good point. Most people I know like 5-star resorts or spas even though they are drowning in debt. I never get it.

    We are lucky to live in an area with many great weekend getaways. Of course our friends not only think we’re insane that we don’t want to stay at 5-star resorts, but that we DRIVE everywhere.

    On the flip side the family has a cabin near Tahoe and timeshare points galore so we generally never have to pay for rooms anyway. But we know there is plenty of “middle ground” for the rare times we do pay for a room.

    I also have friends who travel to Europe every summer. They know how to budget a vacation, for sure. HAs less to do with their income (not very high) & much more to do with their priorities.

  • chrissy says:

    I get the same thing all the time… I choose to travel to places like el Salvador, or laos, where my dollar goes far, and I don’t go for bottom of the barrell or five star lodging. I get the same comment from people about my propensity for travel.. “must be nice”, or “how do you afford that”. I have to just smile and shrug, and think about the room I rent, and the older used truck I drive, and the lunches I pack into work every day to save up for the next trip. And when I think about spending $50 on a meal out with friends, I decide I would rather spend that $50 on five nights lodgings on the beach in Nicaragua, just steps from jaw-dropping surf. It’s all about priorities….

  • Zook says:

    Great tips….We think alike…Its funny I cam across this article as today I gathered up all the one’s and five’s in our “travel” jar and have $298.

    I just love to travel and would rather go to 4-places a year instead of one luxurious vacation. As far as being able to get away 6-times a year, if you have priorities, I think everyone could manage to take long weekends and use their vacation time to travel that much.

  • Jenna says:


    What kind of vacations are you taking? i.e., how many days in a row, how far from your home, etc.? I can take 6 weekend trips a year no problem, but these sound much more long-term.

    I’d love to know the last 5 or 6 places you’ve been, and the approximate amounts you’ve spent each time. This article is quite intriguing, but I need to know more to prove to myself that these vacations are anywhere I’d want to go (and if they are, I have a great article to print & send to my parents.)


  • Zook says:


    Are you implying that this article would be great for your busy parents? Or are you suggesting in a round about way that your parents will be helping you take longer, more expensive vacations?

  • Karl Katzke says:

    Joan: If you fly out Thursday afternoon and return Tuesday mid-day (I usually leave my car at work because it’s closer to the airport) you’re only burning 3 days of time off … or 2 days if you’re traveling over a three-day weekend. My favorite 3-day weekend to travel is MLK day in January… most people are still recovering from Christmas, and tickets are cheap and hotels are empty! Anyway, I get 12 days of vacation time per year, and I can stretch that to many many vacations and still bank time for the future.

    Teri: Well, when you’re in that much debt, you need the 5-star spa treatment to relieve some of the stress of being in debt… *rolls eyes*

    My other favorite thing to do is stay with friends. I’ve got a friend that lives in Honduras and a friend that lives in Vermont — in the first part of next year I’ll get to visit them both. Vermont to see the snow I miss living in south Texas, and then a weekend in Honduras for some good latin american food. My friends are all old enough to have guest bedrooms now — so there’s no couch surfing stigma — and we all host each other whenever we can.

    Unfortunately, the only thing I can offer when people visit me in south-central Texas is lots of free beer and scantily clad young college women…

  • The souvenirs tip is terrific.

    I went to France as a teenager on a school trip. I did buy an obligatory mini Eiffel tower, but one day in Paris we strolled past a record store. I went in and bought a 45 (if I just say “single,” will anyone know what I’m talking about? Heh. This was a 45 rpm record, actual black vinyl) and a music magazine. I knew nothing about the musician on the single – Francis Lalanne – but it turned out I REALLY liked it once I had a chance to listen to it. And the music magazine has been full of wonderful memories – it’s been a way to practice my French, and it features reviews of American albums among all the French artists that remind me of that time in my life.

    Including the little Eiffel tower, I doubt I spent more than $10 on those souvenirs. I still enjoy the single and the magazine.

  • debtdieter says:

    Great post! I have quite a few friends who do the same thing, it’s all about spending your money on what’s important to you.

  • doughboy says:

    can you show some actual numbers of your vacation expenses? no matter how I think of it, I can’t figure how going on a real vacation will not cost a lot of money.

    We travelled to Yellowstone last summer for 6 days and it cost us (family of 5) about $3k (includes air fare). We are going to Florida later this month, and my estimate is somewhere from $6 to $7k.

    There’s got to be a catch that is not disclosed in this article.

    Note that if you have school age kids, you can go on the “off” season low price like prior to December 15, most travel packages are cheaper than after December 15.

  • doughboy says:

    correction to my previos comment, it should read, you “can’t” go on off season low price if you have school age kids. BTW, my Florida vacation is for 10 days. I also found out car rental in Orlando after December 15 runs about $80 a day, compared that to before December 15 where it cost $40. I used my employer’s discount and was still able to get it at $40 a day.

  • plonkee says:

    I am a fan of budget travel – well in particular, I’m a fan of hostels. Seriously great value for the money. And then on my vacations all the cash can be spent on great food, and sightseeing.

  • Jenna says:

    Zook –

    No idea why you even bothered asking the question to me above, but the answer is that my mom has never been anywhere, and neither has my dad. This would be great to send to them if I had more info as to the types of vacations these are (like, are these road trips? If so, my mom does NOT do well with driving, and there would be different budgetary concerns)

    Also, it would be nice if they took care of their finances to the point where they could come visit ME and I don’t have to spend all my travel money visiting them.

    Still waiting for responses on my original question.

  • Jennifer says:

    To answer the question about what sort of vacations I’m taking: It varies and it depends!

    Mostly, these are week long trips, although there are times when I take a four or five day weekend — esp. when I can throw in a holiday like Labor day where SO’s vacation time doesn’t have to be used. I’m fortunate to be self employed so I can vacation when I want as long as the work gets done and my SO gets four weeks of time each year with “carryover” that has now accumulated to about seven weeks per year.

    We drive for most trips, although I wouldn’t say many destinations are “driving distance” — we go upwards of 1,000 miles from home when we drive at times. But we enjoy driving and stopping along the way more than the hassle of airports. But we do fly when necessary, but on budget airlines and only when there’s an airfare deal.

    As to where we go, it depends. I’ll usually start out with a general area in mind and then look for deals on places within that area. Where I can match the best deal with activities we enjoy is where we go. We go to amusement parks, national parks, big cities with lots to do, resorts, and driving vacations where we just “look around” with no real plans in mind. We also do cruises, although not as often, and international trips, again, not as often esp. since the dollar has tanked and it’s a lot more expensive.

    Rarely does a vacation (week long) cost more than $1,000, although I usually aim much lower but the cost of gas is making that harder to hit. If we do a cruise or international trip, I try to stay under $2,000-2,500 for a week, although I’m usually far below that once I get discounts factored in.

    I realize that our travel methods are somewhat unconventional and that we’re fortunate to have more vacation time than most and a smaller travel party which equals reduced expenses. However, the point of the article was that, no matter your situation, if travel’s your thing, it’s still possible to do quite a bit of it on limited funds as long as you’re willing to give up some other things and hunt for deals.

  • Jenna says:

    Thank you for clarifying, Jennifer!!

    That gives me the info that I needed to move forward. Maybe now I can convince mom that she *can* afford to visit the Southwest U.S. and Europe, and maybe I can convince Dad to go snorkeling in Costa Rica.

    Seriously, for 55-year olds, they haven’t seen the world at ALL. I plan to spend the next 20 years avoiding their fates!

    Thank you!


  • You don't have to be rich to travel - Smart Spending says:

    […] you afford to take so many vacations?” She’s not rich, she explains in a post at SavingAdvice.com. She knows how to prioritize and plan. “I try not be short with people when they ask me how I’m affording yet another vacation, but […]

  • Daily Roundup: Glasses, Grinches, and Great Vacations ? Get Rich Slowly says:

    […] Jennifer Derrick at Saving Advice has an article after my own heart. She describes how she takes frequent vacations on a limited budget. As you might guess, she sets goals — she doesn’t carry a lot of debt, she prioritizes […]

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