Maybe you’re ready for a vacation but your bank account disagrees. It’s a common problem; the average cost of an annual vacation is $4,580 for a family of four. Ouch!
Fortunately there are some less-expensive alternatives to traditional vacations. In fact, some vacations may even save you money versus continuing with your normal daily routine. That’s like getting paid to take a break!
The following cheap vacation ideas include suggestions on where to go, what to do, and how to reduce or eliminate some of the expenses associated with taking a vacation.
1. Take a Staycation
The idea is simple enough. Instead of stressing over plane tickets and rental cars (and how to pay for them), you just stay home. Or you at least spend your nights at home while you limit your travels to places nearby. Since most of the expense of the average vacation is found in transportation and lodging, you’ll save a lot money by staying close to home.
What can you do your staycation? Here are some possibilities…
Go to the Beach
In the U.S. 39% of people live in a county on the coast, and that doesn’t include the millions living adjacent to the Great Lakes, which are basically inland seas. Other lakes can be found near most cities. So put on your bathing suit, pack a picnic, and head for the beach.
Be a Tourist
Visit local attractions that you’ve been meaning to see, or haven’t seen in years. Check online for a reminder of tourist attractions that are no more than a two-hour drive away. And then, of course, choose the ones that are not expensive.
Have a Party
Maybe it’s time to have all your friends over for a backyard party. Or meet everybody at a park and bring music. Make it a potluck meal to keep it really inexpensive.
Hit the Local Trails
Take a day hike or bicycle ride on local trails. There are probably miles of hiking and biking trails nearby that you haven’t yet checked out. In winter many of those become cross-country ski trails (and if you don’t have any skis maybe you can borrow a friend’s).
Want to take a vacation that costs nothing and even saves you money? Use paid vacation time to relax at home. Without job-related commuting expenses (or lunches out), you’ll probably spend less than you do during an ordinary work week. You can catch up on your reading, binge-watch Netflix, write poetry, or do anything you normally don’t have time to do.
2. Go Camping
Camping can be very expensive or very inexpensive depending on how you do it. Here are some tips for keeping it cheap…
Stay Close to Home
Traveling long distances costs money, so look for interesting places to camp that you can drive to in three hours or less.
Use What You Have
Camp in your van, bring blankets rather than buying a sleeping bag, cook using any old pan from home. If you don’t have any equipment just make your innovative (and cheap) alternatives part of the fun.
Borrow What You Need
Use a friend’s RV or tent. Or find a rental deal on a minivan and take out the seats so you can sleep in it. Borrow a camp stove and anything else you need.
Stay in Free Campgrounds
Enter your location in the search box on FreeCampsites.net to see where you can stay for free or at minimal cost.
Bring Enough Food and Drinks
Eating out is another expensive part of a vacation, but it can be avoided if you’re careful to pack enough cheap snacks and drinks.
3. Explore Nearby Towns
My wife and I recently went to Bisbee, Arizona. It’s less than two hours from where we live, and we’ve even been there before, but this time we discovered an inexpensive mine tour that took us 1,500 feet underground.
Google all the towns within a few hours of you for a clue about which are worth visiting, or just drive without a plan and see what you discover. You can stay in cheap hotels, camp, or keep it close to home so you can sleep in your own bed each night.
Bring a camera, and bring sandwiches and drinks to keep it cheap.
4. Use Hotel Credit Cards for Free Rooms
Monday my wife and I will be staying at a Hyatt hotel in Phoenix, Arizona. The cost? Zero. We’re paying for the room with points earned on my Hyatt credit card. Between our various hotel credit cards we have enough points for another six free nights.
Here are some other credit cards that you can use to earn free hotel nights:
Most of the time these cards offer a signup bonus if you spend a certain amount. For example, when you spend $2,000 on your Hyatt card within 3 months of the account opening date you get two free hotel nights.
To earn more free nights use your cards for everyday expenditures or try a little manufactured spending.
5. Use Airline Credit Cards for Free Flights
In a few weeks I’ll be flying to Michigan for a short vacation. The ticket cost me $11.60, which was really just some extra charge. The fare was covered by points from my Southwest Rapid Rewards card. Most airline credit cards, like hotel cards, offer signup bonuses. Here are a few of your options:
As with hotel cards, some airline cards are free and some have an annual fee. To keep it cheap use your bonus and other points the first year, and then cancel the card before the next annual fee is due.
6. Take a Bicycle Trip
Cycling holidays in Europe are common, and they’ll probably become more common here in the states. But having a tour arranged for you can be expensive.
Instead, just choose a destination or two and do a search online to string together enough inexpensive hotels for your nightly stops.
Bicycling is a way to really see (and smell and hear) the countryside. With a few weekend practice runs you can probably bicycle more than 30 miles per day. Whatever your limit is, just plan it so none of your hotels are farther apart than that.
Contrary to popular belief (and manufacturers’ marketing), you don’t need an expensive bicycle. I’ve traveled 30 to 90 miles in a day on bicycles that cost less than $100 new (but to be honest, if you spend $200 for a used higher-quality bike it will be much more comfortable).
Bicycle racks and panniers start at under $20 and $30 respectively at Walmart. You can carry the rest of your stuff in a small day pack.
7. Try a New Activity
If you just want to do something new and interesting while on vacation you don’t need to travel far or spend much. Here are some inexpensive new activities to try…
- Buy a used metal detector (try Craigslist) and go treasure hunting at local beaches.
- Go to “Urban Exploration Resource” and click on the name of your state to find old buildings, tunnels, military bases and other places to explore.
- Use the searchable map on FallingFruit.org to find places where you can forage for edible plants.
- Find the closest river where they rent tubes and float downstream all afternoon.
- Buy a helmet and a few flashlights and use the Cave Atlas to find the nearest places you can go spelunking for free (bring a friend for safety).
- Buy a handheld GPS unit and open a free account on Geocaching.com to find geocache locations you can hunt for.
8. Watch for Special Deals
Some of the more-traditional vacations can be inexpensive if you shop for deals. For example, checking the cheap cruise page on Cruise Critic just now I see a four-night cruise out of Miami for $199 per person, and several others for close to that price.
If you want to fly cheap watch for Southwest Airlines sales, when roundtrip airfare can be under $100 to some locations. If you have flexibility with your vacation time use their low fare calendar search to find the best prices.
Some casino boats offer cheap day cruises. For example, in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina you can go out to sea for over 5 hours on the Big M Casino boat for $30. That includes an all-you-can eat buffet (it’s $20 without the buffet).
My wife and I did this with a half-price coupon in Florida (Big M used to be based in Fort Myers Beach). We spent perhaps another $5 in the nickel slot machines. If you don’t live near one of these cruises you search for a great last-minute flight/hotel deal and take the cruise daily. Four or five days of fun could cost you just a few hundred dollars.
9. Be a House Sitter
House sitting provides a way to travel without paying for expensive lodging. For example, world travelers Dalene and Pete Heck say house sitting is their primary accommodation arrangement, which has saved them $30,000 in their travels.
Usually you get a free place to stay in exchange for watching the home, watering the plants, etc. Sometimes you’ll have to pay something toward utilities. On the other hand, sometimes you might even get paid for your “duties.” That’s right; you can get paid to vacation in beautiful homes in interesting locations.
Of course for short vacations it can be tricky to find house-sitting jobs that are the right duration and on the right dates. This strategy works best if you have flexible vacation scheduling, so you can first line up the gig and then take the days off that you need.
10. Time Your Vacation to Reduce Income Loss
Almost a quarter of workers get no paid vacation time. If that includes you, or you’ve already used up your paid time, another vacation may mean lost income. That could be the biggest “cost” of your vacation, so it’s worth considering how you can reduce it.
One way to avoid lost income is to take a vacation only when you wouldn’t be working anyhow. For example, a Monday holiday combined with the weekend gives you three days off.
If you have flexibility in scheduling you can arrange for longer periods of time off without losing any wages. For example, if you worked four ten-hour days at the start of a payroll week and did the same at the end of the next payroll week, you would have six days free and not lose any income.
If you do have some paid vacation time, how you schedule your plans makes a difference. For example, if you have a week of paid time off, use it during a week that’s followed by a holiday Monday. That way, with the two weekends, you’ll have a total of 10 days off.
If you have flexible scheduling work the last four days (10 hour shifts) of the pay week when you return. That way you can turn a week’s paid vacation into 12 days off.
What’s the cheapest vacation you’ve taken? Tell us below, and keep on frugaling!