Vacations for the Budget Conscious
Let’s face it. You’re tired, the kind of bone-weary that makes every day a struggle. The recession has added to your plate immeasurably—every day is full of worry, double shifts or extra jobs, balancing work and family, and trying to make impossible budgetary magic happen. Vacations and other “luxuries” are often the very first things to go.
Not so fast. Taking a much-needed break from life’s stress can have physical and psychological benefits. According to Psychology Today, worrying all the time can inhibit immune system functions, which means you’re sick more often. You probably aren’t sleeping well and are eating worse, making you more prone to mood changes and clumsiness. Chronic stress can even cause cellular damage. Vacations, however, break the vicious day-to-day cycle of stress—you get a bit more sleep, eat better, laugh with family members and benefit mentally from a change of scenery.
How do you make it work? After a few months of saving, you can have a vacation budget of $1500 for two—the kiddos will have to stay home.
Let’s say you started saving today for a 4-day getaway (Thursday through Sunday) in mid-November. You can fly, drive or otherwise with a budget of $500; for flights try newer discount sites like hipmunk.com, which not only compares airlines, but also shows the cheapest prices over a 90-day period.
VACATION ONE: A CAPITAL WEEKEND GETAWAY
If you’re looking for a vacation that’s full of free activities and beautiful photo ops, Washington, D.C. is a fantastic vacation choice.
Lodging: You can stay in the heart of Downtown D.C., for about $400, breakfast included. Look for online deals at large hotels and consider the hotel’s proximity to the Metro when booking.
Transportation: The DC Metro is your best bet. Purchase a SmarTrip card before you go and preload it; you can reload it at any Metro station.
- Monuments and Museums: Most of the famous monuments are free to the public, as are all 19 of the Smithsonian museums.
- National Zoo: Go visit the Giant Pandas and a host of other animals free of charge. Beware of the difference in summer and winter hours when planning your trip.
- U.S. Capitol: With a little planning, you can get tickets for a Capitol tour, either online or from your representative—entirely free! If you can’t access a tour, you can still visit the Capitol Visitors Center.
- Rock Creek Park: The only planetarium managed by the National Park Service is at Rock Creek Park, with showings on Saturday and Sunday afternoons for free. The park also features hiking and biking trails.
VACATION TWO: TAKE A (TINY) BITE OUT OF THE BIG APPLE
While you won’t be able to full NY experience in a long weekend, you can surely have some bucket-list-worthy experiences.
Lodging: Since you’ll be spending most of your time exploring the city rather than relaxing in your room, budget-friendly accommodations in NYC focus on providing the basics—beds, baths, and luggage space. You should plan to spend at least $600, including a free breakfast.
Transportation: For $30, you can purchase an unlimited ride 7-day MetroCard, which allows unlimited rides on subways or city buses until midnight. If you’re out past midnight, you’ll want to budget for a cab.
- Central Park: Be careful—you can get lost in this 843-acre wonderland. Plan to spend some time, unless the weather is terrible, because it’s one of Manhattan’s gems. Ride the historic carousel for $3 or pay homage to John Lennon at Strawberry Fields for free.
- Times Square: Visit Times Square after dark to truly experience the neon glory of this landmark. You can shop until midnight or dine overlooking this famous square.
- The Statue of Liberty: Every visitor to NYC wants to take a look at Lady Liberty, but the tours cost a pretty penny. Instead, use the Staten Island Ferry. You won’t get as close as the paid tours, and you won’t stop, but you’ll get a chance to say hello for free!
- MOMA (Museum of Modern Art): On Friday nights from 4-8 pm, the MOMA opens to the public for free. Get there early—it gets very, very busy.
- TKTS Discount Booths: If you’re dying to see a Broadway show but can’t pay the retail price, find one of the TKTS Discount Booths throughout Manhattan. You can purchase tickets at deep discounts (20-50%) for same-day showings of Broadway and Off-Broadway performances. Be flexible—you never know what will be offered!
VACATION THREE: WHALE WATCHING IN MONTEREY, CA
A stunning stop on California’s Pacific Coast Highway, Monterey offers year-round whale watching, hiking, and historical sight seeing.
Lodging: Plan to spend about $500 on a three-night stay in Monterey, including free breakfast.
Transportation: You’re going to need a car for this trip, so if you don’t live too far away, it might be a worthwhile drive. If not, you rent a car at the Monterey Airport, with unlimited mileage, for about $175.
Budget Friendly Activities:
- 17 Mile Drive: Experience the wonders of the California coastline on this famous section of Pacific Coast Highway. It’s a toll road, so you’ll be charged about $10 for the privilege; if you stop and eat at one of the restaurants along the road, your toll charge will be validated.
- Hiking in Point Lobos State Reserve: Monterey is full of hiking trails, but this one is called the “crown jewel of the park system” because of its stunning views of the coastline. Choose easy 1- or 2-mile walks or longer day hikes. Trail maps are available.
- Fisherman’s Wharf: Eat some seafood, spot some sea lions, or board a whale watching tour (if you didn’t see enough migrating sea life on your hike at Point Lobos, hat is). A three-hour whale watching tour can cost you as little as $30 per person, with companies that have a track record for finding grey whales, killer whales, and porpoises. It’s a must-do in Monterey.
ALL-INCLUSIVE WINNER: SAIL AWAY FROM YOUR WORRIES
One of the biggest bangs for your buck, especially in the off-season, is a 3- or 4-day cruise, normally to the Bahamas or Mexico. A 4-day cruise during the off-season (and on sale) will cost about $600, for an interior room on a lower deck.
What’s Included: Your cruise package includes:
- Transportation to your ports of call
- Lodging (double occupancy)
- Food (including free 24-hour room service!)
- Entertainment (shows, comedy clubs, nightclubs, trivia/games, live music, deck parties)
- Gratuities for your room steward and wait-staff
Your cruise does NOT include:
- Alcohol. This can add up fast, so have a plan. Some cruise lines allow you to carry on alcohol, so check the rules before you go.
- Shore excursions. Buying these through the cruise can get pricey; research which ports require tours to access and which you can navigate alone.
- “Extra” entertainment (i.e. casino, Bingo, etc.)
Start planning now! With a little time and research you can plan your own ideal vacation. …and now it’s time for my vacation.
Maxime Rieman is a writer for NerdWallet, a financial literacy site that helps consumers with financial concerns ranging from pet insurance cost to budgeting for that much needed vacation