Sunday, July 25, 2010

Traveling on a Budget

One of my goals in life is NOT to be reliant on a huge paycheck. I don't want our family to ever feel like a six figure income is a NEED, because it's not. For the last two and a half years we were mostly getting by on one graduate student stipend though, so I DO like a little wiggle room to have some fun. Last summer we were very very fortunate to have a conference of Josh's happen near where his family lives and I was able to book a large lactation training in a location along the way at the perfect time to roll all of these events into one trip, plus use the money I made to fund everything. We had a fabulous time and I wrote a little bit about how we stretched that money into a 3 week road trip. Other than that, we didn't have enough income to fund a vacation budget, so we just really didn't hit the road much (unless it was to visit family or had help with the expenses) for the last few years. If the money's not there, don't spend it. Traveling will cost money, no way around it, and certain seasons in life require checking out all the cool free or cheap things in your own town rather than loading up for a road trip. That's just the way it is.

HOWEVER, now that Josh has graduated (WHOOP!) and his income almost doubled overnight, we suddenly DO have a travel budget. For now, we're setting aside $600/month for vacations. We also know our ability to travel will soon be limited by the new little girl about to join our family and the weather, so we want to stretch that money and get out as much as we can right now. So there are a few things we do to get some trips in without breaking the budget:

Road Trip: I'm not going to get into any sort of environmental argument, I'm purely talking finances here. Ever since Sedona turned 2 (which requires her to have her own seat on a plane), driving is almost always cheaper than flying for us. For long trips, I figure up our round trip gas and lodging costs, and look for the cheapest plane tickets and driving generally wins...even if you throw in extra money for wear and tear on the car. Sometimes time is an issue--a visit to see our families involves at least 6-8 days of driving time round trip, which makes flying more necessary, but if the time is there, driving is cheaper. I don't think I've ever considered flying somewhere that was within a 12 hour drive time.

Car Maintenance: I probably should be more worried about breaking down on the side of the road, but I grew up with a father who was a mechanic and we had our fair share of car trouble on trips while I was growing up. While it may have delayed us and caused frustration in the moment, it always turned out fine. I also married a guy who's proven quite competent at fixing anything that comes up and who always packs a tool kit and a maintenance manual. So, the car maintenance aspect is really all about gas mileage and not ruining the car to me. Especially with our most recent car (a 2000 Toyota Sienna), we've read a lot about how critical regular oil changes are to keeping the car running well, so we do them. Since we've purchased the car, we've driven enough to require an oil change much more frequently than every 3 months. At times, we've logged enough miles to require one every few weeks. It also important to change the air filter when it's needed and check the tires to be sure they're aired up properly. Of course, also make sure you have good tread on the tires, decent brakes, and all the fluid levels are okay.

Food: Food is a big expense on any trip. We like to eat out when we're on vacation and spend more than we typically would. Not for every meal and snack though. We generally pack a cooler and bag with plenty of our own things. On longer trips, we'll replenish at a grocery store, not a restaurant. Packing drinks, snacks and treats for the kids at home is a lot cheaper than buying it on the road. We'll often pack a lunch or the supplies to make lunch each day (usually just sandwiches and chips). If the kids are doing well, we'll eat while we drive. If we all need a break, we'll stop at a rest area and sit at a picnic table and let the kids run around a bit. It's not uncommon for us to pack a bag of powdered donuts (hey, it IS vacation, after all) for breakfast. We usually eat out for dinner unless we'll be in a campground that night.

Lodging: Speaking of campgrounds, camping is cheap. I admit, there's quite a bit of upfront cost. Josh and I accumulated our camping gear over years, usually buying the big ticket items when there were big sales or 20% off one item coupons. We didn't skimp on the big ticket items--I'd rather pay more and have it last many many years than re-buy every year. For several years, we charged everything we bought to an REI credit card and then paid off the balance each month. This earned us $200-$300 in REI dividend every year (dividend is just like a gift card). While we were on one low income, we did the same thing with a grocery store reward card to help with our daily food costs. Now we've switched to a hotel rewards card so we're earning free nights, which we're anticipating needing. I like a fancy hotel just as much as the next person, but there's a time and a place for it. If someone has agreed to keep the kids for a weekend, you can bet Josh and I will be in a fancy hotel, sleeping in and ordering room service. If we're actually on vacation, we're big fans of Country Inn and Suites, which is cheap enough to be reasonable, but has really nice beds, a pool for the kids, and has a great free hot breakfast, which saves on food costs (and besides that, if your kids are early risers, you just might get breakfast and snack time or even lunch out of the breakfast buffet). But back to camping...camping is a great way to stretch the budget. If you have an annual pass to the National or State parks that covers your entrance fee and you already have the camping gear, you can camp for about $15-$20 a night and no hotel's gonna come close to matching that. Camping also means you're likely to be away from a restaurant and probably won't be spending money on dinner. Depending on where you choose to camp, it can also double as another "attraction" to see on your way.

Choices: In the end, life is all about choices. We're thinking of taking a trip soon to a Great Wolf Lodge. The place is expensive (over $200/night), but the night's stay includes entrance to the huge indoor water park they have there. For this trip, Great Wolf is the big destination, but getting there will be easier if we stop somewhere for a night along the way. So we have a choice to make....we could stay at a typical, $80/night hotel in a random town; we could use our hotel reward points to get a hotel room free or cheap; or we could pay $15 to camp at Mt. Ranier National Park and also be adding an interesting destination into our trip. Mt. Ranier could be a trip all on it's own, but in this case, it was just an after thought...a cheap place to stay so we could better afford our main destination. We haven't made a definitive plan yet (actually, we haven't even decided for sure if we're going to's a lot of driving to cram into a weekend and we don't generally push a lot of driving hours into one day). But we have choices to make about how we want to spend our money to make the trip the most fun for us while still staying in budget.

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