How We Vacation For $500

by Joe Plemon on June 4, 2010

A great vacation should allow you to get away, relax and have fun. For me (and I assume for you), relaxing and having fun is impossible if it isn’t affordable. This post will share some tips that Jan and I have used over the years and will conclude with the breakdown of our upcoming $500 vacation. Admittedly, we weren’t able to vacation for $500 when our four children were still at home, but we nevertheless used several of these tips even then.  And whereas we vacation in the states,  you who travel overseas can save a lot of money by learning the best way to exchange currency.  My hope is that you will find a idea or two that will help your vacation be more affordable.

Share the fun.

Rent a condo or a house and divide the cost with two, three or four families. Make sure that you have plenty of room (a separate bed and bath for each family) and count the savings. For the past few years, my wife and I have shared a huge log mansion (this link is the exact home we stayed in) with three other couples for fall getaways. Cost per night? $300 total…$75 per couple.

Save on meals.

Eating out is, for many, the biggest vacation money drain. A family of four could easily spend $120 or more a day in restaurants. But if you could cook your own meals (another reason to rent the condo or house), you are basically getting free food. Why? Because you buy those same groceries whether you are at home or on vacation. Our four couples take turns cooking supper, have lots of fun sharing the meal together and always have plenty of leftovers for lunch the next day. Do we eat out at all? Sure, but we afford it by using our entire monthly eating out budget during our one week of vacation…again sort of like free food.

Choose off season

An ocean vacation is off-season starting in the fall; a mountain vacation is normally off-season in the summer. Check and compare. Some off-season prices are discounted by as much as 50%.

Save on gasoline.

I realize that sharing a vehicle is not convenient when each family has children, but it is worth considering. We normally share with another couple, cutting our gasoline expenses in half.

Plan your shopping

You ARE going to shop. Right? Then take advantage of your shopping time by purchasing Christmas and Birthday gifts. This is money you would spend anyway, so plan your list and have fun! In the same way, you can buy clothing from money you already had budgeted for clothing. Last year Jan handed me $40 from our Clothing envelope and ordered me to buy some slacks. Using price and comfort as my criteria (style is not on my radar), I was able to find both jeans and cargo pants for under $40. My point? I used our clothing money to make my purchase; no vacation money was required.

Our $500 vacation

We (with three other couples) already have our lodge reserved for a Smoky Mountain getaway this fall. Here is the tabulation:

  • Room: 4 nights at $75 a night = $300
  • Food: We will use our normal grocery and eating out money. Vacation expense = $0
  • Gasoline: 800 miles round trip at 20 MPG @ $3/gallon divided by two families = $60
  • Shopping: Using budgeted Christmas, Gift and Clothing money, vacation expense = $0.
  • Total cost = $360

OK, I know I said we were going to have a $500 vacation. We might just go crazy, live it up and spend another $140. After all, we ARE on vacation!

Readers: In what ways have you made your vacations more affordable?  Which one tip would you share with us?

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Bucksome Boomer June 4, 2010 at 7:47 am

Joe, I would love to visit the Smoky Mountains. Great tips for an inexpensive vacation. Thanks for including my article on group vacations.

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Tom @ Canadian Finance Blog June 4, 2010 at 12:42 pm

Thanks for the mention Joe, there are some great tips here for having a cheap vacation!

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Gholmes June 4, 2010 at 4:59 pm

We do the same with 2 other families but with kids. Having group of kids made it lively and kids werent having to be entertained.

The planning of the trip was fun in itself as we get together and figure who is bringing what and the menus for the week.

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joeplemon June 4, 2010 at 5:12 pm

Gholmes,
Exactly! We never did mix it up that much (three families with kids) when ours were young, but I wish now that we would have. And yes, the planning makes it that much more fun … and the kids don’t have to be entertained!

I am assuming you rented a condo or a big house for your vacations. Right?

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Squirrelers June 4, 2010 at 10:24 pm

I like the offseason approach – you can garner some very good savings this way. Myself – I can try to save a bit with food, but I’m not too into sharing rooms with other couples, friends, etc. Shopping conscientiously for fares, hotels, etc – all can save a bundle without diluting the vacation experience. All depends on what one enjoys, I suppose

That said, I have to hand it to you – $500 is a great deal for a quality 4 night vacation, including $140 to spend on fun beyond your $360 budget.

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joeplemon June 5, 2010 at 7:07 am

Squirrelers,
Like you say, it all depends on what one enjoys. My wife and I were very skeptical about spending very much time with three other couples. I think the first time we tried this we only had a two night stay. But we had so much fun that we are now up to four nights. And really looking forward to it each year.

To make this clear: we did not share rooms with anyone. Each couple has a huge bedroom and master bathroom, so we can have some privacy when we want.

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Steven@hundredgoals.com June 5, 2010 at 9:07 am

What if I told you that I could spend less than what you are spending per day on a Hawaiian vacation (flight and hotel, since you aren’t really factoring in any other expenses)? Not to be critical of your $500 vacation but for 4 days, even at $360, I’m not sure its all that frugal. I suppose it could depend on your accomodations (though I’ll be staying in a nice hotel right on the beach in Hawaii). I spent a month on the road for about $75 a day (for 2 people) and even on that trip I felt like I was spending too much money.

All that said, you’re on vacation! Enjoy it! Travel is supposed to be fun. Even I’ve been known to splurge while out and about. ;)

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joeplemon June 5, 2010 at 9:17 am

Steven,
You have my attention! A five day, four night vacation for $360 on the beach in Hawaii sounds great! We would need a condo or house so we could do our own cooking, but if we could get travel and housing all for the same price as our Smoky Mountain getaway (and I could get my wife on a plane), I would definitely be interested.

Thanks for sharing your frugal vacation tips!

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FinancialBondage June 5, 2010 at 11:06 am

My brother and his wife seem to vacation cheap every year. Someone lets them use a condo or timeshare for a week for little or no money.

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Steven@hundredgoals.com June 5, 2010 at 2:49 pm

Well, it wouldn’t be so short of a trip, more like 2 weeks. What I meant was that as far as a per day cost, my upcoming trip to Hawaii is running me about the same as your vacation to the Smokey Mountains. That would make a great arguement for a longer vacation!!!

If you look around, there are a lot of great deals to be found. For $500 I could stick you in Costa Rica for a week, flight and room included. It just depends on what you’re willing to adapt to. As for cooking and needing a condo, many hostels provide a shared kitchen (though, like I mentioned before, it depends on what you’re willing to adapt to.)

Have a safe trip! :)

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joeplemon June 5, 2010 at 9:13 pm

@Arthur,
We have done that too. Housing becomes free…can’t get much cheaper than that!

@Steven,
You need to write a post on how to vacation exotically on the cheap.
About the time factor…my wife gets really homesick after a week, so two weeks is out of the question. One week, though, is doable. Thanks for the info.

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Steven@hundredgoals.com June 5, 2010 at 10:24 pm

I have an upcoming post about exactly that. Its called “37 Travel Tips, Tricks & Secrets for a Great Vacation” and is scheduled to drop on Hundred Goals on June 19th (unless someone picks it up for a guest post). I hope you’ll check it out!

I’ve written extensively about my travel experiences in various places around the world on my blog, though none of them are $500 or less because a lot of my travel is international. I do try to keep things cheap (sometimes I succeed, other times, not so much). I’ve written about my trips to Aruba, Germany, Iceland, Honduras and my month-long road trip around the United States.

Upcoming articles will include, of course, Hawaii and Florida (Disneyland) and I am currently making plans for Costa Rica and Nicaragua next winter.

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Alex June 6, 2010 at 4:15 pm

This is the dumbest budget I have ever seen. The fact that you do not budget money that you spend is crazy. How do you justify spending $0 shopping when in fact you do spend money? Budgeting is not amoutn labeling money in one category to another category without accounting fro the change.

So if you spend anything more on shopping for christmas gifts at any other time during the year which budget would that fall under? Vacation no chrsitmas shopping?

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joeplemon June 6, 2010 at 4:44 pm

Alex,
You miss my point. We DID budget the food money and the gift money and the clothing money. We would spend this money whether we ever take a vacation or not. If we choose to spend money we already budgeted for food or gifts or clothing while on vacation, we can budget less vacation money.

Yes, it is a bit of a bookkeeping transfer. It is just that going on vacation doesn’t mean that you need to spend a bunch of extra money. Vacationing can be affordable if you manage your over all budget well.

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Change June 21, 2010 at 9:29 pm

Agreed. I don’t think this is a very realistic budget. It may make sense for your family, but for other families that don’t already have money budgeted for said things, It’s not a $500 vacation. And, in reality, you are spending more than $500. So, to say that you are only spending $500 on vacation is a little silly.

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joeplemon June 22, 2010 at 7:29 am

Change,
Good point. My response? Other families who don’t already have money budgeted for things like food and gifts and clothing should start doing so. They could better afford their vacations by incorporating previously budgeted funds into them.

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Gholmes June 22, 2010 at 12:48 pm

@Joe we think the same, not a silly budget at all.

In Joe’s budgeting you are looking at the variable costs. What is the variable cost of the vacation $500? Eating, buying clothes, etc is fixed monthly costs in the family’s budget. You have to eat. As long as you can get out of town and not spend more on food than if you stayed home then there is no incremental cost of the vacation.

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Amanda L Grossman August 21, 2010 at 8:12 pm

Hello Joe!

Neat vacation you have planned. I think this is a great idea and would like to incorporate it into our own plans to rent one of those large beach houses right on the beach in Galveston, TX.

Thanks for the article!

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joeplemon August 23, 2010 at 11:30 am

Amanda,
I hope you enjoy renting a large beach house as much as we do. We have vacationed at Topsail Island (North Carolina coast) several times and loved it every time. Always ocean front so we can walk out of our house straight onto the beach.
Our Smoky Mountain vacation is planned for October…great for fall weather and colors.

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Thomas November 2, 2010 at 11:24 am

Great Post! Vacationing within your means makes the vacation more like a vacation especially after its over. Spend to much and you will spend the next 6 months tying to balance your credit cards regretting you ever went.

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joeplemon November 2, 2010 at 11:32 am

Thomas,
Exactly. A vacation on borrowed money is not a vacation at all; it is a recipe for stress, anguish and regret.

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