You’re dreaming of a summer vacation in an exclusive, five-star resort on a tropical island. Your balcony overlooking the pool and the ocean features a lounge chair so you can relax and enjoy that glass of wine you ordered from room service. Your days are filled with parasailing, snorkeling, and deep-sea fishing. Your beautiful resort hotel includes an on-site spa to enjoy, as well as a fitness center. In the evenings, you dine at the upscale restaurants near (or in) the resort. It’s all wonderful … until you get the bill.
While a no-holds-barred, splurge-now-and-worry-later vacation sounds great in theory, the reality is that most of us are on a budget –especially if you have kids. My kids, for example, want to spend a week at a beachfront hotel in Florida, and then a few extra days at a (very expensive!) resort hotel, while visiting various theme parks. What they will get is a budget-friendly condo that is within walking distance of the beach and no resort or theme park. But we will do plenty of snorkeling, sight-seeing, and swimming. And in the end, we’ll enjoy our budget-friendly trip to the beach – just as we always do.
It is possible to plan a vacation on a strict budget – even an almost non-existent budget. Here are some tips so you can plan a getaway that won’t break the bank:
–Skip the high-end resort. Even if you think the price is reasonable, many resort hotels charge a hidden fee. This “resort fee” is per person, so it can add up quickly. If you plan to stay at a resort hotel, ask if they charge this fee – it won’t be included in the room rate. The fee is mandatory, but resort hotels get around the higher prices they have to charge by advertising their rooms at lower rates, then adding the fee at check-out.
–Consider camping! There are some amazing beachfront campgrounds. Myrtle Beach, South Carolina has a state park with private beach access, bike trails, a gift shop, and more. St. Joseph Peninsula State Park in Cape San Blas, Florida (near Panama City) offers sugar sand beaches and amazing sunsets. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo, Florida offers some of the most amazing snorkeling and scuba-diving among coral reefs anywhere in the world – complete with a 30-foot underwater statue. Camping is a far cry from that five-star resort hotel, to be sure – but most campgrounds offer well-prepared campsites with water and power hook-ups and bathhouses with showers. And best of all – you’ll get an amazing beach vacation for about 24 bucks a night.
–Rent a condo or house. I discovered that a major chunk of our vacation budget was being spent on food. Hotels lack kitchens, so we had to eat at a restaurant at least twice every day – that adds up fast for a family of four. We discovered that by renting a condo (try going through a site such as VRBO.com, where you rent directly from the owner) and making one trip to the grocery store, we save a major chunk of our budget by preparing meals in our rental.
–Skip the beach and head for the hills. Instead of the ocean and palm trees, how about crystal-clear lakes, rock climbing, hiking, cave exploring, whitewater rafting, and zip-lining? Travel costs are expensive, so find your nearest state or national park and spend your summer vacation closer to home. Also, many state and national parks offer gorgeous lodges for a fraction of what you’d pay for a hotel. Some great parks to visit this summer include Mammoth Cave National Park, Yosemite, Yellowstone National Park, and (of course) the Grand Canyon.
–Explore history. Forget the beaches and mountains — if neither is the right fit for your family, then how about a city-based vacation? Washington, DC has a long list of historic locations, monuments, museums, and parks – and most of them are free to visit. Other great locations include Historic Williamsburg, Virginia and St. Augustine, Florida – both of which have very reasonable hotel rates and plenty of budget-friendly activities.
--Wing it! This is actually more practical than it sounds. You can get some terrific last-minute deals – keep an eye on discount travel sites, such as Groupon.com, and be open to odd travel dates – a week away can be Wednesday to Wednesday, for example, and you'll get better rates on flights and hotels.