We're just returned from a nice (and I'd like to think well deserved) family vacation. It's a rare occurrence but careful savings, planning and judicious use of my allowed vacation days permitted it. I formulated some cost saving tips along the way and present them here for you.
1. Look for discount programs
During the course of our trip, I was struck by the cost of some of the historical sites we toured. I fully understood the need to charge admission to preserve and maintain services at these sites, but it was still a bit of sticker shock. Fortunately, at the second site we visited (where I made some comment on the cost) the cashier informed me that my passes could earn me a face value discount on a "family heritage membership". This was basically a free pass once paid ($65) to all other Michigan historical Park sites. It saved us $30 something on the last day there when we didn't have to pay a cent to enter a fort for a 4 hour tour. Wherever you're headed on vacation, check into group rates, multi-site rates like this, or other discounts. Our Sam's Club membership got me 5% off at our hotel too, which worked out to maybe $25.
2. Use GasBuddy.com
Knowing where the cheaper gas was told me when to fill up, when to take a partial fill up and when to let the tank run a bit lower. Carefully checking our map for distances we would travel, understanding our MPG and where the cheaper gas was allowed us to save some money. I only got hosed when returning the SUV we borrowed - I wanted to turn it in with a full tank and gas was $3.99 nearby. But the rest of the time, we got gas for $3.49 to $3.69 which was $.32 / gal lower than what we saw at worst. I would guess we saved close to $60 with this.
3. Watch out for summer rates
Peak rates at hotels and restaurants seem to be designed to make maximum profit for the businesses and provide normal service to you. We learned quickly to drive 19 minutes down the road to a less trendy destination to buy Subway sandwiches and make two meals out of them rather than eat a $50 dinner at a restaurant in town. I even tried going low key to a Family Diner and wound up with a $60 tab. Popular vacation destinations KNOW they are popular and stand ready to avail themselves of your vacation dollars. So - take a cooler, buy ice and pack in as much food as you can for cheap. Eat out of your ice box and save $150.
4. Stay with friends or family
We used my folks house as a bookend base camp to our vacation, spending 4 nights with them and 3 in a hotel. This saved us 4 nights of rental which I was able to partially use to upgrade us to a beach front view. Showing up last minute without a reservation to town crammed with partially filled hotels also enabled us to save $60 on our first night as all they had was a suite. They gave me the next lowest room rate when I mentioned the price was more than I wanted to pay. I would normally pay $89 to $110 for a modest two queen unit for my family of four for 7 nights, which would usually work out to $500 - $770 a week for hotel. We spent $547, saving maybe $230 by taking advantage of the folks (I did buy my dad lunch and bring them some fudge!).
So, last year, I spent $2200 on our family vacation through Kentucky. That's a lot of change, but it was totally in hotels, restaurants and a destination a day. This year we did the same program for about 4 days and three nights with lots of time spent with family on either end and I figure we spent about $1200, saving me $1000 over last year. With the tips above, I can track for sure a savings of $495 over doing things the same way we did last year. I guess the difference is in the different destination and some things I'm not tracking to the penny above.
So - if you haven't had a vacation in a while, take these tips in hand and maybe you can enjoy a relaxing week away for less!