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Spring Break on a Budget – 12 Trip Ideas & Tips for a Cheap Vacation

Getting away for spring break isn’t cheap. A weeklong vacation in the United States costs $1,572 per traveler, according to a Budget Your Trip analysis of real travelers’ trip expenses (read about the site’s methodology for more info). That’s about $225 per night per individual, or about $450 per night per couple.

That’s a lot of money, especially if you’re a college student already living on ramen and instant mac and cheese.

Unfortunately, there’s a limit to how little you can spend on a safe, fun spring break vacation. But if you’re mindful about how you allocate money and plan your adventures carefully, it’s possible to pay less than $225 per night each for the memories.

Tips for an Affordable Spring Break Trip

No matter where you go for spring break — be it California, Cancun, Colorado, or the Caribbean — keep these general cost-cutting tips in mind.

1. Stay With a Group

For many, spring break is synonymous with hitting the road (or beach) with friends. If you prefer to unwind at your own pace or need space during the day, that’s fine too.

But doubling or tripling up with people you know and trust in a beachfront hotel room reduces that room’s cost by a factor of two or three, respectively, which can mean the difference between bedding down within sight of the water’s edge and staying across town.

2. Look for Economical, Low-Cost Rental Cars

Even if the advertised per-day price seems reasonable, the cost of renting a car on vacation can quickly become prohibitive. Over a weeklong trip, a rented car can easily add $200 or more to the cost of your vacation.

For example, in San Diego, early spring 2021 car rentals from on-airport vendors (a quick shuttle ride from the airport terminal) start around $25 on Hotwire, or about $200 for seven days after taxes and fees — not including the cost of gas and pay parking.

Unwanted surprises at the rental kiosk, including hidden fees and mileage charges, further increase the total cost of renting a car on spring break. And heaven forbid you forget to top off your tank before returning the car. Most rental car companies charge between $5 and $10 per gallon for the “convenience” of returning your car without a full tank.

Of course, if your itinerary involves sightseeing without public transit as an option, you might have no choice but to rent a car. In that case, use a comprehensive tool like Kayak or Hotwire to sort through location-specific offers from multiple car companies quickly. Unless you’re taking a family vacation or vacationing with a big group of friends, stick with the smallest vehicle you can comfortably fit in, even if it’s a bit smaller than you’re used to.

Alternatively, ask the rental kiosk attendant if they’re offering deals on any specific models or vehicle types. When faced with a local glut of larger vehicles, such as minivans, rental car companies might slash rates on them to encourage turnover.

3. Use Available Public Transit

If you’re planning to stay in a bigger city with practical public transportation, consider skipping the car rental and using local buses, trolleys, and trains. Many tourist-friendly towns offer short-term transit passes that significantly reduce the face value of each ride.

For instance, San Diego offers daily public transportation passes that cost $6 for unlimited rides on local buses and streetcars throughout San Diego County. If you plan to ride the bus or trolley more than three times, these passes are cheaper than buying individual fares for each ride at $2.50 a pop. And the $42 it costs for seven one-day passes is far less than the $200 to $300 you’ll likely shell out for a weeklong car rental.

And you don’t necessarily have to stay in a potentially more expensive central district to enjoy the benefits of public transit. In San Diego, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, affordable outlying neighborhoods often enjoy robust connections to centrally located tourist areas.

4. Take Midweek Trips if Possible

In leisure destinations, hotels specify weekend and midweek rates for a reason: It’s much harder for most people to find time to get away during the middle of a regular workweek. The gap between weekend and midweek pricing can shrink during spring break, but leisure hotels and resorts still charge more for weekend stays.

With limited vacation days, it certainly makes sense to stretch them out by taking Fridays or Mondays off and getting a head start (or delayed return) on a three-day weekend. But given the hefty premiums some hotels charge for weekend stays, that can cost you. If possible, visit these locales for two or three nights in the middle of the week.

If you’re flying to your spring break destination, midweek airfare can also be cheaper than weekend airfare, but the difference isn’t likely to be as clear-cut. Fortunately, peak air travel volumes tend to occur at the beginning (Thursday or Friday) and end (Sunday or Monday) of the weekend. If your schedule allows, plan your trip to begin and end on lower-volume days: Tuesday to Saturday, for example.

5. Avoid Well-Known Spring Break Destinations During Peak Travel Periods

Places that actively market themselves as spring break destinations — such as Florida, Hawaii, and the Dominican Republic — tend to fill up with visitors in March and April. That’s welcome news if you’re looking to mingle with other spring breakers, but it’s not ideal if your overriding motivation is controlling your trip’s cost. As demand for airfare, hotel rooms, tours, cabanas, and amenities heats up, travel vendors are only too happy to increase prices.

Vacationing in a crowded destination carries a time cost as well. Every minute you wait in line at the restaurant or theme park is a minute you’re not doing something more fun.

6. Investigate Vacation Rentals & Short-Term Housing

Staying in a well-run hotel can be a luxurious experience. But you pay for what you get at a full-service lodging facility. While it might not make sense for a romantic getaway for two, you may be able to dramatically reduce your lodging costs by staying in a vacation rental property or hostel.

For North American destinations, Vrbo and Airbnb offer a wide selection of homes, apartments, and even rooms for rent. But do your due diligence on the person you plan to rent from.

If you’re looking for an even cheaper place to rest your head, look into the website Couchsurfing, whose participants often accept in-kind payment, such as help with chores like washing dishes or cooking.

If none of this sounds appealing and you’re dead set on a proper hotel, use travel loyalty programs to lessen the financial sting. Or apply for a travel rewards credit card and start earning points to redeem for free or reduced-price nights. If you travel frequently enough to justify a cobranded hotel rewards credit card, you can extract even more value.

Pro tip: The Chase Sapphire Preferred® card and Capital One Venture Rewards credit card are excellent travel credit cards for everyday use (including non-travel purchases). Venture earns unlimited 2 miles per $1 spent on all eligible purchases, while Sapphire Preferred earns unlimited 3 points per $1 spent on eligible dining purchases and 5 points per $1 spent on eligible travel purchases made through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal.

7. Camp Out, Weather Permitting

The best lodging deals in rural locales are generally available at private or state-run campgrounds. If you don’t mind roughing it, there are plenty of these open in the months before summer’s peak camping season.

But if you’re not an avid camper, calculate the potential costs of camping safely in places where early spring nights are frosty (or downright frigid). You need a sturdy, water-resistant, seasonally appropriate camping tent and a sleeping bag rated to withstand the coldest low temperatures you expect to encounter.

Pro tip: If you enjoy camping but would prefer a more luxurious stay, try renting an RV. Sites like Outdoorsy rent everything from pop-up campers to large class A motorhomes.

8. Set Your Sights on a National Park

A leisurely road trip to a beautiful national park is a low-key alternative to a traditional spring break trip. If you already own the equipment, it’s quite a bit cheaper than a touristy beach destination too.

While national park campgrounds tend to be more expensive than state-run or private campgrounds in less exceptional settings, they’re still affordable compared to hotels and motels just outside the park gates.

For the best value, backcountry camping is invariably cheaper (and more private) than staying at drive-in campsites. The catch here is that many national parks and forests (and larger state parks and forests) require permits for backcountry camping. Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s permitting system is typical.

Check your destination park’s website well in advance of your trip to determine whether you need a permit and how to get it. And buy it as soon as you can. Waiting until the last minute risks finding passes are unavailable for your stay dates.

10. Don’t Dismiss All-Inclusive Resorts Out of Hand

For budget-conscious travelers, all-inclusive resorts aren’t just symbols of decadence. They’re also icons of wastefulness to avoid at all costs.

Many all-inclusive resorts are outrageously expensive and offer poor value. You can only return to the buffet so many times, after all. But the category has more breadth than many tourists realize.

A casual Expedia search for all-inclusive accommodations in popular spring break destination Cancun reveals plenty of properties priced above $500 per night — but plenty between $100 and $200 per night too.

So don’t dismiss all-inclusive properties out of hand. Before you book, carefully account for all the a la carte costs you’d incur with other accommodation options — such as food, drink, and resort fees — and compare those against the full price of a package deal.

11. Make Your Own Snacks & Lunches

With so much else to worry about, even the most frugal travelers fail to budget for several days of on-the-go sustenance. When you don’t have access to your home’s trusty refrigerator and pantry, your food costs can spiral rapidly.

However, there are many ways to eat inexpensively while traveling. If you’re staying in a hotel, look for a room with a minifridge, even if you have to pay a few more dollars per night. Then take an hour or two on the day you arrive to shop for cheap, healthy foods like cereal, trail mix, and sandwich supplies. When it’s time to eat, pack yourself a picnic lunch or dinner.

12. Stay Away From Full-Service Restaurants in Touristy Areas

Part of the allure of travel is the promise of novel foods. You don’t have to choose between dining at four-star restaurants and forgoing local food altogether. There’s a happy medium, and the power of the Internet can help you find it.

For starters, thanks to a growing crop of intrepid food truck operators, it’s now possible to find cheap mobile eateries in many metropolitan areas. In most major cities, you can eat at a different food truck each day and still not scratch the surface.

And each destination has plenty of inexpensive, no-frills places that also happen to make innovative creations. These eateries aren’t always the most visible or best-known establishments in town, but they shine on digital directories like Yelp and Zomato. And they’re far more affordable than full-service sit-down restaurants in tourist districts.

But when you crave a sit-down meal, look to online coupon providers such as Groupon, which offer deep, limited-time discounts at specific restaurants. You can also check with the local tourism bureau to learn about restaurants that offer unadvertised specials to tourists.

Final Word

Your vision of the best spring break trip imaginable probably has little in common with budget-friendly vacations you’ve taken in the past. An all-inclusive beach resort with plenty of amenities, a four-star hotel in the heart of Miami Beach, or a sprawling villa with 180-degree water views will cost you. And depending on where you live, reaching these destinations is also a pricey proposition.

Fortunately, you can make lasting spring break memories without draining your bank account — even if you’re set on South Beach.

Controlling your food expenses, carefully considering the true cost of a night’s stay, using public transit, and traveling on lower-volume days — these strategies and others can limit the financial fallout from this year’s spring getaway.

And that means you might find yourself in a stronger financial position when the summer travel season rolls around.

Brian Martucci writes about credit cards, banking, insurance, travel, and more. When he's not investigating time- and money-saving strategies for Money Crashers readers, you can find him exploring his favorite trails or sampling a new cuisine. Reach him on Twitter @Brian_Martucci.