How can I save money on popular summer vacation ideas?
Are you planning your next summer vacation yet? Even if you’re just back from a much-needed break, it’s never too early to start thinking about the next escape.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans spend about 3% of their total household expenditures on travel. At 44% of the total, transportation costs account for the largest travel expense category followed by sustenance and lodging at 23% each. That’s why determining whether it’s cheaper to fly or drive is so crucial. The right call could shave hundreds off the total cost of your trip.
Plenty of other cost-related considerations abound too. If you’re looking for reliable ways to save on your next summer vacation, keep this comprehensive list of cost-cutting tactics for popular types of vacation close at hand.
1. How to Save on a Camping Weekend
As glamping resorts multiply across North America, camping is no longer synonymous with roughing it outdoors. If you can afford to shell out $950 and up per night at Montana’s famous Ranch at Rock Creek, go for it.
But if you’re budgeting obsessively, as most would-be campers are, go the traditional route. There’s nothing quite like pitching your own tent before cooking a calorie-dense dinner, enjoying a long summer sunset, and spending an hour or two struggling to identify all the constellations you can’t even see back in the city.
Follow these money-saving tips to save big on your next weekend camping trip. The overarching theme here: Keep it simple.
Stay Close to Home
One of the best camping trips I’ve ever taken was a quick Fourth of July weekend excursion to a lakeside spread less than an hour from my house. The trip used less than a quarter-tank of gas, about $6 worth.
No matter where you live, you can almost certainly find a rustic campground nearby. That’s perfect for a two-day weekend and short enough that the lack of modern facilities and creature comforts won’t wear on you.
Glamping is certainly glamorous. It’s also needlessly expensive. At resorts with glamping cabins and lodge rooms, glampers invariably pay a novelty and privacy surcharge.
Look for Free Campsites
Free campgrounds are out there, though many sit on protected state or federal lands that charge daily or weekly entry fees.
Check Free Campsites, a crowdsourced database of free and cheap campsites in North America, for options near you. Or check with your state department of natural resources. Free campsites are almost invariably primitive, and many are hike-in, but that’s a small price to pay for complimentary lodgings.
Why pay for running water and electric hookups? Primitive campsites, especially backcountry sites without road access, are almost always cheaper than improved sites fit for camper vans and RVs.
If you’re worried about access to potable water, look for sites near a natural water source and pack plenty of iodine tablets (about $8 for 50 tabs at Amazon) or boil surface water thoroughly (15 minutes) before use.
Brings Lots of Nonperishable Food
Pack lots of calorie-dense, nonperishable food that doesn’t require cooking or heating. That means standbys like trail mix, energy bars, and peanut butter sandwich fixings.
Rent Your Tent
If you’re not an avid camper, rent a tent and rain fly rather than buying one new or used. A decent tent rental shouldn’t set you back more than $30 or $40 for a weekend, though you have to pay more for a waterproof setup.
On car camping trips, regular bedding and a roll-up sleeping pad should suffice. If you’re hiking in, you need a lightweight sleeping bag that can fit in your backpack.
2. How to Save on a Long Weekend House Rental
If you want to get away but aren’t sure about the whole camping thing, consider renting a house or apartment in a vacation town or major metro area. Or both: My all-time favorite house rental remains a beachfront condo on San Diego’s Mission Beach.
With multiple bedrooms and full kitchens, larger vacation houses are ideal for big groups, such as family reunions, destination bachelor parties, or extended birthday celebrations. And like campsites, they’re everywhere. That means less time and money for travel and more for fun.
Your long weekend at the cabin or beach house doesn’t have to be perfect. With a few tweaks to your itinerary and a compromise here or there, you can save more than you think on your vacation rental from peer-to-peer home rental sites like Airbnb and VRBO.
Travel With a Larger Group
An extra person or two in your crew can ease the financial burden of a long weekend away. Shoot for maximum capacity. If your Airbnb host says the house sleeps eight, find seven traveling companions. If you can’t scrounge up a big enough group, look for a smaller place.
Compromise on Location
Who says you have to stay right on the beach? Go a mile or so in from the beach, lakeshore, or mountainside. There are cheaper rentals there, guaranteed. And it’s still just a long walk or short drive from the center of the action.
Max out (or ever-so-slightly exceed) your rental’s advertised capacity by fully utilizing all available sleeping space. If that means some guests have to take turns on the floor, so be it. They’ll be back in their own beds soon enough.
Cook Meals at Home
Choose a rental with a functional kitchen, then plan meals and divvy up cooking and cleaning responsibilities with a master spreadsheet. In my experience, two meals per day — brunch and dinner — is enough.
Buy bulk snacks to tide guests over between meals. Split costs evenly. If you’re in a smaller group or traveling with your significant other, the same logic applies. You’ll just have to cook every meal.
Carpooling to and from your rental house reduces each guest’s share of unavoidable driving costs: gas, tolls, vehicle wear and tear. In busy destinations, particularly beach towns on cramped barrier islands, carpooling is a virtual necessity due to strict parking restrictions.
3. How to Save on a Resort Vacation
“Resort” is a broad, almost meaningless category encompassing everything from impossibly luxurious all-inclusive honeymoon destinations to private rustic campgrounds with on-site amenities and recreation equipment. While the typical resort is in a rural setting in or near an outdoor adventure vacation, urban and near-urban resorts abound too, especially in Sun Belt cities like Phoenix and San Diego.
More variety means more opportunities to save. Just watch out for minimum stay requirements. Plenty of resorts have them. And pay close attention to properties’ personalities and amenities. Dude ranches and adults-only honeymoon spots both qualify as resorts, but they couldn’t be more different in practice.
The ideal way to plan a resort vacation is to pick a destination, duration, and theme, and work backward from there. Keep that in mind as you try out these other tips to save on a resort vacation.
Apply for a Travel Rewards Credit Card
A travel credit card is a worthy addition to any regular traveler’s wallet, but it really shines on pricier trips involving high-end hotels and long-distance flights. Premium travel cards have rewards rates north of 1.5% with value-added perks and credits that further sweeten the pot.
Check out our roundup of the best travel rewards credit cards on the market for ideas.
Look for More Rustic Properties
Tempting as they appear, look beyond resort amenities and evaluate the destination as a whole. What attractions are on the way? What can you do in the surrounding countryside? Are there any quirky towns to explore nearby? Can you survive without every amenity imaginable?
One of my all-time favorite resorts is a decidedly rustic spot in far northern Minnesota just across a mile-wide lake from Canada. It’s basically a glorified campground with stuff like nonmotorized watercraft available for rent, but the setting couldn’t be more beautiful. And the lack of air conditioning is rarely a problem so far north.
Avoid Pricey Add-Ons
Unless they’re the primary reason for your trip or included in your nightly rate, skip pricey extras like spa treatments, private dinners, and guided horseback or ATV tours. Partake in free or cheap outdoor activities instead, or just relax on the porch or by the pool with a book.
4. How to Save on a City Weekend
Whether you’re sticking around for a staycation in your hometown, driving or taking the train into the nearest major city, or jetting across the continent to a metropolitan destination you’ve had your eye on for some time, there’s no better time for summer travel than a sunny weekend.
Urban digs are generally more expensive than rustic campgrounds, but that doesn’t mean your city getaway has to cost a ton of money. Save on lodging and restaurant meals by skipping the 4- and 5-star hotels and heading to out-of-the-way motels or cozy short-term rentals with well-equipped kitchens and easy access to public transit.
Look for free and cheap things to do around town. And use Yelp or Facebook to find cheap hot spots popular with locals. You’ll get a better feel for your temporary home at such places anyway.
These tried-and-true strategies work wonders for cost-conscious urban travelers. Use them whenever you hit the town for a weekend (or longer).
Stay in a Hostel
Hostels aren’t as popular in North America as in other parts of the world, but they’re out there, especially in big cities like New York and Chicago. Dorm-style hostel accommodations — four to eight people per room — shouldn’t cost more than $20 to $30 per night in most cities.
Rent an Apartment or Condo
If you want more privacy than a basic hostel room can provide, look for an apartment or condo rental. Cast your net outside your destination’s central business district and avoid trendy neighborhoods to avoid the convenience premium. And check local short-term rental regulations before you book, as some cities frown upon or outright ban them.
Leave the Car at Home
Avoid driving into the city unless you’re confident you can find long-term street parking. If you live within commuting distance, take the train or bus instead. If you live more than a few hours’ drive from the city, look for a flight with a lower price and arrange ground transportation from the airport, or drive to a suburban commuter station and take a bus or train into the city center. Once you’re in town, use public transportation to get around.
Find Off-Season Deals
Summer is the high season in most North American cities, but the exceptions are plentiful enough to keep things interesting. The script flips in Sun Belt cities like Las Vegas and Miami, where low airfare and hotel rates take the edge off the oppressive heat. I spent shockingly little on a recent midsummer trip to Phoenix and lived to tell about it.
Use the General Services Administration’s per-diem chart to get a rough sense of your potential off-season savings in hot destinations.
Prepurchase a Discount Attractions Pass
Don’t pay full-price admission at any popular attractions without first looking into local discount passes. CityPass and Smart Destinations are the two most popular discounters in the United States, each with more than a dozen major cities in their stables and potential savings north of 50%.
Also check that city’s Groupon deals to save on activities, such as waterparks and concerts, and food from local restaurants you can’t find back home. For more information, read our Groupon review.
5. How to Save on a Regional Road Trip
The quintessential American road trip is a multi-week affair, but who has that kind of time these days? You can pack plenty of sights and weird, unexpected roadside experiences into an extended weekend without going halfway across the continent.
Start by deciding your road trip’s parameters: travel dates, destinations, and general route. One of the most significant decisions you need to make is whether to retrace your route on the way back, drive a circuit, or do a one-way drive with a rented car and return by one-way flight. Once the broad strokes are in place, it’s time for the fun part: filling in your itinerary.
Like a short-and-sweet camping trip or city weekend, road trips measured in days rather than weeks are best kept simple. Follow these tips, and your trip might not be glamorous, but it’ll still produce lasting memories.
Avoid Luxurious Hotels and Resorts
When your top priority is getting enough sleep to drive safely to your next destination, it doesn’t matter where you stay. Roadside motels work just fine. Book ahead for the best rates. Even at bare-bones motels, walk-in prices can be shocking.
Stay Outside Major City Centers
Big cities make excellent road trip destinations, but it’s usually more expensive to stay in the middle of the action. Unless you plan to stick around for a couple of nights, set up shop in a cheap suburban motel or hotel and drive or take public transit downtown.
Use a Fuel-Efficient Car
On trips covering hundreds or thousands of miles, fuel economy makes a big difference. A subcompact car that gets 40 mpg on the highway is two and a half times more efficient than a truck or SUV with a 15-mpg highway rating.
If cargo or towing capacity isn’t an issue, look for a fuel-efficient car rental for the duration of your high-mileage trip, as dramatically lower fuel costs can more than offset your rental charges.
Bring Camping Gear and Cookware
Roadside campgrounds are even cheaper than roadside motels. You don’t have to sleep under the stars every night, but it’s nice to have the option. Bring camp-appropriate cookware if you do plan to bed out in the open air.
Hit Touristy Attractions on the Way Through
Avoid staying at or near super-popular or pricey attractions, such as Napa wineries, world-renowned theme parks, or signature national parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone. Plan to hit them midway through a daily drive instead.
Driving slower is easier said than done but definitely worthwhile. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, every 5 mph driven over 50 mph increases fuel costs by the equivalent of $0.22 per gallon. At an average freeway speed of 75 mph, that’s an extra $1.10 per gallon.
Use a Gas or Cash-Back Credit Card
6. How to Save on a Long-Distance Hike
North America is blessed with some of the world’s best long-distance hiking trails. Many are located within easy reach of major metropolitan areas: For instance, the famed Appalachian Trail passes within an hour’s drive of New York City and not much farther from Washington, D.C.
Whether you’re in peak physical condition or just starting to train, a long-distance hike is a perfect fitness vacation. And it’s cheap. A DIY long-distance hike’s daily cost is on par with a camping trip’s, assuming you’re not walking out of the woods and into modern hotels every night. And these tips can further reduce your costs.
Do an Out-and-Back or Circuit Hike
Ending up where you started reduces travel costs to and from the trailhead — dramatically if your endpoint is farther from your home than your starting point. On an out-and-back or circuit hike, you don’t have to worry about renting a second vehicle to get back after the hike. Even if you have two cars to spare, ending where you started ensures you don’t have to budget for added fuel expenses.
Get a Ride to the Trailhead
There’s no time like the present to cash in a favor with a friend or family member by asking for a ride to the trailhead, saving the expense of a rental car or second tank of gas. Or you can use a reputable hiker shuttle service. WhiteBlaze has a fantastic shuttle directory for Appalachian Trail hikers, for example.
On routes traversing populated areas, the temptation to gorge at the nearest greasy spoon is intense. Try to resist it. Instead, pack as much nonperishable food as possible, restocking at grocery stores or park canteens along the way. If you can manage the extra bulk, bring lightweight camp-cooking implements for variety. Remember to eat fresh fruits and vegetables whenever available (or dried fruits and veggies if not). The health benefits are worth the added cost.
7. How to Save on a Long-Distance Bike Ride
Like a long-distance hike, a long-distance bike ride is an excellent way to get in shape and get fresh air without breaking the bank. It covers a fair bit more ground too: 14 to 16 miles per hour is a decent pace on flat ground.
In terms of comfort and amenities, not all long-distance bike rides are created equal. Spend $50 to $100 per day for a charter or guided ride, and you can forget about carrying your own stuff or making your own meals. Double that daily cost to enjoy a roof over your head (hopefully with air conditioning) every night.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, a DIY long-distance ride from rustic campground to rustic campground costs next to nothing.
Like long-distance hikes, multiday bike rides are relatively easy to do on the cheap if you own your own ride, though you can still save money if you need one. On the ride itself, take care to trim your lodging costs and avoid paying for things you can do yourself, like towing your own bags.
Reduce the Cost of Your New or Replacement Bike
New high-end bikes can be surprisingly expensive. If you enjoy biking and hope to make long-distance riding a regular thing, you may need to upgrade your ride (or buy one in the first place if you don’t already have a bike). In that case, do whatever you can to save money on your new bike, including shopping during sale season (autumn) and seeking out gently used secondhand bikes.
If you’re not ready to commit to biking frequently enough to justify a purchase, rent a bike on a digital marketplace like Spinlister.
Learn Basic Bike Repair and Maintenance
It’s not as daunting as it appears. Keeping your bike clean and well-oiled can significantly reduce long-term ownership costs. So can arming yourself with basic DIY repair skills.
Purchase a multi-tool bike repair kit for less than $20 and common spares (a tube and chain should set you back less than $30 total) and save yourself the hassle and expense of finding a bike repair shop on the road.
Plan Showers and Laundry in Advance
On organized rides, you’ll likely have access to shower trucks, community centers with shower facilities, or high school gymnasiums. Most charge for shower use: $5 to $8 per shower is common in my experience. Look for the lowest-cost providers in advance. On DIY rides, you may be able to find showers at public facilities for free. Look them up in advance and connect with someone in charge to let them know when you’ll be coming through.
Avoid Pricey Charters or Guided Rides
Skip the pricey charter (catered service and bag transport on organized rides) or guided ride (smaller self-contained rides with planned itineraries, catering, and bag transport). The cost of both can easily exceed $500 per person per week.
On organized rides, pay the registration fee — usually not more than $200 per week. If the ride organizer doesn’t offer free bag transportation, get a bike trailer or pull-cart to carry your tent and bedding, equipment, food, and clothing. Expect to pay about $100 for a folding cart.
Camp Out Wherever Possible
Some organized bike rides are comparatively luxurious, with scheduled stops at 3- and 4-star hotels or pricey bed-and-breakfasts each night. If you’re vacationing on a tight budget, skip these rides (or decline comfy accommodations, if possible) and camp out. Municipal campgrounds generally charge nominal fees for overnight camping.
Devise a Waterproofing System
It only takes one downpour to ruin a long-distance bike ride. Once soaked, luggage takes days to dry (if at all). Mold and mildew inevitably follow.
Unless you’re riding through an arid region where you’re confident it won’t rain at all, take pains to waterproof your stuff. Spring for waterproof or water-resistant baggage and use a tight-fitting tarp to cover everything in your pull-cart. Remember to cover the sides and bottom too. Splash-up from the road is just as bad as rain from above.
8. How to Save on an International Backpacking Adventure
What better way to relive your youth or enjoy it for the first time than a backpacking trek in an unfamiliar part of the world?
A well-executed backpacking trip can be a life-changing experience from which your personal budget recovers in surprisingly short order. Just leave plenty of time for planning. Even on a shoestring budget, international travel is rife with special considerations and hidden pitfalls not present on the domestic front, such as language barriers, tourist scams, threats to personal and financial safety, and transportation snafus.
Use these reliable tactics to reduce your international backpacking costs. Avoiding the highest-priced countries and cities does much to reduce your net travel expenses.
Focus on Lower-Cost Countries
Europe is probably the most accessible backpacking destination for U.S.-based adventurers, but it’s not the whole story. Other regions, notably Latin America and Southeast Asia, are considerably cheaper and more inviting than Western Europe’s tourist-clogged capitals.
Cheaper adventures also await in Central and Eastern Europe, South Asia, and parts of Africa. Before you firm up your plans, check currency exchange rates and purchasing power (a measure of how far your dollars go) in each candidate destination. Prioritize the most cost-effective of the bunch.
Even in wealthy, expensive countries, rural areas tend to be cheaper than urban centers. That’s especially true in wide-open places like Australia and New Zealand, where rural backpacking is relatively safe and stunningly beautiful.
A good friend of mine spent a month hiking and biking the spine of New Zealand while in college, spending shockingly little along the way. If you can fit a lightweight tent in your luggage, you’ll save a bundle on lodging costs.
Stay in Hostels
Where camping isn’t feasible, as in most large foreign cities, hostels abound. If you’re comfortable sharing a bunk room with multiple strangers, you shouldn’t have to pay more than $20 or $30 per night at a basic hostel, even in touristy European capitals.
Patiently Search for the Best Airfare Deals
Start searching for affordable flights early, and don’t pull the trigger until you’re reasonably confident you’re getting a good deal. Use online travel aggregators’ price alert tools (I’m partial to Kayak‘s) to find new deals as soon as they’re available.
Sign up for a free travel-deals newsletter like Scott’s Cheap Flights. When possible, utilize more advanced travel hacks, such as hidden-city itineraries via Skiplagged or last-minute hotel rooms via HotelTonight. And sign up for every free travel loyalty program you can. Those earned miles eventually pay off.
Get a Rail Pass
In regions with good rail service, get a multiday rail pass that offers extensive or unlimited rail travel at a fixed rate. Eurail is the market leader in continental Europe, but there are plenty of other legitimate options out there.
Cook as Many Meals as You Can
Cooking your own meals on the road is feasible even if you don’t have a private apartment to yourself. Most hostels have communal kitchens, where group (or solo) meals provide prime opportunities to mix, mingle, and save money. Just clearly label any food you leave in a public refrigerator.
Learn to Love Street Food
If you aren’t up for home-cooking in a hostel or short-term rental to save money on food, embrace the next-best thing: street food. In some parts of the world, especially Southeast Asia, street food is remarkably cheap — a better deal than cooking at home in most cases.
When we visited Thailand, my wife and I almost exclusively ate street food, spending as little as $2 to $3 to feed both of us filling meals. And no, we never got sick.
At one time or another, I’ve done most of the vacation ideas on this list during the summer months. I just need to complete a true long-distance hike to satisfy my warm-weather bucket list. Each trip has brought new lessons about getting around on the cheap and protecting my vacation fund for future adventures.
In addition to using tips to save you money, take common-sense measures to reduce your risk of theft while traveling (especially abroad, where recourse might not be as robust as in the U.S.) and protect your investment in the journey itself by purchasing travel insurance.