If you’re like a lot of people, you’re probably craving a summer break. But maybe you don’t want to spend the next six months paying off the airfare and other expenses.
Well, fear not! It is possible to go on an affordable trip when the weather gets warm. It just requires you to do some simple planning.
Read on and I’ll show you how.
Dream big, and then make a budget
First, imagine what you’d do if money were no object.
Spend some time envisioning the vacation of your dreams. Give yourself permission to think as big as you like. Would you spend a full year hiking solo around the U.S.? Perhaps you’d prefer to go on a month-long excursion to a tropical island with your best friends, staying in the most luxurious villa on the beach. Or maybe you’d go full Thoreau and build yourself a little cabin in the woods.
Next, look at your budget for the rest of the year.
We know things can change in an instant—you can get laid off, or promoted or hired away to a bigger position. But given your situation right now, and your plans for the rest of the year, how much can you reasonably expect to earn this year? Keep in mind, the median amount that people said they planned to spend on a summer getaway in 2018 was $1,000.
Then, carve out a realistic budget for a vacation.
You probably won’t want to blow most of your money on two weeks at Disneyland and then live the rest of the year like a pauper. What can you comfortably spend on a trip? Is one paycheck realistic? How about half of one paycheck?
Figure out what works for you, and get creative when it comes to vacationing on the cheap: Have you racked up miles or other rewards on a credit card that you can cash in for your trip? If you’re traveling by plane, can you fly on less popular days? Is an apartment or house swap an option to save on lodging costs?
Now, pick the really important stuff from your big dream vacation.
Maybe you’re looking at $1,000 and seven days versus that $10,000 month-long dream spa trip. Hey, that’s okay! This is where the fun really begins. Select the elements of your original idea that really matter.
Let’s take the example of a spa trip. What about that appeals to you? Is it the chance for envy-inducing Instagram posts from your organic mud bath? Or is it something deeper and more emotional—perhaps that feeling of being pampered and cared for? Chances are, you’re looking for a soothing, nurturing experience. And while these destinations are fabulous, you don’t need to do a week at the Sanctuary Hotel at Kiawah Island Golf Resort in South Carolina ($615+ per night in the high season) or the Spa at Mandarin Oriental in Paris ($1400+ per night in the high season) in order to get that feeling of relaxation and rejuvenation.
Travel on the cheap
Here are a just few lower-cost options to get you started.
National Park Service—We can thank a whole host of reformers and conservationists for the existence of a gorgeous network of national parks and heritage areas here in the United States. From wandering the historic National Mall and Memorial Parks in Washington, D.C. to hiking among the stunning vistas of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, to floating down the Tennessee River and contemplating local Native American cultures at Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area in northwest Alabama, there’s something to thrill you. Entrance prices vary; some parks are free while others may charge $10 to $35 per vehicle.
And five days a year, all national parks offer free entrance days.
Hostelling International (HI-USA)—With fifty hostels in twenty states, HI-USA offers plenty of options for the low-budget traveler. If your vacation plans go beyond the domestic sphere, you’re in luck—there are an estimated 4,000 hostels in participating branches in countries around the world. They may run you anywhere from $15 per night for a bunk bed to $175 a night for a private room, so check your local listings.
AirBnB—Despite some well-publicized safety concerns, as well as issues related to competition with local innkeepers and hoteliers, AirBnB remains an excellent resource for travelers on a budget. Personally, I’ve had many great experiences thanks to highly rated AirBnb hosts. On book tours, comedy tours and personal vacations, I’ve stayed in a yoga and meditation studio in Rhode Island, a tiny condo attached to a converted barn on a 200-acre ranch on California’s Central Coast, a former servant’s house built in 1911 on a magical hillside compound in Los Angeles’s Highland Park neighborhood, a beautiful one-bedroom apartment in an old Victorian home in Toronto, and many other places. I’ve also met some great people. You can spend as little as $15 to pitch a tent in someone’s back yard, or as much as…well…Beyonce has used AirBnb. I’ll just put it that way.
World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms—WWOOF is a popular hospitality service that allows travelers to obtain room and sometimes meals in exchange for work on an organic farm. WWOOF experiences vary from farm to farm and traveler to traveler, but I know people who’ve spent anywhere from a weekend to three months acquiring new sustainable agriculture skills domestically or abroad. In some cases, you’ll pay a low fee to stay the night; in other cases, your stay will be free. You may need to cover your own meals, or it may be all-inclusive.
Personally, I want to spend more time in nature this year enjoying the stunning environs of the Great American West. And having stayed in super-fancy hotels, stained-carpet motels, frigid windy campgrounds, bustling youth hostels, and the aforementioned lovely AirBnb accommodations. I have a decent idea about what’s most important to me right now. I want the feeling of being pleasantly tired and sinking into a comfortable bed into a clean, safe room after a great day of walking several miles around in nature.
National parks, here I come!
My next destination is most likely Sequoia National Park, about four hours north of my home in Los Angeles. I can use my hotel reward points for a few nights at one hotel or at a series of motels at different entry points to the park. I can set my email away message, take my social media apps off my phone, do some day hikes, take photos, eat and write or read in low-cost restaurants, and meditate in nature.
One of my credit cards is offering 5% cash back on any gas station charges for a month, so I’ll use that card and then pay it off as soon as I get home. I’ll bring some snacks and food and rent a hotel refrigerator if one doesn’t come with the room. It won’t be fancy, but it’ll be my own adventure on my own terms. It should run me under $400 total for four days and three nights. And I’m looking forward to it.