April 5, 2017

How to Do Summer Vacation on a Budget

Vacation is an essential part of the summer for many of us. The weather is warm, we’ve been slaving away at work for months it seems, and we are ready for a break from the routine. And if you are one of the 15% of Americans who do not take vacations each year, why not? There are proven health benefits that come with a little “R&R”, including stress reduction, prevention of heart disease and better sleep.  Even if you take a vacation during other seasons, the biggest hurdle may not be time, but rather money. Maybe it’s not in the budget to take a two week vacation to Bali or spend a month touring through Europe, but we’ve got some suggestions on how you can still take a vacation, without taking out a second mortgage.


Nailing Down the Essentials

First things first. Decide on your budget. Knowing if you are working with “under $500” or a “couple grand” will make a difference in your planning.  You’ll also have to consider how many people you are going to vacation with. Are you taking the kids or leaving them with the grandparents? Or maybe the grandparents are coming along too!

Once you know how much and how many, then you can decide on a few more important details that will lead you down the right path to vacation fun and memories, such as:

  • Travel window – Flexibility in your travel dates can be boon when searching for the best prices on transportation and lodging.
  • Transportation – Are you planning to drive, take the train, fly, take a cruise, or some combination? If you are on a really tight budget, then you may be limited to fewer transportation options.
  • What would you like to do?  – Where would you like to go? Think about what you like to do – for example, do you want to ride roller coasters, go shopping, see historical sites, or simply lay on a beach and drink piña coladas?

Vacation Ideas that Don’t Break the Bank

Planning a vacation can be almost as fun as the vacation itself.  Once you know your essentials and you know where you can be flexible, you can start looking to see what is available and when.  Here are some ideas for budget vacations to get you started.

The “Staycation”

This is a particularly appealing vacation option for folks who never seem to be home.  Do you work long hours, travel for work, or just feel that you never have time to just sit down and enjoy your comfortable sofa or backyard oasis?  Why not plan a simple “staycation” and do all the things you never have time to do during a normal work week.  Have a brunch cookout on a Tuesday, sit on your patio and read a book, take several long, hot bubble baths, cook a gourmet meal, binge watch your favorite TV shows…the list can go on and on. One catch with this one though – try to avoid doing chores and remember this is your time to sleep in, play, relax, etc.

Great for: singles, couples, families, spur of the moment, really small budgets

The Day Tripper

Be a tourist in your own city or state. Odds are there are plenty of things to see and do right in your own backyard. The beauty of this type of vacation is that you can plan multiple day trips and come back home at night to avoid paying for lodging. The only cost would be gas, food and entry fees to where ever you visit.

Great for: couples, families, spur of the moment, local travel, small budgets. Can be combined with a staycation.

The Festival and Convention-Goer

If you love chainmail, sword fighting, and food-on-a-stick, you could look around for the nearest Renaissance Festival (hint: there is a really big one in Maryland at the end of each summer). Or if you are into movies/books/gaming, maybe a city nearby is hosting a “con” related to your interests.  Then there is always the option of a short weekend at a music festival too, and summer is the season for outdoor music. These are especially great options if you have kids because there is often a lot to see and do all in one place.

Great for: couples, friends, families, advance planning, small to moderate budgets

The Long Weekend Getaway

Don’t rush! Take an extended weekend vacation at a nearby resort. Driving will save on transportation costs and there is almost always a nice resort within a few hours’ drive.  Go for the spa room with the Jacuzzi and the view. Oftentimes resorts will offer packages that allow you to bundle your stay with a spa treatment or dinner.  Also, going midweek can be a little less expensive than the weekends.

Great for: couples, friends, spur of the moment, local travel, small budgets. Can be combined with a staycation.

Roughing It

How about taking a camping trip?  Campsite fees, even during peak travel season are usually around $10-$20/night and cabin rentals are still much less than a hotel.  Make it an adventure! Visit a state or national park, cookout under the stars and hike some trails. It’s a completely different kind of vacation that gets you and your travel companions away from all the technology of the day and out into nature. This can be a great way to reset from a stressful routine. Don’t forget a nice bottle of wine to sip by the campfire!

Great for: couples, friends, families, spur of the moment, local travel, small budgets. Can be combined with a staycation.

The “Off-Season” Traveler

If you have a flexible schedule, look for the off-season or shoulder-season travel windows for your destination.  This can vary based on where you want to travel, but you can save a bundle if you can get in on the off-season pricing.

Great for: couples, friends, families, advance planning, moderate budgets

The Last Minute Traveler

Another option to travel for less is to have the flexibility to travel last minute. This is especially true for cruises and tours as the operators need to fill all the open spaces and will often discount them when the departure date grows near. The only catch, is getting there. If you are getting 50% off on a tour of Italy but the airfare is expensive then it may not be worth it.

Great for: couples, friends, spur of the moment, moderate to large budgets

The “Planned it Last Year” Vacationer

Maybe you really just want to go all out.  If you have decided that you want to go somewhere truly memorable, such as Disney World or Paris, then the best course of action to get what you want for the best price is to plan as far as in advance as possible. Still consider your dates and how flexible you can be, but booking way ahead of time will offer better prices typically than if you are only a couple months out. One thing to be sure to do, when booking travel far in advance is to consider purchasing travel insurance. This will cover you in case anything happens that will cause you to cancel your trip.

Great for: couples, friends, families, advance planning, moderate to large budgets


Additional Tips to Save


  • Pack light. If possible minimize your checked bags since the airlines charge for each one now.
  • Take the connecting flights. Often, flights are cheaper when you are willing to forego the direct flight for layovers.
  • Plan in advance and be flexible with your departure and return dates. Often you’ll find lower prices on flights when you avoid the weekends.


  • Plan your meals in advance – knowing what is available in the areas you visit will help you find the best bang for your buck.
  • Take along your own snacks and food – On road trips, bring your own food (eg. Sandwich goodies, drinks, snacks, etc.) instead of stopping at restaurants along the way.
  • Look for hotels that offer free breakfast. If not, don’t go to the hotel restaurant, they often charge a lot, find an Ihop or another breakfast place nearby instead.

Car Rentals

  • When renting a car, always get the smallest one that will fit. The smaller the car, typically the smaller the fee, but also it will save you on gas.
  • Try to return the car to the same place you picked it up from. More often than not, there is a fee added on to your rental bill when you return a car to a different location than where you picked it up.
  • Check with your insurance company and/or credit card company to see if they offer coverage for rental cars. If so, you won’t need to purchase insurance from the rental company.


  • Stay nearby. Sometimes you can get better hotel rates if you stay in the town next door, especially if there is an event going on.
  • Stay during the week. Weekends tend to be higher priced in most places because that is prime time for getaways.
  • Try a suite. If you are traveling with family and need more than one room, sometimes you can save by getting a suite instead of paying for multiple rooms.


It also never hurts to touch base with a travel agent, especially when looking for last minute deals. You can certainly do the legwork yourself, but if you don’t have time, a travel agent will know where to look for you.  There are a lot of resources available however, when doing your own research and we’ve listed some of those in the references below.

The most important thing, when thinking about vacation is to reduce stress, not create it. So understanding what you want and what you have to work with helps to keep everything in perspective. Take a vacation. It doesn’t matter the size, as long as you enjoy yourself make a few great memories.



By The Numbers: The American Vacation:


4 Scientific Reasons Vacation is Good for You:


Travel Budget Calculator:


8 Great Alternative Budget Travel Ideas:


Off-Season Travel:


20 Money Saving Travel Tips:


Things to Do in Virginia:


Destination Ideas for Budget Travelers:


50 Ways to Budget Travel


29 Super Affordable Vacation Rental Destinations