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My frugal vacation, with cheesesteaks

I even found a way to make a little money.

By Donna_Freedman Oct 1, 2009 4:33AM

Some of you who read "Always budget for a carousel ride" wrote to tell me to go ahead and splurge on a cheesesteak during a trip to visit family. I grew up near Philadelphia, home of that deliciously cheesy, greasy, oniony sandwich that's impossible to duplicate elsewhere.

Turns out that the one store in my hometown offers a daily special: a 9-inch cheesesteak, small bag of chips and a can of soda for $4.59.

At that price, how could I resist? And a 9-inch cheesesteak consumed at 2 p.m. eliminated the need for supper. 

This wasn't my only frugal hack, though.

Cheap travel, free lima beans
The first cost-saver was Expedia: a $489 round-trip fare, Seattle-Houston-Philadelphia, that fit my schedule. It might have been even cheaper if I'd flown a more circuitous route at less-convenient times. But I had only one week, and didn't want it bracketed by 20-hour travel days.

Family generosity also made this trip possible. Dad picked me up at the airport, an hour away from my hometown of Fairton, N.J. My stepmother lent me her car (I kept topping off the gas tank and made sure it was full before I left), and I bunked in their spare room.

My brother, GW Fisher, took me back to the airport and wouldn't take any money for gas. He also wouldn't let me help pay for pizza they ordered one night, and he treated me to my favorite flavor of Tastykakes

My grandmother gave me a bag of lima beans she'd grown, so one night's free supper was a regional delicacy: "pole beans" in milk. (Everyone I've ever told about this dish has made realistic vomiting noises. Maybe it's a South Jersey thing. We also call our grandmothers "Mom-Mom.")

And I scavenged some plastic bags that would have been tossed out: eight or nine grocery sacks (to line my kitchen trashcan), newspaper sleeves (my sister has a dog) and four quart-size Ziplocs that had held plastic flatware at my dad's New Year's Eve party (these bags are good for, among other things, holding travel toiletries). Readers of this blog know I'm all about recycling and, yeah, extreme savings.

Smart Spending travel tip: If family or friends offer favors, accept graciously. It can mean the difference between traveling and staying put. You'd do the same for them, right? (You'd better!)

Make that layover pay
I now have a new hobby: returning Smarte Cartes for the 25-cent refund. Normally I just walk around during layovers, trying to loosen up that economy-class stiffness. But recently someone posted a blog comment about Tom Hanks in "The Terminal," so I gave it a try.

Hanks' character used the refund money to buy food. I'll save my 17 quarters for laundry day. Bonus: I also picked up dropped coins and a single crumpled dollar, for a total of $1.40 in found money

After landing at nearly 3 a.m., I decided to use Seattle public transit instead of a commercial shuttle service. The first bus wasn't until 4:52 a.m., which gave me plenty of time to brush my teeth, wash my face, comb my hair and have a snack. Not airport grub, of course, but the Ritz crackers and cheese and apple I'd brought with me. (An eight-pack of those crackers were free, incidentally: after they rang up with an incorrect price, the store manager gave them to me. So watch those supermarket scanners!) 

I scored a couple more Smarte Cartes plus a bunch of bottle caps for the My Coke Rewards program. The additional walking alleviated the swollen ankles I'd developed during the second flight.

More to the point, I would have paid $33 plus tip for the shuttle, vs. no charge for the bus (yay, student ID!). In a perfect world, the shuttle would have had me home by 4 a.m.; using public transit, I walked through my front door around 6 o'clock. Assuming a 20 percent tip, the shuttle would have cost $39.60. So I figure I paid myself $19.80 an hour to ride Metro.

And those non-swollen ankles? Priceless.

Smart Spending travel tips: Don't return Smarte Cartes to nearly full stands. You get the refund only if you can push the cart past the red line. Avoid costly airline food by bringing durable snacks like crackers and cheese, apples, protein bars or nuts.

Vacation's over, back to reality
Frugal indicators awaited me at home. My apartment was cold because I'd turned off the heat before leaving. The computer was shut down. Five shirts hung on the drying rack; a week earlier, I'd done hand laundry to kill the last hour before leaving for the airport.

And my kitchen held easy-to-cook staples: frozen fish and vegetables, eggs, bagels, potatoes, canned fruit. If I'd gone to the supermarket while hungry and travel-weary, I'd almost certainly have overbought.  Instead, I fixed simple meals and planned to shop the next day.

Smart Spending travel tip: Vacations make you indolent. Make your first couple of meals with what's on hand to get back in the frugal mindset.

I'm already looking forward to another vacation, even though that can't happen until at least mid-June. But that gives me time to save for it. Next time, I may want a cheesesteak every day.

Published Jan. 4, 2008


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