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Frugal vacations: Tips the experts miss

Seemingly low-cost vacation options can have hidden cost and inconvenience. Here's what you should be aware of.

By MSN Money Partner May 30, 2012 11:29AM

This post comes from Julie Rains at partner blog Wise Bread. 


Wise Bread on MSN MoneyFrugal experts often champion certain types of vacations as great ways to save money and have loads of carefree fun. Certainly, if you are adventuresome and seasoned, enjoy surprises, and consider travel challenges as a welcome break from the mundane, then you can have a blast on the cheap nearly anywhere, anytime.


 Couple taking self-portrait in New York City (© Radius Images/Getty Images)But if you're a busy person who travels sporadically, some commonly offered recommendations with scant details can not only set you back financially, but rob you of fun. I should know, because I've made plenty of mistakes. But I can help you enjoy and save by avoiding pitfalls that the experts fail to mention for vacations that involve the following elements. (See also: "The 5 best travel reward credit cards.")


Off-season travel

Traveling in the off-season to a destination that is highly desirable in the tourist season can mean lower expenses, particularly for lodging. If you are eager to explore an area or have specific activities in mind that are doable during this time period, then such a trip can be frugal and fun.


Sometimes, though, off-season visits are disappointing. During an early spring trip to Wisconsin, my husband and I really enjoyed touring the capital city of Madison and the villages of Door County. But a ski resort that promoted a full list of amenities was a bad place to go outside of the winter months. At the time we visited, the place operated with a bare-bones staff and offered no amenities to us or the other couple staying there. We had to drive an hour or so to get food of any kind as even the resort's restaurant was closed.


Sure, the crowds are fewer in the off-season. But there are often legitimate reasons why no one visits during certain times of the year. These include:

  • Lousy weather.
  • Lack of amenities at hotels and lodges.
  • Minimal support staff or untrained staff. 
  • Closed or limited-hour restaurants.
  • Limited entertainment, recreational, and cultural activities.

Tips for enjoying off-season travel

Before you go, plan what you'd like to do and determine if those things are possible. Make phone calls to locals rather than relying solely on website information. Ask hotel managers, outfitters, retailers, and restaurant owners when they plan to open for the season and get the specifics on operating hours.


Inquire about hazardous conditions common during certain times of the year, like when melting snow causes flooding or when roads are closed due to icy conditions. Bring all-season and extreme-weather clothing including rain gear. 


Outdoor adventures

Outdoor adventures can be fun and frugal options, especially if you camp and cook your own meals. Per-day expenses are relatively low compared with, say, costs of staying in a nice hotel in a large city or visiting Disney World and dining at restaurants.

Despite the low entry cost to the great outdoors, adventure vacations can be expensive. 

For example, my husband and son are getting ready to go on a wilderness trek with the Boy Scouts. Besides paying for the trip itself -- cross-country travel, ranch fees, etc. -- the cost of the gear is steep. They have had to acquire backpacks, lightweight tents, sleeping bags and more. Similarly, when my family went on a cycling-camping vacation a few years ago, we found that acquiring and transporting gear was not cheap.


So the total cost of outdoor adventures can run higher than you may realize because:

  • Gear and apparel for outdoor adventures are pricey.
  • Traveling to outdoor adventures in remote locations can be expensive.
  • Hauling gear can be costly, especially if you need to rent a larger car or van to transport items.

Companies that provide outfitting services, such as whitewater rafting companies, may charge higher-than-expected prices to cover the cost of equipment, labor and liability insurance.


Ways to save money on outdoor adventures

Borrow items from friends if possible, especially if you are a camping or outdoors newbie. Find bargains on Craigslist or at used sporting goods stores. Compare the cost of renting gear at your destination versus purchasing and hauling stuff from your home to the start of the adventure.


Look at alternatives to extreme outdoorsy vacations (requiring extra but essential items like water purifiers) such as day hikes and short canoe trips. (Post continues below.)

Remote locations

You may think that places not easily accessible and relatively unknown would have few visitors and, therefore, great prices to attract people nearly all year. Sure, you realize that exotically remote locations, like base camp at Mount Everest, are expensive. But traveling to a small town ought to be fun and frugal for the person wanting a break from the city.


On another upper Midwestern state tour, my husband and I traveled to various places in Minnesota. For a stay in the northern part of the state near the Boundary Waters, I managed to select a nice property with several lodging options. I reserved a room that seemed like a reasonable choice, given the remoteness of the area. It seemed wasteful to pay nearly double for what I imagined to be a luxury suite when I could get a nice place for much less.


But after one night in the budget-priced location, we were ready to leave. The bathroom was so tiny that even my 5-foot self felt claustrophobic, we could hear upstairs guests walk across the room for what seemed like hours, and another guest moved our rocking chair (the one outside our room on the porch), leaving us with nothing and no way to enjoy the lake view from the room. I had misjudged the pricing, thinking that the accommodations I had chosen were cheaper because of the remoteness of location, not because, well, they were unaccommodating. Fortunately, we were able to move to a condo on the same property and loved the rest of our vacation.


Similarly, a lodge I know of in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee accessible only by foot is pricey. Despite a lack of electricity and running water in the rooms, the cost of lodging and meals can be comparable to a night's stay in Bermuda.


Remote sites relatively unknown to most people can still be popular destinations for many. Lodging and services can be in high demand, not only from those who are a day's drive away but also for travelers interested in specific natural resources and outings. As a result, prices may be higher than similar accommodations in an area with plenty of hotels.


Tips for having fun in a remote location

Rather than focusing on how much money you can save by going to a thinly populated area, find the right spot for you with suitable lodging. Even if you anticipate spending most of your time away from a hotel room or condo suite, find a place that you will enjoy and that affords a good night's rest.



You'll definitely save on nightly lodging if you stay at home. You may spend more on food if you go out for meals as a way to try new restaurants in your city, but you should still come out ahead in terms of spending compared with a traditional vacation.


The question then is not whether a staycation is frugal; the question is whether it is fun. For many people, relaxing at home is wonderful. But if you are self-employed, work from home, or are tethered digitally to your work, a staycation may not be a vacation at all. Instead, it will simply be a work-at-home week in lieu of a real vacation.


Plus, if your friends or family members are staycationing with you, they may have different ideas about ways to have fun, want to sleep in rather than get an early start for a day's outing, or recommend alternate plans that don't mesh with what you envisioned.


Ways to have fun at home

Make firm plans so that you won't default to your regular routine or allow your vacation to be derailed by friends when they hear that you will be taking time off from work but are staying in town. Take a day trip or visit a spa so that you can feel that you really did get away from it all, if just for several hours.


State parks and national parks

State and national parks seem like a cheap and easy way to have fun, given low-cost or free entry. Some of my favorite, most memorable, and least expensive travels have been to state and national parks or national monuments, like Canyon de Chelly.


But not all experiences are both fabulous and cheap. You should know that:

  • There is often little to do in a park if the weather is bad.
  • The drive to indoor attractions is often long, as parks are typically far from cities and city amenities.
  • Park-based vendors (those providing meals, lodging, and activities) often charge premium prices for in-park services.

A few years ago, my husband and I took our children to a state park during spring break. Combining the supposed benefits of remote location, off-season travel, and the inexpensive nature of state parks, this trip now has its place in our family lore as our worst-ever vacation.


The state park may have been a great place to visit if the sun had shone. But it didn't. That meant we were stuck inside most of the time, and there was little to do, either in the park or within reasonable driving distance.There were no movie theaters, bowling lanes, museums, or indoor rock-climbing venues. The week was salvaged by a day trip to a national park, but this type of arrangement definitely made our not-to-do list.


At the other extreme, last summer we spent a few glorious days in a stunning national park. However, the lodging was not cheap and neither were the meals or food supplies (there were no grocery stores nearby). Camping would have involved hauling a trailer with all of our gear more than 1,000 miles, and since we were visiting in the shoulder season, we would have been freezing for much of the time. We had great fun, but not the frugal kind.


Tips on having fun and saving at state and national parks

Map out your park vacation. Don't simply figure out how to travel from your home to the park, whether by plane, train, or car. Look at a map of the entire area and plan outings to nearby locations based on your family's interests and tolerance for travel time of day trips.


Build flexibility into your vacation. Plot a series of stays in various towns and cities, which can make a fun trip overall if one area is disappointing in terms of activities and amenities. Consider staying at a park near your home so that you can easily make adjustments to your vacation plans.

To save money on national park visits, plan well in advance (several months at least) to snag lower-cost accommodations inside the park, or stay outside the park in a nearby hotel. Plan meals also, bringing your own supplies for breakfasts, lunches and snacks. If you are great at scheduling, find ways to plan each day's activities so that you can avoid high-priced restaurants or long drives to reasonably priced ones. Take advantage of free activities rather than paying fees for those provided by outside vendors that operate within the park.


If you are hoping for a fun and frugal vacation, do your research (start with TripAdvisor, but include phone calls to locals). Also ask friends about their experiences, and get real-world tips from travel bloggers like Nora Dunn and Myscha Theriault that fit your unique situation.


In what ways have frugal travel experts led you astray? How have you had lots of fun on frugal vacations? Share your funny and enlightening stories in the comments.


More on Wise Bread and MSN Money:

May 31, 2012 10:00PM
Off-season is a great time to visit major European cities. There is a lot going on indoors - museums, concerts, shopping, and bus, boat and train tours - and you don't really care much about the weather.
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