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My family loves to travel. But the thing is, we are a family on one income. Sure my blog makes a little money, which helps pay for my kids activities, but for the most part, my husband supports our family. Add to that we live in a state where the average income is much lower, it makes taking amazing trips a lot harder. The thing is though, harder does not mean impossible. Today I am excited to share with you the tricks I have learned for taking amazing trips on a tight budget. You will be surprised how these simple steps make a trip that may have seemed out of reach an affordable vacation.
Disclaimer: This is a sponsored post paid for by Allianz Travel Insurance, but as always, all opinions and words are my own.
Many of you know that my family recently took a two week road trip on the California Coast. We had a blast and we were excited to take this trip before some big stuff we had coming up (more on that coming to the blog in June). We had experienced a rough year, and we needed a reset. I talked a lot about some of the stuff that had been going on earlier (you can read about it here) but basically, this last year had been rough. Adjustments, disability diagnosis, and more. We needed an “Epic West Coast Road Trip” (as we named it) to kind of reset things and just enjoy some time together.
We decided to take some money and make this awesome road trip happen. Today, I am going to share with you how much we spent, how we saved, and within all of that, I am going to share with you the tricks that can make an epic, yet affordable vacation.
Let’s start with the details on my vacation.
Was Our Epic Road Trip an Affordable Vacation?
Our road trip included a week in Southern California (Orange County) where we visited Disneyland (and purchased Annual Passes), a drive up to San Francisco, a night in the Santa Rosa area, and then 5 days in the Redwoods (split between Eurkea, CA and Crescent City, CA). It ended with an unplanned overnight stay in Bend, OR as we had to head home early due to illness.
So what did our trip cost? I am going to give you a big number…but before you think “No way is that an affordable vacation!” I want to point out that over half of this budget was the purchase of our Disneyland Annual Passes. The total cost of our trip came in at $3121. $1800 of which was our Annual Passes to Disneyland.
After you subtract the amount we paid for our passes, that means we spent only $1321 on our hotel, gas, food, and entertainment for 2 weeks. Now you might be thinking “they must have slept in their car” or “they stayed with family” but NOPE. We did not. We stayed at a hotel in every location (Full disclosure: our hotel in Eureka, CA was a hosted stay saving us approximately $300) and we felt that each hotel was actually pretty nice. We also had 5 people. My husband and I, our almost-seven-year-old (the Goof) and two-year-old twins.
So how did we do it? Keep reading to find out!
How We Made An Epic Road Trip an Affordable Vacation
Save money on lodging using book-before-you-know sites
The first thing we did when trying to make this big trip idea an affordable vacation was look into hotels. I am a HUGE fan of book-before-you-know sites. What is a book-before-you-know site? Usually Hotwire Hot Rates or Priceline. They have hotels that you are not given the name of, just the rates, until after you pay and book. These bookings are non-refundable, and must be paid up front, but they can save you major bucks.
I know these sites scare some people, but really, they have come a long way. Most of these sites now give you a lot of information about your hotel before booking. I have shared before how I use these sites to save money, and even given tips on narrowing down what hotel you are getting here. I have used it in the Southern California area often enough, I know exactly which hotel I want, and I can tell if it is offered pretty easily. The hotel we end up staying at (every time, I always know if I am getting this one) is a Radisson. I usually end up paying about half the price that I would if I booked directly through the hotel (even with prepaid bookings).
This trip, I paid just over $400 for 6 nights. Yes, you read that right. I paid $56/night (plus taxes and fees) for a 3* Radisson hotel in Orange County, CA. We love this hotel and stay in it almost every time we go down to Disneyland. Read my review of this hotel HERE. Also staying a 10 minute drive from Disneyland brought our hotel prices down about 30%.
Our other hotels included a 2.5 star Travelodge in Santa Rosa (I did not research this one as it was just for sleeping for one night) for $52, a Best Western Plus in Eureka (hosted- so no charge but would have been around $300) and a Best Western Plus in Crescent City for $187 (prepaid booking through the hotel website) and finally a Best Western Plus in the Bend, OR area (through a book-before-you-know site, booked only an hour before we arrived) that we spent $98 on. So we end up paying a total of $737 on hotels. But we actually received $93 back on that (more on that in a moment) making our total cost $644 for our hotels.
Timing made a huge difference on making this an affordable vacation.
My dream road trip started in the Redwoods and went down the coast. In fact, one day I hope to go from Seattle down the coast to San Diego, but that requires a lot more time than we had. Anyways, on to my trick. I looked at hotels for the dates we could go (Spring Break plus some extra days before then) and the hotel costs were going to be over $1200 starting in the Redwoods. This was with using book-before-you-know sites. I have learned playing around with dates can make a huge difference, so I started changing things up. Eventually I learned that starting in Orange County would make a HUGE difference in our lodging costs. It cut our costs almost in half (remember we didn’t plan the hotel in Bend, OR at this point).
It was definitely worth it to switch our travel plans and start down south and move north.
What happens with those prepaid bookings if something happens?
Before I share some of my other tricks, I want to talk about this question because it is one I am asked All. The. Time.
I think the biggest fear that most people have about the book-before-you-know sites and even prepaid bookings through hotels is the “what if?” What if your husband ends up in the ER the night before you are supposed to leave because he can not breath, and you aren’t sure if you will even be able to go on your trip? (Yes, this did happen this very trip. Thankfully we just headed out a few hours later and didn’t have to cancel or delay any other plans.)
Or what happens if you get sick on vacation and have to cancel the second half?
Or what if you lose a job, have car troubles delaying your trip, or need to come home early (like we did)?
There are a lot of what-ifs that drive people to pay the more expensive prices so they don’t feel like they will run the risk of losing that prepaid hotel booking. What if I told you, you don’t have to worry?
One thing I made sure to do for this trip was to purchase travel insurance through Allianz Travel Insurance. I actually first learned about travel insurance through a book-before-you-know website. It was offered to me when I did my booking, and the company they used was Allianz. I always purchased it just for the hotel, until the trip I needed it. See in 2014 we had a trip planned to Disneyland when I found out I was pregnant with twins, and was having complications. On top of that, my Grandma passed away.
So I had two reasons I needed to cancel our trip. Thankfully, the policy purchased through the site covered the hotel. From then on, I always purchased insurance. But then I thought about other things that could happen during travel. And what about the times I booked prepaid through the actual hotel site? They didn’t offer me travel insurance.
That is when I started purchasing my policy directly through Allianz Global Assistance. Now my policies would cover lost luggage, travel delay, illness, and of course cancellation (for reasons covered under the policy). Remember how I said we received $93 back on our hotel costs? That is because we had to leave Crescent City early since I was ill. Now, our hotel was amazing and just refunded us the night (even though we checked out late that afternoon). However, because I went to a doctor, if they had not refunded it, I would have been able to file a claim with Allianz Global Assistance. Having travel insurance gives us peace of mind that illness, delays, or another travel hiccup will not ruin our vacation or our finances.
Travel insurance costs a fraction of the price of our vacation. Plans for our trip started at around 4-5% of the cost of our trip and went up from there. I love that they offer different plans and rates based on if you are traveling domestically, internationally, and the level of protection you want. They really have a plan for everyone.
Saving Money on Food For an Affordable Vacation
I think one of the biggest ways to save money on a vacation is with your dining options. With our vacation being two weeks long, I was pretty sure our food budget would be over $600 for 5 people. I was pleasantly surprised we came in well under budget at only $300 spent on food.
How we saved money on food during a two week vacation
The biggest thing we did to save money on food was that we ate a lot of our own food. By that I mean, we brought a lot of snacks and stuff from home or purchased them at local grocery stores, as well as purchasing things to make sandwiches, microwave meals, and more.
We also made sure our hotels all had refrigerators and microwaves in the rooms. This allowed us to save leftovers, and take more items without having to worry about keeping things cold in a cooler 24/7.
When we did eat out, we were picky about where we ate. We really wanted to try one local diner in Eureka and another in Crescent City. For other lunches and dinners we ate sandwiches or we picked up pizza that could feed all of us for under $10. We also had microwave meals, cups of noodles, etc that we would heat up and eat.
We also made sure most of our hotels had free breakfast. With a family of 5, free breakfast ends up saving you a lot of money. I love how far hotel breakfasts have come! Every single hotel we stayed in with free breakfast also included a hot breakfast such as waffle makers, sausage, eggs, and more.
Of course, the most expensive dining location is Disneyland. We have always been cheapskates when it comes to eating at Disneyland and usually only eat 1-2 meals in the parks our entire vacation. This trip was no different. We chose to eat at the Plaza Inn for dinner, knowing that the meals there were big enough that we could easily split one adult meal between Mike and myself as well as the twins. We purchased a kids meal for the Goof. We also brought sandwiches for the twins, just in case they didn’t like our food.
The rest of the time we took food in and utilized the picnic area. We would rent a locker, but the $12 a day for the locker was less than we would pay for 2 people to eat hot dogs in the parks. And if we went to the park close to a meal, we wouldn’t even get a locker but take in a small soft sided cooler (which are totally allowed) with our food. All of these food choices made it an affordable vacation.
Transportation Makes A Difference in Budget
For years I have been sharing that your choice in transportation will make a huge impact on your budget. With so many locations we obviously chose to drive. Thankfully, we had a reliable vehicle so all we had to do was pay for gas. We ended up spending around $250 because our mini van gets pretty awesome gas mileage.
Even if you aren’t visiting multiple locations, it is really important to weigh the decision of how you will get to your location. In general, if you have more than one person traveling, flying will often be more expensive than driving if you have a reliable vehicle you can take. Even if you need to rent a vehicle, many times driving can still be cheaper.
(Okay, obviously not our van, but I love this picture so much I had to share)
Our gas for a round trip vacation to Anaheim, CA is usually around $225. Even flying with sales, we would pay more than that for 1 of us…and we have 5 people. Yes, we drive 15 hours to get there, but we find the extra time is worth the savings. Plus, by the time we have layovers, getting to the airport early enough to get through security, and getting our luggage, we usually spend a good 7+ hours traveling. I also find driving with 3 kids less stressful than trying to fly with 3 kids.
On top of the initial savings, we also save money on a rental car (unless we rent for the road trip) to get around for vacation. The savings we get from driving our own vehicle can be well over $1000.
Saving Money on Activities and Souvenirs
We choose the activities we pay for very carefully when traveling. We find as many free things to do as possible. After that, we look for deals and discounts as much as possible. For example, Mike’s work offers discounted tickets to certain attractions. We also search for coupons and discounts online. You will be surprised that you can often find BOGO coupons for a lot of attractions.
For souvenirs, we set a spending limit by taking gift cards. For Disney, we purchase Disney Gift Cards. For other destinations we purchase prepaid Visa gift cards. Our kids even get their own gift cards to purchase their souvenirs with. Once the money is gone it is gone. We are also very picky about what we purchase. Usually we find a Christmas Ornament (kind of our tradition) and then other small items.
Wouldn’t It Be Better To Wait and Not Have to Save Money?
We decided that we would rather be more frugal with our travel, even if it means more work, and be able to travel more, than simply book the more expensive version and only get to go on vacation once in a great while.
In the end, it all comes down to your priorities and your preferences. There are some vacations I will definitely splurge on. And then there are ones like this, where it can be an affordable vacation but still be amazing.
What I do know is that no matter what I pay, $1500 or $4500 I will be sure to protect my investment with travel insurance from Allianz Global Assistance.
Do you have any save money tips that you use to take an affordable vacation? Share them in the comments below.
Disclaimer: This was a sponsored post paid for by Allianz Travel Insurance, but as always, all opinions and words are my own.