Tag Archives: travel

Our frugal anniversary trip


View from the Top of Cape Hatteras

This weekend, we planned to celebrate our first anniversary with a weekend getaway to Charleston, SC. Since we’re working toward so many financial goals, we didn’t want to spend much money on this trip. However, it wasn’t quite as frugal as it could have been. With a $100 hotel room and $50 in boarding fees for our dog plus restaurant meals and entertainment, I had the nagging feeling that we were spending too much.

On Friday afternoon, I checked the weather for Saturday in Charleston. Thundershowers. Though it was disappointing, I just couldn’t justify spending that kind of money on a trip when there was such a high potential for rain all weekend. At the last minute, we canceled our hotel reservation.

I felt good about the decision from a financial perspective, but I still woke up feeling disappointed on Saturday morning. We had both been looking forward to getting away to celebrate our anniversary and holiday weekend. At 8:30 a.m., we made a highly uncharacteristic last minute decision to pack up the dog and our tent and head north for an anniversary camping trip in the Outer Banks.

Last month Tony won $150 in a writing contest, so we decided to use that money for our trip. Here’s the breakdown of what we spent:


We spent $15 at the grocery store on the way out of town for snacks (fruit and nuts), $5 on coffee stops, $30 at the grocery store for camping provisions like hot dogs, chips and charcoal. We were not as frugal as normal at the grocery store, but we had decided to avoid restaurants as much as possible so we wanted to make sure we had plenty of snacks. We went out to lunch Sunday and spent $25, so our food total for two days was a ridiculous $75. Whoops.


We used about two tanks of gas round trip ($50). I cashed in some MyPoints for a $25 gas card. I also cashed in a $25 rebate reward from our gas credit card (which we pay in full every month). So we didn’t spend any money out of pocket for gas! We did pay to ride a ferry to one island from another, and the two-hour ride cost $15.


We stayed at a national park, so camping was free! We were right next to the beach, so we could hear the ocean waves at night. The sky was clear so we left the rain flap off the top of our tent so we could see the stars. It wasn’t quite as comfortable as a hotel, but it certainly had its charms.


We spent the weekend hiking nature trails, hanging out at the campsite, and walking along the beach. In the evening, we played cards by candlelight at our campsite (campfires weren’t allowed on the beach). The only money we spent on entertainment was $14 to climb to the top of the lighthouse at Cape Hatteras. The view was worth every penny!

Dog Boarding

We would have spent $50 to board our dog if we had gone to Charleston. Instead, we brought him with us, so we didn’t pay a dime. And he had a great time outdoors, even if he was a little stressed about sleeping outside.

So instead of spending $150 plus food and entertainment, we spent about $105 for a fantastic weekend. Since we didn’t pay for a hotel, dog boarding or gas, our budget was better spent on good food and fun. Overall, I’m very happy with our decision to cancel the Charleston trip, and we plan to spend a lot more time camping this summer.

The List: Fun goals to accomplish before 2011

I’ve been in a bit of a funk lately. Just generally kind of blah. It’s taken me some time to figure out what could be causing it, especially since everything is going so well for us right now.

I’ve always had a tendency to be preoccupied with the future. Instead of enjoying what I have right now, I’m looking ahead to a new home, a baby, and everything else that’s coming up in the next stage of our lives.

Unfortunately, all this looking ahead is a good way to miss out on what’s good about right now. We have almost two years before we close this chapter in our lives and move on to the next. It’s two years of time together to experience new things and enjoy each other’s undivided attention. That’s a pretty good place to be.

Lately we’ve been talking about ways to make the most of this time. There are so many things we want to do and see before we settle down and start a family, but we’ve been so focused on lofty financial goals and day-to-day life that we’ve lost sight of those things.

We’re in a good place financially. We’re debt-free except for our student loans, and we’ll be paying off that debt for quite some time no matter how I crunch the numbers. That’s okay with me. We’re on track to complete our emergency fund in about a year, and we should have the money saved for our trip to Europe in a little under a year.

When we decided to plan our trip to Europe, it was partly because we realized this is the best time in our lives to do it. With no children and few financial obligations, we have more freedom now than we’ll have for quite some time after we have a baby and buy a house.

Acknowledging this freedom made us start to think about other things we’d like to do. We may not be able to accomplish them all, but focusing on the list will be a nice diversion for me in the coming year and a half while I count down to the next chapter of our lives.

Some of the things on The List won’t cost us a thing; others are quite expensive. We’re still committed to our other financial goals (living debt free, saving for retirement, and completing our emergency fund) and we don’t want this list to distract us too much from those goals. By setting priorities and being more frugal in other aspects of our lives, we should be able to focus a little money on travel and other things we’ve always wanted to do without detracting from our other goals.

I put up a rough draft of The List on a separate page where I can track what we’ve accomplished and add to it. We have about 20 months to do as much as we can before Tony graduates. These are fun things, so you won’t find any financial goals here.

The challenge is to accomplish them frugally without getting into debt or affecting our savings too much. We may discover that some of these things aren’t possible at this point in our lives. We’ll have to examine our priorities and plan ahead to make some of them happen. Whether we’re able to do it all or not, I’m really looking forward to trying and sharing our experiences with you as we cross things off.

What do you think we should do before we settle down? Take a look at The List, and let me know if you have any suggestions!

Europe on a budget: Should we add Italy to our trip?

When we started planning our Europe trip, we wanted to visit London; Paris; and Florence, Italy. After I started crunching numbers and planning a tentative itinerary, we decided that the added cost and extra travel time made Italy an impossibility.

Since then several people have urged me to reconsider our decision to nix Italy. Two of them even recommended Italy over Paris if we had to choose.

I don’t want to eliminate Paris from our plans, but I’ve started looking for a way to make Italy work. It will probably be at least a decade, maybe even two, before we can make another trip like this. I want to make sure we don’t have any regrets.

I’ve found some options for how to make it work, and now I’m trying to decide what to do.

There are three problems with adding Italy: the added travel costs, the additional time it would take to travel to Florence from Paris, and the inconvenience we’d have to endure to make it all work.


Flights out of Chicago (near where my family lives) are about $150-$200 cheaper per ticket. By driving the 800 miles to Chicago, we’d reduce our plane ticket costs by almost $500. We’d also be able to bring the dog along and leave him with my parents while we’re gone, which means we’d save the $350 cost to board him.

Here’s the breakdown. These prices are based on a May 2009 trip, so they’re obviously subject to change, but I’m using them as a basis for comparison:

Flying out of Raleigh NC:

Plane tickets: $1500
Train ride from Paris to Florence: $450
Dog boarding: $350
Total: $2300

Flying out of Chicago:

Plane tickets: $1100
Train ride from Paris to Florence: $450
Travel costs to and from Chicago: $200
Total: $1750

Flying out of Raleigh NC (without adding Italy):

Plane tickets: $1400
Dog boarding: $350
Total: $1750

We could add 2 days in Florence without increasing our travel costs if we fly out of Chicago. Now that we’ve eliminated the money constraints, our decision comes down to time and convenience.


I was concerned that the 12-hour train ride to Florence would mean losing a day of sight-seeing. Then I discovered that we could travel overnight by train in a sleeper car, which means we wouldn’t lose any time while en route to Florence. (Anyone traveled in a sleeper car before? Is it comfortable enough to sleep through the night?)

Unfortunately, we’d still have to build a couple days of driving into our trip. Our original plan was 6 days in London, 6 days in Paris, and 4 days at home before returning to work. Adding Florence and flying out of Chicago would give us 5 days in London, 5 days in Paris, 2 days in Florence, 2 days of driving, and only a day and a half to relax before going back to work.


Then there’s the most obvious problem: driving 800 miles to get home after all of that travel is going to be brutal. We know that. The question is, would it be worth it to suffer through in order to experience another country? I’ve always wanted to visit Italy, and I don’t want to miss out on this opportunity. But I do realize we’re going to be seriously inconvenienced.

The final consideration is our dog. I was nervous about boarding him for over two weeks. It just seems like such a long time. I would be a lot more comfortable leaving him with my parents (he’d receive better care, and it’s free!)

So what do you think? Is two days in Italy worth the inconvenience?

Our frugal (and not so frugal) trip to Washington D.C.

We’re back home now after a wonderful weekend in Washington D.C.

A little getaway was exactly what we needed. We left our laptops at home and spent the weekend just enjoying each other’s company. With two visits from family and friends and a business trip coming up this month, we really needed some time away.

I booked and paid for the hotel room in November ($120). Then I budgeted $200 from our tax refund for food and fun while we were there. It’s a high number, but we get away so rarely so I wanted to really enjoy ourselves and be (just a little) frivolous for once.

Here’s how we did:


  • Our hotel was in a fantastic location right downtown, so we spent the entire weekend on foot. We didn’t use any money for cabs or the Metro. Bonus: I didn’t feel so guilty for missing my daily workout.
  • We visited free museums and sites. We went to the National Portrait Gallery, the National Museum of American History, and Ford’s Theater (which ended up being closed, but we saw the house where Lincoln died, a national historic site).
  • We ate relatively frugal breakfasts and lunches (coffee and pastries for breakfast, Subway for lunch), so we could afford the high price of downtown D.C. restaurants for dinner.
  • We ate at a moderately priced pizza place on Friday night, where we enjoyed delicious wood fired pizza. On Saturday night my brilliant husband found a “certified-green” restaurant owned by a partnership of family farmers. It has a modern, casual, and family-friendly atmosphere; amazing organic food; and the prices were unbelievable considering its downtown D.C. location. Our meal with an appetizer and dessert was only $55 with tip included. Most of the places we considered in that area would have cost twice that at least. It’s called Founding Farmers, and I highly recommend it if you’re in the D.C. area.

Not so frugal

  • It was unseasonably warm in D.C. on Friday evening, so we walked to the Georgetown neighborhood where we stayed on our honeymoon. We stopped at our favorite sidewalk cafe. Since we’d already eaten dinner, we decided to order a bottle of wine. It ended up costing $32. Ouch. But we had a wonderful evening sitting outside drinking wine, and I don’t regret it. The memory is worth $32 to me. But the frugal thing to do would have been to stroll through Georgetown and skip the wine. :)
  • Around lunchtime we were only halfway through the Museum of American History. We were starving, so I broke my own advice and grabbed a snack at the museum cafe. We split a single slice of pizza and a soda, and it ended up costing $10. Doh. Always pack a snack!

So did we stay on budget? Here’s the tally:

Gas: $30
Breakfasts: $15
Lunches (including stops on the road): $40
Dinners: $85
Wine: $32
Boarding for dog: $65 (I budgeted $50 since he was only there two nights, but because we were running late this afternoon we were charged for three.)
Parking: $30 (I wasn’t expecting this because I mistakenly assumed parking would be provided by the hotel, but it cost $15 a night.)
Gift card used to pay for meals: -$50
Total: $247

We overspent by $47. :( Luckily, the overage can be worked into our March budget.

While we technically stayed within budget (the unexpected costs for parking and boarding surcharges weren’t in my original budget), better planning could have helped us include or avoid those extra costs.

While $248 for a weekend trip ($368 if you include the hotel) isn’t frugal, sometimes — sometimes — it’s ok to be a little frivolous. After all, isn’t that why we work so hard to scrimp and save? We spent a fraction of our tax refund to have a fantastic time, and we’re still putting a huge chunk into savings this month. I’d call it a success.

Planning a frugal, educational mini-vacation


Sometimes you just need to take a step back and take a break. That’s where we are right now. Though we’ve taken several trips to visit family (including Seattle in October and Indiana in December), Tony and I haven’t gotten away together, just the two of us, since our honeymoon 9 months ago.

In November, I found a great deal on a hotel room in Washington DC at HotelClub (about $60 a night for a room in a fantastic location). I knew that after spending almost two weeks on the road and visiting family then heading right back into our routine, we’d probably need some time away around this time. A frugal mini-vacation is the perfect solution.

Here are some tips for saving money if you want to plan a family-friendly mini-vacation of your own:

Choose somewhere close.

Choosing a destination close enough to drive reduces the cost of your trip significantly. It’s much cheaper to drive than fly (especially if you’re traveling with a family). Closer destinations also mean lower gas costs and the ability to stay for just a night or two instead of a whole week, which means more affordable lodging.

Choose a destination with historical significance.

Historical cities are the most frugal places to visit. National and state historic sites and museums rarely charge for admission, and when they’re state or federally funded they’re usually better than independent tourist attractions.

We’re lucky to live within driving distance of Washington DC. It’s one of my favorite frugal vacation destinations. With tons of free museums and historical sites, there’s a lot to do that costs very little or nothing at all.

These destinations exist in every state, though. When I was a kid, my family lived in Michigan. We held a season pass to Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Those weekend trips remain some of my favorite vacation memories (even more than a huge trip to Disney that probably cost my parents a couple thousand dollars).

When Tony and I lived in the Midwest, we took a similar trip to Springfield, Illinois. We visited a ton of Lincoln sites, toured the state Capitol, and had a fantastic time for cheap. Be creative. Whether it’s a state capital or historical city near you, these cities are fun, frugal, and educational for kids.

Travel during the “shoulder season.”

Historic cities and state capitals offer a lot of free and cheap attractions, but the trade-off is often high prices for hotels during the busy tourist season (especially summers and vacations when kids are out of school). Part of the reason we got such a great deal on our DC hotel room is because we planned the trip for February. Just two weeks later, the price would have been $25 more per night. If we had planned our trip for April, we would have paid $50 more per night. If you plan a weekend trip between January and mid-March, you’ll find the best deals on lodging. An added bonus is that museums are a lot more enjoyable when they’re not overcrowded.

Pack a lunch.

Museum cafeterias often overcharge for food that isn’t that great. They usually don’t mind if you bring your own food, though. Save some money by packing some sandwiches and drinks. If the museum doesn’t allow it, then plan for a mid-afternoon break to head back to the hotel for lunch. Even if you end up at a restaurant off site, you’ll probably spend less for better food than you would get at the museum.

Keep it fun for everyone.

I was a nerdy kid. I loved museums and learning. I still do. Two of my sisters didn’t share my enthusiasm for field-trip-like vacations. Even the most educational museums usually cater to children of all personality types with hands-on activities that keep everyone happy. If your kids aren’t into musems, blend educational activities with other frugal things they’ll enjoy (maybe a baseball game or an afternoon playing outside at a park).

Money in Europe: What’s the best option?

photo by poolie

As I continue to research for our frugal European vacation in 2010, I’ve come across a new dilemma: what should we do about money overseas?

We’ve decided to carry only a limited amount of cash. Not only are currency conversion fees really high at banks and other institutions (at ATMs we could end up paying 10% or more once you tack on all the fees), but I don’t feel secure keeping a lot of cash on me in a foreign country. So we’ll probably convert about $500USD to Euros and GDP before the trip just in case we need a little cash and carry only a little with us at a time.

Instead of using cashing, we’re looking into other options. Here’s what we’ve learned:

Debit cards

Our checking accounts are through Wachovia, and our debit cards are Visa. Since Visa is widely accepted in Europe, I thought this would be our best option. But then I learned about the transaction fees. We’d pay a 2% foreign transaction fee to Wachovia, another 1-2% to Visa, plus flat transaction fees for ATM withdrawals. I also read something vague about additional fees to convert the money from foreign currency to US dollars. Um, no thanks.

If we moved our travel money to an ING checking account, it’s the same deal.

There are also security issues with a debit card. Our entire account could be wiped out, and it could take up to 2 weeks for the money to be replaced by fraud protection. That’s a hassle I’d rather not deal with on vacation.

Pre-paid debit cards

We briefly considered a pre-paid Visa card. I don’t know why we did, because it’s a pretty dumb idea. If we fully loaded the card with the maximum of $1500, the flat fees just to purchase the card are about 2.5%. (If we were only putting $100 on the card, it’s close to 33% in fees upfront.) On top of that, there is a foreign transaction fee of 3%. Not happening.

Travelers checks

Travelers checks spend like cash with added security. You sign the check, hand it over, and receive cash back in change. They’re also widely accepted in Europe. I’ve been unable to get a clear answer on whether there are transaction fees, though. I found something vague about “commission fees,” but no clear numbers. They also seem like a pain in the butt to use, and would most likely result in carrying more cash than we’re comfortable carrying.

Credit cards

We currently have an American Express card and a Bank of America Visa card with no balances. Our Bank of America credit card would work just like our Wachovia debit card — 3% to the bank and 1% to Visa. Ugh. American Express is a little better. We’d end up paying just 2.7% total. Unfortunately, American Express may not be as widely accepted. We could take out cash as needed, but credit card ATM fees are incredibly high.

Apparently, Capital One is the only credit card that currently does not charge any foreign transaction fees. They even waive the fee that would be charged by Visa, so we’d end up paying no fees at all. As of now, I feel like it might be worth opening another credit card to save $100-$200 in fees. As long as we pay it off immediately after our trip, it shouldn’t have any negative effects on our credit scores or interest.

What do you think? Should I suck it up and add the transaction fees into our budget, or increase our credit line with another credit card that we’ll never use after the trip?

Foreign transaction rates for major credit cards
Foreign transaction fees for major debit and credit cards

Pros and cons of budget accommodations in Europe

photo by NatBat

Accommodations are often the most expensive part of a vacation budget. For our two-week trip to Europe, our estimated hotel costs are more expensive than airfare.

One of the first things I’m looking at as we attempt to slash our budget is how to save on accommodations. I’ve looked into three different options: budget hotels, hostels, and guesthouses. Here are some of the pros and cons I’ve found for each option:

Budget hotels


  • It’s incredibly easy to find traveler reviews and book a hotel online.
  • Budget hotels may not be fancy, but they’re private, comfortable, and pretty luxurious when compared to other options.
  • Most hotels are conveniently located. Even budget hotels are centrally located in the city or near public transportation.
  • Concierge services and hotel resources make it easier for travelers to find their way around the city (especially in France where tourist-y hotels are more likely to cater to English-speaking travelers).


  • They’re expensive. The cheapest I could find was $125 a night.



  • Staying in hostels could cut our hotel costs in half. Staying in a dorm-style room with a number of other travelers is the most economical option (as cheap as $20 per person per night). We’d want a private room, though, which is a little more expensive. A private room with a shared bathroom would save us about $800.
  • Hostels are centrally located with easy access to public transportation and traveler resources.
  • Some of them include a continental breakfast.
  • Online booking sites also make it easy to find and reserve a room in advance.


  • Sharing a bathroom with other travelers would probably mean we’d be waiting for a shower in the morning.
  • I also have some concerns about cleanliness and atmosphere. It seems like staying in a hostel (even a private room) is like staying in a college dorm. Lots of student travelers means drunk kids, filthy bathrooms, twin beds, and noise. Not exactly what we had in mind for our romantic second honeymoon in Europe.



  • Guesthouses are family-owned bed and breakfasts. You’re a guest in someone’s home. Private rooms with private bathrooms are about $25-$50 a night cheaper than budget hotels depending on location, and a home cooked breakfast is often included. We’d save about $350-$700, and we could save even more money by sharing a bathroom with the host family.
  • Because they’re in private residences, rooms are clean and comfortable.
  • Hosts are accommodating to travelers, so they’re discreet and respectful of privacy.
  • Other travelers rave about this option. They say it’s comfortable, homey, and perfect for novices. Hosts offer insider advice on where to go, what to see, and how to get around.
  • It’s also a great way to experience another country, because you’re staying with locals instead of other tourists.


  • They’re trickier to book than a hotel or hostel. Guesthouse agencies can help travelers find information and reviews and make reservations, but it’s more work than logging into Expedia and searching for hotels.
  • Even if hosts are respectful of privacy, we’d still be guests in their home, which means sacrificing a certain degree of privacy and freedom.
  • Location is another concern. Affordable guesthouses are situated on the outskirts of the city, which means a 10- to 30-minute trip by bus or train to get into the city every day. In London we could probably get advice on the commute from our hosts, but this would be tougher in France if they don’t speak English.

I’m leaning toward guesthouses. Tony is a pretty good navigator, and as long as we’re close to a bus or train station I think we’ll be ok. I love the idea of staying with local people in quaint neighborhoods, and I obviously love that it’s cheaper without sacrificing comfort. Staying in a quaint little bed and breakfast on the countryside just seems romantic to me.

I also might consider spending most of our time in a guesthouse, and booking a hotel in the city for only a night or two. This might be a good compromise, but it would be a hassle to pack and move our stuff from guesthouse to hotel.

What do you think?

Planning (way) ahead for our trip to Europe

photo by Zigar

The first step to taking on any overwhelming endeavor is learning and reading as much as possible on the topic. Before I really started planning my wedding, I read book after book on wedding planning, flipped through magazines, and searched for ideas for saving money.

I’m taking the same approach to planning our frugal trip abroad. Even though I won’t start booking plane tickets or making reservations until next fall, I’m learning as much about it as I can right now. By the time I actually start making plans, I want to be as close to an expert as I can be without having been there.

I want to share my planning process with all of you, so I’ve decided to start a sporadic series on how we’re planning and preparing. I’ve already come up with a rough budget for the trip, and now I’m looking for ways to slash it without sacrificing our comfort and fun.

We’re still 18 months away from our desired departure, so these plans are subject to change (and most likely will). But I want to keep all of you in the loop in the step-by-step process (and get your ideas and feedback as we plan), so I’m going to be writing about everything. I hope you’ll continue to give me your awesome feedback and ideas. I could certainly use them!

My first step is finding as many resources as I can. Yesterday Tony and I went to the bookstore and pulled about 10 books about European travel from the shelves. Eventually we’ll buy one for each city that can serve as a reference guide, but we’ll probably wait until next year so it will have the most up-to-date information.

I really like the Frommer’s and Fodor’s series for information on attractions, but I was really looking for a guide with a focus on first time travelers and budget travel.

I started flipping through the “Let’s Go” series (Let’s Go Paris and Let’s Go London). These books are mostly geared toward young travelers, particularly students, so they’re not really good for family travel. But they offer a ton of information for first time travelers and ways to save money. So far these are my favorites.

Do you have any other suggestions for planning resources?

Frugal European vacation – first we need a budget

london-big-benYesterday I asked for some advice for traveling abroad on a budget. Kacie at Sense to Save is a genius, and she suggested that I post my budget breakdown to see if anyone can offer tips for cutting back.

I looked into airfare and hotel costs for two people for 12 days. Then I made some rough guesses for food and entertainment costs. I want to save enough to avoid stress on the trip (and to account for any price increases between now and next year). Of course we’ll spend as little as possible so we can put the leftover money toward debt and savings.

The numbers I found are based on a May 2009 trip instead of May 2010, so they are subject to change in the next year. Here we go:

Passports: $200

We’ll apply for passports and take care of that this summer.

Airfare: $1700

Right now, tickets to London with a return flight out of Paris this May are about $750 a ticket. We considered a round trip in and out of London because I thought it would be cheaper, but it’s about the same price.

Travel in Europe: $400

Travel from London to Amsterdam and Amsterdam to Paris by train costs about $400. Please weigh in if you’ve ever traveled Europe by rail. Is it fun, or is it a big old hassle? Would we be better off hopping on a plane?

Hotel: $1800

Hotels were the hardest thing to estimate. There are so many factors involved (including where we want to visit in each city and which areas are the safest/best places to stay). I searched for hotels in each city with low prices and high traveler ratings. I found several hotels for about $125 a night with 4 stars from other travelers. Sounds good to me.

Kacie asked if we’d consider staying in hostels to cut back a little. If I were traveling alone or with a friend, I would love to save by staying in a hostel. However, as a married couple we want the privacy of a hotel room. Nothing fancy, but definitely a place where we can be alone. ‘Nuff said.

Food: $1200

This is one area where I’m purposely WAY overestimating. I’m married to a foodie, and I know he’s going to want a considerable food budget to taste everything he can. Me too. I don’t want to spend the trip fretting about how much we’re spending on food, so I’m budgeting about $100 a day. I hope we don’t spend anywhere close to that.

Miscellaneous: $700

This is another very rough estimation. I’m still not sure exactly what we want to do and see, and how much everything is going to cost. I think $50 a day for museum admissions, tours, etc., is a reasonable estimation. I’d like to say that we’ll stick to cheap/free things while we’re there, but I know London and Paris are tourist traps. I want to have enough money available in our budget to see the things we want to see, even if they charge for admission. That said, I hope most of this money ends up back in our savings account.

Total: $6,000

I’m open to suggestions/advice. Be kind. This is just a preliminary budget plan, and I’ve never done this before. :)

Photo by 13bobby