I returned from my recent vacation — cross-country skiing at Lake Tahoe — with all of the wonderful memories, images, and souvenirs normally associated with visiting a destination of such legendary, stunning beauty. But I also came back with some takeaways of a decidedly more practical nature. It’s true: Not even the sweeping view of snow-capped Sierra peaks against the backdrop of yet another Blue Bird Day (local-speak) could entirely distract me from noticing some high-impact personal finance lessons I couldn’t wait to share.
So here are some money-saving vacation planning suggestions based on what I learned on my winter vacation…
1.) Rent a home, instead of a hotel. For less than the cost of a suite in an extended-stay hotel, the house that my better half and I booked on VRBO.com (Vacation Rental By Owner) had at least 4 times as much space, plus all the comforts of home… or better. It included a garage with remote control, an office with a PC with Internet access and a printer, giant closets, and a laundry room. The full kitchen was stocked with more than the usual Spartan set of pots, pans, dishes, utensils, etc., not to mention coffee, 8+ kinds of tea, every sweetener known to man, 2 of my favorite brands of cereal, and so much more. Wow. (Your mileage may vary, so be sure to check lodging info and reviews on VRBO.)
Not only was this so much better than the hotel alternative but, at ~10% cheaper, it was a bargain even for just the two of us. For a family or a group large enough to require multiple hotel rooms, the savings is even more eye-popping, easily 2/3 less.
2.) Eat in. Or rather, eat in sometimes. It’s as true on the road as it is at home: dining out costs at least an order of magnitude more than cooking for yourself. But hey, it’s vacation. Like most folks, I love trying out the local eateries wherever I go, and I’m not giving that up. Still, after a couple of days eating out, “restaurant fatigue” kicks in and it’s a huge relief to have the option of a nice simple meal at home.
Staying in a house so you can eat in for other meals has at least as much to offer. For starters, I like to show up for breakfast in my pajamas, and would just as soon not meet anyone at the communal hotel breakfast waffle machine so attired — certainly not pre-coffee. (Quick aside: Are continental breakfast muffins required by law to be sticky?)
As far as sit-down breakfast or lunch goes… well, there are just too many places to go, sights to see. The truth is both my wallet and I usually prefer a brown bag lunch. Not only does this come in handy when jet lag induces lunch cravings at 10:00 AM, it also means never pulling up, hungry and desperate, to an overpriced tourist trap, the only option at the end of a winding 10-mile drive with a 2000-foot elevation gain.
Bottom line: Eating in for even 2 of each meal, you can expect to go home with at least a couple hundred extra dollars in your pocket, and you might even enjoy yourself more.
3.) Buy local. Or rather, like a local. Eating in as described above meant we needed to hit the grocery store, in this case Safeway. At first, I snickered at the cashier’s offer to join the frequent buyer club (“Um, we’re not from around here”). But once assured that signing up would take “just a sec”, I decided to go for it. After saving a total of about $50 on food and gas, I am snickering no more.
Now, I’m quite certain that this kind of “home away from home” vacation isn’t for everyone. Maybe, for some of you, the very thought of seeing the inside of a kitchen while on vacation misses the whole point, and you are recoiling in horror.
Still, I hope you found a new idea or two that fits your style, and leaves you with more dollars in your pocket. And I promise you that, if making a few tradeoffs means the difference between a jaw-dropping vista and the same old view, nothing tastes quite as good as a plate of spaghetti, a side of steamed broccoli, and a hunk of Safeway multigrain bread with sunflower seeds.