With Memorial Day just around the corner, our thoughts often drift to taking a few days off from work for a much deserved vacation. If you are lucky enough to enjoy the benefit of paid vacation days from your employer, you should definitely consider them part of your total compensation package and take them each year. You should pay special attention to whether they expire at the end of the year, and if they do, you should absolutely take them before they expire. Letting them lapse is the same thing as leaving free money on the table.
With that being said, using vacation days can be a double-edged sword. Most vacations end up costing a lot of extra money that could otherwise significantly help reach our longer term goals.
I’ve compiled a list of suggestions to use your vacation days in less expensive, yet still very enjoyable, ways.
۱٫ Stay Home
At first glance, this might sound like a lame suggestion, but it actually might be the best one on the list! Tell everyone (friends, family, and coworkers) that you will be out of town
and unreachable (maybe you are camping in the mountains or something??). Do a big grocery shopping run, go home, lock the door and spend a cozy week enjoying yourself in your very own house! Turn off your cell phone and unplug your land line. Sleep in late… take long baths… have movie marathons and game nights with your spouse/family… eat junk food and stay up late. Simply relax – you deserve it!
۲٫ Give Back
If you are charitably inclined, there may be many interesting opportunities for you to spend your vacation days helping those people who are more in need than you. You won’t spend your time relaxing, but you will have an enriching, rewarding experience and you may have the chance to change someone’s entire life for the better simply by volunteering during your vacation days.
If there is a cause that’s important to you (i.e. Katrina Survivors, AIDS in Africa, Poverty in India), start researching the organizations that are providing relief to those people affected by the issue. Many organizations will be able to direct you as to the best way to volunteer your time. Often, if you are volunteering, you will be able to obtain free or dramatically low-cost housing for the duration of your stay. Additionally, your church or community organization may be willing to sponsor a portion of your travel to the region. Sometimes churches and school groups organize entire “mission” trips that focus on addressing some of these causes.
A less dramatic version of this idea is to contact a local soup kitchen, hospital, animal shelter or boys and girls club and volunteer your services for the week.
۳٫ Vacation in Boston (or the city where you live)
Obviously, this is only a good deal if you live in the Boston area and can stay at your own house! We are so lucky to live in a place that people from all over the world want to visit, but it is so easy to take all of that for granted. Have you visited all of the great attractions and sites that this city has to offer? Personally, I’ve lived here my entire life and I can think of several places I have not been (the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum, the new ICA and the Museum of African American History, for example). With a little research, it’s easy to find ways to visit local attractions for free or for very little cost.
For example, visit the Institute for Contemporary Art on Thursday evenings for Target’s Free Thursday Nights from 5:00 – 9:00 pm (icaboston.org). The Museum of African American History has a suggested donation of only $5.00 (afroammuseum.org). The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum welcomes all those named “Isabella” free anytime! (Otherwise, admission is $12 for adults – gardnermuseum.org). I highly suggest visiting your local public library to inquire about any free passes you could borrow to local museums and other attractions for the day. Look online – you may be surprised how inexpensive it can be to experience the local attractions you’ve always wanted to visit.
۴٫ Work on a Life-Long Goal/Project
If you have a week to spare but little cash to spend, think about those goals and projects you have always hoped to accomplish. Have you always wanted to get in better shape? Spend the week establishing a really great exercise routine. Could your living room use a bolder color? Spend the week painting and reorganizing your furniture. Do you have a favorite author or topic you’d like to learn more about? Go to the library and borrow a couple of books you have been meaning to read, head to the beach or local park with a blanket and picnic lunch and curl up with your book in the sunshine.
۵٫ Go Camping
The ultimate inexpensive vacation is camping. Although, you should be careful, since even camping can get pricey if you don’t plan well. Your least expensive option will be avoiding private campgrounds and planning to stay at a National Park. You can usually drive your car to the campsite, which will be clean and level, set up a tent and enjoy everything from a campfire to a hike in the local area trails.
To really save some money, try to get around purchasing new camping gear for your trip. If you don’t already have a tent, ask around and see if you can borrow one from a friend or a family member. If necessary, however, I’ve noticed that tents at Target, for example, are as inexpensive as $30.00. Also, check Craigslist.org to see if anyone is getting rid of any camping gear that you could have for free or for very low cost.
۶٫ Spend the Week at a Local Beach
People travel from everywhere to enjoy the New England beaches in the summertime. We are so lucky to live within driving distance from these fabulous beaches. It would be lots of fun to spend the week at your closest beach, enjoying the sun, water and snack shop fare. If you pick a beach that is close to your home, you can sleep in your own bed and then drive over to the beach each day. If you would rather take public transportation each morning, there are a few wonderful options. You can take the Red Line to JFK/UMass and visit Carson Beach. Revere Beach on the Blue Line has undergone many improvements over the past couple of years and is a beautiful option with a boardwalk atmosphere. If you are looking to travel a bit farther, you can take the Amtrak Downeaster to Old Orchard Beach in Maine from Boston. It appears to be $23.00 each way, but could make for a nice, fairly inexpensive, day trip during your vacation!
۷٫ Make a Plan Before You Go
If you have read through the above suggestions, but still want more of a conventional vacation, there are plenty of ways to do so less expensively than you normally would. The best idea is to put in quite a bit of planning before you head off on your trip. It’s too easy to book the flight and hotel only and plan to choose your activities when you arrive at your destination. The problem is that usually, when you arrive at your destination, you are already in “vacation mode” and you are more apt to spend money less carefully. How easy is it to say “we are on vacation – we deserve it!”?
If you put in the time before you leave to think about those things that you would like to do, you can do some research online and find ways to do the things you want to do less expensively. I recommend doing everything from making dinner reservations, booking tours and activities, to planning certain days to relax and do nothing. The more time that you leave unplanned before you leave, the more money you are likely to spend. A great suggestion is starting with a comprehensive budget travel guide such as Lonely Planet’s USA & Canada on a Shoestring. Plus, if you plan and research before you go, you don’t have to worry or think about anything while you are away and you can simply enjoy your vacation – you deserve it!
۸٫ Shop Around for the Best Deals
Before you even book your trip, you can save significantly by shopping around for the best vacation deals. These days, we are all familiar with the major discount travel sites, like expedia.com, orbitz.com and travelocity.com. Those sites are wonderful places to start. Sometimes if you look for a package deal, such as purchasing your airfare and hotel together, you can save quite a bit (however, be sure to price them out separately as well, just in case they are cheaper on their own!).
There is another service out there that not many people know about. A website called Travelzoo.com publishes the “Travel Zoo Top 20” every Wednesday at approximately 11:15am. If you visit the website, you can subscribe to receive the Travel Zoo Top 20 by e-mail. Each week, the company finds the best travel deals around and includes them in their list. The deals are anything from packaged vacations, to cruises, to car rentals, and are usually difficult to beat. If you see something you like, you need to be willing to move quickly as most of the deals sell out very shortly after the list is published. It’s a great e-mail to subscribe to if you are somewhat flexible with your travel plans and you are simply looking for a great deal on a vacation!
۹٫ Consider Hostelling
Especially if you are a young person, hostelling can be a wonderful, inexpensive and enriching way to see the world. The hostel culture seems to be most active in Europe, but there are hostels all around the world, even right here in Massachusetts! A hostel is a less expensive alternative to a hotel. The most common situation will be one in which you are staying in a room with other people that you don’t know (however, it is most often possible to get a private room for an additional fee). Hostel fees go down based on the number of people in the room, so you could stay in a room with several other people and pay very little money for your stay. You will usually have access to lockers in which to keep any valuables, and you should call ahead to see if you will need to bring your own sheets. Hostelling can be a great opportunity for you to save some money, but also to meet new friends from all around the world! It is possible to find hostels that are family oriented, but hostels are most often geared to single people, couples, or groups of friends. Check out hostelworld.com to learn all about the hostel culture and to find one that suits your needs.
۱۰٫ Take Your Vacation Off-Season
If there is a place you have always wanted to visit, consider doing so slightly before or after the “season” begins. There are so many benefits to doing so. You will avoid all the crazy crowds, and you can often negotiate a significantly lower rate than you would normally be charged. Some examples would be trying southern Maine or Alaska in early May or at the end of the season or Florida during the summer. The same idea would apply to staying places during the “off-peak” time of the week. If a certain location is most popular during the weekends, try staying Monday through Thursday. Your best bet is to look for bed and breakfasts, inns and independently owned hotels, as they will usually be more willing to negotiate the rates with you than the larger hotel chains would. This is also a great suggestion if you are planning a weekend getaway at the last minute. A small hotel or inn that is not full might be willing to cut you a deal if you call them Friday morning and they are not yet full for that weekend, especially if you are calling during an off-peak time of year. The down-side is that some of the regular attractions might be closed and the weather might be less than perfect for that area, but it’s a great option to see an area for far less money.
Please respond and let me know your own tips for using your vacation days less expensively. I’d love to hear them!