How to Cure Cabin Fever with Near-empty Pockets
It’s not possible to travel for nothing. Going anywhere, even to the grocery, costs a little. It is possible, however, to travel on the slimmest of budgets and have a good time for almost nothing. The trick is to plan, change expectations, and recognize fun and excitement does not always require expensive tickets, fancy rooms or elaborate meals. In fact, there’s an entire world waiting to be discovered apart from typical money-hungry vacation excursions. It’s a world where a dollar goes a long, long way, even in these troubled times.
There’s a difference between “cheap travel” and traveling on a shoestring. “Cheap” means less expensive. When kids grumble they’re bored the first thought a parent has is to plan a vacation without breaking the bank. “Where can we go cheap?” Thus begins an online search for lower priced motels, discounts for theme parks, less expensive destinations. Those things are out there, sometimes, but “less expensive” is relative. Is it a bargain to pay $60 for a room at a coastal town where room rates average $150 a night? Maybe. More likely the $60 room, if available, is the kind that would go for $30 not too far away from the coast. Who has $60 for a room anyway? Who wants to spend $60 on a room? Not the shoestring traveler.
Traveling on a shoestring means stretching sixty bucks ’till it squeals. Sixty bucks is two days’ meals for four people! It can be done. The traveling public throws away millions of dollars every year on expensive vacations that are no more fun, relaxing or exciting than can be had for a couple hundred bucks.
What are the necessities of life? Food and shelter. These a person must have. Beyond them there’s only one other physical requirement for travel: transportation. The only other requirements for shoestring vacations are those that caused the fever in the first place: restlessness, a sense of adventure, and curiosity.
Americans have an idealistic and unrealistic view of what a vacation should be. It’s a view fueled by countless shows and movies in which people flit around at resorts eating truffles and sleeping in exotic beach-front bungalows or fancy high-rise hotels. Advertisements complete the view, telling bored kids how wonderful a ski vacation in Aspen or an Orlando adventure is. When the proverbial parent begins to plan the proverbial vacation the first thing that pops to mind are those kinds of trips. “How to visit Hawaii on a budget” goes in the search box. But the parent knows it’s not going to happen. There’s no such thing as affordable when it comes to Hawaii vacations or even most popular state-side destinations. Parents and kids begin a downward spiral, knowing they can’t get what they want. There’s no way to make a “$500 per day” vacation fit a $35,000 a year salary. It can’t be done.
Are high-dollar destinations and expensive vacations all there is? Whatever happened to the old saying, “the best things in life are free?” Nothing! The best things in life ARE free, or so inexpensive that almost anyone can enjoy them. The best vacations are not always what people think they are. Not only are “destinations” over priced but they’re filled with hidden costs, often over-crowded, and completely commercialized.
Shoestring travel begins with scratching “typical vacation” from the lexicon. The shoestring traveler must forget travel brochures and visit travel websites very sparingly. (Commercial travel agents are entirely out of the picture. All they sell these days are cruises. Nothing else makes them any money.) The only planning tools required for a shoestring vacation are a map and a bucket full of curiosity. That is it.
A whole world of possible destinations await the shoestring traveler. America is not made up only of seacoast resorts, mountain villas or New York style big city entertainment. Determining the destination requires nothing more than laying out a map on the table and looking for interesting possibilities. No matter where anyone lives there are cool and exciting destinations within a few hours’ drive. Most people live within a hundred miles of some of the most interesting places in the world and never visit them. Those places are rarely listed in travel brochures or even on state travel sites because there’s no money to be had promoting them. A good shoestring traveler can find more places to visit than there is time to go.
Kids will complain. “But,” they’ll say, “we wanted…. theme park” or “snow skiing” or “condo on the beach.” Kids TV is notorious for advertisements that induce kids to persuade parents to take high-dollar vacations. And kids, especially small ones, do not always understand why parents can’t afford them. All they know is what they’ve seen on TV or heard from friends of wealthier families who have gone on expensive trips. Parents must get the family involved in the whole process and allow the kids to help choose destinations. Convince them the alternatives are equally fun and exciting as expensive destinations. If done right the kids will have just as much fun and be full of stories to tell friends when they get back.
The key in making a destination choice is to find what everyone is most interested in and look for places to visit related to interests. Theme parks and resorts rarely involve the things children or adults are personally interested in. Old cars or history or animals or whatever, less expensive or free alternatives can be found with a little imagination and a bit of digging.
When the destination is chosen it’s time for making the trip happen. This brings ’round the three requisites again: food, shelter, transportation. Transportation is essential. The type of transportation available will determine several other things and will have a bearing on how little will be spent over all. America’s obsession with the automobile comes in handy at this point. If a family has no dependable vehicle costs for a trip anywhere beyond public transit can get very expensive very quick. Renting a car might be a far better option than trains. Shoestring travelers can hardly afford plane tickets.
Best of all worlds is a van or truck with camper that can serve as shelter. With such a vehicle a family can be gypsies for a few days, perhaps a little scary at first but definitely something new to do. Rather than saying, “we can’t afford a motel” a parent can say, “we’re going to be gypsies!”
Where does a smart gypsy spend the night? Not just anywhere. City ordinances and parking rules eliminate places like parks or shopping malls. There are places one can go to spend the night, however, that are safe and free or cheap. Inexpensive camping areas are one alternative. Camp sites provide relatively safe places to overnight with restrooms close by. Some campsites have showers, too. They’re usually the best alternative when traveling by car. An inexpensive tent and a few cots are a worthy investment that can be used over and over. A tent and a couple cots can be bought for less than the price of one night at a three-star hotel. Camping does not have to be an elaborate affair. The objective is simply to get some sleep, not be a pioneer.
Highway rest areas are a possibility, depending on laws in a given state. Camping is rarely allowed but many people hunker down in their vehicles to sleep over night in rest areas. That’s part of why they’re there. If this is an option be sure it’s a large, well lit rest area with clean and functional restrooms. Do not stay in a remote or high-crime location. Stick to interstate or main highway rest areas.
Another option if travelers have a van or truck big enough for all to sleep in is a truck stop. Truck drivers, of course, spend most of their nights in sleepers at truck stops. There’s often one or two pickups, vans, or even cars with someone catching a bit of sleep somewhere on the lot. A few truck stops restrict four-wheeler (what truck drivers call cars and pickups) parking but large ones rarely do. If there are no signs limiting parking and there’s plenty of space a truck stop is often a very safe alternative. It also provides access to restrooms. Personal grooming and teeth brushing is quite common in those restrooms, too, since drivers do it all the time. Truck stops often have showers for a small fee. Truck stops are shoestring travelers’ best friends.
Most people worry about safety when sleeping in a vehicle in camp sites or truck stops. There’s always a chance crime will catch up to a traveler but it’s more likely to happen in a four-star hotel parking lot than it is in a well lit, highly traveled truck stop or a campsite. Shoestring travelers who follow basic safety rules such as staying together, avoiding high crime areas or remote areas at night should be perfectly fine.
If a gypsy adventure seems to dangerous or cumbersome, camping or motels are the only options for shelter. For those traveling by train and public transit, of course, motels are the only option. Motels can be real budget-breakers. It’s amazing how millions of people spend several hundred dollars for ten or twelve hours in a room with a bed. When looking for a room stay away from hotel and travel sites, even those that offer “half price.” They’re talking half off the “rack rate” which is always way above what most people ever pay. They’re also always offering chain motels whose rates are higher. Half off $150 a night is still $75! Too much! But one must sleep! What to do?
There are a couple of options. First, there’s Priceline.com. It’s the only website that allows naming a price with the hope of getting a room very cheap. Following their prompting will rarely get a really good bargain but with a few simple pointers a very low rate for a nice room can be gotten. One should not try to get a room on Priceline until the day before travel. (An alternative should be waiting in the wings if a cheap room can’t be bought on priceline.) Hotels will not let rooms go for thirty bucks until they’re sure they will be empty otherwise. Go for larger cities, small towns do not have enough options to allow for negotiation. Choose a really low price, $25 or so, choose one city area and four star hotel. Work down from those and inch up on the price. If there’s a chance the trip won’t happen take out the insurance option. Rooms are paid for in advance and it’s very hard if not impossible to get a refund. With a little practice and haggling good rooms can be had for very low rates on Priceline.com.
Besides Priceline travelers can simply use online yellow pages to find low-end motels. Mom and pop establishments are quite often just as clean and nice as big hotels and far less expensive. Look at those near the destination. Small town motels are more likely to be better than “cheap motels” in cities that might cater to a “different” kind of clientele. Check them out on Google Earth or Bing birds-eye view. Make sure they’re not in a high crime area. If all looks well call them for rates and book a room.
Once transportation and shelter are taken care of the only other necessity is food. It’s common for travelers to toss budgets eating out at expensive restaurants or even by frequenting fast food places. Food is food. Nobody has to “eat out” all the time, not even on a trip. Carry an ice chest and sandwich foods. Eat in parks or on the road. Want burgers? Pick up some from the dollar menu of a burger outlet and eat them in a park or the car with chips and inexpensive drinks. Buy a gallon of water and share it. Flavor it up with a powdered drink mix or instant tea. Rather than having three meals just skip one and have a pack of cheese crackers. Those who camp can cook some good meals on a grill.
Shoestring travel is all about creativity and planning. There’s another thing, however, that shoestring travelers must have: humility. Americans too often try to live at a certain social level even when their income does not allow it. That’s why banks are so wealthy and credit is such a nightmare. It’s simple enough to live day to day scrimping on meals and cutting corners but vacations are something else. Vacations are things people talk about. Who wants to let their friends know how they had sandwiches at a park in a little town and slept in their van or the Wayside Inn? Vanity and pride prevent having a good time. They must be set aside. A couple hundred bucks on a credit card easily paid off might be ok but creating a couple thousand dollars debt just for a “dream vacation” is not a smart thing to do.
The world of the gypsy and the vagabond is very different from that of common folk who have houses, jobs and “ordinary” lives. Shoestring travelers enter that world if only for a time. It can be a very exciting adventure with a little planning. Manage the necessities. Make saving money a challenge. Then go out into the world and explore! Excitement and adventure is around every corner. Find it!