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Home » Food & Drink, Travel

Our $346 Cheap Vacation: How we Travel on a Shoestring Budget

Last updated by on 11 Comments

The wife and I just got back from a nice 6-day, 5-night vacation of backpacking, wine tasting, and sight-seeing in an area that Good Morning America recently voted the most beautiful place in America – the Grand Traverse region of Michigan, which includes the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park and Lakeshore.

Over the trip, we spent a grand total of $346.

Most of the things we did seem second nature to us now, but looking back on it, I am realizing we have been saving a hell of a lot of cash.

I wanted to share how we do it so that readers could pick up a few cheap vacationing tips (no matter where it is you choose to vacation) and share a few of their own money-saving travel tips.

cheap vacation

Lodging: $10

3 of the nights, we couch-surfed. If you’re not familiar with couchsurfing, you basically stay with a couchsurfing host at their residence for free. We like couchsurfing because you get to visit with and learn things about the community from some pretty cool people.

The host we stayed with even offered us our own room and bathroom.

One of the rules of couchsurfing is you don’t pay the host, but it is always nice to present them with a gift or do them a favor. So we ended up buying and cooking a dinner as a thank you.

The $10 we did end up spending for “lodging” was for backcountry camping permits on an island as we backpacked and stayed on the trail for the other two nights.

If you haven’t tried backpacking or couchsurfing, give it a shot. It will save you a ton on your vacations.

Transportation: $154 ($84 car + $70 boat)

We started our vacation transportation savings by choosing a location we could drive to versus flying. That saved us anywhere from hundreds to $1,000 or more.

The second thing we did to save was we drove at premium fuel efficiency levels for our vehicle. I’ve found out that if I drive the Malibu at around 65-69 mph, I can get about 35 mpg on it, higher than the 32 mpg EPA estimate. We used about 23 gallons at an overall 30 mpg average, costing us $84.

We then took an hour long boat ride out to an island where we camped, which cost us $70 combined. No way to avoid this expense because we are not good swimmers.

A reflective question to ask yourself: before paying thousands to fly around the world, have you exhausted all travel destinations within a 250-mile radius?

Entertainment: $15

Outside of being one of the most beautiful places in America, if you have not been to the Grand Traverse region of Michigan, it is also quickly becoming one of the best wine-making regions in the world. It is located at the 45th parallel (same as other famous wine regions) and has a unique micro-climate, as it is surrounded by the beautiful Lake Michigan. Over 30 wineries call it home, and unlike wine regions in California, most do not charge a tasting fee.

We visited about 20 wineries and paid $10 total in tasting fees. We like wine, and we like buying local, so we purchased a year’s supply of wine on the trip.

cheap trip

We also backpacked for 2 full days. Backpacking and camping may have some up-front costs to buy gear, but once you do, the cost savings over hotel lodging is significant. The hotel-to-restaurant-to-entertainment-to-hotel type of vacation is definitely not for us. We like getting out and being active. Backpacking keeps us entertained, active, fit, and allows us to see and experience things we wouldn’t if we were stuck in a hotel room.

Additionally, we fit in a round of disc golf at the best disc golf course we’ve played, and most disc golf courses, including this one, do not charge for you to play.

Explore nature as entertainment! It’s cheap and good for the soul.

Food: $167

This was our highest expense. Traverse City has been rated as the #1 “foodie” city in America. I’m not quite sure what a “foodie” is, but I would assume it is someone who likes to eat tasty food. If that’s what it means, I guess we are both foodies. There are a ton of great restaurants with a lot of locally sourced agriculture due to the great food growing environment in the region.

However, we were still able to keep our expenses pretty low. We saved on dining by:

  • splitting all but two meals
  • never spent more than $30 combined per meal
  • purchased a number of meals at the grocery store
  • skipped two lunches by eating a late breakfast and snacking
  • had 6 cheap backpacking meals

Out of 30 total possible meal servings between the two of us, only 7 were purchased at a restaurant.

Cheap Vacation Discussion:

  • What are some of your favorite money-saving travel tips?
  • Where would you recommend vacationing for cheap?

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11 Comments »
  • Alex says:

    Neat article, G.E.

    Sounds like you two had a wonderful time. Being from the Midwest and enjoying the outdoors, I’ll have to look into planning a similar trip this fall.

    I have to ask, which disc golf course did you play? Flip City? Hickory Hills? I’ve made a few disc golf pilgrimages in the past (headed up for our annual Highbridge Hills trip soon) but I’ve never trekked into Michigan.

    Some quality disc golf and wine tasting (on the cheap) sounds like a perfect compromise for the girlfriend and I.

    • G.E. Miller says:

      Hickory Hills! I’ve played a lot of great courses (including Flip City, which is a story in itself). I’d put hole 19 up against any out there – amazing view.

      Flip City is the weirdest experience. Amazing course. In the middle of nowhere (GPS gave out), you pull up to a private residence and the guy has a bit of a junk heap out front and a box you can put a donation in. How he built the course on his own? I have no idea. But it’s a lot of fun. Bring bug spray though.

  • LC says:

    Great Blog! My husband and I started backpacking a month ago. We spent the winter getting all of our gear, and it is now paying off. Our two trips were so liberating. It takes maybe 45 minutes to pack, and we are on the road. I am now going to have to start a competition with ourselves to see how little we can spend. Thanks for the idea.

  • Wow, those pictures are amazing! Being a midwesterner, and a wine lover, I will add the Grand Traverse region to my travel list.

    A lot of people would not consider backpacking or even car camping as vacationing. Personally, I like a mix of city/hotel and country/backpacking/camping vacations.

    For city/hotel vacations using Priceline’s Name Your Own Price I have scored very nice hotels for obnoxiously low prices. Or using a points credit card to earn free stays.

    For country/backpacking/camping vacations using parks, hostels, couchsurfing, and homestays helps keep lodging costs very low.

    Food, like you mentioned, I find to be one of the most expensive travel costs but that can be kept low by using refillable water bottles, having healthy snacks on-hand like trail mix, getting food to go from restaurants and eating it outside, and of course utilizing grocery stores when possible.

    Mr. Everyday Dollar

  • JCB says:

    Long time reader and Traverse City native, here! (Though I’ve relocated to the southern part of the state for work, my wife and I still visit the area frequently to see family.)

    While I enjoy the articles on 20somethingfinance.com, and value balancing lifestyle and frugality, like is so often prescribed here, I have just one contrary tip for your readers should they visit Traverse City:

    Feel free to bring a fully loaded wallet, and leave with it empty! Us locals appreciate it!

    Glad your enjoyed your trip!

    ~ JCB

  • Julian says:

    Couchsurfing sounds like a great way to save money and to get a taste of what a place is really like – I wouldn’t mind giving that a go. When looking for accommodation I’ve also found it can be a good idea to resolutely avoid any of the places mentioned in popular guidebooks – whilst they may well be nice places, they’re often able to charge a premium as they’re the first place people look.

  • Christine says:

    Hi there,

    I just wanted to let you know that I loved this article. I visited Sleeping Bear Dunes many times as a young child, and now, as a young adult, I’m hoping to take my son back there to visit.

    I think it’s pretty awesome how you were able to keep your food expenses so low – and these are exactly the kind of tips I think would be beneficial to my blog readers.

    Would you like to share content with my company blog? Email me and let me know!

    Thanks!
    Christine

  • Chris says:

    Where is your first picture taken? Michigan is my favorite place to go on vacation. It looks like Sleeping Bear Dunes but where we went, there was not another lake and that little strip of land. I’d love to know where this was. Thank you.

  • Janet says:

    Great post! I’m inspired!

    I am curious though – what do you do with your pets when you travel? My husband and I often go out of town and try to find friends to pet sit, but anything longer than 3 days, we’re usually out of luck… thus we rarely travel for more than 3 days at a time. Any tips for pet-sitting?

  • Maggie says:

    I’m currently in the planning phase of a 20-day roadtrip so this post is much appreciated! My big tip for saving money on vacations would be to work for a hotel chain, I work for Hyatt and thanks to employee discounts and free nights I should come in under $500 for all of our hotel nights combined.

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