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

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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