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How to Take a Vacation for (Almost) Free!

Updated on September 10, 2013

Most people think of vacations as expensive. Taking a vacation is only possible maybe once or twice a year, and it requires thousands of dollars.

...where did this idea come from? I love to travel - love it! Having a limited income has never stopped me. Here are my top tips for taking a vacation and spending less than $100 all around.

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Take Short Trips

Studies have shown that a short holiday is equally as relaxing and enjoyable as a longer holiday. Essentially, you won't get any more out of a long vacation than out of a short one - and the longer the vacation, the more expensive it will be.

Take my advice and go on several short trips across the year instead of one or two long trips. It will mean you get to visit more places, take regular vacations and blow less money in one go.

My average trip length is 2-3 days - more than enough time to get away from the stresses of everyday life and enjoy some quality fun time, but not enough time to get tired of travelling and long for the comforts of home.

There are definitely some trips I would LOVE to take which I want to spend much more than a few days on - but that's a different post altogether. I'd advise people who want to travel further afield to spend months or even a year abroad, making it cost effective by working as a teacher in that country. If that's not an option, there is still plenty of fun to be had closer to home. Which brings me to...

Don't Go Far Afield

One of the biggest costs for a vacation is travel. Make travel expenses a non-issue by exploring a place close to home.

Americans have thousands of options within arm's reach, wherever they live - there's no excuse to blow thousands of dollars on plane tickets. If you want nature - find a state park close to home and drive there or book flights for less than $100. If you want a city - most places are within a few hours' drive of several great cities.

If you take a vacation close to home, all you need to pay for is a few gallons of gas - my husband and I traveled to DC and back for $60 worth of gas, and it cost even less to visit Erie and Cleveland.

Look at the hundreds of great things to do which don't require expensive traveling. You'll be surprised how many great traveling options there are which cost next to nothing.

Six Amazing Cities Within 4 Hours of My Location (Pittsburgh)

show route and directions
A markerPittsburgh (Start Point) -
Pittsburgh, PA, USA
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My starting point for travel.

B markerCleveland -
Cleveland, OH, USA
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C markerErie -
Erie, PA, USA
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D markerPhiladelphia -
Philadelphia, PA, USA
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E markerNew York -
New York, NY, USA
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F markerWashington DC -
Washington, D.C., DC, USA
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G markerBaltimore -
Baltimore, MD, USA
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How Often Do You Go on Vacation?

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Skip the Expensive Sights

Any city you visit will have tons of pricey attractions - but why bother visiting them when there are so many free things to do around the city. For free you can:

  • Visit museums and galleries (depending on the city)
  • Take a walk downtown
  • Take in some amazing views
  • Check out markets
  • See tons of famous sights and buildings without the guided tours

For example, my husband and I were in Seattle recently - skip the expensive art gallery and aquarium, don't bother with the exorbitant costs of the Space Needle. DO, however, check out Pike Place Market absolutely free (unless you buy things), take a stroll by the water and explore downtown, taking in some of the awesome sculptures and artwork on and near the buildings.

Spending money on the tourist traps is not necessary - there are so many cool sights and fun things to do for free.

Don't Stay in Hotels

I'll say it again - don't waste money on a hotel. Every trip my husband and I have taken, we have either stayed with friends, with family, or we have camped. It saves a lot of money - and for a short trip, it just adds to the fun.

This isn't just an option for trips into the countryside like visits to State and National Parks - it's a realistic option for city trips too.

For example, when we visited DC, we camped at a place 30 minutes outside the city and drove in each day to see the sights and enjoy ourselves - as a result we spent $20 a night instead of $100 or more on a hotel room.

Camping is a great thing to do with friends even as part of a city trip (in the Summer at least). Tell stories, have some wine and make a campfire. Ten times better than watching dull TV in an expensive hotel room.

Staying with friends and family is another great and free option - if you know anyone in a city you'd like to visit, ask if you can come and stay for a weekend. As a bonus, you might even get a free guide to tell you all the best cheap and free places to go during your vacation.

Still Want a Hotel?

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Save Pennies for Vacation Activities

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Plan Your Budget

It's a good idea to know how much money you have available and what your priorities are for your trip. If you're dying to visit some museums you know charge an entry fee, set aside some money for that. If you can't bear to miss out on some of the local wineries, make sure you put it in your budget.

For me and my husband, we always put some money aside for eating out when we take a trip. We love to try out local specialties on the menu in new cities, not to mention local microbrews. Don't miss out because you're trying to get by on as little money as possible - make sure you budget for a few things which you love to do. It's easy if you compromise on other costs, like travel and hotels.

A great way to get together some money for vacation without eating into your budget is to start a money jar. My husband and I put all our small change into a giant wine jug and I often set aside a few dollars from my paychecks in a separate account for fun activities (currently I have $250 saved for my planned trip to England in October).

Travel With a Friend

Traveling companions can make or break a budget. If you're traveling with a large group of friends or with a large family and kids, taking a dirt cheap vacation will be tricky - everyone will want to do different, usually pricey things, and you'll spend hundreds of dollars without even realizing it.

The way I do it is to travel with my husband - we have the same budget and have the same goals - have tons of fun for next to no money. Find a friend who likes to travel but wants to do it as cheaply as possible. If possible, avoid large groups. That way, you won't feel guilted into spending more than you want to in order to accompany your friends.

Traveling with a friend is also a money-saver as you can share meals (if you both have small appetites), share a hotel room (if you fork out for one) and split the price of gas and any other expenses like parking.

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    • emilynemchick profile image
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      Emily Nemchick 3 years ago from Pittsburgh, PA

      Thanks, ElleBee. Your trips sound wonderful - it's great to make the most of travelling in college; I got to spend a month in Iceland for just under 500GBP and it was one of the best experiences of my life.

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      ElleBee 3 years ago

      This is a great post! It is so true that you can find ways to travel without breaking the bank. When I was in college I got to do a lot of travel - I did a two week long trip to Italy, 10 days in Mexico, weeklong service trips in both Washington DC and Philadelphia, and a long weekend in Montreal. All of these opportunities were in one way or another affiliated with my school, and the only one which cost me more than $1000 was Italy! In the end I would still say two weeks in Italy, on a total spending that came to under $100 a day (for absolutely everything right down to souvenirs and at least one gelato a day) was still quite the steal!