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Texas Vacation on a Budget

Updated on July 11, 2015

The Journey Begins

Our much-anticipated vacation to Texas lived up to our expectations and more! My only plan was to visit my adult children, both of whom had moved to Austin this past November. Arranging a non-stop flight to Austin out of Seattle, we started our vacation with an 1100 mile drive from eastern Montana to Seattle, visiting family and enjoying one of my favorite cities.

In preparation for my very first vacation in Texas, I looked up the top-10 things to do in Austin, Texas. With a teacher's salary budget, my goal was to find activities that would be fun for my 12 year old daughter, and that my adult kids and I could afford without breaking the bank! (smile)

The month before we left for our adventure in Texas, I watched the weather channel nearly every day, aghast at the endless rain and dangerous flooding that was happening throughout most of Texas, including Austin. Each time I looked at the 7-day forecast for the Texas capitol city,the week was filled with "lightning bolt" symbols and "100% chance of rain!". I began to worry that my flight would be cancelled, I'd drive the rental right straight into a flood, and most of all I was concerned for my kids' safety. The week before I was to leave, I texted the kids: "Mama wants sunshine! The rain has to stop by Monday" (the day of my flight). Well, sometimes Mama gets what Mama wants! Literally the day before I arrived, the rain stopped! The sun had come out, the city was green and beautiful, and all was right with the world!

After a two-hour line through the Seattle airport, at last arriving at the TSA line, we went through without incident. In fact, the agents were very nice to my 12-year-old daughter and also to me. I was very happy with the entire experience. The lightning fast train that took us to our gate was pretty exciting! When they say "hold on", they mean it! Whooooosh! And you're there! We liked it!

For various reasons, my children weren't able to meet me at the airport. With directions from friendly Texans, I easily found my vehicle (not mentioning the name) rental desk. I had reserved a car online (a little over $300 for the week, plus gas) but it still took some time to fill out the paperwork. They upgraded me to a larger vehicle (seated 8!) since the car I rented didn't have GPS. I loved the bigger vehicle, which though longer than my Blazer at home, drove like a dream. Unfortunately, it didn't have GPS after all, and without thinking (and without a clue about driving in Austin), I was given directions to get to 35; I remember her telling me to find Hwy 71 and take a sharp right? (or did she say left) Either way, I took 71 and didn't find 35, so kept going....and going...and going! My son called me to see where I was and I was in a bit of a panic,since I knew I wasn't going the right way. He told me to turn around and get back to the airport. I thought that was what I was doing, but ended up farther away! He called to see where I was, and I said, "I see a church, and a gas station..." and told him the street I was on. The trek the wrong direction continued; I found a turn-around and ended up on a two-lane that wasn't right either. Finally I came to a road with big pot-holes and a rickety water tower that said "Manville" on it! Later, after I found my way back, the "Manville" water tower was a source of great amusement and teasing! But eventually I found my way, with the help of my kids (on speaker phone), and we had a happy reunion and ate out at Cracker Barrel.

Needless to say, I soon found out how to use my phone for GPS and we never got lost again! Might help that my kids drove from then on!

Zilker Park

My flight had arrived around 6:00 p.m. After being lost for some time, around 11:00 p.m.we arrived at my son's apartment where we were to stay for the next 7 days. Early the next morning, my son wakes us up cheerfully,"Get ready! Let's go!" Driving my nice rental, he took us to Zilker Park. This was on my list of places to go in Austin, so I was excited to see it. Dubbed "Austin's Most Loved Park", we explored the botanical gardens for an hour or two, and still didn't see it all! So many different themes as we wandered from one path to another. The flooding of the past few weeks did affect some of our choices, since a few paths were closed. The botanical gardens are 30 acres, with Japanese gardens, rose gardens, prehistoric and native gardens, just to name a few. There is just a small fee for entering the park ($2 for adults; $1 for children).

Unknown to me at the time, there is more to Zilker Park than the botanical gardens. There are 351 acres on which outdoor-loving patrons can enjoy hiking, kayaking, jogging, or watch for the many activities held there, including the Zilker Kite Festival or the Raggae fest! Fun for chlidren and adults is the Zilker Zephyr, a mini train that takes tours around the park. Barton Springs Pool is located there as well. More on that next! There isn't a day in Austin where there is nothing going on!

Barton Springs

Barton Springs was our next stop. We'd forgotten our swimming bag back at my son's apartment, so we made a quick trip back, also stopping to pick up some sun screen. We arrived at Barton Springs in the early afternoon. The Barton Springs Pool was closed, due to the recent flooding. Apparently, some of the water from the Springs overflowed into the pool, bringing marine life with it! The pool is three acres in size, fed from the underground springs,with an average temperature of 68 degrees. There is an entrance fee for the pool ($3 adults, $2 juniors, $1 children), but as my son noted, most people just go to the "free" side....the actual Springs!

We found a place among the trees and waded into the cool springs. Lots of rocks make it necessary to wear swimming shoes. We had just picked up a few pair at Savers for about one dollar each. The rocks are big....some big enough to sit on and watch the activities. Many people were swimming with their dogs. One little dog was afraid because of the rushing water from the springs. Other little dogs had on life jackets and leashes, so they could play without being washed down the river.

My son made his way towards the entrance of the springs with some trouble and a little trepidation. He had seen many others leap into the rushing water and let themselves be carried down the river. Eventually, he crossed over the rocks and arrived at the springs entrance. He and another adventurer leaped in and were swept downriver. My son is 6'6", so avoiding the river rocks as he was plummeting down the river became an issue. He did it, though, and we appreciated his sense of adventure!

Across the river was a cement slab area where many enjoyed the sun. This was the desired side of the river, but because of the difficulty crossing it, we walked around. It was quite a jaunt, crossing a scenic bridge and eventually arriving on the other side. We saw many joggers, cyclists, dog-walkers, and people with kayaks as we strolled over the bridge and along the path. I made a note to myself that the next time we visit Austin, I want to rent a kayak. No reservations are necessary to rent single or double kayaks, canoes, and stand-up paddle boards. Just $15 per hour or $45 all day for each boat. We saw so many people enjoying this bargain, not only here but also on Lady Bird Lake, which we passed many times on 35.

We basked in the sun, enjoyed more wading in the water, laughed at the little chihauhau that kept leaping into the water with his tiny life jacket on. Eventually, we were ready to take a walk to an outdoor eatery. When there, we had to find a place to sit where there weren't dozens of birds sitting or swooping! (mostly seagulls) While we enjoyed our late afternoon meal, we saw the reason for the multitude of birds. The girl behind the counter was throwing food out for them! Eating out here was definitely in the budget. Around $20 for all three of us.

It was a wonderful day, enjoying the great outdoors of Austin. Day one, I mentally checked two of the top ten budget events off from my list!

State Capitol

Wednesday morning my daughter had a day off work, so it was her turn to entertain us! The State Capitol building is a beautiful structure. Our first stop was the visitor center. Entrance to the visitor center and the capitol! A group of young students were there on a field trip. My 12 year old daughter and I smiled at each other, since we had been out of school for two weeks already! We found some fascinating displays in the visitor center, including authentic clothing worn by various historic figures. Reading about the Civil War,we noted that Sam Houston was not in favor of it. Despite that,Texas joined the Confederacy. Sam Houston's son was one of them to volunteer. His mother gave him a parting gift of a small Bible that he could keep in his coat. As the story goes, during the battle of Shiloh, Sam Jr. was wounded and left for dead. An Army chaplain found him on the battlefield and identified him by the message Margaret Lea had placed in her son's Bible. The Bible had taken the bullet and saved his life. The Bible was on display in the Civil War room, complete with the bullet hole in the middle of it.

Also at the visitor center was the story of the Goddess of Liberty ... the statue of Freedom placed on the dome of the National Capitol in 1863, Texas . My young daughter posed in the cut-out of the Liberty Lady for a humorous photo!

On we walked across the lovely grounds to the Capitol building. We saw a blue jay, new for us from Montana, as we don't have them around our home. I was interested to see the monument dedicated to those who fought for "state's rights" in the Civil War. Other monuments were dedicated to heroic firemen, pioneers, and more. Many photo ops along the walk into the Capitol building.

Before entering, there is a check-in area where items and people are to walk through a TSA-style screening. Once inside, we realized that someone of importance was there, as a crowd and the media had gathered. We took an alternate route, stopping to look at the Library, then taking the elevator to the top to work our way back down the steps and see the various displays along the way. I found it interesting to look at the many governors through the years. George W. Bush and Rick Perry, of course, but one was named Hogg and we chuckled at that (Dukes of Hazazard, Boss Hogg!), since the gentlemen could indeed have passed for a Boss Hogg!

There were tours available in the building (no charge) , but we chose to do a self-guided tour. It is a lovely building, with a dizzy view of the ground floor as one looks over the ornate balcony! I noted that every single beautiful decorated door in the building had large brass hinges that said "Texas Capitol"!

After our visit to the Capitol, we still had an hour or more on the parking meter, so we strolled around and enjoyed the historic streets nearby, wondering with curiosity what the giant mound of dirt was doing in the middle of downtown. This was surrounded by orange fences, with no trespassing, so we (mostly I) gawked a little to see what was going on. Later, we found out that Austin was hosting the X-Games that week and this giant mound of dirt was there for an exhibition to start the Games! Skateboarding, BMX, Moto X Quarter Pipe and Big Air Doubles were three new events added to the X Games! Austin attracted 160,000 spectators over four days, making it the most attended X Games since 2004! Wistfully, we wished we could attend, but it was sold out already, besides the fact that the tickets were far out of reach financially (over $100 being the 'cheapest' !) Maybe next time....! I need to start saving today!

A couple of lazy days

The kids and I went to a movie after our Capitol visit, then they returned to their respective apartments. We rested well after a couple of very busy days. Both of my adult children had to work the next two days, so this was the time to wash clothes, relax a little, and walk around the neighborhood exploring. Down the street was a tiny convenience store, which was nondescript; however, the clerk behind the counter was a young Hispanic man with an animated attitude and entertained us with his sense of humor and lively conversation. We left with a couple of items and smiles!

I could have explored Austin while my kids were at work, but I'd lost a little confidence when I got lost the first day. A week later, when I returned to Seattle, my young daughter entered the destination information into the GPS on my smart phone. It was so easy to get around! I felt empowered again! So, in the future, when I have "down days" such as these,I will definitely go exploring. So many things to see and do there. Countless museums, including Blanton Museum - free on Thursdays! Spicy eateries, in particular the famous Austin food carts and Texas Barbeque. Geocaching is a lot of fun (also free!). "Murals of Austin", a geocaching adventure, takes you around to all the really cool murals in Austin. Mount Bonnell, the highest point in Austin's city limits with a spectacular view (the only cost would be the price of gas), and so much more. Next time....

My son did take us for a night drive to experience the beauty of Austin at Night! The Frost Tower (The Owl building) was lit up, along with the Capitol building and the other iconic towers on the drive. We loved it! He also took us down 6th Street to listen to the music. We couldn't go in, since my daughter it just 12, but we rolled our windows down and listened to each venue's musical performances as we cruised slowly down the street. In the event that we could have stopped in and listened to the music or had a drink, the cost varies from place to place. Sometimes there is no cover charge. Happy hour specials vary from place to place.

We then drove down Congress Avenue, crossing the bridge where hundreds and hundreds of people lined the bridge waiting to watch the bats emerge like a black cloud from under the bridge. Anywhere from 750,000 to 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats migrate to Austin (usually March or April) and camp out under the Congress Street Bridge. Here is the largest urban bat colony in North America! We drove slowly, watching people waiting for the bats, wondering if we'd see them. No luck for us, but I'm sure those who waited patiently were witnesses to an amazing sight! FYI - no charge to watch the bats...

Journey to the Gulf of Mexico

Before I arrived in Texas, my kids asked me what I'd like to do while there. I responded that we could do whatever they thought was fun, but one thing is sure....I wanted to see the Gulf of Mexico. So on Saturday, my son had to work until early afternoon. Immediately after, we got on 35 South to pick up my daughter and on we drove. 71 would take us to Houston. 71...the highway where I was originally lost! As we drove along, I saw the church and gas station that I'd mentioned to my son the first day. I said, "See! That's where I was!" They quipped, "I don't see Manville. I think you were imagining it!" Someday, I'll find that place again.....I'll show them! haha!

As we drove along 35, my oldest daughter saw Buc-ees and wanted to stop! We hadn't gone very far, but pulled over since it was a site that she wanted her Montana family to experience. So glad she wanted to show us! Between Austin and San Antonio is the largest in the Buc-ee's chain and the largest convenience store in Texas and the world! With over 60 pumps (and more being added). This Buc-cees was a close second! Inside, we were dizzy with how big the store was! Everything you could ever want or thought you needed was there. Even the entrance to the spacious, clean restroom was artfully decorated with beautiful home and yard items. (Later I read that Buc-cees has won awards for how clean their restrooms are!) We had a long ways to drive, so we didn't stay long, but it was definitely worth the stop! We purchased some traveling goodies for less than $20 (four people) and were on our way again. My kids almost had to drag me away from shopping (I wanted a Buc-cees t-shirt, a sovenier magnet, fudge, flavored popcorn, and maybe I needed some fruit or a smoothie,or....okay, okay, I'm going!) Although we didn't need gas at the moment,Buc-cees gas is a better bargain than your average gas station. (Just checked online and gas around Texas is about $2.57; Buc-cees was $2.29 or more, depending on the location).

The drive to Galveston (which we learned was actually an island! Cool!) is around 220 miles. Translate that into city driving, in particular Houston, that added up to between 4 and 5 hours. Houston is the most populous city in Texas, the fourth most populous in the U.S.A.! We drove through without incident, just a little slower due to the fact that it appeared that most of the more than 2 million Houston residents were on the road for weekend destinations just like us. We later met others from Houston in Galveston, a popular retreat from their busy city lives.

As the sun was setting, we drove over the long bridge that took us onto Galveston Island. My college friend had made arrangements for us to stay about 12 miles past Galveston, past Jamaica Bay. He gave us directions on how to arrive there, but we somehow missed the turn and ended up on Broadway. A happy misdirection! I immediately fell in love with Galveston as we drove down Broadway......

The two days we spent in Galveston requires another Hub. We will definitely return to Texas as soon as my budget allows, hopefully sooner rather than later! Check out my next Hub, where I will convince all of you that Galveston is worthy of any songs written about it!

The Capitol in Austin was beautiful, especially at night when it was lit up, center of a beautiful downtown.  Love the "owl building" Frost Tower.
The Capitol in Austin was beautiful, especially at night when it was lit up, center of a beautiful downtown. Love the "owl building" Frost Tower.
Zilker Park in Austin.  So many different genres of gardens. The Butler Window is from the home of brick manufacturer Michael Butler. The unusual key-shaped window was the focal point of the house built in 1887 and contains granite.
Zilker Park in Austin. So many different genres of gardens. The Butler Window is from the home of brick manufacturer Michael Butler. The unusual key-shaped window was the focal point of the house built in 1887 and contains granite.
Iconic view of Austin at night! Frost Tower (see the owl?) on the right of the Capitol. Stunning skyline!
Iconic view of Austin at night! Frost Tower (see the owl?) on the right of the Capitol. Stunning skyline!

Zilker Botanical Gardens

Barton Springs


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