A Penny Saved – Travel Edition

Frugal is en vogue these days. With ‘economic downturn’ and ‘bail-out’ and ‘foreclosure’ part of everyday vernacular, it’s no wonder the national pocketbook is a bit pinched. While far from experts, our little family has developed, implemented, and maintained some concrete money-saving habits.

Since we’re in the throes of dreaming about our upcoming vacation to New York City, I thought I’d start by outlining some of the ways we save money while traveling.

A few side-notes. I think, in general, all people have areas where it is natural and easy to be frugal. Take vacationing for instance – while we choose to save money on entertainment (we’re a no cable/satellite and one-movie-theatre-experience-a-year-on-cheap-night kind of family), we “splurge” on travel.

Secondly, none of these are earth-shattering in their complexity. If you happen to think they’re mind-numbingly obvious, you would be correct. We’re not rocket scientists here…

Airfare

frugal4

Flying ain’t cheap, especially when you add in the arm-long list of airport fees.

  1. Shop around : check different airlines and pay attention to (and if possible avoid) peak traffic times (holidays/weekends)
  2. Be flexible: try a variety of departure dates, and consider less-than-ideal departure/arrival times. Taking a red-eye can result in some pretty major savings, if you’re willing to suffer the trade-off of exhaustion.
  3. Use points: most major credit cards come with reward incentives that involve airfare. Aeroplan would be familiar to most, but lots of other options exist.
  4. Drive: for local vacations, consider driving. Remember, though, that it’s not always the cheapest option if you factor in parking fees (which can be high in larger cities), gas, and the wear-and-tear on your car.

Accommodations

1. Do your research:

  • Read the reviews: we always read the reviews; don’t dismiss a hotel with a lower-than-you’d-hoped-for overall rating. Maybe one reviewer doesn’t like the shower pressure, or is upset the TV doesn’t get more channels. Lots of superfluous (to us at least) things can bring overall ratings down, but are relatively inconsequential. Reviews also reveal red flags like cases of food poisoning, excessive noise, bedbugs etc.,). TravelAdvisor.com/.ca is a great resource.
  • Factor in the “extra‘s”: if a cheaper hotel room means you’ll end up doubling transportation costs to and from the beach/city center etc., it may not be your best alternative.

2. Get a Continental Breakfast: self explanatory. Eliminates the cost of breakfast and is an added convenience (families can split up breakfast/showering/morning preparation). We usually eat a large breakfast, and then eat a late lunch/ early supper, only paying for one meal the whole day.

3. Use reward points: also self explanatory. Again, most credit cards offer points that can be redeemed at large hotel chains. If you travel often, consider collecting loyalty points for a particular chain. CAA/AAA often have preferred locations where discounts are available.

4. Shop online: we’ve booked using Expedia with good success, and there are a variety of websites that offer discounted rates. In some cases you can bid on room prices and walk away with large discounts (this is generally a last minute scenario).

5. Consider Bed and Breakfasts: while this is a personal choice, if possible, we prefer staying in bed and breakfasts. By shopping around, we usually find rates to be lower and service to be much better than traditional hotel options. Also, it’s hard to beat homemade food in the morning.

6. Stay with family and friends: we often schedule vacations around visiting family/friends. This can free up extra funds to take in local attractions and often saves precious resources on food costs too, since cooking at home becomes an option.

Food

1. Continental Breakfast: already noted above; while the quality can vary, a continental breakfast is a good way to keep food costs low. We eat a large breakfast, and generally have a small snack mid-afternoon, reducing costs to one meal per day. Can you tell we really think CB’s are a good deal?!

2. Plan your splurges: We choose to eat relatively inexpensive meals for the majority of our trip (think Subway or healthy snacks), and then plan a few special outings (in New York we wanted to eat at the Olive Garden in the middle of Times Square, and budgeted accordingly).

3. Cook at home: many hotels have mini-fridges that can hold some rudimentary sandwich ingredients, yogurt, and granola bars. If you are based out of a home/condo, consider cooking at home for most meals, and again, planning occasional splurges.

4. Eat novelty food: buy street vendor fare in New York City, eat traditional Danish pastries in Denmark, have Key Lime Pie in Florida…it’s a great way to combine food AND entertainment since food traditions are part of local culture.

frugal5

Fresh churros in Denmark.

Entertainment

1. Free is best: well, best for the pocketbook at least. Many museums have “pay-what-you-can” options, or flat out free days. We found this repeatedly in Denmark where most museums were free to the public at least one day per week. Free concerts/outdoor plays are common in summer months; libraries often host free events.

frugal2

The Ringling Museum in Florida – free on Mondays.

2. Pick one of the two…or three: when we visited New York City, two of the main attractions are the Empire State Building and the Rockefeller Centre. We chose one option (the “Top of the Rock” tour) knowing the two experiences would be so similar.

frugal9

3. Plan splurges in advance. We KNEW going to New York City we would spend well over $100 to go visit Broadway. So, it came as no surprise when we spent nearly $150 accomplishing this goal. In Florida we wanted to visit the Kennedy Space Centre. Again, research your options, and the price points of each. Set a budget and chose entertainment selections accordingly.

frugal3

Lucky enough to see one of the last shuttles out on the launch pad.

4. Walk, walk, walk. I’ll touch on this below, but one of the best ways to fill time, see a location, and save money is to walk.

Transportation

1. Walk/Bike: Cabs and subway passes can add up. As much as possible, try to walk or take a bike. It’s the best way to see a city, and healthier for you and the environment.

frugal12

The HighLine – one of our highlights from New York City. Free, and a good excuse to get some exercise!

2. Carpool: when cars are necessary, when possible, try to carpool or consider public transit (usually the best option in larger cities where driving and parking are a nightmare)

Souvenirs:

1. Start a tradition: it’s easy to get caught up in the world of souvenirs and not know when to stop (like the advertisement we saw the other day of someone trying to sell a giant stuffed M&M doll – originally $300).

  • We mail ourselves a postcard from every spot we visit. It’s cheap, so fun to arrive home and have a postcard…from yourself…and very inexpensive
  • We try to buy a small piece of blue stained glass (random, I know)

I’ll Have a Frugal Christmas

I love everything about the upcoming Christmas holiday and I suspect the majority of my posts from here on out will have some connection to the Christmas theme. I apologize in advance to any real-life Scrooge’s out there. The warm glow of twinkly lights, smell of pine needles and romance of freshly fallen snow is just too much for my weak psyche to resist. And cute babies…yes, incredibly, babies are even cuter at Christmas.

Every year when this time rolls around I succumb to the bittersweet nostalgia (does that make me sound old? I’m not even 30 yet) of Christmas past, and settle into a “nesting” phase not unlike that which attacked before Abby was born. Ornaments must hang just so and special mementos take their familiar place on our shelf. Each year, when certain Christmas traditions re-enter our lives, I’m struck by how quickly time passes. Like the (original) Grinch that Stole Christmas – I only watch it once a year, and every.single.year when I see it, I could swear it was only a matter of a few weeks that had passed. I love that. Being sentimental is just a way of life for me, and I love to reminisce about Christmases growing up which were, in many ways, of the Hallmark variety.

What makes that comment all the more special – our Christmases were virtually “perfect”, yet my parents never had much excess money for presents. So my fond memories of Christmas revolve around traditions and caroling and church pageants, not around toys and fancy gadgets. I read a statistic recently that the average Canadian spends about $750 on Christmas gifts. That’s a whole lotta molah. And while we might have a bit more to spare than my parents did back in the day…we still put considerable effort into keeping the financial burden to a minimum. Here are just a few of our ideas.

1. Limit Gift Giving

Maybe the simplest tactic of all. Take a long, hard look at all those sweet folks on your gift-giving list – do they all belong? Sometimes a Christmas card and small stack of cookies will suffice. For other situations, try suggesting a name exchange. This can drastically limit the number of gifts you have to buy (especially in large families) and it means you can afford to splurge and give that one person a much nicer gift than would be possible if your funds were stretched for gift-giving to endless siblings etc.,

2. Buy Early

This is likely my favourite tip because it’s something I fall back on each and every year. Buying early runs deep in my veins; when my sisters would return to the US after their university Christmas Break, they would shuttle back a carload of Christmas gifts. The border guards would always make a crack about them delivering their gifts late (this would have been a week after Christmas). They got some pretty strange looks when they’d tell them…each and every year…that these were actually gifts for the NEXT Christmas, as in 340-some-odd days away, and my parents didn’t want to have to mail them down.

Try keeping a running list of items you’re looking for (when dear hubby mentions something in passing, add it to the list immediately, or you’ll both forget the request). When an item comes on sale or you manage to snag a great coupon (there are limitless websites dedicated to couponing/deal-finding etc – in Canada my favourites are Mrs January and Save a Loonie), buy it. Not only does it save time and energy during the holidays, it spreads the financial stress over the whole year AND will almost inevitably save you money.

The best example is Christmas-related paraphernalia. Don’t forget about the cost of bags and bows and wrapping and cards – these can add up quickly, especially if you’re looking for high quality merchandise. Get things a week after Christmas at 75% off and you’ll be laughing when others are forking out full price the following year. I always pick up some Christmas platters, pretty ornaments and Christmas books too – all make great gifts for friends and family and I get them at a fraction of the cost.

3. Start a tradition.

I give one friend a Christmas ornament every year (which, true to form, I snag for a few bucks heavily reduced after Christmas – sorry Julia, the cat’s out of the bag). Two of my closest friends receive earrings every year. Instead of being boring, I enjoy the thrill of finding the perfect set (at a good price), but am never stressed because I know what I’m going to end up giving them. Every Christmas Eve John and I (and now Abby) exchange a new ornament; again, we buy them right after Christmas the preceding year at a fraction of the cost.

4. Give necessities/consumables

My parents never had an excess of money when we were growing up, but our Christmas stockings were always overflowing. [Don’t let that fool you; one year the only thing I asked for was an alarm clock (I was like 7), and I got the world’s worst alarm clock that they bought at a pawn shop]. We would get a few splurges, but the majority of gifts were necessities. Toothpaste, deodorant, and socks (I have a whole new appreciation for this now – socks are expensive!). Funnily, we would all sit around with our stash of toothpaste and soap and other bathroom paraphernalia and as soon as the gifts were all unwrapped every one of us would trudge to the bathroom and put every last item back under the sink – into the stockpile from which it came. Mom knew the thrill of opening gifts was just as important to us as what was actually inside.

Food items are a nice compromise – a smidgen less personal than underwear, but something sure to be used: I buy John his favourite chocolate bar (Skor), his favourite mustard, some smoked gouda, and usually some specialty cashew or peanut. Nice chocolate, a specialty olive oil…food is a great option.

When we were married I was blessed with THREE wedding showers – my favourite, by far, was one thrown by my sister. She hosted a “household supplies” party, and I’m STILL using some of the items I received: clothespins, matches, pot holders, bucket and mop, dishtowels…think about gifting a new bride with a nice set of oven mitts stuffed with kitchen supplies or a college student a laundry basket with dryer balls, detergent, and some fabric covered hangers.

5. Give gift cards (but be creative)

I love gift cards (or money in general). In fact the hubby and I decided unanimously to request gift cards and money from our wedding guests. Giving a modest sized gift card, along with a few inexpensive extras can be a great, and simple idea. I buy gift cards in bulk when there is a promotion (ie: get store points if you spend $150 on gift cards – Shoppers does this in Canada). A quick Google search would provide far more insightful ideas I’m sure, but off the top of my head:

a) Movie Pack: get a gift card to a local theatre/rental store (do those even exist now) and place it in a popcorn bowl (DollarStore) with a bag of skittles (or candy of your choice), some popcorn seasoning, and a bottle of pop.

b) Shopping card: get a store card and place it inside a fun wallet (you can find these new or gently used at consignment shops for a few dollars) or coin purse (LOVE these ones by Zesty Notion)

c) Clothing store card: buy some socks or a scarf and tuck the card in along with the clothing item

d) Grocery card: buy a small reusable bag and fill it with a grocery list pad, pen, and any other grocery shopping essentials.

6. Think homemade

The explosion of Pinterest has put more than ample crafty/DIY gifts at our fingertips. This is a great way to spread Christmas cheer to the neighbours and bus driver without breaking the bank. A standard batch of cookies is a good start; my sister used small springform pans to make miniature coffee cakes – these were a big hit with pre-school teachers and the like. A lot of it is in the packaging too; have the kids help make homemade tags out of construction paper (and kill two birds with one stone: entertain child -check; complete gift – check…they can make tags whilst you make the cookies).

I make custom framed sayings sometimes – I use Microsoft Office or Photoshop, and print off using the highest quality printer settings.

A caveat to this: time IS money, so homemade projects can quickly become an obsession that just don’t make much sense economically.

7. Give Your Time:

“Get Out of Bed Free Cards” for late bedtimes for the kiddos; give your husband a certificate to vacuum the car; offer to shovel your neighbour’s driveway every Monday in January…

Just a few more things:

Keep track of purchases: it’s easy to keep seeing more and more presents that are so “X”…if you have a list of ideas, work from that and don’t deviate (think shopping with a full tummy and armed with a grocery list vs. shopping on an empty stomach and whimsy)

Set a limit: decide how much you can/want to afford per person, and stay within the budget

Don’t discount used: my sister bought my nephew a gently-used Foosball table one year for Christmas off Kijiji for less than $40. While used gifts are obviously not always appropriate, you can get some things new-and-in-package or for larger items, gently used could be quite appropriate (a children’s play set) at thrift shops of off Kijiji.

This post is getting longer than my list for Santa this year, so I’ll be back later with some specific suggestions of inexpensive gift ideas (until then, here’s a good start for ideas from Jenna’s Journey).