I’m itching to go on vacation and explore the great outdoors. It’s that perfect time of year here in Tennessee when the weather is ideal – not too hot, not too cold – and the bugs haven’t quite come out just yet. And even though I know this weather might last for a total of two weeks, it’s made me want to plan adventures with my family. It’s made me want to go outside.
But I also know that if we don’t plan to have fun we’ll instead find ourselves scrambling at the last minute to go somewhere, and spending a lot more -- both in cash and in leave -- on the adventure than we would've had we put a little thought into it.
Even planning ahead can result in a pricey vacation if you are only looking at expensive hotels in upscale, faraway destinations. But how can you plan a trip on the cheap and still make sure it's fun? Here's a few tips we're using this year.
Take advantage of long weekends.
Instead of burning a ton of leave this summer we’re using the “free” leave long weekends to do three or four day trips within driving distance. The Army, at least, is very good about giving families four-day and three-day “freebies” here and there, and instead of using them all for projects around the house, we’re packing up the car and going out into the world.
I am not an outdoors girl. I went camping once when I was a child and the dirt horrified me. Going to the bathroom in a hole in the ground makes my stomach churn.
But I’ve decided that I’m going to put on my best attitude and give camping a shot this year. As the mom of two boys and the wife of a guy who thinks dirt and the previously mentioned holes are just a part of his every day job, I figure I’m going to have to cave to this stuff eventually. Why not start now?
One of the bonuses of camping, though, is the price tag. At about $20 a day, a hotel will never beat the price of a campsite. If our initial gear investment is our estimated $400 – about the cost a four nights at a economic hotel – it will only take a handful of uses on trips where we camp instead of lodge for us to break even.
If buying camping equipment isn’t for you, or your more of a motor home or camper sort of person, check out your base MWR. Many MWR programs offer gear rental, including tents and campers, for a reasonable price.
I’m told that camping is also good for a lot of other things, like family bonding and getting plenty of fresh air. We’ll see about that.
Visit State and National Parks.
Almost every state is home to at least several National Parks, and every state has parks in its own system. Bust out a map and make a plan to visit some of these great places. Thanks to the free America the Beautiful pass which every military ID card holder (excluding retirees … sorry guys, I don’t make the rules. Please don’t kill the messenger!) can obtain, admittance to National Parks is completely free and tickets for many of their activities are discounted.
If the park you want to hit is more than day a trip, look at either camping or staying in a park lodge. Many state parks and some National Parks operate lodges on park land. They tend to cost about the same as a hotel, and their views are so much better.
Bring your own lunch.
Packing food for a trip can be a pain – but it can pay off in huge trip savings. You don’t have to eat every meal in your hotel room or at a picnic table for it to be worthwhile, either. Consider packing a cooler with breakfast and lunch items, but still getting dinner out like you always have. Our family of four spends between $15 and $20 at fast food restaurants on a good day. Just skipping a few of those stops can save a lot of cash. Bonus: our food choices will be probably be a lot healthier if we make pack them ourselves.
Look for discounts.
If you are bent on hitting up an amusement park this year, make sure you research whether or not it offers a military discount. Both Disneyland in California and Disney World in Orlando as well as the Disney Cruise Line and the Disney Resort offer discounts which you can read about here.
Five of the Busch Gardens parks also offer free once-a-year free admittance for Active Duty ID card holders and their dependents with a cap of four people free per family. You can read all the details about that here.
Many other parks, such as Cedar Point in Ohio, also offer discounts. That park, for example, gives it to active, retired or honorably discharged military members.
The lesson here is to do your research and always ask if a discount is offered so you don’t miss out.
Happy vacationing! Where are you headed this year?