How We Save Money on Vacation

Budget-Friendly Vacation

All work and no play makes Jack/Jane a dull boy/girl. As much as Johnny and I talk about saving and budgeting, we’re also big proponents of having some fun. A yearly vacation is mandatory in this household, even if it’s just a weekend trip (and some years that’s all it’s been). But I call bull on anyone who embraces the “What happens on vacation stays on vacation” spending motto.

We all know the truth. Within a day, a few hours, or sometimes just a few minutes of getting back from vacation, the responsibilities of real life come pouring down as subtly as a bucket of ice water — including the ol’ budget and finances. I can’t imagine a worse feeling than realizing those days of R&R had gotten too carefree and broken the bank. So no matter whether our vacation lasts a day, a week, or a month (only in my dreams), Johnny and I still look for ways to save. Here’s how vacation savings work OFB style:


It’s vacation, so we let our hair down and loosen our ties a bit when it comes to eating out. Except that we never wear ties anyway. Well, I guess Johnny does on Sundays, but I can’t remember the last meal he wore a tie to. Bad analogy. ANYWAY, we choose a select few nice dinners and/or lunches, and then the rest of the trip’s meals are muy budget-friendly. As soon as we arrive at our destination, we stop by the grocery store and pick up milk, cereal, and disposable bowls and spoons (or we bring our own). Sorry $24 scrambled egg, two sliced strawberries, piece of toast room service meal, we’ll pass.

For our lunches on this past trip, Johnny and I filled our hotel fridge with Lunchables. Yes, the Lunch of Champions. That’s their tagline, right? After being in the 100-degree sand and sun, we’d come back to de-sweat-ify in our hotel room. And while Baby Girl napped in her bassinet with the white noise blaring, Johnny and I had a little Lunchable picnic on the bed. We had two meals at sit-down restaurants on our trip (one lunch and one dinner). And all our other dinners were straight off the dollar menu of our favorite fast food establishments.

The key for us is deciding our total trip budget beforehand and then figuring how much we want to allocate to food. Since this past trip wasn’t our main trip for the summer, we tried to keep our food bill to a minimum.



Johnny is the king of finding us awesome vacation digs for an even awesome-er price. We don’t pay face value for a hotel — ever. We’ve found savings by using our airline reward points on vacation packages. But most often Johnny finds savings using discount sites or name-your-own-price like Priceline Negotiator. This past trip we scored a $250, 4-star resort room on the beach for $65/night. Sweet, right? Johnny has a very specific method to his deal-finding madness, which he’ll be spilling about in a post coming soon. And there’s no “we’ll-clean-your-hotel’s-toilets” catch, I promise.

Also, despite staying at nice places, we don’t partake in any of their extra services. We forego the bellhop and valet parking, as well as the spa or the beach chair/umbrella rentals. We don’t do room service or poolside lunches and drinks. The idea of being served every second of our trip sounds magical, but those kinds of splurges don’t currently fit our budget. And we’re not going to pretend they do just because we’re on vacation. Until those splurges make sense to us (which isn’t in the foreseeable future), our ability for R&R won’t be hindered by parking our own car and going out to get our own meals. Oh, the horror!



Johnny and I only fly to our vacation destination if we have the flight reward points to do so (which we build up through our airline credit card). Or there are rare occasions when we’ve found screaming deals on flights. Otherwise, we make a fun road trip out of it and drive to our getaway, like we did this past week. And if and when we need a rental car, Johnny usually books it through Priceline and rarely pays more than $15/day.


So that’s how we do it. Such a huge chunk of a vacation’s expenses are usually decided after arriving at your destination. So we do our best to buck that temptation and figure out how we’ll save beforehand. And then we make it happen, one shameless Lunchable at a time.

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  • Reply Halsy June 18, 2013 at 8:14 am

    I have never known the goodness of a lunchable. I wasn’t allowed to have them as a kid and was always a bit jealous of those who got to bring them for lunch. But I was a rule follower…so no lunchtime swapping. Johnmy, I am in awe of your Priceline skills! We just went on vacation to SC recently as well. It’s a 12 hour drive for us and my in-laws needed to ride with us bc FIL broke arm right before vacation. They live in a small/medium sized college town but insisted on renting van there. We paid $600 for a rental for the
    week! I was so upset bc I knew I could have got a way better deal here but what can you do! Thankfully we are only responsible for the difference of what a car would have been. We usually go into vacation with a loose budget and idea of how money will be spent but are definentely more carefree. Now that we have a child and I stay home things will be more budgeted for sure! This past vacation we were lucky that my husband received a bonus at work a few weeks before we left. It was a family vacation with the hubby’s parents and sister and her family. We rented a house so we saved a good amount by not eating out much. Over 9 days we went out to 2 dinners, 1 lunch and ate fast food (chick fil a etc) when traveling there and back. However, when shopping at the grocery store we bought what we wanted without too much regard to price. We normally are very strict at grocery store. We mostly just hung out at pool/beach so saved a lot there. Normally we would plan a ton of activities but we realize now that we have our daughter for right now more laid back vacations will be best.

    • Reply Johnny June 20, 2013 at 4:51 pm

      One benefit to having our little girl is that we’re limited by the things we’d normally spend money on. It doesn’t mean we have a less fun time, but it definitely ensures we spend money, which is awesome.

      If there was ever a time to splurge on food/grocery, vacation is definitely it. We still ate out more than usual and we probably would have bought better food options at the grocery store, but we were limited to our mini fridge and no kitchen. So the Lunchables (which I also was denied as a kid) was the best option/

  • Reply Jane Savers @ Solving The Money Puzzle June 18, 2013 at 8:27 am

    I have not had a vacation in over a decade and it will probably be 5 years or more before I can manage a weekend away.

    I had to go to a hotel to write a professional exam and my employer did not cover the cost. I was too cheap to pay for the valet parking and it was one of the most terrifying experiences I have ever had. The underground parking garage was not like any other I had experienced. It was not driver friendly and the ramps were steep, the turns were impossible tight and the parking spots were all very small. There was paint rubbed off on every wall and corner. Stinky, smelly, air full of car exhaust and very dim lighting.

    Saving money nearly put me in to fear induced cardiac arrest and I will spend the money for valet parking in the future. My car came out unscratched but it was a 25 minute drive to the top with lots of panicked screaming and backing up to make the turns.

    • Reply Johnny June 20, 2013 at 4:53 pm

      What is it about hotel parking garages? I feel like this is always case. Super tight underground garages, lots of markings and dents in the walls. It probably doesn’t help that most the people there are driving in rental cars that they’re unfamiliar with.

  • Reply Michelle June 18, 2013 at 8:28 am

    We used Priceline Bidding for the first time last year and are hooked. We got such an awesome deal!

  • Reply Becky @ RunFunDone June 18, 2013 at 10:03 am

    Blech. Lunchables every day for lunch??? Don’t ever do that again!

    I’m a huge priceline user as well. I hate it when I get stuck with lame-o chain hotels though. Sometimes I get cute little boutique hotels, which I love! Once we paid $50/night for five of us to stay in a hotel that had a wine hour every night. It was glorious.

    When in Europe, do-it-yourself lunches are SO delish! We’ll usually get some fantastic cheese, fresh bread, yogurt, and fruit. Delicious and cheap! In the States, I’ll usually just purchase a lunch while on vacation.

    • Reply Johnny June 20, 2013 at 4:56 pm

      Haha. Our bodies will recover. When we stay at places with mini-kitchens, we usually buy sandwich ingredients, but Lunchables suffice when a mini-fridge is all we’ve got.

  • Reply Tina June 18, 2013 at 10:26 am

    Would you mind expanding on car rentals through Priceline? I’m assuming the $15/day was a flat fee for use of the car and doesn’t include gas? Do you and Johnny ever get insurance coverage for the rental? $15/day sounds amazing considering we paid $50/day last summer for a rental in Seattle.

    • Reply Johnny June 20, 2013 at 4:58 pm

      Correct, the $15/day just covers the rental itself. I usually never go for the rental insurance. In fact, if you pay for the rental using some credit cards (AMEX?), I think a certain amount of insurance is actually included. There are some destinations where it’s tough to get a $15/day car, but if you’re not too picky and can deal with standard/compact/economy, you should be able to get a winning bid at that rate.

  • Reply Sarah June 18, 2013 at 10:37 am

    We do the same things on our vacation!!! We didn’t on our honeymoon and came home on a pay day Friday, sat down to pay our first bills as a couple, and both cried. Definitely a lesson for us that vacations are fun but not a reason to forget how hard you had to save to get there.

    Our most recent getaway last week coincided with Father’s Day and our three year anniversary. We had budgeted to splurge on a nice meal. We yelped and finally decided on the lesser of two options due to price point, we wanted to stay under $100 for three. When we got there my husband got one alcoholic drink, an appetizer and two sandwiches which we shared with out little guy. After disappointing service and bad food, our $65 check arrived and we were both so flustered and upset we just paid it and vowed we will go to our favorite chain restaurant on vacation if we want to and not worry about fancy pants dinners!

    • Reply Johnny June 20, 2013 at 5:01 pm

      Ugh, that’s a major bummer. I think since it’s such a rare thing for us to eat at a really nice restaurant, we always have really high expectations that aren’t always met. So we’ve found that we’re content just going with options that we can count on to be good and relatively inexpensive, too. Congrats on your anniversary!

  • Reply E.M. June 18, 2013 at 11:07 am

    Pretty pictures! I do the same thing while on vacation. Well before leaving, I scour restaurant reviews for menus and prices so I have a sort of plan for when I get there. The rest I buy from the store and make meals, so it’s important to have a little kitchenette in the room. I have never ordered room service or used valet parking before. I also usually have a general idea of what we’re going to do while on vacation and make plans to find inexpensive activities. I don’t have a set budget per se, but I do keep track of things while I’m there so I know not go overboard. That might take some of the fun out of it, but it’s okay for me! Either that or you go down with whatever cash you’re willing to spend and that’s that (what my mom does).

    Can’t wait to hear about Johnny’s deal-finding methods!

  • Reply Jake @ Common Cents Wealth June 18, 2013 at 11:21 am

    My wife and I use very similar tactics when we go on vacation. I know a vacation is supposed to be where you relax and let loose, but you don’t need to lose sight of your budget while on vacation. We always set a firm budget for our vacations and then stick to that. That way we know we can afford it and it won’t come back home with us.

  • Reply Stefanie June 18, 2013 at 1:54 pm

    I feel like I’m so good at finding vacation deals that it should be a line item on my resume. Not sure if that’s a marketable skill, but if so, it’s my unsung talent.

    I once booked a direct flight for my family of four for $24 each way through Spirit airlines. I know some people hate them or are afraid of them but we actually had a lovely flight. They had just started flying there from DFW and they offered that unbelievable fare so there was no way I was going to miss it.

    I also always sign up for livingsocial and groupon deals for the places I am planning to visit to catch any specials on activities or meals that we might want to take part in. We paid $7 for a seafood feast in Hawaii thanks to this trick!

    Sometimes I troll craigslist for things I know we might want to use or try when on vacation. We “borrowed” a beach umbrella for a week in Hawaii for $10 instead of paying twice/three/four times that much for a day through the resort.

    Finally, we split a lot of meals. We found that we actually enjoyed more splurges if we ordered more smaller meals than feasting at lunch or dinner. So instead of paying $40 for a meal at Dukes in Waikiki, we split a calamari appetizer and indulged in drinks and grabbed a couple shave ice on our walk back. Still got to experience enjoying the beach sunset at the legendary restaurant, but didn’t break the bank.

    • Reply Johnny June 20, 2013 at 5:03 pm

      “I feel like I’m so good at finding vacation deals that it should be a line item on my resume. Not sure if that’s a marketable skill, but if so, it’s my unsung talent.”

      Haha. I’m totally with you. That’s my higher calling in life, for sure.

      Your tactics/tips are great. I’ve been wanting to look into Spirit Airlines, but I’d heard bad things about them. But I’ll definitely give them a look now.

      • Reply Adam Applebaum October 2, 2013 at 9:29 am

        Dude Whatever you do. if you are taller than a typical 8 year old do not fly spirit! They charge you for every item most airlines provide for free, their flights are often delayed even in summer when there is no snow to worry about, they have at best music to listen to on the flight and whatever apps you got on your cellphone that don’t use internet, charge extra for my standard carry on because of it’s shape and after all that if you are not some really tiny kid or maybe even if you are your legs are pressed against the seat in front of you without any recline ability in coach. Its the kind of airline where you learn life’s most important lesson, ” you get what you pay for.”

        • Reply Johnny October 7, 2013 at 3:06 am

          Hah. Well, that’s probably enough to keep me at bay for the time being. Thanks for the input!

  • Reply Chris June 18, 2013 at 2:07 pm

    I would be interested in hearing about your hotel negotiation tips. I don’t have much experience with hotels since I rarely travel anywhere that requires me to stay overnight. I will be going up to Colorado for a few days in a month or two though so maybe I can get a screamin’ deal on a nice hotel. Otherwise, I’m staying in a psycho-style hotel on the side of the road. You know, the kind that still advertise color TV.

    • Reply Johnny June 20, 2013 at 5:05 pm

      Haha. We’ve stayed at our fair share of Bates Motels. But we’re still here to talk about it, so I’m sure we haven’t seen our last. I’ll be interested to hear what you end up with for your CO vacation.

  • Reply Sarah June 18, 2013 at 8:00 pm

    When we went on vacation last year, we used our credit card miles to pay for the cost of the flight, a groupon deal for the hotel, and took out cash (once before going on the trip). The cash serves as a constant reminder of staying on budget…especially when you only designate a certain amount for the whole trip.

    • Reply Johnny June 20, 2013 at 5:05 pm

      Awesome. And love the cash idea, too.

  • Reply Alice @Earning My Two Cents June 18, 2013 at 10:04 pm

    My husband and I do a lot of the same things! So good to know I’m not alone! In fact, my parents taught me to bring my own snacks with me andy own breakfast when staying at a hotel because breakfast is essential but does not have to be costly. My husband and I just went on a road trip vacation to visit family and we packed a cooler with sandwiches, fruit, nuts, Pringles, and many frozen bottles of water for each leg of the trip. That way we had all we needed And didn’t have to buy meals or drinks, plus its solo much healthier than McDonalds and gummy worms (my otherwise road trip food).

    • Reply Johnny June 20, 2013 at 5:07 pm

      I’m trying to remember if this was something I learned as a kid or just picked up through our marriage, but I’m sure there was some familial influence. That’s awesome though that the money saving ways have been passed down.

      Also, I’m pretty sure gummy worms are an essential part of the food pyramid. Somewhere.

  • Reply Thomas | Your Daily Finance June 19, 2013 at 7:30 am

    Lunchables and the dollar menus sound like champs to me. I agree that most of the money is spent when you get to where you are going after the hotel and flight are accounted for. But if you can manage that location expenses before you arrive you are doing great. Great pics!

  • Reply Leslie Beslie June 19, 2013 at 11:00 am

    I haven’t had a lunchable since I was in elementary school (clearly, my mother didn’t care about healthy lunches) but aren’t they kind of expensive for what it is, since it is packaged/convenient. Or did you guys just not want to buy some deli meat and bread separately?

    On a vacation with friends, we stayed in a hotel room with a little kitchen so we bought groceries to make many meals in like pasta, sandwiches, tacos, etc. We weren’t interested in the food of the area so it worked out well.

    • Reply Johnny June 20, 2013 at 5:10 pm

      As far as being an out-of-the-box lunch that would fit in a mini-fridge, it was probably the cheapest option. I think each one was a little over $2. So we spent a little more than $10 on lunches for the whole trip. Healthiest thing in the world? Eh, probably not. But we worked that off quickly pushing our little girl around the pool. 🙂 Normally we’d go the sandwich supplies route, but without the mini-kitchen and fridge, we opted for convenience.

  • Reply JW_Umbrella Treasury June 20, 2013 at 6:03 am

    Most of our vacations are to visit family members, so our lodging costs are typically covered. That’s awesome! But we can definitely do a better job keeping our airfare costs reasonable. I’ve been meaning to sign up for a airline mileage rewards card. Right now, I use Discover for the rewards, but I know that I can get more bang for my buck with an airline mileage card.

    As for meals, our approach usually differs based on the type of vacation we’re taking. If we’re going to visit family we try to eat as cheaply as possible, since the main point of our visit to see our loved ones. But, if we’re visiting a new place and want to really “experience” the city, then we’ll spend more on food and entertainment while we’re there.

  • Reply KC @ genxfinance June 20, 2013 at 7:58 am

    Good job with these tips. For us, we find it cheaper to book way ahead of time for flight tickets. And then we get the package promo in order to save when traveling. We don’t always book hotels. Motels and cottages will work just fine for us.

  • Reply Denise June 20, 2013 at 11:56 am

    Loved this, “For our lunches on this past trip, Johnny and I filled our hotel fridge with Lunchables.” As a kid the family vacations always included the styrofoam cooler filled with fruit, cheese, sandwich makings and for my folks, a good bottle of wine. We also had a cardboard box – it was packed with everything you would need for breakfast, a red plaid tablecloth, napkins, plates and a toaster. Dad carried the cooler and the box in the nicest hotels past the front desk and bell boy without a blink of an eye. There was the year we went to Hawaii and the strofoam cooler came with us, (light years before 9/11) and it was filled with beach towels, suntan lotion and a bottle of vino. When we got to the the hotel everything was dumped on the bed, we located a grocery store and filled it up with breakfast and lunch supplies. Dinner was always in a nice restuarant, which we knew was a special treat, so we would get dressed up and appreciate the experience, mostly in the fear we could be eating another ppj in the hotel room! Well now I have carried on the tradition. I have mortified my children carrying in a leaky cooler into a swanky hotel in Aspen, and asked for duct tape and repaired the lid to the cooler in the lobby of a 4 star hotel. Embarassing moments, but the kids will tell you it isn’t a vacation without the cooler, and have fond memories of simple meals in amazing places!

    • Reply Johnny June 20, 2013 at 5:14 pm

      Hahaha. So awesome. Love your stories. And obviously they created good (mostly, I hope) for you and your siblings. More importantly, those cost savings probably allowed your family to take those vacations. I know that was the case with Joanna and my family vacations as kids.

      I still try to avoid the lobby with all of our cooler stuff, but I’m sure I’ll get over that as soon as we have more kids to worry about and I just say, “screw it.” 🙂

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