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Cheap Vacation Ideas

By Marianne Schwab | Best Travel Deals Tips Blog

Cheap vacation ideas may seem easier said than done. When I was in my starving college days and early career, I did not have a budget for travel, however, there were ways I found to take some getaways without breaking the bank. Here are a few of my cheap vacation ideas from my years of squeezing my budget and ones I use now when I need some extra vacation time for less.

Keep in mind that a “vacation” may not be a week out of town, but planning little day trips or mini-vacations will really recharge your batteries and refresh you before you head back to the daily grind.

Day Trips. One of my favorite cheap vacation ideas originated with my parents. I remember one summer, my family took fun day trips on the week my Dad was off on vacation. I love those memories. We lived in central Indiana and one day we drove to River Downs and mom and dad took us to the horse races, one day they took us to see the Cincinnati Reds play, another day we went to King’s Island (a local theme park), and we sort of commuted to Ohio each day of Dad’s vacation to do fun things in the Cincinnati area. I guess it was less expensive to drive back and forth than to book a hotel, but all I remember is that it was fun. Mom packed sandwiches for us to eat in the car or for during the day and those were great memories. Think of the money my parents saved in airfares, hotel rooms and eating out for a family of five and yet we still had fun as a family.

If you’re on a budget, there are lots of cheap vacation ideas if you get creative especially if you live in or near a big city. You can save up to 55% on attractions by getting a Go City Card or Explorer Pass. You can also get a FREE full-color guidebook with the purchase of a Go City Card or Explorer Pass that will have lots of cheap vacation ideas for the destination that you purchase your card for.

A Day at the Beach. If you live on the East Coast, West Coast, Gulf Coast, near a lake, or lucky enough to live in Hawaii, you can always do a day trip vacation at the beach. Pack a picnic, beach towel and a beach umbrella and you can have a day at the beach for the price of train fare or beach parking and gasoline in most cases. The trick is to get up early, beat the crowds and stake your claim to your piece of the beach. When I was broke and living in New York City, my little peace of mind and sanity happened every Saturday during the summer when I caught an early train to Jones Beach on Long Island to soak up the sun. I’d arrive by 10am and stay until about 2pm when the beach started to get crowded.

[Photo: Beach Rentals on the Menu at Paradise Cove in Malibu.]

On the West Coast, I recently discovered Paradise Cove for a taste of the private beaches in swanky Malibu. You can park your car for $25 for the day and either bring your own beach chairs, umbrella, etc. or you can rent a grass hut with two chaise lounge chairs for $75 for the day. They also rent beds on the beach for $50 per day and chaise lounges for $25 each for the day. They’re located right by the Beach Café that has amazing food and is also reasonably priced.

For about $150, you can have a fantastic day at the beach in Malibu and you’ll probably see dolphins frolicking off shore as well. On a warm beautiful day though, keep in mind you do have to be there by 10am to secure your piece of Paradise Cove. [Note: You can rent cabanas starting at $250 for the day during the week. It’s a little pricey in my book. But for a day at the beach where I’m not fighting the public beach crowds, this is a very nice little find (outside of booking a night at one of the few hotels that are right on the beach in Malibu)]. The cheap vacations version: bring your own beach “camp” and go to Zuma beach or Manhattan Beach (my two favorite beaches in the L.A. area).

Mini-Vacations and Weekend Getaways. When budgets are tight but you need cheap vacation ideas, a mini-vacation or weekend getaway is the next best thing to an entire week off from work. Mini-Vacations are just that: a three-or-four day trip versus seven days. You'll save a bundle in hotels and food since you cut the trip in half.

I’ll never forget one weekend getaway while I was living in New York. A friend of a friend organized renting two vans to drive to Cape Cod for the weekend and then he booked us into a bed and breakfast in an old sea captain’s house. There were thirteen of us, but by splitting van rental, gasoline, rooms, etc. I think I may have spent a total of $200 maximum for the weekend. I hung out at the beach with my friends, we went on a whale watch, had lobster for dinner and so much more. We left on Friday night after work and returned late Sunday but it was such a break from the city that it felt like we’d been gone for an entire week.

There are lots of great getaways wherever you are that can give you that same sort of mini-vacation experience so that you come back refreshed. Short duration trips are great cheap vacations. You can always find great deals online for hotels and eat out at some of the local places instead of expensive restaurants, but do treat yourself to one fabulous meal. Walk the city and find out what you can do for free or next to nothing. Most major cities have free museums, art galleries, parks and even the national parks can be a good travel deal.

Camping. My idea of camping is sleeping with the windows open. I’m not a fan of camping, but if you are a big fan of the great outdoors, it can be a great vacation. By the time you get equipment and pay for campground fees these days, I’d rather stay in a clean motel or get a great travel deal online before I'd go camping to save money as cheap vacation ideas. If you do go camping, enjoy yourself and don’t forget the insect repellent.

Mini-Cruises. You may think cruises are expensive, but you can take a short cruise (where you’ll get some great travel deals like I’ve taken cruises for $99). If you’re within driving distance of a port then this can be one of the best cheap vacation ideas ever since you won’t have to pay for airfare. I love the all-inclusive nature of a cruise because your cruise price includes your cabin, your food, and you can hang out at the pool all day and all the nighttime entertainment (shows, dancing, etc.) is included too. It’s a great travel deal!

Road Trips. Road trips are always one of the best cheap vacation ideas. There are some great drive to destinations in the United States and Europe. In the U.S., the Grand Canyon or any of our National Parks make a great family destination spot and, if you do great road trip planning, you can take a relative cheap vacation.

Leverage Money You’re Already Spending. Credit card reward programs have been one of my best resources of cheap vacation ideas. I leverage money I’m already spending on everyday items like groceries and cell phone bills into free airfares or hotel stays by strategically using credit card rewards. And be an opportunist when you travel. 90% of places I travel to are a “crime of opportunity.” I only went to China because a friend was living in Beijing. My First Class round-trip airfare cost $99. If I hadn’t added an additional trip within China, I would have only spent about $600-$700 for my 10-day trip including airfare (excluding the travel visa) because I was able to stay with a friend while I was there so my only costs were transportation and food (don’t forget to treat your hosts to nice dinners on these opportunities as well.).

[Photo: Marianne Schwab the Great Wall of China in Badaling.]

Travel “Crimes” of Opportunity. Never impose on a friend or family member just to take a vacation, but I’ve had some fun vacations staying with family and friends. My best friend lived in Seattle for years, so I’d vacation there. We were always broke, but I only had to pay for airfare and a few meals. She picked me up at the airport and we scraped together some money to do a few things on the town. Visiting friends and family is one of my cheap vacation ideas. I have an aunt and uncle that live in Charleston, SC, that I visit too. I pay for my airfare and a car rental and I get to enjoy this lovely southern city along with sharing it with special people in my life that I adore.

Chase the Travel Deals. There are lots of great travel deals through all sorts of resources including for me, Travelzoo, World Ventures Leisure Travel Consultant discounts, Rovia DreamTrips membership, and random resources. If you’re not using some of my travel resources, you may be making five travel mistakes that can cost you big bucks on your vacation. Finally, be flexible so you can chase these travel deals. Keep in mind that you may not get your top pick for a dream vacation destination, but if you get a great vacation deal, then by all means chase the travel deal.

Discount vs. Cheap Vacation Ideas. One thing I do know is that budget is relative: my definition of a budget trip now is different than it was when I was in college and your budget trip will be different from mine. I think if you’re younger, in college and you want to explore the world on a budget then backpack and stay at hostels. But why do budget travel when you can stay at really nice places on the same budget as you can if you're backpacking and staying in hostels? That’s what I do. I take five-star vacations at two star prices by combining a lot of these cheap vacation ideas I just told you about.

Keep in mind, that you may not be able to take a vacation every year. I never used to. Most of my vacation time used to be spent going home to visit family in Indiana since I was living in New York and now, Los Angeles. In order to take some amazing trips, I wouldn’t take vacations for several years and I’d save up my frequent flyer miles, credit card reward points and money over time to take amazing vacations with my sister, my favorite travel partner.

If you plan right, you can do the same thing. It’s okay if you take a GREAT vacation once every three to five years, but in the meantime, you can treat yourself to some of the cheap vacation ideas I’ve mentioned like day trips, weekend getaways, mini-vacations, mini-cruises, those crimes of opportunity and chasing some of those great travel deals.

I hope you’ve found some great cheap vacation ideas that you can use to plan your trip. We also have some of the latest best travel deals right here on this website so check them out and save on your next vacation.

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About Marianne Schwab
TV Travel Show Producer

For over twenty years, TV Travel Show Producer, Marianne Schwab, has been collecting money saving travel tips as a travel producer for high profile television programs. She has flown all over the world and produced live television productions on location from Caesar's Palace on the Vegas Strip to the beautiful island of Oahu. Read more