Travel the US for $18 a Day

I would like to spend the next few posts focusing on the travel budget.  When we take off for thirty days at a time, we get a lot of questions about how it is affordable.   To be honest, the hardest part is simply carving out the time, which I talked about at length in Thirteen Summers.  Finding the money to take a trip like this is surprisingly achievable, and considering all the usual kids activities and family outings, we often travel for not much more than what our family would normally spend at home over the course of a month.   For today’s post, I want to outline the basic travel budget.

A budget can be the crux or the creator of freedom, entirely depending on attitude.  I tend to look at it from the latter perspective as I believe that the experience of travel is one of the most important things we can give our children.  It teaches them to take an interest beyond their own walls, to look at the world they live in from a new perspective, to gain a better appreciation for the country they live in,  to wander in the wild places,  and to feel the Earth in their soul.  However, there is also no enjoyment in a vacation if you are breaking the bank.  Among all the rising costs of living, rising taxes, and stagnant wages, a budget-friendly vacation is necessary for everyone.  Let’s look at two very different types of vacations.

If I were to take my family of five cross-country on a six night, seven day, what I would call hotel vacation, I would estimate the essential costs for this travel using the simple budget below.

The Hotel Budget…
 ACTIVITY      ESTIMATED PRICE    TOTAL COST
Airfare             $300/person                 $1,500
Car Rental      $30/day                         $210
Hotel               $120/night                     $720
Lunch              $10/each/day                $350
Dinner             $15/each/day                $525

Expected cost for 7 days of necessities is $3,305.
Average cost per day is $472.00.  Average cost per person per day is $94.00

Now let’s look at a basic budget I might create when preparing for one of our road trips.  I’ve replaced airfare with the cost of fuel and dining out with buying groceries.  Also, camping prices vary greatly depending on how many amenities you would like at your site.  A typical forest service or park service campground is only $5-$20 per night, but a KOA tent site can run you anywhere from $30 – $50 per night.  I tend not to use KOA’s often for this reason, but their pools, clean showers, and laundry facilities are enticing, and I will add a few of them into our trips in place of the more expensive hotel option.

The Camping budget…
ACTIVITY      ESTIMATED COST              TOTAL COST
Camping        25 nights (~$20 each)           $500.00
Hotels             3 nights (~$120 each)           $360.00
Groceries       $150/every 5 days                 $870.00
Fuel                ~4,000 mi/18 mpg/$4.00       $889.00

Expected cost for 29 days of necessities is $2,619
Average cost per day is $90. Average cost per person per day is $18.

Yes, you really can take the kids on a month long trip that costs LESS than a typical seven day vacation.   In fact, if we were to travel by air, stay in hotels, and dine out for our meals, it would cost my family five times as much as our camping trips. I look at it as we can spend five times as long travelling for the same price.  If you only have the time to take your family on a 7-Day trip, the camping budget will start you at $630 per week instead of $3,305 per week.  And if you have the time to take your family on a  fourteen day vacation, the camping plan gives you a starting budget of only $1,260, which is pretty reasonable for a family of five for two weeks!

DSC_0496
2012 Trip – Our trusty tent and minivan in the dusky shadow of Devils Tower National Monument, WY

Next, you will want to estimate the costs of your extra activities, or the things you actually want to do while you are travelling.  Hiking, playing at a beach, going to a ranger talk, fishing, playing games in the woods, or having a picnic in the park are all wonderful activities that don’t cost anything extra.  This is just one reason we do a LOT of hiking on our travels.

However, travelling is also about participating in the cultural activities of the area you are visiting.  You may want to eat some authentic traditional cuisine, or go to a famous theme park nearby, take lessons to learn a new skill, or see a museum that showcases an important piece of history.  I’m not saying don’t do these things just because they cost extra cash.  In fact, by saving money on our essential travelling expenses, we have more to spend on the special activities that make our trips unique and memorable!  In the table below I’ve compared average pricing (again for my family of 5) on some of the typical types of activities that we do on vacations.

ACTIVITY                     ESTIMATED COST         TOTAL COST
Kayak/Canoe Rental    $20/2 Hours                    $40
Gardens/Museums       $15/Person/day              $75
Motorboat Rental          $100/Day                       $100
White Water Rafting     $60/Person/Day             $300
Six Flags Entrance       $60/Person/day              $300
Disneyland Entrance    $100/Person/day            $500

I’ve provided a complete budget, including the extra activities, in the itineraries I publish.  Although our trips are focused on getting to the National Parks, I think its important to explore other cultural and recreational opportunities in the area.  When else would you have the time to see the infamous Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, raft the Rio Grande in New Mexico, walk the pathways of the Japanese Garden in Portland, take the kids to the top of the Space Needle in Seattle, eat TexMex in San Antonio, learn to windsurf in Corpus Christi, or ride the waves at Schlitterbahn?  As expected, these day trips do add a considerable expense to the total budget of your trip, but by saving money on travel and lodging we are able to fit them in.

06-16-11P_009
2011 Trip – Rafting the Rio Grande in New Mexico

No matter what your budget is, the most important thing to do is to plan it ahead of time, and then stick to it while you travel.  Fit in the extras  when they are possible, but remember that it costs us virtually nothing to explore by foot our countries greatest of treasures, our National Parks.

Happy Planning!
~ Cassie

The Fun Fund Jar

Our summer is in full swing with lots of hiking and river floating, beach days, summer festivals, Musical Mondays, farmers markets, waffle breakfasts, and of course… lemonade stands!

lemonade stand

The kids have finally realized that we only have about two weeks left before our summer vacation and they are suddenly budding little capitalists.  There is not a chore on the planet that they wouldn’t do right now for an extra buck or two.  Seriously.  All for a little thing called the Fun Fund Jar.

About five years ago I decided I was done listening to the continuous requests for gifts, tshirts, treats, toys, and other souvenirs while we travel.   I mean seriously, how many times can one kid ask for the same thing?  A lot, apparently.  So naturally I decided it was time to do something about it, and drank a jug of wine.  No really, I did.  For good purpose though:  we rinsed it out, the kids decorated it with all kinds of trip-related stickers that we picked up from a scrapbooking store, and we implemented the Fun Fund Jar strategy.  All year long, the kids find ways to contribute to the Fun Fund.   Their extra chore money and lemonade stand profits go towards the jar, we use it as a “loose change” jar, and as a “bad word” jar, so my husband and I get to contribute fairly regularly as well.    Then each summer we count it up, cash it in, and split it evenly between all three kids.   This is the only “spending” money we give them for the trips.  They are each responsible for handling their share throughout the whole vacation, and they can spend it on anything they want, but when its gone, its gone, and they can’t ask me for anything else.

Fun Fund

The jar has worked wonders.  I think each year the kids have actually come home with leftover money to start the next years fund.  They are so much more conservative in regards to picking out the things they want to spend money on when it is their own!   It has taught them to make thoughtful  decisions about spending and not to spend everything they have at the first stop, not to mention that we have completely eliminated all the little “can I have this” requests.  Whether it is a visitor center, museum gift shop, or truck stop, they bring in their envelopes and decide their own purchases.  I also really like that this jar gives them an opportunity to save spending money for their vacations that is separate then what they are saving in their bank accounts.  The kids aren’t spending money they’ve received for birthdays, or earned for grades or from working.

That’s it for today!  I feel like I’m getting a little behind in my posting with so much going on throughout the summer, but there is a lot in the works!  I hope all of you are enjoying a great summer too.

Happy Trails!
~Cassie