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!

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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.

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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

5 More Reasons to Visit Olympic National Park

Are you planning for next summer yet?  Looking for a National Park that has it all?  Olympic has a little bit of everything and a whole lot of amazing.  Focusing a trip around this park will add interest for every single person in your family, and if I had to pick a Top Three favorite parks, without a doubt, this one would be on that list.  Here are my top five reasons why.

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1. Hurricane Ridge, O.N.P.  This is the view.  Don’t miss it.  Our first night inside the park we camped at Heart O’ the Hills.  It is a beautiful campground nestled among the dense Montane Forest, and immediate access to the adventurous Heart O’ the Forest Trail.  The next morning we awoke and drove up to one of the great Olympic Peaks at Hurricane Ridge.  Prepare to be amazed!  This view reminds us that there are places in America that can rival any scene over seas in beauty and grandeur.  The deer in velvet walking around us, the high alpine meadows full of blooming wildflowers, and the tree line framing the ocean of snow-capped peaks as far as you can see, made this one of the most beautiful days of our entire thirty day trip.

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2. Hoh Rainforest, O.N.P.  Yes, America has a rainforest.  Specifically a Northwest Temperate Rainforest, and it is soggy and green and lush and incredibly beautiful.  There are an infinite number of things to do here.

You can take a ranger walk to learn about this incredible forest ecosystem.
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You can climb on a colonnade of Sitka Spruce.  What is a colonnade?  Read about them here.
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You can read a book under the great green canopy that filters the afternoon sun.
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Or let the kids play in a shaded green meadow.
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You can engineer a rock canal in a glacier river.
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Or wade along the bank of it’s icy waters.
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You can take an early morning hike.
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Or find a hidden rock waterfall, and just see what happens while you are there.
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Just be there.  This incredible forest is full of the bountiful gifts of nature.

3. Rialto Beach/Mora, O.N.P.  The nourishing and dense coastal forest of the this park give way to the sprawling rocky beaches of the Olympic Penninsula.  These beach scenes are framed with the pounding surf, the rocky tidepools, the giant driftwood that washes ashore, and the distant, rocky sea stacks off the beach.  It is perfect place to romp and explore and just let the kids run free.  Bring a picnic and take the afternoon to enjoy the unique ecosystems along this coast.

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4. Forks, WA.  Do you have a tween in your household?  Although this obviously does not have universal appeal, sometimes the best motivation for getting your tweens and teens outside in the woods, is to take them somewhere they really want to see along the way.  For us it was Forks.  Oh yes, the year we came to the Olympic Peninsula, my eldest daughter was deep into Twilight obsession mode, and we did it all:  Port Angeles, Forks, and LaPush.   We saw Bella’s car, Bella’s home, Edward’s home, the hospital, the high school, and a few other settings sprinkled throughout the books.   I have to applaud the town of Forks.  Not only have they graciously embraced all the Cullen crazed visitors into their town, they have gone out of their way to re-create the magic of the book’s setting for Twilight fans around the country.

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5. Seattle, WA.  Part of planning a long summer vacation, is making sure that there is highlight for everyone in the family to enjoy, and seeing one of the country’s most unique cities might be more appealing to some than spending days sleeping on the ground and hiking in the woods.  Maybe.  Either way, Seattle is the gateway city to the Olympic Peninsula, and you should take advantage of your proximity to spend a couple days in the city.   Take a flight up to the top of the Iconic Space Needle and enjoy breathtaking views of the city and the Puget Sound.  Let the kids romp around the Seattle Center, splash in the fountain, and take a whirl on the carnival rides.  The Experience Music Project is a unique, world-renown museum that any music lover in your family will enjoy.  The Pacific Science Center, the Seattle Aquarium, and the Woodland Park Zoo are also fantastic outings for the whole family that offer enjoyable interactions with nature.  And what is a trip to Seattle without a stroll through Pikes Place market?  Pick up some meat on a stick and bury your nose in the beautiful flower bouquets.  Sports fans would love to catch a Mariners or Sounders game and the family history buff will enjoy the incredible Museum of Flight, our absolute favorite museum in Seattle.  There is something for everyone here.

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All in all, I don’t think there could be a better focus for your first trip to the Pacific Northwest than Olympic National Park.  Remember, our entire northwest trip itinerary is posted here.

Happy Planning!
~Cassie