6 Cheap Vacation Ideas: How to Travel on a Shoe String Budget

Camping in the Forest - Vaction on a shoe string budget

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Are you looking for some inexpensive vacation ideas? Have you heard of bloggers who travel on a shoestring budget and have lots of fun?

Have you ever thought about great vacations with limited funds?

And what about this summer with Covid issues all around, could you still get away?

If you’re thinking you can’t take a vacation, think again. We’ve got lots of frugal and cheap tips to make your vacation memorable on a shoestring budget.

If your only option is to travel on a shoestring budget, you still create a fun and enjoyable memory!

Here’s how we and several other frugal friends have enjoyed great vacations on the cheap.

Great Vacations on a Shoestring Budget

Yes, money is tight, unemployment is still high and the economic climate is uncertain. But if you’re thinking there is no way that you can take some well-deserved time off for a vacation this year, the answer is NO. Well actually that is a double negative, so the answer is really, “YES” . . . yes, you can have a memorable and enjoyable vacation.

But before you start jumping for joy as if you won the lottery we must qualify our statement. Yes, you can take a vacation as long as you spend only what you have saved — meager as it may be. Spending only what we have saved is the only way we ever take (and thoroughly enjoy) vacations.

1. The Biggest Question For Frugal Vacations

If your savings are small, be encouraged that there are many options for you.

Instead of asking, “Where do we want to go on vacation this year . . . and how much will that cost?”

We ask ourselves,

“How much do we have saved . . .
and how far with that take us?”

We’ll briefly give you a few ideas for how we’ve saved money on vacation and then we’ll share some tips from a couple of frugal subscribers who love to travel and vacation on the cheap. Saving for vacations is a very important part of our household budgeting system.

Remember that funds can be raised for a vacation by having a garage sale or selling stuff on eBay, Swip Swap, Offer up, Craig’s list and the many other selling platforms that are out there.

2. Surprising and Inexpensive Hotel/Lodging Options

When your money is limited, your planning must be unrestrained. Check every source you can find. Look for lodging deals in unusual places like:

visitors and convention bureaus, AAA, friends, national forests, state parks, YMCA, YWCA and Boy Scout camps, private and public colleges and public and private campgrounds.

  • Visitors and Convention Bureaus
  • AAA
  • Friends
  • Family
  • National Forests
  • State Parks
  • YMCA
  • YWCA
  • Boy Scout Camps
  • Church Camps
  • College Campuses (dorm rooms)
  • Public and Private Camp Grounds
  • VRBO
  • AirBnb
  • HomeExchange.com

Looking for Discounts

Lodging is usually one of the most expensive parts of a vacation, so cutting the cost for where you’ll sleep can really stretch your vacation dollar. We’ve stayed in discounted hotels, college dorm rooms and “camped” in nicely maintained campgrounds with hot showers.

With the economic crunch hitting everyone, you may find your best bet this year on college campuses where the administration might want to take in some extra money.

University Dorm Rooms

GraduatesHotline.com has an updated list of every university in the U.S. by state. We used a resource similar to this to locate schools in the Washington, DC area for an epic 15-day vacation. We found American University would rent dorm rooms at that time for $40 per night.

Here’s another great option. if you want to go to Hawaii, call Hawaiian Mission Academy in Honolulu. They have a few dorm rooms that they rent for $55 per night for two people. We called them in May of 2018 to confirm.

They are making some changes to their policy and have taken dorm rentals off of the website, but they still rent rooms out to visitors if it fits with their schedule. Give them a call and see if you can save some money. 808-536-2207

International Lodging Discounts

And don’t think for a minute that discounted lodging is limited to the US. There is a lot of info on the web for European travelers. Start with ReidsGuides – LIst of Universities. This website limits its information mostly to England and Italy, but with a little persistence, you’re sure to find the information you need.

Airbnb to Save Money

Another fun option is checking out Airbnb – the website allows you to search for anything from a couch in an apartment to a private room in a house to an entire house. Some friends of ours have stayed on a sailboat and a 1950’s self-contained travel trailer!

The options are endless and the prices range from cheap to chic. If you sign up using this link, you’ll receive a $20 travel voucher for your next stay with Airbnb.

Or you can learn more about becoming an Airbnb Host and rent out rooms or your whole house to pay for your vacation. Learn more about becoming an Airbnb host in this article: Airbnb Hosting Tips.


Great Money Saving Idea

Quoting your Auto Insurance is a fast way to save money. We use GABI Insurance to get fast and easy comparison pricing. Just connect your current policy with their quote tool and you’ll be on your way to saving money. They provide prices from up to 20 different insurance companies.

3. Meal Savings for Travel on a Shoe String Budget

Plan on cooking in your room or get a discounted Entertainment Book for the city you are visiting and eat your meals for half price.

You don’t have to live on junk food either. We always find great prepared meals (and some unprepared) at local grocers and save big bucks.

RELATED ARTICLE: 10 Ways to Save on Vacation Meals

4. Save on Vacation Transportation

Airfares are discounted right now, so use travel websites to find the best deals. We like CheapoAir.com, and Travelocity to find great pricing.

If you’re going to drive, plan your gas budget by using GasBuddy.com. You can search by city and get an idea of what gas prices are wherever you are going.

If you’re going to rent a car, try asking for the walk-up rate – we’ve saved hundreds of dollars doing this. Learn more in our Rental Car Hacks article.

5. Frugal Texan’s International Travel Tips

Sybil Lane from Fort Worth, Texas has a compelling and encouraging story for those of us with shoestring budgets and therefore need to find inexpensive and even cheap vacation ideas this year. Read and prepare to be “thriftified!”

“I learned so much about how to save money even when in a foreign country that I thought you’d be interested in our most recent vacation.

In December, we went to Australia. A week before we left, my husband was laid off for the second time in a year. While traveling it was really heavy on my mind that this time he might not be as lucky to get a job quickly.

But, I was still determined to have a great vacation even if we only had a shoestring budget.

Here are several things we did to stretch our vacation budget.

Eat in your room and save big!

Make sure that your room has a fridge and microwave, then head to a grocery store or outdoor market to buy whatever you want.

Souvenirs for Cheap – Find bargain shops

I found dollar stores that sold the exact same items as the souvenir shops, for a lot less.

Get more vacation souvenir ideas on this page.

Save on Vacation Food

Go to food markets at the end of the day, and especially the fish markets. They have to sell the food or throw it out so many times they’ll give you a great deal.

Get more money-saving vacation food ideas here.

Look for coupons

My son ate free at every restaurant we went to. Get a doggie bag for the food not eaten and put it in your hotel fridge for another meal/snack.

We also found online discounts for virtually every attraction we went to. I ordered and paid for 95 percent of my tickets in advance. Planning ahead was the biggest money saver for us.

Once we were in Australia, we just looked at our schedule and knew what we were doing each day — it was very low-stress and completely enjoyable!

Travel Packages

We researched combined packages for airfare and hotels through websites like:

By using the websites and combining tickets we saved $200 per person (about 10 percent).

One thing I noticed was that prices on these websites seemed to change depending on the day of the week. The lowest prices were always on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and the highest prices were on the weekends.

Avoid Taxis!!

Buses, trains, and monorails are a whole lot cheaper than taking a taxi. Riding the bus was $1 versus $8 in a taxi or Uber that was going to the exact same location.

Timing – Go Off Peak

Go to attractions during off-peak times, prices are cheaper and the attraction is less crowded.

Look for Free events

We went to three different free events and had a blast.

Three days after New Year’s my husband found another job. We didn’t have to touch our emergency fund.

We had a fun-filled vacation with limited funds and I didn’t give up anything I wanted to do while there.

Everything was paid for with cash, we are still debt-free and things are looking up for us every day. With each job loss my husband has had in the past year we have discovered more ways to save money and still have fun. It has become a game for us!”

Great job Sybil . . . you prove that planning really does pay off!

Related Savings: Build your Vacation Budget by Reducing your HomeOwners or Renter’s Insurance Expenses.

6. Vacations With Limited Funds in Washington, D.C.

Christy Troehler from Ludlow, Kentucky recaps how her family saved money while visiting Washington, DC — the second most expensive city in America to visit (Honolulu is the most expensive).

Getting Around in DC

“If you’re traveling in Washington, DC (like you talked about in your book, “America’s Cheapest Family”) consider the Metro Rail. It’s a great and fun way to see DC. For $32 per person, you can purchase a 7-day consecutive pass that is good for any hour of the day or evening.

There are cheaper passes, but you can’t travel during rush hours. The rail is easy to navigate, clean, the stations feel safe and you can get everywhere most tourists want to go.

Save Money on Parking

We had very little wait time when changing trains. You do have to pay to park at a Metro lot — usually $3.50. Just be aware that you shouldn’t choose a lot where any other trains are coming in (Amtrak specifically) because the cost to park there is doubled to $7.

If you do find a more expensive lot, just look at the map and find the next Metro station and go there to park. Another bonus to using the Metro is that you don’t have to deal with the limited parking in downtown DC — it’s really not fun!

Editors’ Note: With our large family, renting a car and learning to coordinate free DC street parking with nearby attractions worked best for us.

Fun & Resources

We always pick up audiobooks from our local library to entertain and educate us when we take long car trips.

We also used two different

Frommer’s Guides for DC

— one for adults and one for children. 

Cooking on Vacation

We also took along a crock-pot and electric griddle — these work great if you have a condo rented, but can also be helpful in a hotel room. There’s nothing better than coming back to a hot meal after a long day of sightseeing or beach play.

Kennedy Center Free Concerts

Free Concert at the Kennedy Center in DC

You’ve got to take a free tour of the Kennedy Center. It’s definitely worth it. Make sure you stay until 6 PM. Every day of the year they host a free concert on the Millennium Stage in the Grand Foyer that overlooks the Potomac River. If you really want to splurge, you can dine at the Kennedy Center. There are several different priced restaurants there.”

Camping in the Forest - Vaction on a shoe string budget


Vacations don’t have to be expensive or extravagant to be extremely enjoyable and memorable. You can have a great vacation with limited funds. So go out there and build a frugal vacation memory this year, and then write to us about your adventure!

If you’d like some great ideas for vacation/ travel souvenirs, check out this page.

2 thoughts on “6 Cheap Vacation Ideas: How to Travel on a Shoe String Budget

  1. Julie

    We don’t do AirBnB because of their extreme left-wing politics, and with their new fee structure, we’re finding hotels almost the same price (or even better.) Camping and staying with people you know (or even those you don’t know) is great, but sometimes the hotel is part of the vacation rather than a place to just sleep. That’s where IHG comes in. We got their credit card when it had an 80,000 bonus points offer. Our utilities and gas charges go on it (and get paid right away) so we’re accruing points every month. There are hotels on PointsBreak for only 5,000/night and we have made vacations around those. More often, they’re a points+cash transaction. For instance, $70+5,000 points for a recent stay near Portland. That was a Holiday Inn Express which included breakfast. It’s actually better than that because it counts as a points stay so there are no taxes on top of it. The $70 was all we paid. Two beds and a pull-out for 6 people in a hotel with a pool for the kids and workout room for Dad, and breakfast (and fresh-baked cookies at night, and free coffee all day). The card also gives one free night at ANY hotel (the card has an $85 fee each year, so we consider that the hotel cost.) Last year, we stayed at the Intercontinental Times Square upgraded to a top room (the card automatically upgrades you to Platinum.) The year before that, a suite at the Venetian in Las Vegas. Completely gratis.

    One way to save on airfare is to mystery shop the airlines. SQM.ca shops a few different ones. The report takes about an hour, and is full of things you would notice anyway (mostly the customer service and whether the plane takes off on time.) The only downside is that only one person on any plane can shop it. For those things that we otherwise might not do, AmusementAdvantage.com mystery shops amusement parks (beware, though, the reports are typically 6 hours long after the excitement – mostly you’re working so your family can enjoy the parks free.)

    For souvenirs, we started the kids off early with photo souvenirs, challenging them to find the best or most hilarious picture spot. On the big things (like Disneyland), I did the thrift shop thing and then pulled out sweatshirts, hats, and trinkets when we were in front of the gift shops. The photo thing is much better, though. Less clutter at home ;-). We also geocache in the area, and you’d be surprised at how excited a child can get over a toy soldier when he’s the one who found it.

    We spend a lot on entertainment because we vacation often. Experiences are so much more valuable than things. When they’re budgeted, it’s not a strain, but an adventure.

    1. Steve Economides Post author

      Julie, Wow great tips. Love the details about what you’ve done with the points- Wow you are a blackbelt at using credit card points.

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