Monday, July 18, 2011

Satisfying Vacations For Less

When most people plan a vacation, it's usually off a brochure that has caught their eye, a television ad, or an ideal from childhood, i.e. Disney Land.  In order to save money on vacations, however, you really need to think about the psychological reasons for a vacation.  Those reasons can be broken down into three basic categories:
  1. Relaxation
  2. Adventure
  3. Bucket List

Do you want to get away to unwind? Think? Reevaluate your life? Pray? Meditate? If you're picturing yourself laying on a white sandy beach, you probably long for R&R.  On the other hand, if you picture yourself snorkeling in a choral reef, trekking up a mountain, or skiing down a mountain, you probably long for adventure. Finally, if you simply MUST see the Ifle Tower or sleep in Dracula's castle, you probably long to check off everything on your bucket list.

So how do you turn these basic longings into cheap, but satisfying vacations. The first step is to stop focusing on the image of yourself doing some stock image out of a brochure.  Put away the picture of yourself laying on the beach and pull out a sheet of paper.  Now list all the ways you can relax.  At first, don't worry about the cost. Just make a basic list of ways you could relax. It looks like this:
    1. massage
    2. sunshine
    3. swimming
    4. not having to cook
    5. feeling the motion of the waves
    6. low impact exercise like biking or hiking
    7. the feel of luxury sheets
    8. sleeping in with sunshine pouring through the window

An adventure list might look like this:
  1. scaling the sheer side of a cliff
  2. backpacking into unknown territory
  3. learning how to scuba dive
  4. swimming under a waterfall
  5. finishing a race
  6. jet skiing
  7. water skiing
  8. snow skiing
  9. pushing the limits of my endurance physically
  10. pushing the limits of my fears
A bucket list is trickier since it usually keeps you in that stock image and combines adventure vacations, but go ahead and make the list.

    1. See the Ifle Tower
    2. Take a train from one side of Canada to the other
    3. Sleep in Dracula's Castle
    4. Trek through a rain forest
    5. Learn to snow ski
    6. Be on Price is Right
    7. Go backstage at a rock concert
    8. See the Grand Canyon
    9. Be a millionaire
    10. Buy my dad a bass boat
If you notice, some of the things on the Bucket List are not about vacationing at all.  When you make your list, make sure you leave those on there. A Bucket List isn't just about vacations. It's about accomplishments, and when you keep this in focus, it's a little easier to plan the vacation. But we'll get to that later...

Now that you have these lists, you need to factor in a group of subcategories.  Each type of vacation can be subdivided into one of three types of vacations:

  1. Individual
  2. Honeymoon (2nd Honeymoon, 3rd, etc.)
  3. Family
What's important to remember is that your need for a vacation or another individual within your family's need for a vacation does not have to determine that the vacation fall into the family category. The second step in saving money on a vacation is to decide how many individuals from your household actually have to go on the vacation in order to fulfill the need.  For instance, our kids both earn tickets to Six Flags every year, which fulfills their need for adventure. But there have been several years where we couldn't afford the two extra adult  tickets for us, gas for two hours away, hotel, and food in the park. So we sent them with their uncle who had season passes. THAT is thinking outside of the box. It fit their need for adventure, gave them family time with their uncle and left us with two days of relaxation, subcategory honeymoon, at home. I also have an uncle who routinely goes on adventure vacations hunting and fishing in Canada without his wife and four daughters. More than a few couples have saved money and their marriage by vacationing separately. Conversely, I have friends who are adult singles who still go to Disney world or the beach with their extended family. If you are working off a Bucket List, you'll have to decide how important it is to have other's with you when you accomplish your goal and plan or postpone accordingly. For instance, you may relish the idea of climbing a Mayan ziggurat on your own or it may be worth it to save indefinitely until you can afford a trip for two to Paris.

Once you know the need and the number, the third step is to decide how far you can go and still afford to accomplish the goal.  Travel can be the largest cost percentage of the trip, and it's the easiest thing to cut from the expenses. Can you afford to leave town and still have money for that massage?  Can you afford to leave the state and still afford Cabela's most expensive camping gear? Can you afford to cross two states, but can't afford tickets to Florida?  If you fork out the dough for Florida will you have to sleep on a friend's living room floor or buy rice and beans at a local grocery store? (That doesn't sound relaxing to me though possibly it fits with adventure.)  Maybe you can't afford a train ride across Canada at this point in your life, but you can afford the Grand Canyon. In order to be satisfied, you have to pick your priorities for now or postpone until you can afford it. 

Once you have your radius, the fourth step is to make a list of all the places or things to do within that radius and list the ways it fulfills the need. If you're working off the Bucket List, you might also want to reevaluate why you put a particular item on the list and see if something a little closer (and less expensive) might fit the bill.  For instance, sleeping in Dracula's Castle costs a whopping $10,000 a night and it's in the Scandinavian Alps!! Do you really just like sleeping in scary or unique places that give you a great story to tell friends?  Come on, be honest. At this point, make a list of potential local sites like a haunted prison overnighter or a Snooze at the Zoo program.

To give you an example of what I mean by a list, here's a sample list for Relaxation--subcategory Family--We can afford to go to the nearest big city.

  1. Take the train (no traffic, play games along the way, eat in the dining car, feels like an adventure to kids).
  2. Eat out every meal (no cooking).
  3. See a musical (music, cushy seats, ambiance, the show could be on Mom's Bucket List.)
  4. Get a suite (we're not all on top of each other)
  5. Stay at a hotel with a large outdoor swimming pool. (Sunshine, swimming, mom laying on the lounge chair.)
  6. Go to a water park (spend the whole time in the wave pool.)
  7. Rent bikes and meander through a historical district or bike trail.
  8. Spend a day hiking.
  9. Spend a day at a really nice park with fountains and fancy playgrounds, hint: expensive neighborhoods have extensive parks. (Free, shaded, little kids love it but it doesn't get the traffic of amusement parks.)
  10. Take a carriage ride through a historical area (or gondola ride if you live in Oklahoma or Texas.)
You'll probably want to leave this list up on the refrigerator for about a month and jot down ideas every time you hear of something or think of something. Don't worry about how much something costs at this point. Right now you're still brainstorming.

Once you have a list of places to go and things to do, search the Internet for great prices. Look for hotels that have just opened and offer introductory rates, shop Craig's List for the deluxe camping gear, figure out where that great neighborhood park is, find out which day the museum offers free admission, etc.  For each item on your list, jot down cost estimates and ideas to keep costs down.

Once you've gathered the information for the list, it's time to prioritize each item based on how closely the item on the list meets the essential need of the trip and how many needs can be met for the lowest possible cost. Each individual needs to note which item on the list is most important. Keep your decision to yourself until it's time to negotiate as a family though younger children will need help with this. Maybe Mom might say, I'll give up Phantom if we can stay in a fancier hotel," or conversely, "I'll stay in a Motel 6 if we can just see Les Mis." 

Finally, you sit down together with every one who will go on the trip and set the schedule. Here's where you begin negotiating and setting boundaries. Let's say Mom really needs relaxation and Dad says he needs relaxation but during the planning stage, that meandering bike ride through a local park becomes a mountain bike expedition through a national park. Go back to that essential need for the vacation.  If he really wants a mountain bike expedition then he is exhibiting a need for an adventure vacation. You have choices here. Either Mom decides Dad can spend one day of the vacation adventuring, maybe with a few kids, while she stays at the hotel and lounges pool side. Mom could pull out the calendar, pick a date for another vacation that meets the need for adventure, and  remind Dad that this vacation really needs to be about relaxing. Or Mom could remember that nothing stays relaxing when Dad is around so she could  decide to head solo to the city, stay in a luxury hotel for a few days of pampering and shopping, and take in a show by herself. She could also point to something else on the list and negotiate. Maybe Dad insists on driving, but Mom gets really stressed out in traffic. She could say, "I'll go on the mountain bike ride if we can take the train."  The key is to plan and negotiate way ahead of time, secure the schedule, and stick to the plan. If you evaluate both the cost and the need you're trying to fulfill with each activity, you cut down on last minute expenses that tend to get thrown in because one person or another doesn't feel like their need is getting fulfilled. This leads to an overpacked schedule, chaos, hurt feelings, and overspending. If you come back stressed out and arguing, what was the point of going in the first place? (Remember, Idid say that more than a few couples have saved money and their marriage by vacationing separately.)

Once you have an agenda, you're ready for the vacation. Get all tickets ahead of time and dish out a certain amount of cash spending money to each person so the kids don't even have an option to talk you into something last minute. Where ever you go, you'll enjoy yourself and come back satisfied.