Monday, September 17, 2007

Vacation tradeoffs: being frugal vs. maximizing experiences

How do you decide if it's time to quiet that frugal voice in your head while you're on vacation?
This came up several times for me while on my latest vacation.  I knew that it was going to be much more expensive than my usual camping/road-trip variety, for lots of reasons, so I was definitely keeping my eye out for ways to cut costs.
But, as usual, cutting costs comes with a whole set of trade-offs.  Here are just a few of the questions we faced during our trip:
  • Should we stay in lodgings very close to cities and/or other sites of interest, in order to make the most efficient use of our time... or stay farther away and save money but spend an extra half-hour or 45 minutes driving?
  • Should we pick the most interesting and appealing attractions every time, regardless of the price... or choose cheaper or free ones sometimes, which we would enjoy but maybe not quite as much as our top picks?
  • Should we pay to enter a museum or visitor's center when we knew it would close before we had time to see the whole thing... or skip it and save the entrance fee but miss out on learning what we could in the time we had?
  • Should we always choose to eat good, authentic local food, even when the only options were pricey... or sometimes grab cheap food of the kind we could find almost anywhere?
As we wrestled with these questions, I noticed that I generally found myself on the money-saving side of the issues.  "Do we really want to pay $25 for the four of us to spend a half-hour in this museum?"  "Look, this B&B is almost $50 cheaper, and it's not too far outside of town..."  On the other hand, my father was very focused on making the most of the trip.  "This sounds really interesting, don't worry about the price.  Who knows when we'll have a chance to see this again?"  "Yeah, that hotel is more expensive, but look at the location!  I bet that means we can fit in something else we wouldn't have time for otherwise."
I found myself feeling a little guilty about the dollar signs (or should I say Euro signs?) popping up in my decision-making process.  One of my most important values is that money concerns shouldn't interfere with living a happy, fulfilled life.   Wasn't I doing exactly that by penny-pinching on a once-in-a-lifetime (or at least once-in-a-decade) trip, at the cost of maybe passing up some really special experiences?  I didn't want to be distracted by worrying about money! 
In the end, though, I think it was valuable to have both perspectives involved in the decision-making process, and we ended up somewhere in the middle, which was probably more-or-less the best outcome.  We had to find a balance that let us fill our vacation with things that made us happy and satisfied, but also kept costs in control so we can afford to take our next great vacation sooner!
How do you strike the balance while on vacation?  If you're trying to keep frugal, do you feel like you miss out on some experiences?  Or do you plan to indulge on vacation and budget around that?  Do you have a different mindset about spending money at home and on vacation, and if so, do you find it difficult to switch over?  Do you and your traveling companions usually agree on the approach?


Michele said...

Great post - I've struggled with those tradeoffs as well, but I think I've come to a balance of sorts. I'm still very frugal in my traveling, but given that travel is one of the things I most enjoy, I'm stopped denying myself exciting experiences just to save money, especially considering I might never return and have the opportunity to visit that museum or stay in that hotel. However, frugality still plays a crucial part in my decisions - I don't visit expensive "must-see" attractions that don't particularly interest me just so I can say that I did, I always use public transportations (when possible) rather than cabs or rentals (also a great way to experience the people and the everyday culture of the city), I try to find budget "local" places to eat and drink (which has the added side effect of making the trip more authentic I think).

Susanna a.k.a. Cheap Like Me said...

When we traveled to Paris we rented an apartment, which turned out to be a great choice. We saved money on lodging. We were in a perfect residential area, so we could run out for croissants in the morning (instead of eating out) and make our own coffee. We got to visit the local fishmonger and butcher and veggie market, truly experiencing the local culture. We could walk to Notre Dame and the Pompidou Centre, and we had lots of flexibility with our infant daughter to let her sit on the floor munching a baguette, do laundry so we didn't have to pack as much, or throw her in a bath to settle her down. Plus we gained indelible memories - like my discussion (in tres horrible French ) with the cheese seller on how "forte" I wanted my cheese to be. Ultimately, by penny pinching, we gained untold pleasures!

Debbie M said...

I have regretted not doing something before, so now I allow myself many once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. The main cost for certain things is just getting there; once you are there, the extra you spend for various opportunities is a small proportion of the total. I just save longer between trips so I can afford to act like this.

I also do what Michele does.

It's also fun to visit regular grocery stores or markets and find out what's cheaper there than at home or what's available there that's not available at home. For restaurants and hotels, you can sometimes go not very far off the beaten path to save a lot of money. Even just walking a few blocks away from a main drag can get you to lower priced options.

I've also learned that I'd rather have one home base and explore everything around that area than to try to drive to an exciting new place every day. It's too much driving and stress and not enough fun.

Also, I take advantage of traveling opportunities. I have visited friends who were temporarily living in foreign countries, and accompanied friends who had found good deals. I end up doing things that are not at the top of my list, but they are great anyway, and most things are more fun with friends anyway.

For an example of the last two strategies, I'm about to go on a cruise with friends because they found a good rate and invited me. They found one leaving from a port we can drive to.

The ship is making three stops and I've been deciding what to do at each stop. At one end of the scale, I could stay on the boat and have plenty of food and activities available for no extra money. At the other end of the scale, I could sign up for whatever sounds good from the cruise ship. What I am doing is researching reviews and advice on things to do in each port, which is really fun in itself. And I am finding that there are always some things that sound both really interesting and affordable. And sometimes people charge extra for stuff I don't care about, so by going for just what I want, I'm able to keep costs down.

Nivek said...

I try to determine ahead of time what has spending priority and budget accordingly. A lot depends on where the vacation is. Tokyo will cost you a lot in accomodations but eating local is no more expensive than eating at some western chain restaurant.

When you're visiting a place really different from where you come from, you can get as much from just wandering around as you would from doing the expensive tours. I'd rather wander around in the culture than be led thru sanitized tourist attractions, plus it's a great way to maximize the experience at very little cost.

Penny Nickel said...

Fantastic suggestions, folks! Some of them I do already and others I am promptly adding to my mental list... :-)

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