5 Cheap Vacation Ideas

by heather

It’s finally arrived: the long days, the warm nights, and the distant tolling of that last school bell. Yep, it’s almost summer vacation! With a recession on, however, many people are curtailing their week-long summer vacation trip to Disney for something a bit more, well, frugal.

If you’re starting to sweat for some cheap vacation ideas, then never fear. There are some really fun things to do out there that don’t cost an arm and a leg.

The start of our campfire this weekend...

The start of our campfire this weekend...

Cheap Vacation Idea #1: Camping

When it comes to frugal vacations, it’s hard to beat camping. And when it comes to fun, camping also makes the top of the list.

Think campfires. Think sleeping under the stars. Think S’Mores, and ghost tales, and day hikes to the lake.

A and I love to camp. We went out this weekend, in fact, and had a blast. How much did we spend? Well, it wasn’t a lot. And it was far less than we would have spent if we had rented a hotel.

Camping costs can run the gamut. Everything depends on where you want to stay, how much gear you already have, and how much you need to buy before you go out.

Your Campsite

Campground costs vary pretty widely. Here in Michigan, all state parks cost $27 per night. And, that’s just for tent camping. In my opinion, that’s pretty steep. Especially since that price is the same across the board: tent campers and RV campers pay the same price. But, I’ll save that rant for the letter I’m planning on writing to the DNR to complain…

The good news is that not all state parks are so high. Other states only charge $10 per night for tent campers. And if you stay in a smaller park, or on someone’s land (with permission!) then it can even be free.

If tent camping isn’t your thing, then keep in mind that most state parks rent out rustic cabins or yurts. These will be more expensive than reserving a tent site, but still cheaper than a hotel. Especially if you bring your own food and cook over a fire.

You can check out ReserveAmerica.com if you’d like to find a great camping spot near your home.

Camping Gear

When it comes to camping costs, your gear is the “x-factor”. This is an area that can really be expensive if you’re not careful.

Our REI Basecamp 4 tent

Our REI Basecamp 4 tent

If you already have camping gear, then you’re golden. Read on to the next section.

If you have never been camping then you might want to start looking at garage sales, and on Craigslist and Freecycle for gear. You’ll at least need the basics before you go out: tent, pack, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, cook stove. And as you can probably imagine, costs vary widely.

A and I just invested in an REI Basecamp 4 tent. We plan on doing a lot of car camping this summer to save money, and we wanted a bigger tent. We got it on sale for $250 (it’s normally $350). So, this weekend was our first test run.

The results? I was completely impressed with this tent. In fact, impressed is an understatement. The Basecamp is super easy to set up, and it’s like the Taj Mahal inside. This tent will easily fit 2 adults and 2 kids, or 3 adults and 2 dogs, or even 4 adults.

It’s important to keep this in mind: you get what you pay for with tents. You can find tents for $100 at places like Wal-Mart or Target. And, for going out a few times these tents might work great. But I worked for REI for years during college, and can tell you with certainty that these cheaper tents rarely last. My opinion is that you can easily scrimp on other gear, but it pays to spend more on your tent.

Cheap Vacation Idea #2: Visit Friends or Family

If you happen to have friends or family that live in a cool place, then why not see if you could come out for a visit? You’d get to visit them, see a new place, and have a free place to stay.

If you do go visit family for your summer vacation, then make sure you let them know how much you appreciate them opening their home to you. Help out with chores, and pitch in for food costs.

Also, make it clear that they’re not expected to be tour guides. Perhaps you and your family can go out exploring during the day (while your host family is at work and/or school) and then have dinner and relax together in the evenings.

Cheap Vacation Idea #3: Go Couchsurfing

final-logoIf you have a real sense of adventure, then you might want to check out CouchSurfing.org.

CouchSurfing.org is a non-profit organization that connects travelers with people who have “open couches”, all over the world. This allows you to travel to a completely new place, and always have a free place to stay. Members of CouchSurfing.org open their home to strangers, and give them an inside look at what life is really like where they live by offering to be a tour guide.

Now, I know at first this might seem a little, well, scary. After all, how do you know the person you’re going to be staying with isn’t some psycho?

Well, the good news is that CouchSurfing.org verifies all its members. And, you can’t become a member until someone from the site recommends you. Every member has a complete profile page (and picture), so you can pick and choose who you want to stay with.

One of the readers here at The Greenest Dollar was the first to tell me about CouchSurfing.org. Her name is Heidi, and she backpacked all over Europe, staying with people from CouchSurfing.

This seems like an amazing resource. After all, how much can you really get to know a city from a chain hotel? Staying with locals is a great way not only to meet new people and save money, but they can show you a part of their city that you might never get to see.

Now, I didn’t see anything on the site that expressly said “No Kids”, but it did seem as if most of the people using this resource were young singles or couples. If you’re a parent, then you probably want to skip this one.

You can find out more on how CouchSurfing.org works by visiting this link.

Cheap Vacation Idea #4: Rent A Friend’s Vacation Home

Do you have any family, friends, or co-workers that own a vacation home or cabin? If so, why not ask if you can rent it out for a week? They’d probably give you a great deal, which would save you big compared to renting a home from an agency.

You can also save money here by cooking all your meals at the home instead of going out to dinner.


Howell's Vintage Baseball Game

Howell's Vintage Baseball Game

Cheap Vacation Idea #5: Go On A “StayCation”

I don’t know if this word is in the slang dictionary yet or not, but “Staycation” seems to be the watchword for this recession. Many people can’t afford any vacation at all. So, they’re staying home.

But, this doesn’t have to be a bad thing! After all, most of us don’t really know everything our local city and state has to offer. Being a tourist in your own town for a week can actually be incredibly relaxing, not to mention frugal.

For instance, just this weekend my hometown hosted a “History Days” weekend. A and I got to watch an 1864 baseball game; the players were in vintage uniforms, and played without gloves. It was a free event, and we had a blast!

Many towns host fun, free events like this during the summer months. Think about it: staying at home allows you to skip the plane fare (or the gas and wear and tear on your car), all those dinners out, and all the stress of traveling. You can lounge around in the backyard, cook on the grill, and play with the kids.

I actually really love staying at home for vacations. A and I go for long walks, catch up on books, soak up the sun in the backyard, and play with the dogs. And, we spend time in our local hometown. If we spend money, it’s kept local.

Staying at home is a simple, cheap, and stress-free way to relax for your week off. I’ll definitely be having a staycation this summer, and I’m sure I’m not the only one!

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heidi May 18, 2009 at 4:22 pm

Technically hostels in Europe are easier to arrange than c’surfing, but hostels are nearly impossible to find in the US (well worth it when you can, though!) which is where surfing kicks in. And you can couch surf in your own area if you feel the urge =D

Ashley May 19, 2009 at 10:33 pm

I lived in MI for years and NEVER paid anywhere near $27 per night at any state or national park, ever. Just left last year…I can’t imagine the prices went up so steeply.

That said, we camped really rugged!

Try getting camp sites back in the primitive camp sites or back country sites. The average price we paid was about $5-17 per night. You likely won’t have a toilet, showers, or even running water, but it’s certainly cheap!

heather May 20, 2009 at 5:31 am


I know! I almost fell over when I went to the front desk to reserve my spot and she quoted me almost $30. This was at PJ Hoffmaster State Park, in Grand Haven. I went online after we got back, and saw prices for all MI state parks (at least the ones I looked up) pretty consistent with the $27 mark. Ouch.

I’m definitely going to research cheaper places before we go out again in a few weeks.

Thanks for the camping ideas!

sri August 12, 2009 at 9:26 am

Taking regular breaks is pretty important for every individual. Working 24/7 can be a strenuous experience, which is why every one takes some time to clear their head and venture off into the wilderness with their friends and family. My favorite spots are the national parks to spend the break. Of course, what fun would camping be without delicious food cooked over an open flame or without playing games in the open air? Since I do this regularly I started collecting good sites and articles related to camping and fun activities or games for camping (more than 200 sites for camping and 200 sites for making your camping fun). You have all the information related to camping, camping gear, how to prepare for camping, how to choose camping sites, food, games etc.,. If you are interested take a look at the below link.

Chuck Clayton July 12, 2010 at 11:45 pm

These are some excellent ideas. I was not aware of the couchsurfing site! Great stuff. Besides state parks, there are many national parks all over the US.

Cruises are another relatively inexpensive vacation if you don’t get a custom room, or overspend on tours, drinks etc. Many cruises start at under $90/night. That is room, board, great destinations and more.



Lyza August 18, 2010 at 1:03 pm

Though I am not a camper myself, these are really good ideas to be able to take that much needed time away from real life on a budget. And I will be telling my uncle about the couch surfing, he is always up for any new ways to save money while traveling, and since he is single, this could really be good for him. Great post 🙂

Bridgett January 20, 2012 at 9:13 am

Camping is a great idea. I love it. Growing up, every summer we would camp at least 3 weekends while we were off from school. It’s a great way to clear your head, and relax. While camping, you have no phones, no internet, and no hussle and bussle. Now as an adult, I use camping to get away from the real world. I feel so refreshed and ready to go when I get back. Take naps, take long walks, read a book, do whatever you feel you want to do. I absolutly love it.

Claudia June 3, 2012 at 7:34 pm

I love Camping, I imagine when i was in grade school, were having a camping in our school it’s so fun at the same i enjoy so much with my classmates.I absolutely love it..

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