June 8, 2009

Frugal vacations

That's a photo of me taken last summer in London. Yes, it's freezing. It's cold in London in the summer. But it was a fantastic trip! We went there for the theater, the museums, the Indian food, the history, and walking the streets. We didn't go there for the weather. You probably wouldn't expect to see London in a discussion about frugal vacations, but this one was very affordable. How could an extended holiday of 5 weeks in London be frugal, you ask? Because we did a house swap. And it was one of the best travel experiences we've ever had.

HOUSE SWAP: We're hooked on this type of travel now. As long as you're planning a destination vacation, and not touring an entire region, it's a great way to get to know a place. I originally considered it because of the cost savings, but it turned out to be so much more than an affordable way to travel.

We've become friends with the couple we exchanged homes with, and we feel like we've lived in London. We got to know the neighbors, the ethnic neighborhood markets, the Tube (underground) lines, and adopted a local pub, as well as our favorite Indian restaurant within walking distance. Instead of having to rush out the door in the morning, stay out all day, and pay for three meals out, we'd eat breakfast at "home," and then relax and go out for an afternoon of adventure and an evening play and dinner. A few nights we stayed in and cooked and then went to the pub for a nightcap. Our schedule was completely flexible, which was much more fun and relaxing. If we didn't make it to a museum one day, we'd go the next. Sometimes we'd like one so well (they have absolutely fabulous museums in London, and they're free!) we'd visit two or three days in a row.

A lot of Europeans do want to swap for a month or even more, but since most Americans don't have that option, you can arrange your holiday for whatever length of time suits your schedule. You just have to come to an agreement with someone who wants to visit your town. The whole concept works best if you live in a big city that's a tourist attraction, but it's not mandatory. There are home swapping opportunities listed for all over the U.S., you just have to focus on what your home and neighborhood have to offer to a visitor. And maybe that's just getting away from it all and enjoying a little peace and quiet.

If you're interested in a Home Swap holiday, I recommend both Home Exchange and Homelink. We ultimately did our exchange through Homelink, but we had many interactions with people on both sites. The cost is less than $100 for a year, and you'll list your home with photos and a description. Then you sit back and wait for the offers or start making inquiries about places you're interested in visiting. The websites answer all your questions and lead you through the steps of setting up your listing.

And if the idea of having strangers in your home worries you, let me reassure you that by the time you do the swap, they're not strangers anymore. You've exchanged many emails and had lots of phone conversations, and you have come to know them. Our exchange partners even picked us up at the airport, brought us to their home to help us settle in, and took us on a motor tour of the countryside the following day. They bought us a pub lunch and showed us the 12th century church their daughter had been married in. They slept at another daughter's home down the street before flying to Los Angeles the next day. Even if this extra attention might not be the norm, if you're nervous about the "strangers" in your house, remember that you're in their house as well. So really everyone has an incentive to treat their surroundings with respect.

I consider it a marvelous bonus that we have new friends who live in London. They are fascinating people who've travelled all over the world on two teacher's salaries by doing home swaps. And they've assured us that we always have a place to stay whenever we pass through their city.

A few other frugal vacation ideas:

COUNTRIES WHERE THE DOLLAR IS STRONG: Right now, that list includes Argentina, Costa Rica, Morocco, Vietnam, and Panama. Most of your budget will go to the flight, and once you're there food and lodging will be very cheap. Another one of our favorite vacations was to the Mexican Riviera, where we spent two weeks several years ago. I'm almost embarrassed to quote the budget of our trip, but we spent $700 on two plane tickets to Cancun, and then less than $600 for accommodation, food, and all other expenses. That's what I call a budget vacation. We left Cancun immediately, and headed for more off-the-beaten-path destinations, and stayed in simple but clean motels. We went snorkeling, saw Mayan ruins, and ate plenty of seafood and Mexican food and drank margaritas. We didn't feel like we were penny-pinching. Click here to read an article about places where the dollar is strong right now.

STATE DEPARTMENT LIST COUNTRIES: I might lose a few of you here, but hear me out. Even when a country makes this list, the odds that you'll come into danger are usually very low. For example, my brother enjoyed a holiday in Bali a few years back while it was on the list after being the site of a terrorist attack. And there was even another attack while he was there. But he wasn't anywhere near the discotheque where it took place. The odds of being in the wrong place at the wrong time are small, and could really happen anywhere. So consider traveling to a country like Bali, which has natural beauty, marvelous culture, and warm, friendly people. Their economy relies on tourism, and it's so sad that these isolated incidents keep travelers away for years.

POST-CRISIS AREAS: Along those same lines, you'll probably have a lot of luck visiting a city or region that's recently been hit by tragedy. You'll be warmly welcomed, and will most likely enjoy great deals. Places like Bali after the terrorist attack, New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and New York City after 9/11. Your trip may even take on a significance and poignance as you make your journey into an area that needs assistance. You could almost consider your vacation a form of charity, especially if you do some post-crisis volunteering while you're there. Habitat for Humanity works all over the world to rebuild homes for families who've been struck by disaster.

Finally, STAYCATIONS. This is a marvelous option, especially for families who can't spend a lot of money on plane flights or gassing up the car. Instead of waiting for out-of-town guests to enjoy the attractions of your own city, visit them on your own. Have each family member pick an outing of their choice, and then order pizza and watch a movie at night. Or if you have young children, camp out in the backyard! The options are endless, but the key is to do things you don't normally do in your everyday life, spend a lot of time together, and make it special.

What are your vacation plans this summer? What's your best frugal vacation idea? Please leave your thoughts, tips and questions in the Comments section.


Betsy Talbot said...

Love the house swap idea! We have rented houses on vacation before and like the flexibility of being able to eat at "home" and experience more of the local flavor. But we have not tried house swapping before. This makes me want to start planning a trip now!

The point about traveling to places recently hit by tragedy is a good one. I went to NYC shortly after 9/11 and spent some very appreciated dollars in a city that had its tourism industry devastated. People were hurting emotionally and economically. The memories of that trip will stay with me forever.

Becky said...

Glad you had a great time in London! We live here now, and also think it's a fabulous city (and often take advantage of the free museums!). What neighbourhood did you stay in? It must have been so nice to get into the feeling of being a local, and not having the fight the tourist crowds at Leicester Square every time you wanted to go back to your hotel!

Ellen said...

Great post Angela! I love that you're incorporating the idea of travel into a discussion on frugality, and that you share photos of yourself and your personal experiences on your blog. Keep up the good work!

Marylyn said...

Don't mean to sound pitiful, but I can barely manage any vacation at all. I suppose a "staycation" would suit me fine, but it's difficult for me to NOT think about the office unless I get out of town. This means visiting relatives or friends, since I can't afford more than a night or two at a hotel. (Believe me, no one would want to stay in our house or our neighborhood, plus, I always go by myself because my spouse is not into going away unless he's got gigs at the destination.) So, my plans for next week are to drive to upstate New York and stay with a friend who has a house with a view (and visit her yoga classes), then head east to visit my parents for a few days, then to New Jersey to see my aging Aunt Josephine, and then back home. I have a relatively new car, so I think it will be economical, and I find PEACE in highway driving (usually). I have the "new" used iPod on which I'm putting loads of stuff. It can hold 18gb. And the car has an iPod plug into the speakers. Still, I won't be able to stop thinking about the office for more than an hour at a time, I'm sure, for the first couple of days.

Angela said...

Betsy- You're funny- I love the idea of planning for a home swap, while you're planning for a trip around the world... Actually, maybe you can use it as part of your trip...

Becky- Oh, I would love to live there longer. Maybe a year or more. We stayed almost at the north end of the Picadilly line, the Southgate station was our drop off. And yes, it was wonderful not fighting crowds and tourists every night. Where we were staying, there were no tourists, so the people in the neighborhood and our local pub were so happy to talk to us.

Ellen- Thanks for the nice words. I have always been great at "frugal travel," since travel is one of my passions. I've taken trips when it really wasn't the most "sensible" thing to do. As for the photo, some people mentioned it would be nice to put up a photo of myself, so I thought this one fit in. Although it's hard to look at myself in a big photo like that!

Marylyn- I don't think your road trip sounds pitiful at all! Driving long distances is so meditative for me, I find I can do a lot of great thinking. Expansive thinking, not "fly buzzing in brain" thinking. Upstate New York sounds great, visiting friends and relatives- all good. Have a great time! And I highly recommend books on tape- I get them from the library. My favorites are The Poisonwood Bible, and all of David Sedaris. And I wish you luck with leaving the office behind.

Kate Sommers said...

I love that you did a house swap.The idea of staying in a place as a local rather than a tourist appeals to me.It allows you to have a much different experience than being a tourist in a hotel.My husband and I have been planning a trip to France and Spain for two summers now (we wanted to go last summer) and now it may be put off once again until next summer.
Oh well...it will still be there when we're ready.Planning is half the fun!

Non Consumer Girl said...

Thank you so much for sharing your houseswapping experience on your blog!

I have been toying with the idea for a little while......

I'm glad it was such a positive experience for you.

Angela said...

Kate- If your trip is going to be put off, you should definitely check on doing house swap for part of it. It seems like everyone in Paris loves to travel, and you would have absolutely no problem finding a great exchange for Hawaii. Believe me, it really is better than a hotel (especially a small, noisy Paris hotel).

Non Consumer Girl- I am sure you would also get a lot of offers for Sydney. I hope you do it, and let me know if you do!