Thursday, August 23, 2012


That's a question I hear a lot. Both from people that genuinely want to know so that they can do it themselves, and from people that somehow think we travel too much (is there really such a thing?!).

Back when I worked in an office with a bunch of gals that were much younger than me, they'd make (sometimes disparaging) comments about how many vacations I took throughout the year. They'd start with, "wow, you're always gone." [Not true.] And then finally they'd inadvertently reveal the real reason they were so bothered by our travels based on comments like, "god, you must spend a lot of money on travel" or "must be nice to be rich." You see, they thought they couldn't afford to go on as many vacations as we did, but the truth of the matter is that with the exact same amount of vacation time as I had, and a similar lack of children, they could have ... if only they were smart about it.

With the exception of three major trips (Ireland in 2009, Tofino last summer, and Maui in February for our 10th anniversary) most of our vacations are of the budget variety. Mostly, we don't stay in five-star hotels. Instead I use sites like Priceline and Hotwire to book 4-star major chains at significant discounts. For example, we stayed in a very nice hotel in Portland in March for $99/night. When we went to Seattle we stayed at the Westin for $89/night. And in NYC several years ago we stayed at a very nice 3.5 star boutique hotel near Grand Central for $135/night. We've gotten burned a couple of times going this route (ex: the Sheraton Wall Centre in Vancouver) but more times than not the added savings are a real win.


When we're not staying in hotels - which is most of the time - we stay in condos using a timeshare exchange, or booked via VRBO or The majority of our trips to Hawaii are condo style vacations. We enjoy the flexibility this provides us, including the ability to cook our own meals and have separate space when our sleep schedules don't sync up (that'd be me). What's more, we're finding that frequently these condos are coming equipped with beach furniture that means we don't have to buy our own. The condo we rented from VRBO in Kona last year came with snorkel equipment, boogie boards, chairs, and coolers. The condo we exchanged for in Kauai in May 2012 - and are returning to next week - came with a cooler and beach chairs. We'll need to buy our own umbrella while we're there, but that's it. I can't tell you the amount of money we save grilling fresh fish, sometimes straight off the boat, at our condos than we do eating out every night. When we were in Maui we ate at our resort's restaurants, a lot, and it was pricey.

For actual travel, we use reward points whenever we can.

This is our reward card of choice. Since 2006 we've used it for round trip flights to Rome, a one-week hotel stay in Paris, and so many flights to Hawaii that I've lost count. In fact, very rarely in the last six years have we had to buy both of our tickets to Hawaii. For our trip next week we were able to use our credit card reward points for two flights that were $800 each. And I just used Alaska miles to upgrade to first class. Now, to be completely truthful here, I had to buy some extra miles for the return trip upgrade, but essentially both of us are flying first class, round trip, on a direct flight between Oakland and Kauai, for $280. 

Oh, and another perk of having a reward card that I forgot to mention is the companion ticket. This is one I wish we had known about earlier because we would have been using it a lot, but unfortunately we're dumbos and only used it for the first time this summer. With our companion ticket via our credit card reward program, Alan flew free to Ohio. Rather than spending $1400 to get to/from Ohio, we spent $692 for both of us. We didn't have the luxury of a direct flight, but the flight times they provided as options for us weren't terrible either. We only had one layover and we got to leave at night which meant we didn't have to take time off work for travel.

The other night I booked our flight from SFO to Vancouver for our Tofino trip. Because we waited longer than I like to the price had gone up significantly over the first time I checked. It pains me to pay full price for a flight so I checked with our credit card rewards program to see how many points we had. It wasn't much after depleting the account for our Kauai trip, but it was enough to save $500 off the total cost of the flights. We promptly put that $500 - and then some - toward a flight from Vancouver to Tofino, which allows us to bypass the two-hour ferry ride, and three-hour drive to the west coast.

A lot of people forget about the cost of rental cars when planning their vacations. I know I did when thinking about our next trip to Tofino. I was shocked when I reserved it the other night how much it's going to cost. But Tofino is one of those places where everything is ridiculously priced so if you want to go, you pay the price. But if we had decided to drive from Vancouver or Victoria, we could have gotten the car for $600 less using Hotwire, which, incidentally, is the only way I will book vehicles for Hawaii and elsewhere. For our trip to Bozeman I priced compact cars on Expedia and directly on the vendor's websites. Hotwire, without telling you who the vendor was beforehand, beat the lowest price by $15/day. For our trip to Kona last year, a Mustang was $40/cheaper than on competing websites. It was a no brainer. One time we wound up with a top-of-the-line brand new Mustang from Hertz for hundreds of dollars less than we could have otherwise gotten it for. On our trip to Ohio, our small SUV (a Ford Escape, incidentally) was the same price as a midsize sedan on Expedia.

I'm not going to lie to you, these deals don't just magically appear. It takes a lot of time and research to get these deals. Some people hate the idea of doing the research. They'd rather log on to Expedia and buy a package vacation. Heck, there's nothing wrong with that. We've done it. In fact, that's exactly what we did with Maui earlier this year. Airfare, hotel, and car in one nice bundle. It was quick and it was easy. What we found out when we got to the Fairmont was that our "package" put us in the lowest grade room even though the price we paid was equivalent to an upgraded room if we had booked directly through Fairmont. Because we combined all three items, it looked like everything was a good deal, but further research revealed that had we purchased things separately, and using my trusted means of acquiring deals, we could have saved money on our airfare and car and gotten the room we thought we were paying for. After arguing with the front desk for a full day, we finally did ... but it was really not the way we wanted to kick off our romantic 10th anniversary trip. That was a really good reminder to me. Always do my research beforehand. If I had spent a few hours at home a couple of months before our trip finding the best deals, I wouldn't have had to spend the first day of my vacation upset and in negotiation mode. And besides, it's not like I don't enjoy doing the research. In fact, I love it. That said, I understand some people don't.

People that hate doing vacation research usually look like this at the computer.
People that enjoy doing vacation research usually look like this.

Another thing I should mention is that flexibility is absolutely important if you're looking to get the best possible deal on your vacation. If you absolutely have to be at a certain hotel in a certain part of town, Priceline and Hotwire are never going to be the option for you. If you need top-of-the-line resort style condos, timeshares aren't your cup of tea either. For our upcoming trip to Kauai, there were no timeshares in Kauai that I was willing for us to stay during the week that I wanted. The following week there were three options. True, it meant that we wouldn't be on vacation during my birthday, but it meant that we could be in one of my favorite places in the world the very next week. When all is said and done, does three days really make a difference? In this particular case, no. For some it might. I know that I was adamant about being in Maui *on* our 10th wedding anniversary, so in that case, flexibility was not an option. That was a very special occasion, and I would never advise you to compromise during some of life's most important moments. But for the everyday ones? Yeah, flexibility never hurt anyone (except me, physically ... I can't even do the most basic yoga poses).

If you're interested in knowing more about how we travel - prep work, how I research, putting together itineraries, what a travel briefing book is (PR pros know the answer to that one), I'd be happy to continue this post as a travel series. Let me know.


  1. Sarah8:52 PM

    This was really interesting -- it sounds like you guys have gotten some amazing deals, and money-saving tips seem only the more important for us folks who enjoy traveling yet don't have that whole "lack of children" thing working in our favor on the affordability side of things, haha. I for one would love to hear more about your travel related insights if you have the time and interest to do a series about it.

  2. Ever since we were together, my hubby and I would vacation 2-3 times each year together. Friends and co-workers would always say, "How can you afford to go on so many vacations?" or, "I'm so jealous that you have so much time off!"

    Both statements drove my crazy. We would always say the same thing to these people. "How can you afford to go on so many vacations?" "We can afford it because we budget for it." Plain and simple. "I'm so jealous that you have so much time off!" "We get the same amount of vacation time as your do." For me, I now have four weeks vacation a year, but it used to be three (and at one point just two weeks). Ted also only has three weeks and that's the most he'll ever get. Plus, we plan our vacations at strategic times of the year where a stat holiday might fall during a week we are away. Last year, we spent 10 days in Hilton Head and only needed to take 5 work days off by taking advantage of weekends and a stat holiday. Bigger bang for our vacation day buck.

    Our trick to affording vacations is budgeting, and, just like you, smart planning. We don't go on luxurious vacations by any means. We opt to stay in timeshares with a kitchen where we cook majority of our own meals, with a few special meals out. We also love using VRBO to book condos in places like Hilton Head right near the beach. Again, we'll opt to BBQ a nice dinner every night versus going out to eat. We take full advantage of included amenities as well like bikes and beach accessories. We have no issues returning to the same resort or rental more than once. Chances are if we liked it before, we'll like it again and for us that's peace of mind that we aren't wasting our hard-earned money on a vacation.

    We plan our vacations well in advance so we know we can pay for them in full before the trip and enjoy ourselves without worry of debt. In day-to-day life, we don't eat out on a regular basis (we both brown bag it every day), we shop smart for groceries and everyday items like clothing and we are just overall smart with our money so we can enjoy things like vacations.

    Great post! I'm excited for you and your upcoming vacations!

  3. While I can't say we're frugal when it comes to how we eat at home (we're winos and shop predominantly at Whole Foods), we are incredibly frugal in other areas of our life. We have one car. Neither of us has any fancy clothes. That picture of us in the "About" section above? Target, Old Navy, Gap Outlet. I've never owned a pair of Tory Birch flats and have no desire to start now. Usually the girls that were asking me how I could afford to go on vacation so often were decked out to the nines in designer wear from head to toe. Only recently have I started to give in to my purse fetish with a few new items from Coach. But again, I didn't pay full price. Also, I color my own hair. Every six weeks I spend $9.99 instead of $159. I also get my haircuts at Supercuts (the easy ones - when I was a pixie I was paying $100 every six weeks for that and it got to be way too much).

    The timeshare we're going to for our upcoming trip to Kauai is the same one we stayed at in May 2010. The units we trade into won't have an ocean view, but the grill does so cooking our dinner at sunset on the cliff overlooking the north shore is no hardship.

    Like you we also try to schedule our vacations around holidays, even if we just get an extra day or two out of the bargain. Since my birthday is usually around Labor Day that's a plus. Our anniversary is always around President's Day. Another added day we don't have to take off. Sometimes we'll tack on one of our quarterly floating holidays to the mix to get two days off so that of a week-long vacation we're only taking three days. You can stretch your time a lot further that way.

    I'm totally with you also on paying for your vacation before you get there. This way your only out of pocket expenses are activities and food. It makes it seem, psychologically, much cheaper that way. Like I said before, our upcoming trip to Tofino is ridiculously expensive, but we're paying for everything now. Hopefully the cost of the car rental is the only thing that gives us sticker shock while we're there. :-)

  4. While I gripe about our timeshare a lot, without a doubt I think the single best thing a family can have is a timeshare in a good location. It forces you to take a vacation, while budgeting for it in advance. Then, when you get to your destination, you have all the space you need, quality cooking facilities, and there are usually other families for your kids to have playmates at the pool or the grill station. Once upon a time I used to work in the timeshare field so I know all about the good, the bad, and the ugly that these programs have. Some of them are atrocious. Unless you're a Disney freak, I would never recommend to anyone that you buy a timeshare in Orlando. Your trading power will be nil. Of all the various programs out there, the hotel ones are the best, albeit not the cheapest. I would also advise someone looking to get into the timeshare market not to buy direct from the developer. You can get them much cheaper on the 2nd hand market from people who've made a mistake, can no longer pay for them, or simply don't want them anymore.

    I don't count the total cost of what we paid for our timeshare because I got it at 50% off and we paid for it a long time ago. Instead, what I factor in are the yearly dues against what it would cost to get a condo at a similar location. We pay about $800/year, which roughly translates to $114/night. There is no way you can get a nice one bedroom condo in Princeville for that price, and so I consider it a plus. A couple of years ago, at another condo we stay at in Kapaa, a less desirable part of the island, the studios were going for that price + tax. I was kind of bummed but then I realized that we were in a one bedroom, not a studio. And it made a difference when I got food poisoning and needed to sleep on the couch. Space! I randomly check the price of the condos we stay at on expedia and a couple of weeks ago the condo in Kapaa was going for $279/night + tax so we're definitely ahead on that deal. It's almost like a game. And I love winning, while being frugal at the same time.

  5. Sara {House Bella}9:05 AM

    I love this Becky, please keep doing it! Mike and I travel a fair amount, and I get the same comments. "You're traveling again? Lucky!" The biggest bummer for us is Mike only gets two weeks paid vacation. Next to nothing!

  6. Court1:03 PM

    Yes, please write more about this! I love to travel and am pretty savvy, but specifics like this particular rewards card you use could really help.

  7. My heart almost stopped when I got my current job and they told me that my three weeks was a combo of vacation AND sick days. As a sickly person I saw my vacation slipping between my fingers. Thankfully since I'm a remote worker, even when I'm sick, I still work. I just do it in my pajamas from the couch.


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