Depending on where you live, spring can be a frustrating time of year. For folks in more temperate parts of the country, late March brings warm breezes and an explosion of color from early flowers and tree buds. But in the mountainous west, the U.S.’s northern tier, and most of Canada, winter’s grip remains tight, and cabin fever continues. And down south, March and April mark the return of the uncomfortable heat that can last through October.
No matter where you’re from, you’re sure to find a weather-related excuse to take a quick spring trip. The real question is whether such a trip is fiscally prudent. Spring break is a popular travel time for penny-pinching college students and young people, but what if you’re not interested in packing 15 people into a three-bedroom house and partying on the beach for a week straight? Are there any spring travel options out there for folks who just want to get away for a few days without breaking the bank or short-changing a long-planned summer vacation?
As it turns out, there are. Springtime, including the traditional spring break season (basically the month of March), is actually a very quiet time for travel – outside of classic spring break destinations such as Daytona Beach and South Padre Island, many tourist areas experience a drop in visitors. Accordingly, cheap airfare and deep hotel discounts abound.
Tips for an Affordable Spring Break Trip
No matter where you’re headed, it is important to keep several general cost-cutting tips in mind.
1. Utilize Available Public Transit
Even if the advertised per day price seems reasonable, the cost of renting a car can quickly become prohibitive. Taxes, fees, mileage charges, and other unwanted surprises at the kiosk – not to mention the cost of parking and gas – add up. And heaven forbid you forget to top off your tank before returning the car – most rental car companies charge between $5 and $10 per gallon for the “convenience” of returning your car without a full tank. Over the course of a four-day trip, a rented car can add hundreds of dollars to the cost of your vacation.
In bigger cities, public transportation is your friend. Many tourist-friendly towns offer short-term transit passes that significantly reduce the face value of each individual ride. For instance, San Diego offers a four-day trolley pass that allows unlimited rides for $15. By comparison, a full-fare, one-way ride is $2.50.
You don’t necessarily have to stay in a potentially more expensive central district to enjoy the benefits of public transit: In San Diego, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, affordable outlying neighborhoods often enjoy robust connections to centrally located tourist areas.
Of course, not every destination has great public transit. If you must rent a car, use a comprehensive tool such as KAYAK or Hotwire to quickly sort through location-specific offers from multiple car companies. Unless you’re taking a family vacation or bringing along a big group of friends, stick with the smallest vehicle in which you can comfortably fit – even if it’s a bit smaller than what you’re used to.
Alternatively, ask the rental kiosk attendant if they’re offering deals on any specific models or vehicle types. When they’re faced with a local glut of, say, minivans, rental car companies might slash rates on them to encourage turnover.
2. Take Midweek Trips If Possible
Hotels specify “weekend” and “midweek” rates for a reason: It’s much harder for most people to find time to get away during the middle of a regular workweek. When vacation days are limited, it certainly makes more sense to stretch them out by taking Fridays or Mondays off and getting a head start (or delayed return) on a three-day weekend.
However, given the hefty premiums that some hotels charge for weekend stays, this can end up costing you. If possible, look into visiting these locales for two or three nights in the middle of the week.
3. Investigate Vacation Rentals and Short-Term Housing
Staying in a well-run hotel can be a great experience. Then again, you pay for what you get at a full-service lodging facility. While it might not make sense for a romantic, frugal getaway for two, you may be able to dramatically reduce your lodging costs by staying in a vacation rental property or hostel. For North American destinations, Airbnb offers a wide selection of homes, apartments, and even rooms for rent – just be sure to do your due diligence on whoever you’ll be renting from.
If you’re looking for an even cheaper place to rest your head, look into the website Couchsurfing, whose participants often accept in-kind payment such as help with the dishes, cooking, and other chores. For longer trips, Craigslist can connect you with short-term sublets or apartment swaps.
Finally, the best lodging deals in countrified locales are generally found at private or state-run campgrounds. As long as you don’t mind roughing it, there are plenty of these to go around in the months before summer’s peak camping season.
4. Control Your Food Costs
With so much else to worry about, even the most frugal travelers fail to budget for several days of on-the-go sustenance. When you don’t have access to your home’s trusty refrigerator and pantry, your food costs can spiral rapidly.
However, there are many ways to save money on food while traveling on vacation. If you’re staying in a hotel, look for a room with a mini-fridge and microwave, even if you have to pay a few more dollars per night, and take an hour or two on the day of your arrival to shop for cereal, trail mix, sandwich supplies, and other cheap, healthy food items. When it’s time to eat, pack yourself a picnic lunch or dinner.
Of course, part of the allure of travel is the promise of novel food items. You don’t have to choose between dining at four-star restaurants and forgoing local food altogether. There’s a happy medium somewhere in between, and the power of the Internet can help you find it.
For starters, the food truck movement has absolutely blown up during the past few years, and it’s now possible to find cheap mobile eateries in many metropolitan areas. In fact, you could probably eat at a different food truck every day of the week in San Diego, Washington, D.C., and Nashville.
And each destination has plenty of cheap, no-frills, hole-in-the-wall-type places that also happen to make great, innovative creations. These eateries might not be the most visible or best-known establishments in town, but they shine on digital directories such as Yelp and UrbanSpoon. For special deals, you can also look to online coupon providers such as Groupon and LivingSocial, which both offer deep, limited-time discounts at specific restaurants, or check in with the local tourism bureau to learn about restaurants that offer unadvertised specials to tourists.