Friday, July 22, 2011

Travelling on the Cheap

Having just returned from a totally free stay at a beautiful beach house in Florida (thanks cousin-in-law's uncle!), I have decided to post about travelling while living in what most of America would consider borderline poverty. Cody and I both love to travel but our reasons for doing so are quite different. Cody likes to relax by the ocean, any ocean, and eat massive amounts of seafood. I, on the other hand, simply love to go. I love the spontaneity of a quick trip as well as the anticipation of planning a lengthy adventure. Luckily, we have been able to take quite a few vacations since we have been married and I now feel comfortable listing amateur travel agent as one of my qualifications. For this post, I am first going to list the major trips we have taken with some of the tips and tricks we learned from each of them.
  • Las Vegas, Nevada- This trip resulted from my first experience with, now one of my best friends. I decided about two weeks before spring break that I wanted to take a big trip. Cody surprisingly agreed and we booked our first trip with just the two of us. UAB's spring break is usually a few weeks before the rest of the country's so we were really travelling during the off season, early March. We flew out of Atlanta, about a two hour drive from our hometown, and stayed in the Luxor. Our package total was less than $800 for three nights. We had a blast. The biggest factor in making this a cheap trip...neither of us was twenty-one!
  • 7 Day Carnival Cruise from Puerto Rico- Cody and I had the smallest, cheapest wedding possible without actually eloping, which would have been my preference. In exchange for that, both of our parents contributed considerably to our honeymoon. Because of our cheap wedding, my parents offered to purchase our cruise tickets. In exchange for not being required to host a rehearsal dinner, Cody's parents purchased our flights from Atlanta to our departure port in Puerto Rico. Although we spent quite a lot aboard the ship and on the islands (all cash, nevertheless), there were a couple of things we quickly realized were strategic money-making machines on the funship. 1) Do not consume alcohol on the ship. Buy it in the ports, hide it in your beach bag, and save 60% 2) While a catamaran ride and swimming with the turtles might have been a blast, we experienced breathtaking beaches by asking our taxi driver to take us to his favorite spot. Also, find a couple that looks similar to yourselves and ride with them. The more people on the taxi, the cheaper it is per person 3) A bag of M&Ms is $4, bring as many snacks as possible
  • Cancun, Mexico- Similar to our Vegas vacation, this trip was hastily planned. We booked it only about three weeks before we left. This was our first all-inclusive vacation and most likely will not be our last. Although it was very expensive (mid-June= high prices= $1600 for three nights), we literally spent less than a hundred dollars after the trip was purchased. Again, this was paid for with cash, so no feelings of guilt for making payments on it six months later. It was really nice not to have to worry about what we were spending when going out to dinner or ordering drinks. We flew out of Atlanta again and stayed at the Now Sapphire. I couldn't recommend it highly enough. We would love to return one day, just in the fall or winter in order to get a little better deal. The only downside, tropical storm Alex kept the sun at bay the entire four days. You know a beach resort is nice when someone still has a good time during a tropical storm!
  • Key West, Florida & Dry Tortugas National Park- This is our most recent big adventure and by far our favorite. This is also the pride and joy of my travel agent skills so far. Dry Tortugas NP is one of the most remote National Parks in the country. No one we know had ever heard of it, much less been there. I saw picture of the park on the NPS website one day and decided to start planning a trip there. A few months later we were on our way. We flew from Birmingham, Alabama to Key West and stayed at a really nice bed and breakfast for two nights before and one night after camping on the island. Fortunately for us, this cute little home was also situated right in front of an annual drag queen pageant held in a barricaded block of Duval Street. Cody was thrilled. Needless to say, we will not be going to Key West again. On the morning of our third day, we boarded a ferry to the park. We camped for three nights. No water, no electricity, no showers, no flushing toilets, and no communication with the outside world. This was one of the most amazing shared-experiences in our relationship so far. Everyone should take time to visit this park. We began planning our next visit as soon as we arrive on the island. We plan to visit Dry Tortugas again next summer, but this time we will drive to cut cost and transport camping gear more easily. We also have a few couples in mind that we are trying to persuade to come with us. There were so many components to this trip it is difficult to estimate its actual cost; most likely, it was upwards of $1800 (completely paid for, not financed in any way, of course). However, most of that was spent on flights to Key West and staying at the B&B, things we don't plan to do next year. The ferry fare to the park was $150 each and it was a mere $8 a night to camp. Whatever the cost, think: complete seclusion, fantastic snorkeling, a Civil War era fort to explore, beaches that for sixteen hours a day you share with literally ten other people, no annoying cell-phones, and really interesting people constantly going in and out on their snazzy private yachts. Completely amazing!
  • Various Trips to Gulf Shores, Alabama- We live within about five hours of Alabama's gulf coast, making annual beach trips affordable and easy to plan. In the past four years, we have made at least one, if not several, trips to Gulf Shores each year. We have three couples who are our go-to beach buddies. We have a favorite beach rental company, Gulf Sands Rentals, and a favorite specific condo that we pay around $140 a night for during the summer and right under a $100 towards the end of summer and into fall. Split three ways, that is a super affordable stay. Plus, this particular unit has a fully equipped kitchen so we save a good bit of money cooking breakfast and lunch and not going out to eat. One of our favorite trips was at the very beginning of October 2010 when the rates were super low. The weather was great, water was still warm, and we didn't have to wait forever to eat at our favorite restaurant, The Original Oyster House.
Another way I personally have been able to squeeze a little extra travel into my very modest personal budget is through UAB. The student recreation center at my college has an outdoor pursuits group that makes several trips each month. These vary from day-hikes at destinations around Alabama to international backpacking adventures. Last fall, I went on a beautiful, snowy, four day trip to Mt. Rogers, Virginia for $80. Not bad for transportation and equipment rental (I love these types of camping/ backpacking adventures but I don't find the time to go on them enough to validate buying all that outrageously expensive stuff). In about two weeks, I am going on another trip with this same organization. For $390, I am going on a cross-country trip to Glacier National Park in Montana. The itinerary includes visits to the St. Louis Arch, Badlands National Park, and Mount Rushmore. I couldn't be more excited! Cody is not as enthusiastic about these types of trips so I am very thankful he doesn't mind me taking this opportunity to see a huge chunk of our country on my own. My final frugal travel tip: Camping is always much, much cheaper. No matter what our financial situation, I know that we will always be able to afford some sort of get-away because we are both comfortable in a tent.

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