"Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Travel Plans

I just got my credit card bill and almost fainted, until a review of the items on the statement reminded me that 75% of the bill was pre-payment for a trip I'll be taking in two weeks. After paying the bill in full, I began to evaluate the 'frugalness' of my trip.

For me, travel is one of my 'rewards' for being frugal(ish) the rest of the year. I allocate a budget for the trip and aim to spend every last cent of that budget. That said, travel for me consists of splurges and saves. I know what I'm willing to fork out big bucks for and what I'm not. Let's dissect the trip I'm about to undertake.

I'm flying to San Francisco, spending five full days there, then traveling to Las Vegas for one or two full days there, visiting the Grand Canyon, then moving on to Hollywood for a day and a half or so. I'm hoping to add in a day trip to Tijuana, Mexico, too, before driving back to San Francisco to spend one last day there before flying home.

My initial plan was to spend one week in San Francisco because it would a) be incredibly cheap and b) offer me a chance for a total change of scenery (I've never been 'south' or that far west or seen a palm tree). All of this was possible because a friend lives there and agreed to provide me with free lodging and a place to cook my own meals if I was willing to come within a set window of time (since a lot of other friends of his want to take advantage of his new location!). This would make for an incredibly cheap trip (under 1000$).

But I got to thinking--what else is there near San Francisco that I wouldn't otherwise go see but which interested me. The answer was obvious--Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, and Hollywood.

So, now I'm flying to SF to spend a week with my friend. Then, I'm renting a car and driving to Vegas. My first day in Vegas, I'm splurging (after doing lots of research and finding the best bang for my buck) and taking a half-day helicopter tour to the Grand Canyon! I'll then use my rental car to get to Hollywood, possibly San Diego, and then return 'home' to SF to return the car and take my flight home.

The rental car is a definite splurge considering the current price of gas in that part of the country. But the fact that I'll be able to make up my own schedule and route makes this cost worth it. I took a fantastic road trip in 2005 which really taught me that road tripping for me is worth its weight in gas.

The helicopter trip is another splurge, but it's a once in a lifetime type of thing. I rarely return to the same place twice, so the odds that I'll be in the general vicinity of the Grand Canyon again are slim. I look at this splurge as being like a similar splurge I once made in Scotland by taking a day trip to the Orkney Islands and back. I blew a full day's budget then, but not once in the nine years since that trip have I kicked myself for taking that risk. I also used this thought process to purchase tickets to visit Alcatraz, a pricier excursion than I would have imagined. I'm, of course, paying for my friends' ticket.

I also found ways to save a lot of money on the trip. I planned my trip to be within the limits of the 'low season', meaning that I'm saving money across the board. My plane tickets are several hundred dollars cheaper than if I'd left just two weeks later. Of course, I planned the trip to lie between dates for ultra cheap tickets, finding the best deals if I left on a Tuesday and returned on a Sunday. The Sunday I'm returning happens to be Canada Day... and I'm arriving in the capital. I'm hoping to be able to get bumped to get a voucher for a future trip. Thankfully, my boss doesn't really expect me back the day I said I'd be back, so I could be bumped to a later flight without consequence.

My activities in SF and Hollywood are prepaid thanks to CityPasses. These packets of discount vouchers for local attractions and public transportation add up to almost the full sum of what I'd want to see in SF and Hollywood and offer incredible flexibility and value.

I discovered that Vegas during the week is much cheaper than during the weekend. I found an off-strip hotel for 69$ per weeknight, vs 125$+ for a weekend night. Two days after I booked, I found a better deal for this same room and was able to rebook for 50$ per night... including two breakfast and dinner buffets. A lot of people admonished me for getting a 'cheap' hotel instead of splurging on a classic Vegas hotel. What can I say? I prefer to spend my money doing things on trips than staying in a posh place.

Another way that I'll be saving money is by taking advantage of the current USD/CAD exchange rate. I bought almost my full amount of pocket money for the trip this week. I'll divide this amount into different hidden places on my person for the trip and pay cash for as much as possible, including the rental car (you need a credit card to reserve, but when it comes time to pay, you can do so in cash).

A final way I save money when I travel is to make my own meals as much as possible, or, at the very least, stop at a market before lunch to get bread, cheese, and fruit to munch on, with leftovers for breakfast the next day. I do like to occasionally get breakfast at a restaurant, but do so later in the morning so as to be able to skip lunch. I do like to go to restaurants for dinner, two-three times per week of travel because I do very activity-oriented travel and am usually wiped by dinner hour. When I do eat out, I favour local establishments and get things I couldn't get at home. I know it's usually cheaper to eat out for lunch, but I rarely like to stop mid-day long enough to eat a sit-down meal at a restaurant. I don't add food to my travel budget because I'd be eating at home anyway and rarely, if ever, go over what my food budget at home would have been.

So, I leave in two week for a trip that'll cost me about 2000$ and of that I've prepaid close to 1,750$. The remaining 250$ is for that/those rare and wonderful item(s) that I couldn't possibly find here and which will constitute my 'souvenirs.'

The last few trips I made, I visited antique stores, flea markets, and even garage sales to find the three items I scrounge for--blue willow ware inexpensive enough for daily use, specific-style candlesticks, and specific-style carved boxes. These practical items see daily use, are constant reminders of the trips I took, were cheap, and provided hours of entertainment to find. Visit a souvenir shop? Not me!

I love that so much of my trip has been pre-paid because it'll be my first trip where I won't really have to mind my budget. It's going to be a blast and my first time in years where I can just relax, have fun, and forget about my life.

I'd like to add that I don't think that spending 2,000$ on a trip is excessive at this point in my life. My only current debts are a student loan and a car loan (both have negligible interest), I have a healthy savings account, and I'm not sacrificing any necessities (eg. postponing a medical procedure, avoiding car repairs, putting off a home renovation, etc.) in order to go.

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