Frugal Travel Series Part 1: Oh, the Places You'll Go!

This post is part of the Frugal Travel Series. At Frugal Hackers HQ, we apply many strategies to optimize our travel spend, which happens to be our top spending category in the "discretionary spending" category. Follow along to see how we maximize our enjoyment of vacation days given the constraints on time and money. 

Mr. FH and I work at full time jobs with ~3 weeks of paid vacation each year in addition to 10 statutory holidays. We don't have the luxury of slow travel (i.e. living in a foreign city for extended periods of time) because we're still tied to our jobs. We think of paid time off as a classic optimization problem.

Objective: Maximize our enjoyment from time off of work

Constraints: Time and money

Let's dig a little deeper into each of these elements. If you're like us and work at a full time job, time is unfortunately not a lever you have a lot of control over. Money, on the other hand, you have 100% control over. There's a ton of optimizing you can do to save on travel expenses: examples include careful trip planning, flights, accommodation, and activities. But none of this matters if you pick your destination carelessly.

Sunset in San Diego, CA

What's your dream destination?

The global travel industry stands to make billions of dollars from tourists worldwide. Every country, city, resort, beach, hotel advertises themselves as the perfect replica of paradise. You're always just two clicks away from putting down your credit card and buying a flight to a week of bliss.

Close your eyes and picture yourself in your dream vacation. Are you happiest on a beach sipping a Piña Colada? Or would you rather lose yourself in the wilderness of mountains? Do you see yourself weaving through the crowds in a busy city? Or are you alone in a vast expanse of empty land breathing fresh, untouched air? Figuring out where to go is the most important decision when it comes to maximizing the value you get out of travel.

Case Study: Frugal Hackers' Honeymoon Planning

The first time I gave serious thought to choosing our travel destination was when Mr. FH and I were discussing honeymoon options. My first thought was Tahiti. I had read about the pristine beaches and the rich French Polynesian culture of the islands and I'd always dreamed about vacationing in an over-water bungalow in Bora Bora. Straight out of a dream, right?

Mr. FH brought me back to reality and asked me how we would spend our week there. The truth is, we're really not into beach vacations (gasp! the blasphemy). We've got plenty of natural sun tan in our brown skin, aren't great swimmers, don't drink alcohol, don't eat seafood -- you get the drift. A $4,000 beach vacation just doesn't sound like a lot of value for two non-alcoholic vegetarians who don't want to spend much time in the water. After all, how many romantic beach walks can one take before it gets repetitive and boring?

After much discussion and research, we decided on Iceland as our honeymoon destination. Not a common choice for a honeymoon destination, and it was rather expensive (Mr. FH paid for my share as a wedding gift and spent close to $5k Canadian total), but it was worth every dollar. We rented a car and drove around the island. We soaked in geothermal hot springs, hiked around waterfalls, did a guided glacier hike, cruised among icebergs in a glacier lagoon, explored underground ice caves, drove out to the middle of nowhere at midnight to catch a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis, hiked around stunning volcanic formations, drove through intensely beautiful landscapes and basically had a widly awesome trip. 

How's that for a romantic honeymoon?

How's that for a romantic honeymoon?

Moral of the story? The first vacation destination that comes to mind may not be the greatest value for you. Do lots of research, read the "top 10 things to do" lists, ask yourself how you plan on spending your time there, and find out the best times of the year to visit. Learn everything you can about your future vacation before you buy those flight tickets. 

Once you know where you want to go, it's time to start planning, optimizing, and applying every frugal travel hack you can think of. In Part 2 of this series, I'll share our tips around how we plan and budget for our trips in a way that optimizes our trip enjoyment without emptying out our wallets. 

If you're interested in making the most of your travel budget, be sure to check out other posts in this Frugal Travel Series.