How to Travel More Often With Almost No Budget

Graphic saying "no money" over a camp ground

I wouldn’t call myself a travel expert; I’m too young, and don’t have a lot of experience with long distance travel as an adult. That being said, I am pretty good at getting a good time out of almost no money. I get my cheap thrills as a weekend warrior, getting all my cabin fever out with short trips while still saving the same amount of money and PTO for the occasional big trip. Here are my biggest tips for getting more adventure without increasing your travel budget. 

Travel Regionally

Travel doesn’t have to mean coast to coast flights. In fact it doesn’t have to include flights at all! Take a look at areas that you can drive to in a few hours. Chances are, there is a city, national park, or state park you haven’t explored yet. Every time you get that wanderlust, look up activities in these new places. When I do this, I limit my transportation expenses to a tank of gas or two. With my Prius that’s just $30 per tank, the equivalent of two movie tickets and a snack at the theater. 

If you want to save money on gas and you live in a large enough community, it can also be fun to treat your hometown as if you were a tourist. Take a walk at a new park, have a picnic, or visit attractions that might already be in your backyard, like a pool or theme park. Local festivals are also a perfect time for exploring with a new lens. You don’t have to make it a staycation, either, since you don’t have to wind down for the evening in the same old place. 

Camp, or Stay With Someone Else to Save Money

To save on lodging, try camping. Personally, I love camping in my prius when it's just me on an adventure. Camping at a state park is very affordable. In Iowa, staying in a state park costs between $7 and $30, depending on the season you camp in. If you stay at a resort type campground, it might be more. I recommend campground campers reserve a spot in advance during the most desirable seasons. If you are near public land for boondocking, you can stay for free, at the conveniences cost of no bathrooms and running water. 

If you don’t like the outdoors, that's fine! Ask to stay with a friend or family member in the area. Chances are they have some great advice on what to do with your mini-trip. Besides, who doesn’t like catching up with an old friend. If you don’t know anyone in the area, consider using a couch surfing site like Couchers, or set up a pet-sitting gig. If you stay with someone you don’t already know, make sure you have a backup plan in case something doesn’t feel right, and do any research you can on the host.  

If you stay at someone else’s home, whether it is a friend, couch surfing or pet sitting, please be a courteous guest. Never abuse someone’s hospitality. Consider bringing a gift for the host, offer to help with dishes, don’t be too loud, follow house rules, and keep spaces you use clean. Every couch surfing host has a story about the guest from hell. Don’t be that person. 

Don’t Buy Fast Food While Traveling On a Budget

When you travel, don’t waste money on low quality fast food or gas station novelties. When I travel solo, I’m great at this. When I travel with my boyfriend, I’m not as good about it. What can I say, it's easy to be talked into eating hot, greasy pizza or chicken. Don’t do it! You can get this generic food almost anywhere, wasting a meal when money and stomach space is precious. Plus, gas station foods in particular tend to be over priced. Chances are, for the same price you could grab a sandwich at a locally owned coffee shop, a bowl of chili at a cafe, a plate of appetizers at a bar and grill, or a wine tasting at the local winery. Use the money to try something actually worth the time and calories. 

Or, if you want to truly save money, bring your own food.

Bring Your Own Groceries

The absolute best way to keep your travel costs the same as staying home is to eat like you are at home. Obviously, it’s not exactly the same without and oven and full size stove, but you might be surprised by the variety of foods that work great for weekend adventures, even if you don’t have a fire or stove. Depending on what you like to eat you might not even need a cooler.

Foods that require no preparation day-of: 

salads, cheese, meat sticks, salami, veggies and dip, hummus, crackers, tuna salad in a packet, bagels, fresh fruit, dried fruit, canned fruit, salmon in a packet, pulled pork in a packet, salsa and chips, peanut butter, snack mix, pretzels, prepared sandwiches, prepared non-mayonnaise pasta salads.

Food that you can make with an electric kettle, jet boil, propane stove, or microwave:

rice, pasta, canned and dried soups, canned veggies, canned beans, instant potatoes (great with canned ham), box mac & cheese, ramen, eggs or powdered eggs. 

I highly recommend that even if you plan on cooking, please make sure you also have plenty of snacks and ready to eat items. Sometimes it might not be good weather for outdoor cooking. Sometimes you might be cranky, or lazy or hungry miles before your next stop. If you want to save the money you would eat at a gas station, make sure you have food to tide you over till the next planned stop. 

Take Advantage of Free Activities

There is so much free stuff to do! Never discount the power of free activities. Of course, feel free to support local businesses too. Personally, I am particularly fond of theme parks and concerts, and am most likely to spend money on these activities while traveling. 

Parks and the great outdoors are the best place to start looking for free activities. Most towns    will have a nice hiking trail or bike path, and many will also have a free beach to go swimming or fishing at. For an added $5-10 you can even rent a kayak. If you don’t have a proper swimming beach but you do have a pair of water shoes, you might be able to go creek stomping. Or, walk alongside a body of water and collect shells and pretty rocks. If you don’t feel active, bring a book or some art supplies and draw your surroundings. Bring your camera or phone and take photos of birds or flowers. State parks are also a great resource. In Iowa, state parks are free to visit during the day. In Minnesota, you pay for an annual state park pass for your vehicle. Some state parks might have interpretive centers, nature presentations, and other free activities, as well as all the fun benefits of a county or municipal park. 

If you don’t feel like enjoying nature, you also have great options. Going window shopping in a new town can be fun, provided you won't be tempted to spend money you didn’t budget. If you feel like supporting the local businesses, try shopping ahead for birthday or christmas presents you would end up buying for others anyway. There might be a heritage museum, art museum, history museum or open air museum you can visit for free. Libraries often have free programs, as well as the standard books, music and movies to rent. Lastly, one of my favorite activities is finding those local silly festivals and parades that small towns host in the summer and around the holidays. You will often find free live music, student performances, art, petting zoos and surprisingly decent food at these types of events. In Iowa, I have noticed that the sweet corn and grilled pork are consistently good quality and really good price. Seriously!  The most delicious looking thick cut pork chops I ever saw were on the Iowa Pork Producers food stand at the Gladbrook, Iowa Corn Carnival. 

So Get More Adventure!

Hopefully you learned a tip or two that you didn’t already know about getting more adventures for dirt cheap. Or if you didn’t learn anything, I hope you feel inspired to use your weekend and explore what you have available, without sacrificing on big vacations.


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