Can you help me go on a vacation, even with my student budget?
April 10, 2010 10:04 PM   Subscribe

How do I go about planning a vacation on my student budget? If it helps, I don't care much where I go...

I'm a college student who has been in the school/full-time-job-over-the-summer cycle since my junior year in high school, and I've decided that a vacation would be really nice. I'd be looking to leave for around a week sometime in mid May or early June, and I wouldn't want to very spend very much money. My student budget says $200 would be pushing it, but I might be convinced to spend a little more.

How do I even start planning this? I keep hearing about ridiculously cheap plane tickets ($30 and the like), but they always seem to be from "major cities", which doesn't seem to include Milwaukee these days. Can I get better deals due to the fact I'm planning this out a month in advance? I suppose driving is always an option, but I don't know if I'd consider driving an hour away to be a vacation.

Also, is there any way I can stay somewhere for a week without paying $100/night? I'm not very well versed in any of the travel deals sites.

Finally, what do people do on vacation? (Don't laugh) This will obviously be governed by my budget, but once I get wherever I'm going, I'll need things to do. I think ending up somewhere like the east coast would be fun, because there could be lots of museums and monuments to see, but wherever I go, I'll need things to get my moderately introverted self out of the hotel room.

I've done some research so far, but a lot of these questions are pretty stale, including some that have answers full of broken links, so any tips on places to find travel deals or planning tips would also be appreciated.
posted by niles to Travel & Transportation (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I didn't make this very clear, but I am in the Milwaukee area, in case this helps with any advice.
posted by niles at 10:07 PM on April 10, 2010

$200 wouldn't even cover a week hitting the hot spots in Milwaukee. Maybe you should just look around your area a bit.
posted by sanka at 10:40 PM on April 10, 2010

Get on a train. I guess you could think of it as an advantage to the crappy American RRs, but it takes a long time to get anywhere. The trip is the vacation that way. The scenery's nice on lots of AmTack routes, and interesting horrible on some others. I haven't done a long train trip in over five years, but there were always some interesting people with tales to tell back then. Moving at night, means no room cost, (if you can sleep in a chair it's real cheap.)

I know there are youth hostels in DC, (all of the Smithsonian Museums are free, as of now, but who knows for how long that will last.) I assume most other major cities have hostels too, but I don't know how they work since I'm no longer that young.
posted by Some1 at 10:41 PM on April 10, 2010

Do you have any friends who live in a place you'd like to visit? I do sometimes enjoy going places where I don't know anyone and just exploring on my own, but it is substantially less expensive (especially in a city like New York or Boston) to crash with your friends than to pay for lodging.

If you don't have friends where you'd like to go, there are still some options. Don't stay in a hotel or motel; they're expensive and (in my opinion) depressing, and have a way of cutting you off from the atmosphere of a city. Some better ideas include Couchsurfing and youth hostels. (Many hostels offer reduced-cost or free accommodation in exchange for grunt work like vacuuming and mopping—call beforehand and see what they have to offer.) Another good thing about either of these options is that they will hook you up with other people wherever you're visiting, which should help get you out of your shell a bit.

As for what you do on vacation, that's really up to you! What do you like doing; what seems most fun? Sometimes I really like just walking around a new city, stopping into whatever used bookstores, bodegas, pizza shops, or record stores I see. I also like exploring major public parks and trails, and old natural history museums full of stuffed bird skins and geological cabinets. But those are just the things that are most fun for me; what would be awesome for you? There would be nothing worse than boring yourself to tears with a random series of museums or events because they seem like what other people might enjoy on vacation.
posted by cirripede at 10:47 PM on April 10, 2010

Two hundred dollars seems like far too little to budget for a real vacation. A weekend maybe, or a week visiting friends who will let you sleep on their couch, but not a full-fledged week-long vacation with airfare and a hotel and food and entrance to museums.

Cheaper options might include camping, finding friends within driving distance to crash with, and staying in hostels and cooking your own food after spending all of your money on a plane ticket.
posted by MadamM at 10:52 PM on April 10, 2010

Have you ever been to Chicago? I think you might be alluding to this in your question. $200 might be enough to get you there and to spend a week in a hostel. Once you're there, there are interesting things to do for free or on the cheap. Of course it depends on what you like to do. I enjoy just walking around the city, going to the (free) Lincoln Park Zoo, the city library, free museums, and cheap bars.

Other than that, I'm afraid $200 isn't that much when it comes to a week long vacation somewhere. But, if you're committed to doing it on a low budget, Chicago might be the way to go. It's definitely a fun city, in my opinion, and can be done cheaply if you make an effort.

Or, you might consider renting a cabin in a state park. In my state you can rent a cabin for a week for fairly little money. Add some money for food and you could have yourself a good time in solitude somewhere.

If you're desperate to get away somewhere, remember vacation isn't a place, but a state of mind. Just go some--anywhere--and have fun! Good luck!
posted by squawk at 10:53 PM on April 10, 2010

I think the train is even going to be too expensive for this kind of journey. Try looking into the cheap bus lines like Megabus. You could get from Chicago to Memphis for $86.00 round trip in mid-May. Combine that with some couchsurfing as cirripede suggests and you could probably make do. You may be eating McDonald's every night though.

As far as what you do...well, what I do is wander around, see different parts of the city I am visiting, hang out and watch people, etc. Relax. Read a book.

Alternately, come to Minneapolis. There are some of us on Couchsurfing, and the bus ride is cheaper. (There is a Metafilter Couchsurfing group.)
posted by cabingirl at 10:56 PM on April 10, 2010

If I were you, I'd try to get to a city where (1) there's free stuff to do and (2) I could CouchSurf. Since you're in Milwaukee, Chicago's a possibility, but since you wanted the east coast ...

How's this: The better part of a mid-May week in DC. A round-trip flight from Milwaukee will cost you about $160 on the right dates. A 7-day Rail Short Trip Pass on the DC Metro for about $30. Find some hosts on (or maybe someone in this thread will volunteer to host you) for about $0. But remember that CouchSurfing is as much about meeting new people as it is about saving money -- bring your manners and your beaming personality, offer to help out and cook dinner and chip in for meals, maybe bring a gift from back home, and don't overstay your welcome. Anyway, all told, you're now at about $190.

But why DC? Well, holy hell is there a wealth of free stuff to do. Tons of museums, monuments, cultural events, parks, nice neighborhoods for a stroll, markets, memorials, university campuses -- all free, and the list goes on. Google is your friend for free events around town. Bring a book and just relax somewhere; the weather is pleasant in May. And with the initial investment in the Metro pass, you can come and go as you please all week. Yeah, you'll go over your budget after paying for things like meals and beers, but I figure you'd be eating and drinking back home, anyway -- just don't splurge on eating out. Maybe find a host who'll let you use their stove.

I love places like NYC and DC, and I by no means spend a lot of money when I go there. If you can scrounge up enough to cover the costs of the relatively inexpensive trip there, you're golden.
posted by SpringAquifer at 11:23 PM on April 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, sorry, I totally forgot. Your cheap AirTran flight will dump you in Baltimore, so you'll have to take the B30 bus to the Greenbelt metro station, about $3-something each way. But once you're connected to the Metro system and you've bought a pass, things become substantially easier. But I guess that brings you up to $197 or so, sorry.

What else? You've been living as a poor student, and you know full well how to budget. Just keep your head with you when you travel, and carry those skills over. Don't forget how you saved money at home! Keep a loaf of bread on your host's counter and a pack of deli meat in your host's fridge, and bring a sandwich for lunch as you explore town. Refill a water bottle along the way. Share a six-pack of beer with your host, rather than pay for drinks at a bar.

Traveling the world can be incredibly expensive, or it can be rock-bottom cheap. Your choice.
posted by SpringAquifer at 11:38 PM on April 10, 2010

I assume most other major cities have hostels too, but I don't know how they work since I'm no longer that young.

(Many hostels offer reduced-cost or free accommodation in exchange for grunt work like vacuuming and mopping—call beforehand and see what they have to offer.)

I'm in the business, so two things and then away I go before I get into self-link territory:

(1) there is no age limit at hostels; and

(2) chores done by guests are only relevant if you plan to be visiting 1974 or something. No reputable hostel does this officially any more.

Chicago, by the way, has a very nice hostel and it is close to Milwaukee as well as being a great town. This is where my thinking would lead me, if I were in the OP's situation.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 11:38 PM on April 10, 2010

I hear you on needing a vacation, but I really urge you to hold off until you can put more money into it.

Why? Using CS a lot, I have been with oodles of people who are so stressed about their budget that they 1) think about (lack of) money all the time and 2) miss out on the best or most spontaneous parts of the trip because they're afraid of wrecking the budget. Can't try new foods, can't go to a show, can't ...

But you still need a vacation! Suggestions to see family/friends who will host you and entertain you are great. Have you considered camping? Your university may have a student group that rents out equipment (mine does).

How do you get more money? Do you ever do odd jobs? Scan craigslist? Look for psych experiments at school? $10-20/odd job adds up quickly, and doing one-time work means no long-term commitments messing with school.
posted by whatzit at 12:07 AM on April 11, 2010

Also: What do people do on vacation?

Well, at $200, you will spend your time walking between all of your destinations, microwaving beans for every meal at a 7-11, waiting in line for the shower at the hostel, or looking for treatments for bed bugs, lice, whatever.
posted by whatzit at 12:09 AM on April 11, 2010

Response by poster: Wow. There's a lot of great advice that I'll be researching. It sounds like I might be able to pull this off, and I'll be looking forward to any other tips/advice people can provide.

squawk, I have been to Chicago, and it's a lot of fun. I stayed there for a week while working at a trade show, and while not it wasn't vacation, I had did have a (very nice!) free hotel and a CTA card to use on my free time. I really enjoyed hopping a train and going to random places in the city.

SpringAquifer, your comments are exactly the information I'm looking for. The rail pass and bus info is perfect, and is exactly how I was hoping I'd be able to get around. Even though it sounds a little more expensive than I was hoping, I do I have more money to use if I need it. $200 is just my off the cuff number for what I'd be comfortable spending. (You also are reading my mind about food - no need to eat out for every meal!)

And for all you realists, I know this is a long shot, but I think you underestimate what I (and many of my friends) get away with on our finances, and the "sacrifices" I'm willing to make during a trip. I appreciate the concern/advice, but I'm more than willing to put in the legwork to make this happen, and I won't be jumping into anything without make sure it's a feasible plan :)

That said, your mention of camping was helpful, whatzit. It looks like I could reserve a campsite just outside DC for $16/night.
posted by niles at 12:55 AM on April 11, 2010

Don't forget about vegas! If you don't gamble, you can get by on next to nothing. If you're cute, people will buy you drinks if you go to the casinos, staying in a hotel with a casino off the strip (close to the greyhound station) can be cheaper than a hostel, you can take the greyhound through the night to avoid paying for somewhere to stay, and the greyhound trip to vegas is going to be amazing from anywhere. If you book ahead on greyhound they offer insane deals.
posted by pick_the_flowers at 1:56 AM on April 11, 2010

I think you just got a little too optimistic, so I'll have to turn into a realist for a little bit. I'm not a huge fan of the camping idea, in your case. It's a great way to save money in some instances -- I always camp on road trips, for example -- but it just doesn't seem terribly efficient here.

Yes, it's only $16 a night at Greenbelt Park. But how are you going to get there? It'll take an extra train ride to get into the area, and since the train isn't part of the Metro network, it'll be an additional cost. Each way. Every day. After that, it's a significant walk, in an area not exactly designed for walking. Each way. Every day. Not to mention, it's a huge pain to get to if there's something in the city you want to see at night. And it's a few more dollars for incidentals such as, say, tent stakes, which would be prohibitively expensive to check in on a plane, since you can't exactly put those in your carry-on. And remember that National Park Service facilities often lack showers (unlike state park campgrounds), so that's another thing you'll have to deal with.

If you're willing to put in $16/night for camping + transport costs + many hours wasted + lugging around camping gear for a vacation in the city, then, okay, I suppose. I wouldn't, and I'd discourage you from doing that. If you're not going to CouchSurf, you might as well find a hostel for about $25 a night, which will have showers, which will allow you to socialize, which will in all likelihood provide a stove and a refrigerator and a kitchen, which might provide a breakfast you can fill up on, and so on and so forth. I'd say it might save you some money, anyway -- at the very least, the $5 extra per night is going to buy you a TON of security, efficiency, and, most importantly, sanity.

And seconding whatzit's advice. Save up a few extra bucks, any way you can, so you can actually enjoy yourself and relax. You don't need that much, but it's nice to eat out once or twice. I got from your original post -- and now your follow-up -- that you might have a few extra bucks to spend. Don't be too cheap; life's too short.
posted by SpringAquifer at 1:56 AM on April 11, 2010

$200 is just my off the cuff number for what I'd be comfortable spending

Even if you have more money, you are going to stress about the money, and need to find more money so you are comfortable spending it. Frankly, I don't recommend you to couchsurf. As a host, it sucks when your guests are only there because it is FREE, and expect to eat your food because it is free, won't go out unless you pay for them, etc.

Good on you for finding the campsite, though. I meant something, like, in Wisconsin, where you can then go hiking and kayaking and shit. I would worry about the safety of doing it somewhere near a major city like DC, including on that long walk. You really can't know if things like this are feasible until you're on the ground or get advice from someone who is, and stress does not make good vacations.

Good luck
posted by whatzit at 5:02 AM on April 11, 2010

I can't believe no one has mentioned WWOOFing yet. You get to hang out on and learn about organic farms, room and board is paid for, you're a student so it will be a good break from brain-related activities... anyway, that's this student's cheap summer plan...
posted by johnnybeggs at 6:30 AM on April 11, 2010 [3 favorites]

I grew up around greenbelt.

Camping there and hoping to see stuff in downtown DC without a car is totally infeasible.

It'll be at least an hour hike in and out of the campsite each day to get you to the far end of one of the metro lines. Probably another hour on the metro just to get wherever you would want to go. You wouldn't be able to do anything at night without worrying, because the walk back at night would be pretty scary: along the side of a major road and then on a unlight road through the forest to get from the park entrance to the campsite. In the campsite you can hear the roar of cars driving on the Beltway.

I love DC. It is a wonderful place to visit. There are so many free things to do, but I doin't think it is doable on a $200 budget from Milwaukee. You might have a chance of pulling it off if you had friends in the area you could crash with (Couchsurfing sort of accomplishes the same thing). Even then you are really pushing it since you wouldn't have any real budget to do any nighttime acitivites, get any drinks, eat out ever.

Personally I like my vacations to be relaxing, not freaking out about money the entire time.

My suggests:
-Camping/Hiking with friends somewhere closer to where you live.
-Visit friends/Couch surfing in a closer city (so that you could bus instead of fly) and as a result have more of a budget to spend (sparingly) on having fun while you are there.
-Consider shortening you expected vacation length, so that you have a bit more spending money per day.

-Flying anywhere unless you can get tickets for under $100 and can find a free form of housing (otherwise your budget will immediately disappear)
-Going anywhere where you'd need to stay in hotel, any place where hotels are cheap enough for you to stay very long are going to be in places that aren't fun to visit, or are inconvenient to get to/from without a car.
-Staying in a hostel. Hostels can be great in a lot of situations, but with such a limited budget I think you are going to have better things you could have spent your money on. Hostels are a great way to get you a place to stay in the center of a fun city. But you then need enough funds to actually have fun in the fun city to be worth staying in a shared bedroom with shared showers/potential risk of bed bugs etc.
posted by vegetableagony at 9:09 AM on April 11, 2010

Response by poster: I grew up around greenbelt.

Camping there and hoping to see stuff in downtown DC without a car is totally infeasible.

Ok. I might need to take this piece of advice.

I also realized that I might be giving off the appearance that I'm planning on just jumping on a plane/train/hitchhiking and expecting the whole week to work itself out. I should clarify that there's no way I'm doing anything until I have a plan for the whole week, which would include figuring out every little bit of transportation, costs for food (including eating out every now and then), costs for visiting landmarks, etc.
Right now I'm looking for ideas of what could be possible, so just because I start talking about camping doesn't mean I'm already calling up the ranger station to reserve a site. I do appreciate advice on things to think about, because I definitely will be considering those before I start planning anything definite.

What started most of this was hearing of the sub $50 round trip plane tickets that a friend's relatives bought last summer to fly up here from the southwest, and that's why I started out thinking $200 would more than cover a trip. Maybe those sorts of prices don't exist right now, even if I don't care what the destination is.

I'll crunch my numbers to see exactly what I can afford, but either way I think I have some great starting points of what might be possible.
posted by niles at 12:45 PM on April 11, 2010

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