Deal of the week: A fancy vacation for super-cheap

BeachLast summer, we escaped the dry heat of Colorado for southern California sunshine.

Lots of people hit the beach for vacation. But my goal was to find a way to make the trip for a whole week for around $1,000.

We did it. The three of us stayed in schmancy Laguna Beach, visited Disneyland and cruised Vegas (albeit briefly) on a weeklong vacation last summer. Here’s how:

  • Home swap. Two words: Free lodging. We traded houses with a family from Laguna Beach. Each left the other a list of local activities and home maintenance tips and requests. The only downside was one chipped item at our place — a result of insufficient child-proofing. Before the swap, we exchanged several e-mails and talked once by phone to clarify plans and assuage anxiety.
  • Priceline hotel reservations. Our trip would have been $150 cheaper if we could have driven straight through, but none of us was up for 21 hours straight. We drove from Denver to Las Vegas the first day and stayed at the South Coast, a four-star hotel, for $69 thanks to Priceline. With our room we got a buy one, get one free coupon for the breakfast buffet, and Little Cheap was free, so we all ate breakfast for $13. Our dinner (also in the hotel) was $39, but it included free margaritas — more than welcome after an 11-hour drive.
  • Cheap pet-sitting. My sister and her husband kindly volunteered to take in our dog while we were away, saving $200 or more in kennel fees. (Yes, we brought them a nice souvenir. Thanks, guys!)
  • Books on tape. We borrowed books on tape and CD from the library to listen to in the car. The CDs fit in our car’s player so we all could listen together. Little Cheap listened to the tapes on an old Walkman, so Mr. Cheap and I could talk or listen to our own music while we drove.
  • Snacks on sale. Before we go on a road trip, I stock up on snacks on sale at our local grocery stores. We save at least a few dollars and avoid the temptation of $1.29 candy bars at gas stations along the way.
  • Home cooking. Part of the beauty of staying in a home is that it comes with a kitchen so you can cook your own food. We save a bundle on breakfast, and plenty on other meals as well. (This worked beautifully when we rented an apartment in Paris in 2001. In Laguna Beach, groceries were so expensive that a cheap dinner wouldn’t have cost much more than the raw ingredients!) My stepmother does this one better and takes frozen food from home to her timeshare vacation.
  • Public transport. Our home swap hosts clued us in to a bus that ran down to the beach for 50 cents — a much better deal than the pay parking lots.
  • Hang with nature. Nature areas provide great entertainment and a glimpse into the area for little or no cost. One of our most memorable visits was to the Doheny State Beach Visitor Center, which has a little tide pool and volunteers happy to talk. We also looked up tide charts online and made an early-morning visit to catch low tide at our favorite beach, where we could scramble over the rocks looking for crabs and anemones.
  • Splurge where it counts. We spent one day and a lot of money going to Disneyland, but it was worth it. We spent 10 hours seeing the sights, Little Cheap pulled the sword out of the stone, and we drove home under a full moon, in peace and contentment.
  • Be flexible. I wanted to see the San Diego Zoo, but a bad brake replacement job on our car before we left home meant we spent our money — and our day — fixing the car instead of seeing the Zoo. Next time …
  • Motivate yourself. On the way home, we stopped in Palisade, Colo., where we visited the farmer’s market. We became the proud owners of a bushel of luscious, pink-fleshed “June Pride” peaches. Their sweet scent accompanied us home to become peach pie and peach jam.

This year, we’re going ultra-cheap (camping, anyone?), but next year we might be up for a journey once more — if it’s affordable enough.

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