How We Took a Month-Long Summer Vacation for FREE

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One of the benefits of being a teacher is the time off - especially if you love to travel, because you have these large chunks of time for vacation opportunities.  Since G and I are both teachers, this has generally worked out pretty well for us, although we worked for different school districts, so some of our breaks didn't always line up together.

Of course, now that I'm on perpetual maternity leave, coordinated breaks are no longer an issue.  So, as the summer approached, we thought about what we could do with all that time...

Oh, the places we could go...if only they didn't cost anything. 

It seemed like whatever ideas we came up with would still break the budget - even our standard getaway of camping was too pricey, once we added up the gas and campground fees.

But then I realized that the way we do camping didn't have to cost that much at all, and soon we were packing up the car and heading off to the mountains.

Honestly, I thought our trip would still cost us something.  I mean, driving 600+ miles away to vacation for a month would surely cost a few pennies...

But it didn't.

In fact, we saved money by leaving home...and this is how we did it:

First, I want to emphasize that I'm not considering the cost of our camping gear when I make this "free trip" declaration, because we already had everything we needed from previous years of camping.  We did have to recently replace our tent, but luckily G found a cheaper "store brand" version of our favorite shelter , so we even saved some money in that department.  Besides, even if we had spent more money and bought the name brand tent, the money saved by not paying for hotel rooms over the life of the tent would save hundreds of dollars!

Our Campsite
Now, this type of trip will only work for you if you do not mind primitive camping.  In other words, no facilities.  It's your tent and the woods, folks.  Grab your hand shovel and hit the trail, because when nature calls, you answer that call right out there in nature.

You'd be surprised at how many places you can camp for free in this way.  State and National Forests, Wildlife Management Areas and Water Management Districts are just some of the locations I've camped at for free over the years.  Some of these areas require a (no-charge) camping permit (you have to request it in advance, so the downside is that you can't take spur-of-the-moment trips), but often these types of sites will just be available on a first-come basis.

We had camped for free up in Pisgah National Forest (near the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina) a couple summers ago, so that's where we planned to grab a spot this year, too.

Our awesome - and free - campsite

In the past, we've taken most of our food up with us for camping trips.  While it was always great to prepare things ahead of time, we found that it added stress to our trip by worrying about either eating things quickly enough (before they spoiled) or making ice runs on a daily basis.  Since we were trying to keep costs as low as possible, we didn't want to be forced to drive out from the campsite into town (a 30-minute jaunt) just to get ice, so we decided to try something new and buy most of our food up there.  I did still make enough homemade granola and protein bites to last the whole trip, because I knew we'd want something premade to have on hand, just in case.  We also took some dry goods, like spaghetti, quinoa, and couscous, because we felt like it was smart to have a few of those things for back-up meal options.  There were also random items from home (salad greens, cheese, and some hodgepodge dinner leftovers) that we carted up with us so we wouldn't come home to disgusting science experiments in the fridge.

We ate really, really well on this trip.  Camping is pretty much the only time we consume copious amounts of dead animal products, so we gorged ourselves on meals like lamb (twice!), steak, hamburgers, hot dogs (you've gotta have hot dogs and sparklers on the 4th of July!) and tacos.  We even managed to scout out all the local health food stores (not difficult, being so close to Asheville), so that meant our meat was pretty much all local and organic!  We also made pasta dishes (like "taco" and bacon/onion pasta dishes) and enjoyed lots of grilled asparagus, onion, garlic, sweet baked & mashed potatoes, and fresh fruit like clementines, apples and grapes.

We brought our water jugs from home and were able to refill them with the same reverse-osmosis-treated water like we're used to drinking every day.

We even enjoyed favorite treats like special cheeses and wine - we didn't feel cheated with our food at all, despite the fact that we still shopped around for local deals.

We signed up for discount cards at all the local grocery and natural food stores, so that helped keep our food costs low.

We even ate out.  We picked up some local BBQ, treated ourselves to ice cream and gelato (twice!), and had a big, fancy dinner at a cool farm-to-table restaurant while enjoying some live jazz one night.

Gv's first gelato - Mmmm!

All that food, along with the gas, certainly cost us money, but we didn't consider any of it to be a "trip cost" if it was within our normal monthly budgeted amount.  We didn't go over our usual monthly gas budget at all, most likely due to making only strategic trips away from the campsite (we'd consolidate our food runs with sightseeing excursions) coupled with the fact that we were only driving one car around, while the other sat at home in the garage.

We did go over our regular monthly food budget (mainly from the times we ate out), but even this didn't add to our "trip cost" because we ended up saving so much on regular monthly expenses from not being at home:

1.  We put our Internet, phone, and cable on a vacation hold.  I didn't know you could do this, and some companies charge you for it, but even if they do, you'll probably save enough to make it worth trying, if you're gone long enough.  We were gone 27 days and we saved $60 by putting ours on hold.

2.  We saved $70 on our electric bill (maybe even more, since it's been an especially hot summer - extra air-conditioning).

3.  We saved $20 on our water bill.

So that's $150, which means that even by going over our food budget by $100, we still saved $50 by taking a month-long family trip!

You can't beat that!


Obviously, there are lots of ways to spend money on trip activities, but nothing we did cost anything.

We did lots of hiking:

We named this hike 6-Snake-Road...can you guess why?
And town walks:
One town had sculptures all over the place - it was fun to track them all down while seeing the sights of the city
Another town had these crazy decorated bears all along Main Street.  Sometimes it's easy to create your own fun...

...but after 20-something bear photos, G was DONE!

We discovered which days the museums and art galleries had complimentary admission and even got in free to a music festival conducted by Keith Lockhart

Jamming out to Rachmaninoff and Ravel on a beautiful summer afternoon
We got online at the local library, and even took Gv to the story time they had there every week:

Gv felt right at home with these shelves and shelves of books
Plus, we discovered a fantastic playground nearby (it even had a pool!) that Gv loved:

She could have spent hours here - it was so unique!

Not everyone is comfortable with the idea of camping for a month (your idea of a vacation might look more like a day at the spa!) but if you want to find a way to afford a family getaway, it might just be possible with a little creativity!

They don't call them the Blue Ridge Mountains for nothing!

What do you think?  Do you love the idea of a free family camp out?  Or is camping not your style, but you can see yourself using some of these ideas to save you money on your next vacation?  I'd love to hear - leave a comment here, or email me at lisahealy (at) outlook (dot) com.

Linked up with Thrifty Thursday at Living Well Spending Less,
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