The past two and half years, I’ve traveled more than I ever have in my entire life. It’s become an addiction. If I’m in town longer than a couple of months, I get super stir-crazy. Right before my divorce was final, I took a life-changing, week-long road trip down to the Keys, and it has never left my system (or my heart).
The reason why this is so personal to me is that I’ve always been scared – and yet intrigued – by travel. I love the destinations, but getting there…ugh. I’m a recovering control freak, and I also was in a tragic car wreck ten years ago that changed the way I travel by car. By the end of my marriage, it morphed into a phobia, and even driving to Seaside required heavy medication. I still struggle with traveling on national holidays where the “rookies” all are out inebriated in their cars. But I digress.
That trip to the Keys literally changed my life. I realized what beauty and wonder I missed out on simply from fear, and I chose to face it head-on. The experience I left with I can barely articulate in words – and I’ve been chasing it ever since.
I’ve been fortunate enough to sail around the Keys, drive down Highway 1 twice, stay in two tree houses in Big Sur, camp at The Gorge in Washington, kayak down the French Broad, camp in nearly all the parks in Tennessee, and travel to over 15 states. The thing is – it’s all been affordable. Until recently, I thought that vacations and traveling were reserved for those of us who saved all our money for a year to spend on a big, week-long trip somewhere beachy and exotic. Damn, was I missing out.
For me, traveling is my home base. It’s where I get to unplug, unwind, and reconnect with myself. I step outside my comfort zone to take in a new place and everything it has to offer. I constantly get comments or remarks that I always find the best places, or that people want to live vicariously through me. This is me telling you – don’t do that. Just take the trip. You don’t have to spend $3000 on a beach trip or an international destination to seek adventure. It’s all right here. Of course, I see international traveling in my future, but I want to explore more of what we have here in our good ‘ol U-S-of-A. And man, it’s a lot. (P.S. – the next big stop is Sedona.)
So here are my tips for traveling on a budget to find the best spots the U.S. has to offer:
- Make it a priority – I can’t stress this enough. I know how easy it is to bog yourself down with mortgages, jobs, family, obligations…but you will always find an excuse not to. I have a mountain of laundry waiting for me when I get home. But this is my priority. I know that for me to feel joy in this life, I need to get out of my everyday routine, push myself, and keep learning. I cut out Starbucks and coffee, and I cook more at home. i only get pedicures a few times a year instead of every two weeks. Do you have any idea how much money that saves? I have a former colleague that is moving her family to Spain later this year and started a travel blog, and she says that it only takes saving $9.51 a week to fund one big trip a year. Albeit, she takes wayyyyy more exotic trips than I do, but I love that mentality. It’s like the old Scripture, “Where your treasure is, your heart will be also.” My treasure is in experiences now, not things.
- Stop using hotels – Don’t get me wrong. I love a great hotel. Every now and again, I will go the hotel route, because I like feeling pampered and don’t want to clean up after myself. But you pay for that, and typically, you don’t get views, space, or freedom like you do when you go a different route. My favorite site is definitely Airbnb, but I’ve expanded my searches into cool, start-up sites like HipCamp and Glamping Hub. Honestly, that’s where you are going to find the unique, off-the-beaten-path places for affordable rates.
- Spend the time searching – I consider Airbnb to be my Pinterest. I have dozens of boards I’ve created for destinations I want to travel, and I save (aka “pin”) all the spots that I love to that board. When I am ready to travel, I pull them up and see what will work. Go past the first couple of pages to find what you want, and search in the entire state instead of just one city. A lot of times there are great places just outside where you want to be, and usually they are more affordable.
- Don’t be super high-maintenance – If you really know me, you’d think this would be the toughest hurdle. I have been the most high-maintenance girly-girl since birth. I love nice things. I love luxury. But when I started stepping out from my comfort zone, I saw that the experience was so much more than just feeling pampered. It was about reconnecting with myself – not the amenities. Luckily, with places such as Airbnb, I can find a good mix of both. I’ve stayed in some super-rustic places, but they’ve also been some of the most beautiful, tranquil, and quiet places that refueled my soul. I’ve stayed in some swanky places, too, but I have to be honest – I don’t get as much out of them. I know myself enough now that I look for a certain vibe. I like rustic with modern touches, and if I don’t get a good vibe from the pictures and reviews, I don’t consider it. I’m spending my hard-earned money and my valuable time to travel, and I want the full experience, but I never pay more than $350 a night for it. Can you remember the last time you got a beautiful hotel for that rate? Me, either. Hotels are desperately clinging to their rates the way Blockbuster was before they busted. In our world now, that mode of operation just doesn’t work. It’s the equivalent to using cabs instead of Uber. I can find a gorgeous place to stay for $200 a night and do a lot more with it than have a 200-square foot room with a bed and a toilet.
- Hotwire is your friend – I don’t stay in hotels much, but when I do travel to cities for concerts or festivals, I always use this site. You can get some amazing deals – nearly 30-50 percent off – especially if you book within a month of your stay. You do have to play a little Roulette, because you don’t know what you are getting. However, if you do your research on the city and know the districts and what hotels are within those few streets, you can compare to Hotwire’s map and prices and get a pretty decent idea of what hotel they are offering. I stayed in a swanky hotel literally on South Beach in the middle of New Years for less than $200 thanks to Hotwire. I scored an amazing suite in downtown Chicago for $150 a night thanks to Hotwire. If you are willing to gamble a little, it’s worth it.
At the end of the day, you have to be willing to put in the effort, time, some side cash, and gumption to do this. I promise this, though – it’s worth it. Consider it an investment in yourself. We get so caught up in investing in everything – and everyone – else, but really consider what you find valuable. Is it those experiences with your loved ones, or is it the newest gadget, biggest house, or nicest car? I had all of those things, and they didn’t make me happy. This life makes me happy. No, it gives me pure joy. It’s contentment, and that seems to seep into my bones far more than my new car ever did. If you are looking for a sign to do something for you (or you and your significant other), this is it. It’s time to travel.