Budgeting day-to-day expenses is tough enough. What isn't soaked into the mortgage and rent is swallowed by groceries and gas. Vacation -- what vacation? Try "staycation," a word that finally made it to Merriam-Webster Dictionary in 2009, partly to make us feel better about our lack of mobility.
But maybe it's really just imagination that we're all lacking. With that, proper planning and careful calculation it is possible to travel within reasonable means. Imagine that you and a companion have a vacation allowance of just $1,000 for seven days and six to seven nights. There are places to visit and experiences to gain that might seem to defy that budget, but won't. Don't factor in airfare -- we'll provide tips to save on transportation here -- instead, devote your creativity to using the "grand" you've got during the trip itself. Have you pictured where you'll go yet?
We have a handful of vacations that will help you get your wanderlust going. Take our challenge to spend a cheap week on one of these fantastic trips.
[See a photo recap of the 5 Best Vacations for Less Than $1K]
If you're seeking sun and sand when everyone else is shivering in stiff breezes and snow, try an often-overlooked (but still beautiful) island in the Caribbean Sea. The Belizean isle of Ambergris Caye is a renowned scuba diving locale, and yet it doesn't get as much hype as the Cayman Islands. English is the official language, so don't worry about a communication barrier. And for you all you Madonna fans, Ambergris is the original La Isla Bonita.
Getting Around: Ambergris Caye is so laid-back and compact that you could successfully shuttle around the main settlement, San Pedro Town, in a rented golf cart. Rent a four-seater cart on an as-needed basis -- you probably can get by with having it for just an hour each day, which costs as little as $18 USD, including insurance and taxes. Visit the island's tourism board site for rental information. Besides that, you can resort to walking or biking. Some hotels offer complimentary bicycles for their guests.
Where to Stay: Forgo the pampering of a resort for the personal service found at an independently run hotel. The New York Times and Frommer's recommend Ruby's Beachfront. Located on Front Street in San Pedro Town, this hideaway has 23 small, clean and comfortable rooms that regularly go for far less than $50 USD a night.
Where to Dine: Palmilla Restaurant, in the Victoria House hotel, is generally considered the best and most elegant dining experience on the island. So it almost goes without saying that travelers on a shoestring budget should steer clear. Luckily, there are quite a few affordable restaurants on the island. Try the Jambel Jerk Pit in the town center for some spicy regional dishes, or head to Fido's on the beachfront for a burger and some cheap Belkins, the national beer.
Your Big Splurge: Visiting the Belize Barrier Reef -- which is second only to Australia's Great Barrier Reef in size -- will definitely be the budget-slayer for this trip. According to Ambergris Caye's tourism site, you should expect to pay between $45 and $55 USD per person for an excursion that includes two daytime dives, and no more than $40 for a night dive.
Avoid the snow bunnies and store your skis until this season. Many ski resorts don't experience a traditional spring, so while the rest of the country is welcoming the first thaw in March and April, a place like Mammoth Lakes in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains continues to embrace the spoils of winter. The town's nearby resort, The Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, has more than 3,500 acres of skiable terrain that also includes the less-visited June Mountain resort.
Getting Around: Mammoth Lakes' bus and trolley systems make stops throughout town, as well as deliver passengers to and from the slopes. And best of all, they're free to ride. If you want door-to-door service, you can use the city's Dial-A-Ride bus, but it will cost you between $2.50 and $3.50 per ride. Visit the tourism board's website for more information.
Where to Stay: Go the route of a vacation rental. You could hole up in one of the area's condos for as little as $150 a night and often a week-long stay means even further discounts. Sites like HomeAway.com advertise condos available for between $600 and $700 if you stay the whole week.
Where to Dine: Who needs an après-ski lifestyle when you're trying to save a buck? If you rent a condo you'll have a kitchen, so you could be extra frugal by visiting the local supermarket for groceries. And while on the slopes you should hail one of the two Roving Mammoth food carts -- ahem, snowcats -- that sell cheap but tasty burritos or calzones. Track the cats down on Twitter.
Your Big Splurge: Leave the most wiggle room in your budget for skiing and snowboarding. And keep in mind that you stand a greater chance for a discount if you hit June Mountain instead of Mammoth Mountain. The former's lift tickets cost around $65 a day, with discounts for multiple days.
You can visit the beaches of the United States on one of summer's long weekends; save your vacation days to go farther away and explore what another country and culture has to offer. Some U.S. travelers mistake Lisbon's bargain-basement prices as an assessment of its quality. Not true. Portugal's capital is crawling with unforgettable architecture and magnificent food. And in summer you can truly relish the nearby beaches like Praia da Rainha or Praia da Conceição, located west of the city in Cascais.
Getting Around: You can't beat free, which is how much it costs to put one foot in front the other while exploring Lisbon. To avoid huffing and puffing on the city's hilly terrain, take a bus, tram or funicular. One-way rides cost no more than $5 USD per person. Or buy a Lisboa Card for up to three days of unlimited rides on public transport -- plus complimentary admission to some of the popular attractions -- for €33 EUR, or $45 USD. Visit the city's public transport site for more information.
Where to Stay: Lisbon contains some boutique hostels where you won't sacrifice a comfy bed just to save a buck. And of them, the Lisbon Lounge Hostel on Rua do Cruxifico has the most sterling reputation. Fodor's and the New York Times are among its fans, and in 2008, the Sunday Times ranked it the number-one European boutique hostel. Local artists handle the daily operations and decorate the space with funky couches, lamps and other conversation pieces. In the summer, Lisbon Lounge's twin bed rooms are available for no more than €32 EUR per person (or about $43 USD) a night.
Where to Dine: Eat breakfast at Lisbon Lounge, since that meal is included in the price of your room. Then venture into the city for a hearty and affordable lunch. According to the Associated Press, "Lunch starting at about 1 p.m. goes for about $10 (7 euros) for two courses plus dessert, includes a glass of wine, a beer or bottled water." Cod, or bacalhau, and other seafood specialties are frequent menu items.
Your Big Splurge: Do as the Portuguese do, and spend a beach day in Cascais on the Portuguese Riviera. You can take a 45-minute train from Lisbon's Cais do Sodré station. The beaches are free, and the cost of the train ride is covered with the Lisboa Card.
This is the time of year to catch the metamorphosis of summer's green trees to fall's crimson foliage. And though the East Coast has a wealth of forests to delight you, our choice would be a several-days drive and hike through Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Start out on the Blue Ridge Parkway in the town of Shenandoah to enter the park of the same name, then travel northeast on a stretch known as the Skyline Drive. This route's views are so picturesque that it even made our list of Best Fall Drives. But you can only peep leaves for so long, which is why our fall pick is also a two-parter that ends with a few days in Washington, D.C. The park is a little less than a three-hour drive northeast to our nation's capital. And after all that time driving through Shenandoah, you should be eager to get out and stretch your legs strolling along the National Mall and through the Smithsonian museums.
Getting Around: Leaf-peeping requires a car, and it will cost $15 to enter Shenandoah with one. The good thing is that entry pass doesn't expire for six days. Go to the national park's website for further details. Once you reach the District of Columbia, you can park your vehicle and walk around exploring the city's free sights. To get to the far-flung places, take the Washington Metro. One-way train fares cost between $1.60 and $5, depending on the distance and the time of day. Visit the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's website for more information.
Where to Stay: The most affordable lodging in Shenandoah would be the type you bring yourself. You could sleep in park campgrounds in a tent, just remember to reserve your spot online ahead of time and expect to pay around $20 a night and up to $140 for the week. The fee includes access to changing and laundry facilities on the campgrounds. By the time you arrive in D.C., there should be a surplus of money in the till to afford the city's lodging. There are a lot of enchanting bed and breakfasts in the Northwest district, like the well-reviewed and rated American Guest House, where you can stay for less than $200 a night. Also in Northwest, Hotel Tabard Inn offers comfortable rooms with a shared bath for between $120 and $145 a night.
Where to Dine: A dinner entrée in the park's fancy Spottswood Dining Room, found in the Big Meadows Lodge, will cost between $13 and $23. So take advantage of your portable hotel (a.k.a. your vehicle) and pack one or two coolers with snacks and picnic lunches. Supplement those supplies with groceries from Shenandoah's Wayside Food Stops. In our nation's capital, you can chow down at the food trucks. Eating a few meals on-the-go ensures you score some tasty treats without the expense of a sit-down meal. Bookmark Washingtonian magazine's list of the best options, which you can trace using Twitter.
Your Big Splurge: Swing by Charlottesville, Va. and the Monticello Wine Trail when leaving Shenandoah on your way to D.C. Tours and tastings at the vineyards run about $5 to $10 each. Visit the trail's website for more information on the area's vineyards.
This option isn't for everyone, but it is a solution to the challenge of staying within a $1,000 vacation allowance for seven days. And because there are so many places you could sail to, you really could travel at any time of year. Keep in mind that the price depends on your room and view, but it includes lodging and meals. Higher-end cruise companies might include the purchase of soft drinks, alcohol and airport transfers -- but many companies do not. Read the fine print when booking to determine exactly what's included in "all-inclusive."
In Winter: The time between January and March is known as the "wave period" in the cruise industry because this is when most travelers hit the seas. Sources like MSNBC insist that this is when cruise companies offer their best deals. To visit popular Caribbean ports in the Bahamas or Turks & Caicos, you'll probably leave from New Orleans, Galveston, Texas or somewhere in Florida. You'll sail with companies like Carnival, Royal Caribbean International and Norwegian Cruise Lines, which offer cruises that start around $300 per person for seven nights.
In Spring: The Mediterranean cruise season starts in April, so pick this month and lines like Holland America, Royal Caribbean International and Costa Cruises to visit places like Valencia and Barcelona in Spain or Naples and Savona in Italy. Rates start around $600 per person for seven nights. According to Smarter Travel, May is better than April to embark on a cruise to the Greek isles. Choose that month to book seven-night sails to Santorini, Corfu and Piraeus on lines like MSC Cruises for around $800.
In Summer: Smarter Travel also says that the time between June and August is warmest for an Alaskan cruise. Ships from Royal Caribbean International, Carnival and Celebrity Cruises leave from ports in Seattle, Vancouver, Canada and Seward and Whittier, Ala. to cruise to other Alaskan cities for seven nights. Your budget will be tight, since these cruises can start around $900 per person.
In Fall: If you're interested in cruising Mexico, avoid the Atlantic hurricane season of the early fall. Wait until November and leave on a Disney Cruise Line, Princess Cruises or Holland America ship from ports in Los Angeles or San Diego. Over the course of a seven-night cruise, you'll visit places like Puerto Vallarta, Cabo San Lucas and Mazatlan, all for around $700 per person.
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