7 Ways We Save When We Travel

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Washington Monument

This summer we took a 12-night road trip up the East Coast. Here’s where we went:

Day 1 and 2 Colonial Williamsburg
Day 3 Busch Gardens, Williamsburg
Day 4 and 5 New York City
Day 6 and 7 Boston
Day 8 and 9 Kennebunkport, Maine
Day 10 Philadelphia
Day 11 and 12 Washington, D.C.

That’s a pretty long trip, and it included stops in several high-cost-of-living areas. So, how did we keep costs down? The same way we always do. Here are some of our tricks.

We Seek Out Food Trucks.

We don’t have many food trucks in our town, so I love to seek them out when we travel to big cities. When we go to NYC, I always grab lunch in Madison Square Park. They have a pop-up food truck market that sets up several times a year, and the food is always amazing.

Food Trucks in Farragut Square in Washington D.C.
Food Trucks in Farragut Square, Washington, D.C.

On this trip, we also hit food trucks in D.C. They set up on Farragut Square every afternoon, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. It’s not in a touristy part of the city, so the food isn’t marked up, like it is around The Mall.

Indonesian Food Truck Lunch

My oldest daughter and I got curry. Looks good, right?

Grabbing food off of a food truck is cheaper than going to a sit-down restaurant, and allows us to try new things. We spend about what we would at a fast food restaurant, and the food is a lot more interesting. It’s usually healthier, too.

I don’t think we’ve ever eaten off a truck that had less than an A health score rating, so really, I think it beats fast food restaurants in that regard, too.

Farmer’s markets and seafood shacks are also good bets.

When we were in Philadelphia, we had lunch at the Reading Terminal Market. It’s the oldest farmer’s market in the U.S. The food selection was staggering. We were in a hurry, so I didn’t have near enough time to explore. But, we all found something good to eat. I had a Thanksgiving sandwich, with roasted turkey, cranberry sauce and stuffing. Yum!

Maine Trip

When we were in Maine, we ate at walk-up seafood shacks twice. Both places served seafood that had been caught that day, and had tables set up by the water. I’ll take that over a crowded dining room any day.

We Eat Where the Locals Eat.

When we travel, we don’t want to eat the same things that we could eat at home. And we definitely don’t want to pay more for them, just because we’re in a tourist area. To avoid that trap, we sometimes ask locals for recommendations.

Sonny's Cheesesteaks
Sonny’s Cheesesteaks, Philadelphia, PA

That’s what we did in Philadelphia. While on a tour, I asked our guide who had the best cheesesteaks, and he pointed us to Sonny’s. He told us to order them with wiz (Cheese Wiz), like the locals do.

Then, he did something my kids loved him for: he told us to walk down a few more blocks to the Franklin Fountain, where they serve homemade ice cream made from locally-sourced ingredients.

Ice Cream from the Franklin Fountain

Both of his recommendations were spot on. We saved money (and calories) by ordering two cheesesteaks to share. Then, we each got a cone.

We Pack Drinks and Snacks.

I don’t want to get stuck paying marked up prices for drinks and snacks, so I always bring plenty of both from home. Whenever a free food sample comes in the mail, or I manage to snag a free-after-coupon snack, I tuck it away for our trips. By the time our next adventure rolls around, I have all sorts of goodies to take with us, and it doesn’t cost me a cent.

We also bring along water bottles, which we refill throughout the day. This ensures that we stay hydrated, and cuts down on the number of bottled waters that we have to buy. Though, we did discover that the street hustlers will haggle with you, if you try. We successfully negotiated down the price of water in Philadelphia and D.C.

We Take Advantage of Free Tours.

A couple of the places we visited on our trip (Colonial Williamsburg and Busch Gardens) had admission fees, but everything else we did was free.

We took an awesome hour-long tour of Independence National Historic Park in Philadelphia, and it didn’t cost us a thing. They posted the tour on Facebook Live, so you can actually see it (and us) here:


We’ve taken free tours like this in several cities.

The National Park Service offers free tours in Boston, New Orleans and many other locations. We took a ranger-guided tour of the Freedom Trail in Boston on a previous trip, and really enjoyed it.

We also did a really fun self-guided walking tour in Charleston a few years ago. I just Googled, “free walking tour Charleston,” and found a guide that we could print and follow. It was a really fun way to explore the city, and caused us to see things we might have otherwise overlooked.

Big cities and tourist hot-spots usually have loads of free tour options. Check out all of these tours in New York City. Makes me want to go back again.

If you prefer guided tours, check out Free Tours By Foot and Sandemans. Their tours are led by freelance guides. Just tip them at the end of the tour to show your appreciation, and everyone will go home happy.

We Explore Every Option.

To save money on the admission to Colonial Williamsburg and Busch Gardens, we did a bunch of research before we went. There were a dizzying number of ticket options to wade from, but we eventually uncovered a few hacks that saved us a bunch of money.

First, we discovered that if you enter Colonial Williamsburg after 3 p.m., that day is free with the purchase of the next day. This allowed us to spend a day and a half in Williamsburg, without having to buy the multi-day pass. That’s a pretty sweet deal, but we made it even better by bringing our Food Lion MVP card with us. It got us $10 off each of those single-day tickets, for an additional savings of $40.

And we opted to buy two annual passes to Busch Gardens, instead of four one-day tickets. The annual passes each came with one free ticket for a friend, free parking and a 10% discount on food and shopping, so this worked out to be cheaper for us – even knowing that we only planned to use our passes once.

We wouldn’t have gotten any of these deals, if we’d simply walked up to the gate, and asked for four tickets.

We Press Pennies.

We’ve always made a conscious effort to bring home the sorts of souvenirs that we aren’t going to want to yard sale in a couple years. So, we tend to steer clear of gift shops.

When the kids were little we started a pressed penny collection for each of them. They get a penny at each place that we visit. At $.51 a piece, it makes for a cheap and memorable souvenir.

Pressed Penny Books

We bought them each a pressed penny book for Christmas one year. This gives them a place to store their collection. When we get back from a trip, they add their new pennies. Then, spend some time looking at their other pennies, and sharing memories from those trips. It’s a neat tradition, and I’m betting it’s one that they carry on with their own kids.

We Shop at Thrift Stores.

We love to check out new thrift stores when we travel, so before every trip, we go to TheThriftShopper.com to print out a list of thrift stores for the cities that we’ll be visiting. On this trip, we thrift shopped in New York and Boston.

We’re constantly amazed by what we find in big-city thrift stores. We’re talking insane deals on super-namey stuff.

You can see our haul from this trip in this video:

When we’re travelling, we allow ourselves to spend a little more at thrift stores than we normally would at home. And we always comes home with such treasures.

Every time we wear or use something that we bought on one of our trips, it reminds us of that trip, so it really is the very best kind of souvenir.

And if the kids really want a souvenir T-shirt to remember our vacation, we can usually find one in a thrift store. If there’s one thing that I hope we’ve taught them, it’s that you can usually find a way to do the things you want to do at a price that you can afford.

Do you have tricks that you use to keep your costs down when you’re travelling? I’d love to hear about them.

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  1. What a great trip! You were in my neck of the woods! I love thrift shopping when we travel too. But I have to disagree on the cheesesteaks–American cheese for me!

  2. Sounds like a wonderful trip. I am curious of how you frugally select accommodations. I usually do alot of research and with the use of points and cash back credit cards I often can find very reasonable rates. I know the northeast is more costly than the south. I am always looking for frugal travel hints.

    1. Hi Joan,

      I plan to do a whole post on how we save on accommodations, but like you, we use rewards to cut our costs. We typically stay at Choice Hotels, so we accumulate all of our points under one program. Every summer they run a promotion where you earn a $50 reward after two stays. It’s just something you have to load to your account. We used that deal on this trip. I usually aim to spend $75 or less a night in suburban areas and $250 or less in big cities (that’s a lot but a good deal in that scenario). On this particular trip, we also spent half of our nights with family members. That saved us a ton. Keep an eye out for that post in the near future. I have plenty of other tricks to share.

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