Budget Travel Across the U.S.

You know we love to travel, but we’re just average middle class Americans. Not rich, not poor, just blessed to make a comfortable amount of disposable income. So that means where we travel and more importantly, HOW we travel depends upon if anything else has come up to claim that ‘disposable’ part of our disposable income. This month we truly went through it between the dog, the tree and the two sets of tires. So when the University of Michigan appeared to be heading for the finals of the college world series (which is Mark’s very, very favorite baseball venue AND his 60th birthday is in a few weeks) I set out to make that happen.

Most of our travels (time permitting) we drive. We love to do that, we can stop and explore, see things we normally wouldn’t see, and just relax and take our time. School was done for us this last week, Mark was finished with his American Legion Boys’ State by Saturday evening, so we were now free for the next 8 weeks. Thankfully Katie is home for the summer, she agreed to take over care of Hank the Tank, which really consists of making sure he gets his pills, which in turn mean making sure he stays as calm as possible. Calm puppies don’t hit their mouth on things or tear stitches. So that was one hurdle completed.

I’ve always found when we’re driving, the most expensive part of traveling is lodging. There for a while VRBO was super cheap, then Airbnb came along, but even those are getting expensive now. I always stay at the same ‘brand’ hotels to collect their points. Marriott is my favorite (THOSE BEDS!!!) and my other economy go to is the Choice brand hotels. With the economy brand I do A LOT of research before I book. FBI level research, I want CLEAN, safe, if the kids are along a breakfast is helpful, and when they were young I wanted a pool. We are also fortunate that most of the time we can find a very reduced rate with a military discount. For this trip I didn’t think I would be able to stay this close to the park, I thought we would be across the river on the Iowa side. Now collect points, and have racked up quite a few, but unless necessary, I hate using them. I feel like they are in a ‘savings account’ and who wants to take something out of their savings account (insert eye roll here). I looked at Marriotts first. All were sold out or $299/$399 a night, or tens of thousands of points …. nope…. that won’t work. So I looked at the Choice brand. I looked at Omaha and there were several hotels right down town. There was one right behind the stadium, The Cambria, for a military discount price of $105 a night OR I could use points. I couldn’t believe it. All the others were 3 or 4 hundred a night and no military price offered and this one was one hundred. It must be undesirable right? NOPE, it is brand new. Note here, when booking hotels 99% of the time I book directly onto their hotel’s website or app. I get the best prices AND the best service. Occasionally if I can’t get a room at one of my two go-to brands I will use Expedia or Priceline. I have found great deals on both at different times, BUT I don’t feel like I get the same service when I use those. Don’t forget when you’re looking at hotel prices to look at any extras; parking fees, extra taxes, etc. Just so you have a clear picture of your true price. Nothing like finding a $100 a night hotel but the parking is $60 a night.

When I research traveling I always use apps. “TripAdvisor‘ is what I use for hotels. I read the reviews, especially the recent ones. AND sometimes I even look at the person who did the reviews and what else they have reviewed. Because let’s face it, some people are never happy, no matter what they will complain. And some people complain to try to get something out of the deal, and even worse some people aren’t even real people, they are just made up reviews to get good marks for their not so good place. I look for clean, a good bed, a safe neighborhood, no smoking or smells of smoking. This has not failed me yet.

For airline travel I use “Hopper‘ to track the prices of flights on major airlines, although it doesn’t show Southwest Airlines prices and I would always prefer Southwest, and I know some don’t agree with me because of the seating thing, but I LOVE their customer service, their two free checked bags and most of the time their pricing. Sometimes thought I either want/need a non-stop flight, or they don’t fly when/where I need to go. I’ve gotten some very good pricing on Expedia. My fear always though is if there are cancellations or delays, you don’t get the same care/level of service as when going directly through the airline. With Southwest, if you have a day or two wiggle room, the key is to look on their main website and look at their monthly calendar for rates. A day or two shift can save you hundreds.

The other costly thing on vacations is food. Costly and fattening usually. So when traveling in car like I am now, I try to plan some easy meals to take along so we only have to pay for one meal a day. For this one we I brought (or you can buy at the grocery store at your location if you have time) mason jar salads and dressings (Pinterest this if you don’t know what I’m talking about, but you’ll find salad in mason jars will literally last a week if kept refrigerated or chilled in a cooler. I bring things for good sandwiches (good bread, meats and cheeses), fruit all cut up and in those Rubbermaid containers I like where the fruit lasts forever. Veggies cut up and dip, crackers, peanut butter and jelly, chips… picnic type food. This time I also brought breakfast things because they only have restaurant here: individual oatmeal cups, protein bars, bananas, protein shakes …. whatever it is you eat for breakfast. We have a cooler with food and a cooler with drinks (waters, sodas, bubbly waters, beer and wine). We are set! We’ve also stopped at a grocery store before and bought a rotisserie chicken, Bob Evans premade mashed potatoes and steam in the bag veggies before. That’s a real meal for 3 or 4 for about $10.

So here we are in Omaha, in our points per night hotel and our Keurig pods for the coffee maker in our room, one block behind the stadium for $8 per night parking fee. Visiting with old friends from our Air Force days, driving around the Air Force base (we really do miss that life), relaxing without a worry in the world. Happy 60th Mark (okay, in one month).

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