Weekend getaways allow you a chance to escape from the hustle and bustle of life at a fraction of the cost of a more extended vacation. And with a little planning, you can take several cheap weekend getaways throughout the year and scratch your travel itch for very little money.
You know what I’m talking about, right? You’ve been working hard for months, and you just need a break. You also don’t have the time, or maybe the funds, to take a week or two off for a proper vacation. What do you do? You begin planning a getaway for the weekend. A Google search for cheap weekend getaways will reveal a plethora of travel lists. Destinations like Las Vegas or Atlanta are staples of lists like these, but you’ll also find quite a bit of variation.
The problem with lists is that what constitutes cheap weekend getaways for you is highly dependent on where you live and how long you have. So, rather than regurgitate the typical getaway lists, we’ve decided to discuss the things you need to consider when planning cheap weekend getaways. From distance to goals to discount options, here are all the things you need to consider when planning cheap weekend getaways.
The first thing you need to consider when planning cheap weekend getaways is where you live. We’ve already mentioned that Las Vegas and Atlanta are two frequent additions to lists of weekend travel destinations, but there’s a problem. Las Vegas and Atlanta are almost 2,000 miles apart, so while one of them might be relatively close to you, the other is not. Thus, the first thing you need to consider when planning a weekend trip is your location and what’s relatively close to you. It doesn’t make sense to travel across the country just for the weekend!
Expanding on the point above, you’ll not only need to consider your location but how far you’re willing to travel. Thus, the distance to your getaway will be a significant factor in planning your trip, especially when it’s just for the weekend. Before you look too much into potential destinations, we recommend you first decide whether you’ll be driving, flying, or using some other mode, and then how many hours you’re willing to spend on travel for each.
A road trip will often be the cheapest option for getting to a weekend getaway. The only transportation expense will be gas as opposed to paying for transportation tickets, plus public transportation, or possibly a car rental. The downside is that driving will also typically limit you the most in terms of how far you can travel for the weekend.
If driving, we suggest a location that’s not more than about 3 hours away. The reason is that most people leave for weekend getaways after work on Friday and come back Sunday afternoon/evening. Suppose you leave after 5 pm (most people’s clock out time) on a Friday and then drive 3 hours that puts you at an 8 pm arrival. Now, put in a few stops for restrooms, stretching, and a meal, and realistically you’ll be arriving more around 9 pm. Similarly, the trip back on Sunday will take you 3 hours of drive time plus an hour buffer for stops.
Altogether, a 3-hour destination will cost you 6 hours of drive time plus roughly an additional 2 hours for stops. That’s 8 hours out of your trip just spent on travel time. Thus, if you push your weekend getaway destination to longer than 3 hours, you’re cutting into your time away and will spend almost as much time driving as you will enjoying your stay.
The same idea applies to flying. The benefit of flying is that you’ll expand your possible weekend destinations, while the downside is flying will likely cost you more. However, if you have points or travel rewards that will significantly reduce the cost of flying, then it may be a great option when planning your cheap weekend getaways.
For weekend trips, we recommend keeping your flights to no more than 2 hours one way. As with driving, you must factor time other than just the travel time from point A to point B. Air travel, in particular, takes a lot of time. You should be going through security for at least an hour before your flight. That means you should be at the airport for about an hour and a half before your flight. An hour and a half at the airport plus 2 hours of flight time, plus an hour or so for getting out of the airport and traveling to your hotel means you’ll be spending roughly 4.5 hours traveling to your destination. That’s 9 hours out of your weekend getaway, which is probably about the most you’d want to spend on travel time.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention other modes of traveling for a weekend getaway. You may also choose to travel by train or bus, depending on your location and where you could go using those methods. It is also relatively cheap to travel by train or bus and might be a good option for those without a car. Again, we recommend not traveling further than about 3 hours by train or bus for your getaway. While you’re not the one driving and free to do other things going by train or bus, you’re still not enjoying your getaway as long as you’re still driving to it.
Wrapping it Up
We thought we’d wrap up this section by summarizing the different modes of transportation you could choose and the pros/cons of each.
|Pros||cheap, simple, always have transportation, just you and companions, can stop as needed||more destinations can relax while traveling||cheap, can relax while traveling|
|Cons||More limited destinations must drive||more expensive, takes more time, with others||More limited destinations, with others, on a busy schedule|
|Recommended Max Distance||3 hours||2 hours||3 hours|
Long story short, you’ll need to consider whether the destination is worth the travel time getting there, no matter how you’ll be traveling.
How Long You Have
Another thing you need to consider when planning cheap weekend getaways is how long you have. While most weekend getaways go from Friday evening to Sunday evening, you might also have a 3-day weekend or even a 4-day weekend if you’re able to take an extra day off. We won’t spend too much time on this topic except to say that if you have more extended than the typical weekend, you may consider traveling further or scheduling more activities. For instance, a long weekend may turn what would have been a driving trip into a flight to another state. More time opens up more possibilities.
Do you have travel rewards or points available? That will also influence your choices for cheap weekend getaways. If you have points and the Southwest Companion Pass, for example, you could fly a friend/partner for free and pay for your flight with points. The cost of this flight would then be whatever the fuel surcharges are (typically $22 roundtrip on Southwest for domestic flights).
Even if you don’t have a companion fare, there are plenty of options to find cheap flights, with or without points. Scott’s cheap flights is one option – sign up is FREE and you get deals directly to your inbox. This is a particularly useful service if your travel dates are flexible. For me, it’s also given me ideas of where I could go, usually spots I never would have thought of otherwise.
Similarly, if you have hotel points or flexible points (like Chase Ultimate Rewards), you could get your hotel for free (don’t forget resort fees in places like Las Vegas). Combining airline and hotel points/rewards, you might be able to fly away for a cheap weekend getaway for just the cost of incidentals (there is no such thing as a free trip, after all).
Even when driving, points that can get a weekend hotel stay for free go a long way towards making your cheap weekend getaways genuinely affordable. If you have no idea what I’m talking about with any of the above, I’d recommend checking out this beginner’s guide to travel hacking to get you started.
Purpose of the Getaway
You’ve considered the distance, travel time, how long you have, and what travel rewards you have at your disposal. Now, it’s time to consider the purpose of your getaway. Have you ever heard the phrase “I need a vacation from my vacation”? Depending on what you do and how active you are, you might find yourself feeling drained after a vacation, which is fine, depending on the reason you want to getaway.
So, before narrowing down your options, first, consider what you want to accomplish with your vacation time. Is this getaway to relax, sightsee, be outdoors, visit family, or for a special occasion (aka, romance)? The goal of your getaway will heavily influence where you go and what you plan to do during your trip. Those looking to relax or for a special occasion may want to stay in a nicer hotel with a pool and amenities. Those looking to get outdoors might stay in a cheap hotel near a National Park. Sightseers may choose a location with a lot of history and impressive architecture. Whatever you prefer, make sure you establish the why before deciding on the where.
The last major thing to consider while planning cheap weekend getaways is what discounts you can get. We’ve already covered points and other travel rewards, which will significantly cut the costs of a trip, but you should also consider different ways to save money.
For instance, do you have a National Park Pass? If so, you’ll save on activities by heading to a National or State Park location. Maybe you’ve seen a discount on activities in the Entertainment Book, Groupon, or some other discount site? Maybe a particular state or city is offering travel discounts to try and draw more tourism? Hint: Most major cities offer a discount book that you can find on their tourism site.
Another option to consider is whether you belong to a group that makes you eligible for discounts. For instance, senior discounts are prevalent, but so are military and student discounts. You may even get a discount if you’re in a particular profession, like teaching. While these discounts aren’t guaranteed, it’s always a good idea to bring your work or military ID just in case it could save you a few bucks. In summary, if you’re looking to cut costs on your getaway, plan to go where the discounts are.
Making it as Cheap as Possible
Now that we’ve covered all the essential things to consider when planning your cheap weekend getaways let’s talk about how to save as much as possible.
Stay for Free
One of the best ways to cut costs on a weekend getaway is to choose a location where you can stay for free. We’ve already discussed this a bit, but the best way to get free hotel stays is to earn points. You can also get free night awards with certain credit cards, such as the Marriott Bonvoy card, that comes with a free night award every year.
It’s also a good idea to join hotel loyalty programs. They’re free to join and give you the best access to exclusive deals, giveaways, and the ability to earn rewards like higher member status (which provides you with more perks on your stays). Other programs, such as Hotels.com, offer the ability to earn a free night after completing a certain number of stays booked through the program.
Many of the award programs can also be joined if you have a travel credit card that offers those perks. The benefit here is that you’ll not only earn travel points on the card, but you’ll build up your loyalty rewards when you spend at partner programs. If you don’t have points at your disposal, you can still stay for free the old-fashioned way by visiting family and friends.
Check All Your Options
Even if you can’t stay entirely for free, it’s a good idea to check all your options and look for the best deal. Maybe you can pay for some of the nights with points or other rewards and pay out of pocket for the rest. It also might be worth it to check out a site like Hotels.com or Trivago to see what deals are out there. Especially if you’re traveling with a group or meeting up with others, Airbnb or VRBO could be great options for saving money. If you can’t stay for free, make sure you do your due diligence and find the best affordable option for you. Your destination may even be dictated by where you can find a cheap stay.
Saving on Food
One of the highest incidental costs of travel is food, which is why I always try to stay somewhere that offers free breakfast. Some hotels even offer free evening hors d’ oeuvres or a happy hour special. In addition to a free breakfast, you should always try to stay in a place that has at least a mini-fridge and a microwave so that you can store and heat leftovers and simple meals. Believe it or not, lots of hotels skip these items to try and force you to eat out more (cough Vegas cough).
Another way to save on food is to stay at a place that offers a small kitchen so that you can cook your meals. If all else fails, check out these tips to save money when eating out to try and keep your food bill as low as possible.
Find Free or Cheap Activities
Aside from transportation, hotels, and food, the next biggest cost of travel is activities. The discount section mentioned tips for saving money on activities using The Entertainment Book, Groupon, city tourism books, and service-related discounts, and those are still good options.
However, the cheapest activities for your travel budget are those that don’t cost a thing. Sightseeing by walking around town or exploring historical places and buildings doesn’t cost a dime. One of my favorite activities in a new city is to explore cathedrals. They are often the most beautiful and interesting buildings and are free for anyone.
Capitol buildings are another favorite of mine. Sightseeing was one of the ways my friend and I were able to keep costs down while touring western Montana last year. Outdoor activities such as hiking are also a great way to keep the costs of activities down. Many areas in nature are entirely free, while State Parks and National Parks will cost a small fee to access (usually $5 for State and $25 for National).
Although we went through several transportation options above, the cheapest option for a weekend getaway will almost always be driving. Even if you paid for your flight with points, you’d still need to pay for fuel surcharges and to get around once you reach your destination. You’re also likely to spend more on food and other items traveling through airports. While you will pay for gas when driving yourself, that’s the only transportation cost, and you gain a lot of added convenience.
Travel During the Offseason and Avoid Popular Spots
Last but not least, to save the most when planning your cheap weekend getaways, you’ll want to avoid popular spots and travel during the offseason as much as you can. You’ll already be paying more for traveling during the weekend, so if you’re going on the cheap, it’s important to not compound those costs by traveling during peak times or to the most popular destinations. The caveat here is if you can get a free stay, then it’s not as big of an issue when or where you choose to travel. Just know that you’ll also be paying a premium in points during peak times or for popular destinations. If you want your dollar (or points) to stretch as far as they can, go during the offseason and avoid hot spots.
Cheap Weekend Getaways: Putting it all Together
You’ll be able to plan relatively cheap weekend getaways using the tips and considerations above, and often, savings in one area will allow you to splurge in others. But, for those who may not have the luxury of being able to splurge, or who want to make their dollar stretch the farthest, here’s how to plan the cheapest weekend getaways:
- Drive to your destination and stay relatively close to home
- Stay for free using either points or staying with friends/family
- Utilize free breakfast and/or make your meals
- Keep your activities to those that are free or cheap
- Utilize discounts wherever you can
- Travel to offseason or less popular spots
Moral of the Story
We all need to get away once in a while. Weekend getaways are a great way to unplug for much less than a typical vacation. And if you can save even more by going on the cheap then even better. A quick Google search will give you tons of cheap weekend getaway lists, but these lists don’t take into account the factors you’ll need to consider when planning your trip.
First, consider your location and the distance to the destination, which will determine whether you’re driving, flying, or using another mode of transportation. Next, consider how long you have to get away, the purpose of your getaway, and any travel rewards or discounts at your disposal. For the cheapest trips, consider driving and ways to stay for free, save on food, and save on activities. Also, try to travel during the offseason and avoid popular locations, as demand will drive up prices. Now that you have all the tools to plan cheap weekend getaways, where will you go? Talk about Money Saved
This article originally appeared on Your Money Geek and has been republished with permission.