How to Take a Great Family Vacation for Less Than $350

In the past decade I have vacationed around the continental U.S. and outside of it, from the Everglades to the Redwoods to Chicago to Mexico City, and I’ve done so with a lower class income. Most people where I’m from (the southeastern U.S.) just go to the Gulf Coast and get a hotel at the beach every year. I myself believe that life is short and needs to be filled with as many new and exciting experiences as possible, and therefore I don’t like to vacation in the same place twice unless I didn’t cover it all. My income won’t allow too much flying, nice hotels, and dining out, so I’ve learned to do big vacations on a small budget, and to do it comfortably. My next vacation is going to be pretty small by my standards due to the baby I have on the way, but I’d still like to share my experience with anyone who’s interested.

I want to hit the Great Smokey Mountains National Park this spring and do a some hiking and photography, and my wife will want to do a little shopping in one of the outlying tourist towns before we leave. My first step is to find modern campsites in the area. Don’t be scared by the word camping though, note that I wrote modern campsites. These are campsites with running water and electrical hookups as well as bathrooms and showers. You park your car right by where you will be sleeping. I have a queen sized air mattress just for these trips that I bought for about $60 and I’ve been using it for years. I park my car, pitch my tent (remembering my rain fly) , inflate the mattress, make the bed, then plug in a lamp and my laptop and the only thing i’m missing is climate control. If I camp in the summertime I bring a fan to plug in. Modern campsites are usually from $15-$35 per night, which is a fraction of what you would be paying in a hotel.

The Smokey Mountains National Park doesn’t have modern campsites, but I found several online just minutes outside the park and made reservations online for one I liked near Gatlinburg. The Smokey Mountains are a couple hundred miles from where I live, so I plan on about $60-$70 for gas for the round trip. I’ll stop at the supermarket and fill the cooler with ice, drinks,lunch meat, and whatever meat I plan on grilling for dinner the morning I leave. I’ll pack the rest of the food, such as chips, bread and fruit, beforehand.

On the way into the state of Tennessee I’ll stop at the rest area and pick up one of those hotel discount books. I’ll budget enough money to stay in a hotel one or two nights in case it rains the whole time and money to eat in one or two good restaurants. Like I said before, I like to try new things and get the most out of life, and that includes eating. By pre-purchasing most of my meals at the supermarket I can afford to eat at the really good places a couple of times while I’m there.

I plan to hike around and take photos the first couple of days, which is free. After that my wife and I will check out some of the local attractions, go shopping and find a good restaurant or two. I plan to spend more on this than I will on the rest of the trip combined. If the weather has cooperated then we will have that extra hotel money to spend on the last day as well. This is how I’m going to spend a little over $300 on a three night, four day vacation. Imagine what you could see and do in a week if you put the money you would use shopping into the gas tank and hit a new campsite every night….

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