Day to day, we pinch pennies. We eat most meals at home, my husband drives an 18-year-old car, we shop at thrift stores more than we shop the malls, and I make our own laundry soap.
Every now and then, we splurge. And it’s those splurges that make the frugal life worthwhile.
Our most recent big-ticket splurge was a weeklong trip to England to celebrate 30 years of marriage.
We budgeted $5,000 for my husband and me to explore London and take day trips to Canterbury, Stonehenge and Bath.
In the year leading up to our trip, we looked for ways – big and small – to save money without skimping on the experience.
Here are a few of the ways we economized without cheating ourselves out of a good time:
A year in advance
• Last year, with the London trip on the 2013 calendar, we opted for a weeklong stay-at-home vacation. We swam at the neighborhood pool, ate our meals out. Savings: an estimated $1,500 to $2,000 on another trip.
• Because we were traveling to London without children – and the constraints of school vacations – we made the decision early to travel off-season. We monitored fares to London for more than a year and knew we’d save money by traveling in colder weather. The same flight in May is listed at $1,437 per person. Savings: more than $1,000.
An added bonus to off-season travel: Though temperatures were in the 30s and 40s and we watched the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace as snow fell, the crowds were much smaller, the queues much shorter. We stepped right on the London Eye, jostled no one for a look at the crown jewels and were first in line for a verger-led tour of Westminster Abbey.
• We talked to everyone we knew who had been to London to get tips and recommendations, but the most important conversations we had were with a British friend. Since she makes annual trips home, her knowledge was current and her tips spot-on.
Several months in advance
• We skipped the bookstore and used the Internet and public library to do our research. We borrowed six or eight guidebooks, getting ideas about what we wanted to see and do, where we wanted to stay and how much everything would cost. Closer to the trip, we ordered the 2013 version of one book to carry with us. Estimated savings: $10 per book.
• Make your passport application appointment early. Procrastination will cost you dearly. It can take up to a month to get an appointment for a passport application. Then allow another four to six weeks for your application to be processed. If you’re in a hurry, you’ll pay a $60 expediting fee and another $12.50 for overnight delivery.
I called nearly a dozen post offices before I found one willing to schedule an appointment less than a week out. Then I ran into a snag on my birth certificate, which didn’t meet updated U.S. State Department requirements.
While I was eventually able to skip the expediting fee, I had to fork out $52 to order my birth certificate online. If I had acted sooner, a birth certificate request sent via U.S. mail would have only cost me $10.
One final passport tip: If you have a AAA membership, the passport photos are free, saving you about $12 per person over the drugstore price.
Total potential savings on passports: up to $126 per person.
• Regularly check plane fares. Flights to London typically start at more than $1,000, but occasionally dip in price. Checking airline websites and http://www.kayak.com weekly, we pounced in January when the price hit $915 for flights in March.
• Skip the chain hotels and look for a small locally owned inn. We saved a few pounds and bought ourselves a more authentically British experience. We ended up at a small family-operated hotel in the Belgravia section of central London with creaky floors and a winding staircase as the only access to its 25 rooms. The Lime Tree Hotel ( www.limetreehotel.co.uk) was a short walk from Victoria Station, giving us quick access to anywhere in the city via tube or bus. And the free breakfast, served in the front dining room at small wooden tables, was more than we could eat. My husband ordered the hearty English breakfast every morning stuffing himself with eggs, bacon, tomatoes or mushrooms, pork and beans, toast, and tea or coffee. Savings: an estimated $75 per night less than a chain hotel.
A couple weeks in advance
• Since we were leaving our teenager behind with a grandparent, we decided to make the investment in an international cellphone plan. For $30 each, we purchased one-month calling and data plans.
When we arrived in London, I turned the phone’s roaming feature off and used our hotel’s free Wi-Fi to check email and surf the Web in the evenings. When we returned home, we canceled both plans. In the end, we paid just $4 for peace of mind, a bargain. Savings for canceling early: $56.
• We arranged to park our car off-site near the airport. Several online companies offer this service in cooperation with nearby hotels. The cost was about half the price of the airport’s $6-per-day park and ride lot and included free shuttle service. We used globalairportparking.com and parked at Cambria Suites, but there are several companies that offer this service.
• We emailed back and forth with the hotel staff to find out what the inn would provide, saving us money and valuable packing space. In addition to a free breakfast, our hotel provided a hair dryer, soap, shampoo, a converter plug to charge our phone and iPad, a daily newspaper and best of all, free advice.
• We took advantage of many of London’s freebies so we didn’t feel guilty when we forked out outrageous sums of money for things like taking a spin on the London Eye, the city’s slow-motion observation wheel on the Thames River.
Looking up at the iconic Big Ben, watching the House of Lords debate, watching the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, browsing at Harrods department store, walking through Hyde Park and witnessing the spectacle at Speaker’s Corner were all free.
But the best deal in London, by far, is free entry into the abbeys and cathedrals. You will pay handsomely for an official tour. At Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral, for example, a tour will set you back by as much as $30 apiece. But come 5 p.m., the doors open to all for free for the daily Even Song service of music. We attended the Even Song at St. Paul’s, hearing the men’s and boys’ choir sing, and it was an extraordinary experience. Savings: about $60 – minus what we dropped in the collection plate.
• We opted to skip the taxi cabs and walk the majority of the time we were in London. If it was too far to walk, we took the tube, which is what Londoners call their subway. For $5 each, we bought Oyster cards, which are reloadable passes that essentially cut your fares by half. At the end of the trip, our $5 card fees were refunded, along with our leftover credits.
This was a great way to travel cheap, mingle with Londoners and eavesdrop on their conversations. Savings: Hundreds in taxi fares. About $50 in half-price tube fares.
• We ate our share of fish and chips, devoured beef Wellington at a 14th-century pub in a little village called Lacock and even tried the traditional bangers and mash. But sometimes we wanted something a little lighter on the stomach and wallet so we ventured into small corner grocery stores filled with commuting Londoners on their way to and from work. It also became a favorite place to stop for a fresh pastry or cookie.
To give you an idea of the savings: We paid about $3.81 for a can of diet Coke in a pub our first night in London. The next morning, we paid less than half that amount for two bottles of Diet Pepsi at the grocery store around the corner from our hotel.
Savings on snacks, sodas and sandwiches: a rough estimate of $100.
In the end, what we discovered was that spending more money doesn’t necessarily buy you a richer experience, particularly in another country where part of the fun is learning its culture.
The final tally for our trip: about $1,000 under our original $5,000 budget.
Seed money for our next big splurge.
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