Lessons Learned from an Expensive Vacation

Why we’re rethinking our approach to personal travel

My wife and I got back to Portland, OR from a trip to the island of Kauai in Hawaii. We spent seven nights there and had a nice time. It was great to spend a full week together, get away from our work, see somewhere new, and soak up the sun. But that all came with a price tag. While we enjoyed the trip, we realized after reflecting on it together that we’d like to approach our travels a bit different in the future.

We stayed on the east side of Kauai in the town of Kapaa. It’s a cute little town with just enough going on. We rented a car, which was very much worth it. Exploring as much of the island as possible was a blast.

Two days were spent traveling since it’s quite a long flight. We had a layover in Maui on the way to and from. The flight from Portland to Maui is about 5~6 hours depending on the direction, plus another 40 minutes to Kauai. During the six non-travel days on the island, we checked out the other towns, went for a hike, spent some time on the beach, ate some good food, and explored the National Tropical Botanical Garden (which was awesome). We made the most of our time there.

Hawaii sounds so dreamy, right? Well, Abagail and I aren’t beach people. Even knowing that we thought it’d be fun to go somewhere new since we didn’t really go on any trips in 2018 aside from visiting family and a Seattle weekend.

So we had a nice time, but like I said, we’d do it differently in retrospect. The trip cost us $5,000 in total. That’s a lot of money to spend over essentially eight days. We want to be intentional about how we spend our money and time. We were budget conscious throughout the entire trip (with some minor goofs), but that doesn’t mean we can’t do even better next time. Here’s what we learned and are hoping to do differently moving forward:

Travel to Cheaper Destinations

Holy smokes, Hawaii is expensive. It makes sense. It’s a bunch of small islands in the middle of a gigantic ocean. So getting anything shipped there is going to add a premium to it. Plus, I’d imagine, since a lot of people are tourists, the prices of things are marked up even more. We knew that going into the trip.

If we want to go somewhere warm during the winter, there are lots of other options in North America that aren’t going to cost as much as Hawaii. We went to Los Angeles in December 2017, and the cost of things there seemed pretty darn similar to Portland. Arizona, New Mexico, or Texas could have been nice places to explore where the general cost isn’t as expensive as Hawaii.

Travel Close to Home

The two 10+ hour travel days were brutal. We always pack lots of healthy food to take care of ourselves, but I struggle with sitting in airplanes seat for extended periods of times. I don’t hate flying, but it’s not something I enjoy. The nice thing is that there are ways to improve that experience – fly somewhere that’s closer. 😄

With the aforementioned places, the flights would be much shorter (and likely cheaper). Comparing three hours of flying time to six or more is a big difference to me. Plus, if there’s less time spent traveling, it usually means the day you get there you still have time to do something other than sleep.

For our Hawaii trip, we could have stayed on an island that offered a reasonably priced direct flight from PDX like Maui or the Big Island. That would have cut the travel time a little bit and probably have been cheaper.

The round trip flight total for the two of us was about $1,150, one of our higher expenses from the trip.

While we don’t currently own a car, we’re planning on buying one this year when we move to the Midwest. This opens up opportunities for road trips in that region as ways to get away and reduce the cost.

Go on Shorter Trips

This is one of the big lessons we learned and totally combines with the two lessons above. We’d both rather go on three or four shorter trips (3~6 days) throughout the year than one big trip. It would break up the year, spread out the cost, and be a smaller commitment.

For example, in Fall 2018 we took the train to Seattle and stayed for two nights. It was just the right amount of time. Moving forward, we’re excited to go on a handful of smaller, long weekend trips.

Since our biggest expense by far was our lodging, going for fewer nights would have cut costs there too.

Watch Out for Traps

Abagail and I went out to eat for lunch one day and got a bunch of veggie sushi and rice at a Thai restaurant. With tip, we spent $95.00. Now we eat a lot of sushi, but that usually runs us ~$40 in Portland. It’s just a bunch of rice and vegetables, nothing fancy. It totally felt like we got ripped off. Part of that was on us for not diligently looking at the cost of what we were ordering.

Another goof was getting a taxi home from the airport instead of using a rideshare app. We thought the cost would be comparable, but it was 2~3x more expensive than past rideshare costs. (It’s worth noting that rideshare is 10x more expensive than using public transit, but that’s a tough sell to spend another 1.5h on public transit after a full day of travel.)

It was $34.00 to get to the airport with Lyft. $58.00 to get home with a regular taxi. Both include roughly the same % tip. Different time of the day, same day of the week. That seems like a big difference to me, but we don’t use ride share or taxis much at all, so I don’t know for sure.

Watch out for traps when traveling. There are activities and businesses where the cost is a total rip-off. It’s ultimately up to you to use your best judgment as to what’s worth it, but be wary of how you spend your money on trips. It’s way too easy to get into a spending mindset on vacation and totally blow the budget.

Explore Alternative Lodging Options

We stayed in a nice enough hotel. For seven nights, it cost us just about $2,000 (~$286/night). This was by far our biggest expense during the trip.

We booked this trip only two months in advance during what I’d imagine is a busy season, so there wasn’t much available in terms of hotels or Airbnb.

It’d be fun to seek out alternative lodging options for future trips. This isn’t a world we know much about, so we have some learning and experimenting to do here.

Cook More Meals

We tried to not eat more than two meals out a day by making use of the mini-fridge and microwave. We fared pretty well with cereal, PB&J sandwiches, and fresh fruit for breakfast and snacks. The local health food store helped with this too. We still spent quite a bit of money eating out.

We’d rather stay somewhere with a kitchen where we could cook full meals a little more often. That way we’d save some money and be able to eat what we want to eat since our SOS-free vegan diet is quite particular. (We tend to be okay with some salt and oil when traveling but still try to make the best decisions we can.)

On an ideal longer trip, we’d eat half of the meals out, half of the meals in. That would be a nice balance. Abagail and I both enjoy cooking, so we’re going to try to prioritize having a kitchen or kitchenette for any future trips that are longer than a night or two.

Breaking Out of Routine

The most important lesson has nothing to do with money. Regardless of how much the trip cost, I’m incredibly grateful to have had the time and space to break out of my routine. I was able to read and think and explore. That’s the real value of time off for me. Having ten days off (with weekends and holidays) allowed me to think about the bigger picture of my life and purpose in a way that I really haven’t since last summer.

Being in a new environment led me to reevaluate my day-to-day life. Am I happy with how I spend my time? What’s my mission? Am I living a life of service? If not, how can I? Am I doing all that I can to help others and the environment? If not, what can I do?

I think I’ve got answers to these questions, and it’s part of why I’m committing to writing more. Without time off, I’m not sure if I would have had the head space to ask these questions and deeply reflect on my life.

I want to prioritize taking time off more for this very purpose. I’ve got a hunch there are other intentional ways to do this sort of exploration, like going on a retreat by myself or with a group.

The Nitty Gritty

  • Days: 8
  • Nights: 7
  • Total spent: $4,983.92
  • Car rented: Ford C-Max Hybrid
  • Miles drove: 364
  • Average MPG: 45.5

Expense Breakdown

Car rental (+ gas & insurance)$480.69
Dining out$578.45
Groceries (+ hot-bar & ready-made)$316.80
Taxi & rideshare$92.00
Misc (tips, sunscreen, books, etc.)$112.76

Until Next Time

Vacations aren’t an excuse to spend a bunch of money you’d rather not spend or don’t have. Don’t go into debt to go on vacation. Have a travel budget and try to stick to it. Save up for your vacations over the months before. Explore alternatives to the expensive options that may seem appealing. Spend time in your region and check out things you haven’t yet.

It’s important to us that our spending aligns with our values. Spending on experiences is definitely in line with them. I’m feeling refreshed, physically and spiritually, after our trip. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to be more intentional with the money we spend on future travels.

Check out my journal entry to see photos and what we got up to on our trip.

Author: Brett Chalupa

day: software developer, night: comic artist

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