Tips for a Cash-Only Vacation

Whether you’re a Dave Ramsey Baby Stepper, a frugal person by nature or necessity, or you’re just tired of going on vacation with a carefree attitude only to come home to the harsh reality of your credit card bill, planning a cash vacation is a great skill to have in your toolbox.

Does anyone else LOVE packing stuff into a car so it fits *perfectly*? This is a thing of beauty. Photo credit: ME – posted on my Instagram @vegan_shedevil, if you want to see cats and selfies.

You Deserve a Vacation

You deserve nice things. Even if you’re in the 99% of people who live life without gilded apartments. Single income families with multiple kids deserve nice things. People on government benefits deserve nice things. People who live paycheck to paycheck deserve nice things. People in the mid- to upper-middle class who have the money to spend deserve nice things. Six-figure income people deserve nice things.

You deserve nice things.

I don’t have a problem with you taking a vacation or indulging in some self-care spending (within your budget and not instead of paying your light bill). But I do have a concern about you doing it by going into debt and perpetuating bad money habits. Not that it’s any of my business what you do, but I figure you’re here for a reason and that reason is because you like something about me. So as your vague internet acquaintance, I’m going to give you some advice about how to plan a vacation you can afford and that won’t follow you home.

What is a Cash Vacation?

I don’t mean specifically that you pay for things only in paper currency (or coins, JEEZ CANADA). A cash vacation means you have the cash (or money in the bank) to pay for your trip. You have the liquid assets on hand for the transportation, the accommodations, the food, the spending money, etc.

When my husband and I travel to the UK once a year to visit family, we buy the tickets several months in advance with money from savings. But it’s money we have on hand for this purpose. We can do an entire UK trip for less than $2500 US, but we stay with family for a good portion of the trip, friends happily drive us around. and we don’t have to eat out for every meal. A vacation that’s NOT aligned with visiting family would probably cost us another $1000-$2000 in hotel, rental car/transportation, and food costs.

A friend of mine is a mother of three in a single income household, and she picked up some extra online work doing surveys and transcription to set aside a few dollars a month to save up for Comic Con. They drove the family car, ate cheaply, and had an amazing trip – PAID FOR, with no bills following them home!

Your vacation details will depend on your budget, obviously. If you have the money to save up for a vacation easily then the world is your oyster (what a weird metaphor… the world is your salad bar!), and if it’s a bit more work to set aside cash, then a smaller weekend getaway is probably more your speed.

Whichever type of vacation you choose, you’re sure to enjoy the relief of knowing you planned for and can actually afford everything you’re doing. There’s no hand-wringing, wondering “should I have spent this money on something else?” because nah, you planned for this and you made it happen! You’re also less likely to impulse buy crappy souvenirs when you only have a set amount of spending money.  There is a freedom in knowing that your trip is a dedicated part of your financial plan. (I could wax poetic about budgets for a whole blog post, and I think I have before, so I’ll stop now).

Pick Your Destination

Your budget will inform the type of vacation you choose, but now comes the fun part. Planning! The first step of any trip is deciding where you’re going. Do you want a day trip? A weekend destination? Anywhere within the driving distance of one tank of gas? Or are we going far and wide, traveling in other countries and seeing the world? Any of these options are fine – but pick your destination and move on to the next aspect of your vacation planning.

Select Your Accommodations

Where are you going to sleep at night? If this is just a one day trip, you’re already done. A one night stay or more, however, and you need to start thinking about where to stay. Here are some ways to save on accommodations:

  • Book your hotels through, and after ten nights you’ll get one night’s stay free
  • Stay with friends or family
  • Arrange a mini-vacation around work travel that’s already paying for your hotel (pick up any extra days on your own tab, of course)
  • Stay in hostels or homes via AirBNB
  • Browse deal sites like Groupon for all-inclusive getaway deals
  • Split a room or rental between a group of people and make it a group vacation

I have done all of these except hostels and AirBNB. And while I did extend a work trip by two days for a vacation, I stayed with a friend for my extra nights away from home. (Are there any tips I missed? Let me know!)

All Aboard! Select Your Transportation

Planes, trains, or automobiles? The options are endless when it comes to traveling. For medium-length trips, I often quote out planes and rental cars and pick which one is going to make the most sense for my needs. Here’s the scoop on the main transportation options.

Train/Bus: An Amtrak or Greyhound will get you where you’re going, and for pretty cheap, but you’re at the mercy of the bus schedule and it can be a little difficult if traveling with kids. It’s not impossible though – I recall a Greyhound trip my sister and I took when we were young while traveling with our dad. My sister has also taken the Greyhound to travel between Cleveland and Washington DC. It’s not the quickest but it’s easy on the budget.

Air Travel: Planes are quick, and there are budget options that make a lot of sense if you are traveling light (Frontier, Jet Blue, Spirit, etc.). The good news about smaller budget airlines is that there’s usually a direct flight to major destinations, if you’re near a hub airport… but they often have flight delays, which eats into your vacation time. Check websites like Kayak or Priceline and set up a price alert notice if you’re hoping for a specific location.

You can also sign up for Next Vacay, a service that costs $25 PER YEAR and emails you amazing flight deals to destinations all over the world. They’re constantly scanning for price drops to interesting locations, and they’ll send you an email when they find something leaving out of a nearby airport.

Here’s an email they sent me two hours before I sat down to write this post:


Obviously if you’re planning a cash vacation you’d need to have a travel fund in the bank to take advantage of last minute deals like this, so it’s not a service that is ideal for everyone.

Check airfare rates early and often, and remember that the ideal time to buy tickets is about 6-7 weeks before your trip (for domestic travel). You can read more on this estimate and other info about when to purchase tickets in this report from CheapAir.

Driving: If your destination is close enough to drive (“close enough” depends on your comfort level on car trips, if you’re traveling with kids, any health issues you have with sitting for long stretches of time, etc.), you can drive your own car or get a rental.

Our general rule of thumb is a trip that’s 4 hours or less one way can be driven with our personal cars, and anything longer than that justifies renting a car. (I kind of wish I’d known this trick before a 3,000 mile round trip vacation to Florida a few years ago). Your comfort levels on renting vs. driving your own car may vary from trip to trip, and it’s really up to you.

To save on a rental car, be sure to let them know if you’re a AAA member (same goes for hotels – hey, I did miss a tip!) and check various rental agencies to compare costs. Costco members may also find affordable rental car packages through Costco’s partners! We almost exclusively rent from Hertz, for no particular reason other than we’re always happy with the service and the car, and we have a rapport with the local staff.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Renting a car without a credit card is slightly less simple (I am not going to say it’s harder) than using a credit card, but not impossible and not difficult. You can rent a car with a debit card, but they will put a hold on your account for a few hundred bucks. If you’re renting on your cash vacation, this is just another line item in your budget to save up for. You’ll get the deposit back when you return the vehicle.

Other methods: I covered the major methods of transportation that I have experience with, but if you have further questions let me know in the comments and I’ll do more research to get you money-saving tips for your cash vacation!

Traveling Light

I am a huge proponent of traveling with only a carry-on bag, for several reasons:

  • Quicker exit from the airport (no waiting for baggage claim)
  • The airline can’t lose your luggage if you don’t check it
  • You can walk around town with a small wheeled bag if your hotel isn’t ready for you to check in yet
  • It’s just less stuff to carry around

I always challenge myself to see how light I can pack, because I am a freak. I packed for a 5-day trip to Spain in a backpack (plus personal item). We take one carry-on each for Ireland (plus personal items – his camera bag and my EPIC SNACK STOCKPILE). I went to North Carolina for 4 days with only a personal item size bag and nothing else.

My tips for packing light:

  • Wear your bulkiest items (scarf, sweater, heaviest shoes you’re taking, etc.) on the plane with you, packing the lighter items to save space
  • Pack items that can be worn multiple times as different outfits (a pashmina scarf might be a sarong-style wrap one day, a scarf the next, and a poncho after that)
  • Pack neutral colored clothing – nobody can tell if you wear the same black shirt two days in a row
  • Limit jewelry – definitely leave your favorite jewelry behind, because losing it would be terrible
  • Make a list of the activities you plan to do on your trip and pack for those activities – let go of the impulse to pack a fancy outfit just in case you get invited to a surprise gala
  • Limit your personal care items
  • Pack an inflatable neck (or butt) pillow that you can inflate on the plane if your lung capacity allows
  • If you’ll have access to laundry facilities, you can get away with packing less clothing
  • Opt for moisture-wicking lightweight shirts instead of cotton tees, especially if you’ll be walking a lot and are prone to sweating – tee shirts take up a surprising amount of space
  • Plan to wear the same outfit on your arrival and departure dates – these are your travelin’ clothes, and you are going to be wrinkled no matter what you wear

Remember to pack:

  • Bug spray and sunscreen if appropriate, but make sure it fits within TSA guidelines for air travel if you’re flying
  • A Kindle or book
  • Your own earbuds or headphones, because the ones on planes are somehow terrible and hurt your ears
  • Enough underwear – running out of undies sucks
  • A seatbelt extender if you need one

These aren’t hard and fast rules, and if you’re more comfortable packing more stuff, go for it. It’s especially hard to keep it to one bag if you have medical devices like a CPAP machine, medications to pack and organize, etc. This isn’t one size fits all, just a general guideline for packing a simple suitcase for carry-on travel.

But My Credit Card Points!

I don’t give a crap about your credit card points. If you go into debt for your vacation, there’s every opportunity for it to bite you in the ass later. Check with your bank about fraud protection on your debit card – you probably have it, even if you think it’s only for credit cards.

I am not going to argue with anyone who insists on using their credit card for vacations, because you can live your life and I’ll live mine. My advice is not a mandate – until I become ruler of the world. Avocado toast for all!

Other Travel Considerations

Check with your bank and put a travel notice on your account so you don’t get your debit card declined for fraud. This fraud protection is very handy when it stops actual fraud, but very annoying when you’re trying to get a coffee at Tim Horton’s and Huntington thinks someone stole your stuff and went to Niagara Falls for the weekend. (Ask me how I know).

As far as exchanging cash before an international trip, I typically don’t. I just use an ATM to withdraw in a foreign currency. There’s a small charge (check with your bank to see what it is) for the foreign transaction fee, but it’s worth it to me to not have to handle one more thing before a big trip. Plus those kiosks at the airport are probably going to rip you off.

Is there anything I missed? Let me know and I’ll come back to answer your questions later! Happy travels.


3 thoughts on “Tips for a Cash-Only Vacation

  1. According to my sleep specialist a CPAP can’t be counted as a carry on since it is a medical device. I would check with the airline, rules seem to change all the time.

  2. My tip for those concerned about getting points or cash back on a credit card would be to charge the big-ticket, up-front kind of items that fall within your cash budget, like travel tickets or a hotel reservation, then pay them off right away using your cash. No interest paid, plus at least some points/cash/etc. That seems to me to be the ideal way to use a credit card anyway, and is the way we use it when we have no choice but to pay with credit (like for most online purchases).

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