Vacationing on a Budget

Columbia families share tips for a affordable trips

By Deena C. Bouknight

Photo Courtesy of the Daley family

High gas prices. A strained economy. Job cuts. With the economic climate still iffy, for some families, vacations may seem impossible this year. However, there are families in the Columbia area that have embarked on affordable trips, and they share with us ideas and tips for enjoying vacations without straining family finances.
Of course, before plans can be made, vacation budgets need to be established. The Frugal Family Traveler advises against going into debt to fund vacations, as they are luxuries, not necessities. For some families, budgets might accommodate air travel and hotels, while others need to stick closer to home.

Economically Exotic

The most expensive part of the Daley family’s adventure to Nicaragua, where they have been three times, is the airfare. However, Jana Daley says that frequent flyer miles and booking tickets early has saved her family money. “Managua is one of the few places where you can actually get a ticket with a reasonable amount of frequent flyer miles,” says Jana. “For us it was 35,000 for a ticket.” Flights can be taken from Columbia to Atlanta and then directly to Managua. If you leave Columbia in the morning, you can be there by lunchtime.

Beyond the cost of airfare, a vacation to Nicaragua is very cheap, according to Jana, who has traveled there with her husband, Bob, and their daughters Anna Katherine, 11, and Elizabeth, 9. “It’s an amazing alternative to a popular place like Costa Rica,” says Jana. “It’s much less tainted by tourism and has much more culture. Our love for Nicaragua actually developed out of our desire to serve the people of the country through missions work, but whenever we travel to Nicaragua we always plan a couple of days to explore the country as a family.”

The Daleys have especially enjoyed the city of Granada, which they consider the “Charleston of Nicaragua.” Whereas finer hotels are $200 to $400 a night in Charleston, they are $75 to $100 a night in Granada. The Daleys have stayed at Hotel Spa Granada, which Jana says includes a “huge, and I mean huge, breakfast, and even a spa treatment. They also have a chocolate museum on site. The food in Granada is fabulous and a gourmet meal runs around $15 per person.”
Jana describes Granada this way: “It is the oldest city in the New World and it boasts beautiful 16th century Spanish Colonial architecture surrounding a gorgeous central square. Granada, situated on Lago Nicaragua, is a place teeming with life and culture.”

En route to a rustic jungle lodge on Laguna de Apoya, called San Simeon, the Daleys were able to see an active volcano and visit an artists’ market.
“San Simeon is one of the coolest places I have ever stayed,” says Elizabeth. “It’s like living in The Jungle Book. We stayed in a thatched roof cabin with a very interesting open air shower and a front balcony that looked right over the laguna. We could run down and jump in the laguna anytime we wanted. The laguna used to be a volcano. Doesn’t that sound like fun to swim inside a volcano?”

Jana points out that even though you must have a passport to travel to Nicaragua, getting through customs is easy, the people are “the most hospitable ever,” shopping is affordable and transportation around the country is inexpensive. “We feel very safe when we visit there.”

Glamping and Zipping
When Ellison Robinson saw a plug about zip lines on a news show, she thought it would be a great idea for her family’s vacation. She found out about a zip line experience in Bryson City, N.C. Falling Waters is considered an adventure resort and offers a Nantahala Gorge Canopy Tour via a zip line that glides high among the treetops for what Ellison describes as an “exhilarating” adventure. Her family, which includes her husband Clay, sons Henry, 17, and Sam, 12, and daughter Meredith, 14, enjoyed being strapped into a harness and zipping from one platform to another for approximately three hours.

“We realized that this really appeals to all ages,” she says. “It was fun, safe, fabulous … a fantastic family activity.”

Although zip lining was a treat for the Robinsons, the accommodations were just as memorable an experience. For the first time, the family “glamped,” a combination of the words glamorous and camping. At Falling Waters is a scenic Yurt Village, which features circular Mongolian-inspired structures, each made of an elaborate framework of wood and covered in a durable canvas. “You think you’re going to be staying in a glorified tent and that it really won’t be comfortable, but these yurts were so warm, dry and cozy. There is a bed and a futon, a mini refrigerator, coffee maker, ceiling fan and space heater. It was raining the next day when we woke up, but the yurt was completely waterproof. We didn’t want to leave.”

The yurts at Falling Waters Yurt Village also have French doors, polished knotty pine floors, area rugs, skylights and a stereo CD player. The 16-foot diameter yurts are tucked among trees and overlook a small pond. Fire pits, bathrooms, showers and a hot tub are adjacent. A picturesque trail leads to a waterfall and lake, and nearby is access to whitewater rafting, fishing, horseback riding, canoeing, kayaking and mountain biking.

Although The Wall Street Journal recently featured a cleverly headlined article about yurt accommodations throughout the world, titled “An In-Tents Experience,” the cost of staying in a yurt in – say – Rhone Alps, France or Patagonia, Chile, is prohibitive for most vacationers trying to stick to limited budgets. Yet, the yurts at Falling Waters are only around $80 per night. The cost for one person to zip line was almost as much as the cost to stay a night in a yurt – between $59 and $69 per person.

“Zip lining is just costly because of liability and insurance,” says Ellison, “but it was a great experience. However, we could have just come and stayed in the yurts and had a great time.”

Sharing Means Saving

Each summer, Janice and David Edwards, along with their four children, plan a camping trip at a state park. In South Carolina alone, there are 47 state parks, according to the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. Most of these parks offer some form of camping for tents, campers or even equestrian trailers. The Edwardses have tent camped with other families at such places as Devil’s Fork State Park on beautiful Lake Joccassee or at Oconee State Park. The Edwards have two large tents to accommodate their family and sometimes a few friends of their children.

“Staying at a state park is pretty economical. It’s $20 per night for a site with running water and electricity … and even cheaper if you don’t want those amenities,” says Janice. The Edwardses plan a meal schedule with friends who camp nearby. “One family cooks for the other families one night each,” she says. “This makes planning and packing easier and cheaper because you only need ingredients for one meal. The families also go in together to rent a boat for a day. By splitting the price, it is affordable and our kids would probably say it’s the most fun thing we do.”

Amanda Harmon, her husband Mark, and their four children often share a home with friends and family members in order to keep the cost of their vacations down. One year, when the Harmons went to Disney World, they shared a home, cooked their own meals – as well as shared meals – and ended up spending just around $400 for the week on accommodations.

If the budget is extremely tight, consider vacationing in Columbia. Every day plan a “trip” to a Columbia destination. There are endless parks to choose from, including downtown’s Finlay Park or Irmo’s Saluda Shoals Park, as well as the Riverwalk for picnics, bike riding, play time and even kayaking and tubing. There is also the Riverbanks Zoo and Botanical Gardens, EdVenture, The State Museum, The Plex for ice skating and indoor sports, and bowling and roller skating. Just 20 miles from Columbia is the Conagree National Park for fishing, kayaking, hiking and canoeing.

Tried and True Travel Tips

• Begin planning very early.

• Check out travel books from the library.

• Reserve early.

• Compare prices.

• Utilize the many online travel services.

• Avoid buying items at tourist shops.

• Use public transportation when possible.

• Check to see if there is a food voucher package for some trips.

• Use a credit card to accumulate frequent flyer and hotel miles.

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