by Lila Quintiliani, AFC®
Military Saves Assistant Coordinator
“You guys are always going somewhere,” a friend of mine exclaimed recently. It’s true, my husband and I like to travel, and we usually try to make the most of our duty stations by seeing the local sights. We are fortunate in our current assignment because there are plenty of things to do within a few hours’ drive. The challenge is to make our weekend jaunts affordable, and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that.
I’m a planner by nature and I have found that my attention to detail has come in handy when figuring out how to have fun on a budget. Recently, we spent an enjoyable and thrifty weekend on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. We already have plans to go back, and I have figured out how to make it even less expensive next time. I’ll share some of my travel secrets with you if you promise not to mob our favorite vacation spots!
Save on lodging. Military installations have some of the most inexpensive lodging you’ll find outside of a youth hostel or a camp ground. Think they are all old, decrepit barracks? Well, some of them may be, but many of them have been updated and a select few are in gorgeous locations. We have stayed right on the beach at the Navy Lodge in Pensacola ($62 for a kitchenette and a queen-sized bed) and close to the water in a $41.50 two bedroom suite at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. While it is true that we have stayed in a couple of places that kind of resembled a Cold War era bunker, by and large we have been satisfied with our stay and more than satisfied with the price.
The trick is finding the deals. There is no central place to book lodging across the different service branches/lodging systems, and sometimes you really have to know what you’re looking for in order to find it. While theoretically the DoD lodging site will look across all branches for a particular zip code, the reality is the system doesn’t always work. It’s best to either search for a particular installation or search each lodging site separately to see what they have. The Navy Lodge site has a good summary of available travel resources.
Save on food. One of the biggest ways we save money when we travel is by bringing food with us. On our recent beach trip, we brought a cooler with us and had lunch on the road. Since we stayed in a one bedroom suite with a kitchenette at a Navy Gateway lodge, we took microwaveable mac and cheese and burritos with us to eat for dinner (I know, not incredibly well-balanced, but heck, we were on vacation!). But we did splurge on a local ice cream parlor’s homemade waffle cones and ice cream for dessert. We also typically bring cereal, granola bars and fruit for breakfast, although the Navy Lodge actually gives guests a complimentary breakfast bag each morning.
Save on sightseeing. We went to the beach at a National Wildlife Refuge, which is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And since active duty military now get free access to national parks as well as sites managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Forest Service, we got in free. In a few weeks, we’ll be travelling to New York and Philadelphia and we’ll be checking out several of the museums that are participating in the Blue Star Families program that gives active duty military and their dependents free admission to museums across the country. And of course, at any attraction you go to, you should always ask if they have any type of military discount.
While finding thrifty getaways can certainly be a planning challenge, it is by no means impossible. Military families have some great resources available to them. It may take a little bit of forethought to take advantage of them, but the rewards can be great!
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