Save Money on Vacation with Alternatives to Big Chain Hotels

by Kevin on June 14, 2012

How do you plan on affording your vacation this summer?

Or has the recent economic turmoil made you nervous to spend a lot of money on taking your spouse or the family out on a nice vacation?

I used to be in the same boat as you. In fact just a few weeks ago I told my wife I was stressed out and wanted to take a vacation.

She was excited, but I’m guessing a little hesitant because I am rarely in the mood to spend lots of money all at once. And that was true this time, but I really wanted to get away to relax without breaking the bank.

What I found is that it is absolutely possible to take a nice vacation without going broke. Here’s how.

Saving on Vacation: Reduce Major Costs

Vacations are made up of a few core costs:

  • Lodging
  • Travel to and from the destination
  • Food
  • Events or shopping

Flying can easily add $600 to $1,000 to any trip, so we ruled out flying to destinations.

The next largest cost of almost any trip (and largest if you aren’t flying)? The cost of having a clean, safe bed to sleep in.

Our goal was to not eliminate that cost — we didn’t want to go couch surfing, after all — but to find ways to save some money.

Oh, and did I mention we wanted to take our dog Maggie with us and decided to take the vacation about 2.5 weeks before we would leave? And we wanted to stay 4 nights? (Planning fail!)

Here’s what we came up with.

Baseline: Big Chain Hotel

To compare how much money we would be saving we needed a baseline hotel cost. (We also needed a backup plan in case finding alternatives failed!) We were able to find a reputable (and nicely appointed) big chain hotel about 8 minutes from our target destination for $781 for four nights including a $75 one-time pet fee.

Alternatives to Big Chain Hotels

Here are the alternatives we identified.

Bed & Breakfast Inns

A great alternative to a big chain hotel is a professionally run Bed & Breakfast or B&B. These are inns that hold a handful of rooms that either the owners or professional inn keepers run. You’ll get breakfast and usually some sort of socializing snack in the evenings.

We ran into three problems with B&Bs:

  • Not many of them allow pets to come along (and I don’t really blame them due to close proximity to all of your guests)
  • There wasn’t much available in terms of availability with our trip date being a short time away (not the best for last minute trips)
  • The costs were the same or higher than big chain hotels (they charge a premium for the unique experience)

For our trip it just didn’t make sense.


The next option we came across is a website I first heard of on a technology website. Airbnb is an online site where everyday people can rent everything from just a room in their home to the entire space to travelers. That might sound a bit crazy, but the company has put in all kinds of protections and protocols to help avoid catastrophe from both the host and traveler side.

With that kind of marketplace, individuals get to set the price they are comfortable with. Airbnb is also heavily reliant on social media: it wants you to connect your Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter accounts. The more pieces of data that validate you not only are a human being, but a decent one, makes the community stronger. (This is done on both the host and traveler side.)

Reviews are then done on each stay from both sides: was the room/home described accurately? Was it clean? Would you stay again? Did the traveler treat the place like his/her own? Would you have them back?

As a traveler you want to target hosts that have great reviews and many of them. Likewise for a host, although there are bound to be more unreviewed travelers than hosts because more people will want to travel and than host. That just makes your screening even more important.

Long story short, we found Airbnb to be both fascinating and the rates were extremely cost effective. We found a 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom home about 30 minutes from our target destination for a total of $522 including a $75 pet fee. That’s a savings of $259 (33% of the big chain hotel cost!) which would be more than enough to cover our extra gas to and from the house to our destination.

Want to try Airbnb out? Sign up here.

(I’ll be posting a review of our trip in a few weeks.)

Vacation Rental by Owner

Similar to the Airbnb idea is Vacation Rental by Owner websites. There are a many of them available like The only problem is these are usually, in my experience, larger units that are better suited as something to split with other friends to bring down the cost. They are also not so great for last minute trips unless there just happens to be some extra inventory around and someone is looking to rent.

In contrast to Airbnb, the biggest downer for me on Vacation Rental by Owner websites is that lack of social connections and reviews. Social media isn’t everything it is always hyped up to be, but if I can see someone has a bunch of friends recommending them on the site, plus a bunch of positive reviews, I am much more likely to give that a try. You rarely see that with VRBO sites.

However, vacation rental by owner deals can be significantly less cost if you split up the rental with friends or find a smaller one. It is definitely an option to avoiding big hotel chains.


Last but not least you can escape the wrath and cost of hotel chains by going camping. You won’t have the same level of comfort (not even close!), but the cost savings are incredible. All you need is a tent (and sometimes not even that), some sleeping bags, and the love of the outdoors. Entrance fees into National parks are very low and camp sites aren’t that much more.

For us this was not an option. We both prefer to sleep on a nice bed rather than out in the wilderness. Camping does get points for cost and the ability to do it more last minute (although you might want to reserve a campsite ahead of time, if possible).

Bottom Line: It’s Possible

Just because you don’t want to spend thousands on a vacation this year doesn’t mean you have to stay at home. You’ll still need to spend a little bit of money, but having a nice vacation is possible on a budget. With new options like Airbnb it doesn’t hurt to go online and see what you might be able to get that fits into your budget. I’m guessing you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

What about you? How do you save money on vacations while still getting to enjoy the trip? Would you ever consider renting a stranger’s house?

{ 1 comment }

Michelle June 14, 2012 at 7:32 am

I LOVE Airbnb! I’ve only used it once but it was a really great experience. And it was extremely affordable.

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