Travel Tips for Tight Times: Save a Mint with these Budget Travel Ideas

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I travel frequently throughout Maine and beyond for work, and since I’m most often on my own for expenses, I’ve mastered keeping costs manageable. Sure, I love it when I’m able to stay at a fancy-pants hotel or dine in a chi-chi restaurant, but more often than not, I’m seeking cheap digs and meals and trying to avoid parking meters and tolls.

Car free is carefree

Select destinations where you don’t need a car: In Maine, these include Portland (Metro bus and ferry), Rockland (small town with most sites within walking distance, ferry to islands), and Mt. Desert Island (seasonal bus service), and communities along the south coast, where an interconnected trolley system operates in summer. No car means no rental fees, no parking fees, and no tolls.

Coming up from Boston? Concord Coachlines bus service is first class all the way: clean, new comfy coaches with electrical sockets at the seat and a restroom in the back; free movie and free Wifi; quiet ride with no cell phone use permitted en route except for emergencies; almost hourly departures between Boston and Portland with direct service from South Station and an airport express with pick-up at all terminals; less frequent connections from Bangor, Augusta, and along the coast from Portland to Searsport; free water and pretzels when heading south. OR try Amtrak’s wonderful Downeaster rail service from North Station, less frequent, but quite comfy.

Plan ahead with the state’s comprehensive Explore Maine transit site.

Cheap sleeps

Book a room with access to a refrigerator and microwave: either in room or shared in a common area. That allows you to prepare light meals and heat leftovers. Or, rent a house, apartment, cottage, which gives you a more space and full facilities and often coasts far less than renting a room. I’ve used HomeAway successfully for rentals ranging from a few days to a full week.

Consider a cost-controlled stay in an all-inclusive sporting camp or a multi-day all-inclusive sail on a Maine windjammer. Note: both include lodging and all meals, some activities, but not alcohol or gratuities. Or rough it even more along the Maine Huts & Trails or AMC Maine Lodges systems (hike, bike, paddle, snowshoe, ski).

Also check my Cheap Sleeps recommendations.

Cheap eats

Many restaurants offer early-bird specials before 6 p.m. Also venture off the beaten path to find the less touristy and often downright cheap ethnic restaurants.

Patronize community suppers: Look for announcements in local papers and for signs in front of churches and group halls (Grange, Elks, Odd Fellows, etc.). These low cost meals include chowder suppers, bean suppers, fried fish, chicken, potlucks, and sometimes-even lobster. They’re also a good opportunity to rub elbows with the locals and pick up some insider tips.

Make lunch the major meal of the day: You can dine in a decent restaurant and have a fancy lunch for far less than it will cost for dinner out.

In the boonies and don’t know where to eat? Look for the local diner/dive with the biggest collection of local pick-up trucks. Food won’t be fancy, but it’ll usually be cheap and hearty. Stick with the basics (burgers, grilled cheese, fried fish), and you’ll be fine.

Make meals from supermarket fresh foods and prepared foods sections. In Maine, most Hannaford’s have extensive salad bars, often sushi bars, chicken stations, as well as everything else you might want for a do-it-yourself feast. Whole Foods in Portland even has in store dining and tables. Many natural foods stores also offer sandwiches, soups, and other prepared foods.

Maine’s farmers markets are a bonanza of everything from local produce, cheeses, and meats to prepared ethnic foods.

Deals and discounts

Military, AAA, AARP, etc: If you don’t ask, you won’t get, and you can often save 10 percent or so on accommodations, meals, and admission to popular attractions. Also search online for hidden deals using the town name or a specific attraction or restaurant add the words “promo code” and again with “coupon.” And you might want to check Travel Zoo; I’ve found some great specials on that site.

Freebies and cheapies

Take advantage of free or low-cost programming: concerts, state and national park programs, films, contra dances, etc. You’ll find listings in local newspapers (check online versions for advance planning), chamber of commerce websites, attraction web sites, and posted on community bulletin boards.

Pack light

You don’t need a full wardrobe to travel. Leave your vanity at home, and make do with a minimal amount of appropriate seasonal wear (aim for one color scheme, mix-and-match items that dry overnight when washed in a sink). Plan ahead and pack items that do double/triple duty. Minimize. Minimize. Minimize. Roll clothing and pack in vacuum travel bags in an easy to maneuver and lift carry-on or backpack (pay attention to your airlines size restrictions and ideally use a suitcase that’s smaller, so there will be no problems–don’t max out your luggage. Or consider the bundle technique. Wear heavier/bulkier items (including shoes) on the plane. Or…

Ship tight

For $14.54 to $15.45 (flat rate, any weight), you can ship home a large (12 x 12 x 5.5) U.S.P.S. priority box (pick up the box at any post office; you don’t pay until you ship). Use it to send home (or to your destination in advance) heavy or bulky items. Consider doing the same and shipping in advance to your destination. It’s less expensive than most baggage fees and nearly every town has a post office. It should arrive within three days. If you have access to a printer, save more by printing out the label online.


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