Super-Frugal Chicago Trip

Kyle and I succeeded in taking a very frugal trip to Chicago two weeks ago!  We didn’t have a hard ceiling on spending exactly, though we did estimate our costs a couple months in advance to help us decide if we could commit to the trip.


As flights were about $300 per person leading up to the RSVP date, we decided that we would drive there, trading time for money.  I took the first stab at estimating the costs and came up with $1476, which was way too high.  Kyle said that the only way we could afford the trip would be if we packed our breakfasts and lunches, so he reworked the numbers assuming we would only be eating dinners out and that we could spend two nights at a friend’s house and came up with $960, a much more reasonable figure.


Kyle’s estimate bore out VERY closely to our actual travel expenses!  I’ll run through all the money we spent and how we were saved from spending some money by the generosity of our friends and even strangers.  Without them, we would not have been able to make the trip so we are extremely grateful.



What did we spend and how did we keep it under our estimates?


Here is a table of what we would have spent on a more typical vacation of this type, Kyle’s estimate for our frugal trip, and the amount we actually spent in each category.



I honestly wasn’t trying to inflate the estimate of a more typical spending for us, just trying to be realistic.  Below are the ways that we tried to and succeeded in reducing our expenses for this trip in the big fixed expenses.


Travel to/from Chicago:  As I said, flying was prohibitively expensive for our Travel account balance, so we decided to drive.  Our drive there was 14 hours and back was 13 hours.  Fortunately, the price of gas dropped between when we estimate the cost and when we took the trip.  Driving also make bringing our food with us possible (more on that later).


Lodging:  We were excited for this trip to Chicago, in addition to attending this wedding and visiting a new city, because one of our best friends from college recently moved there with her husband.  However, it happened that they were out of town that same weekend and we wouldn’t be able to stay with them except for one night.  So we made our estimates assuming we would have to stay in motels most of the nights of the trip.  But we worked a bit harder and realized that more college friends of ours had recently moved to the city and we were also able to crash with some relatives of other wedding attendees.  It turned out that we had a place to stay every night of our trip, except we elected to stay in a hostel close to downtown the night following the wedding.  We ended up just paying $100 for a private room in the hostel and buying a few small thank-you gifts for our hosts.


So what did we actually do?


I put the highlights of our activities in a Facebook album (minus the time with friends) so you can check those out if you like.  I really enjoyed the museums and wished we could have spent more time in them.  Millennium Park was also pretty awesome.  The activity I enjoyed the most, but that I least expected to, was going to the top of Willis Tower and out onto one of the ledges.  (And while you’re over on FB, “Like” our page!)  We also got some kind of student discount at all the museums and such that we went to.


How did we only spend $55.99 on food over six days?!


Well, actually, we spent quite a bit more than that.  That figure only reflects the money we spent on food from the time we left Durham to the time we returned.  We packed our breakfasts, lunches, and snacks, so we brought a lot of groceries with us from Durham.  We spent about $145 on groceries in the days leading up to the trip.  BUT we didn’t exceed our grocery budget for last month and we didn’t buy groceries in July for the first time until 7/12/2012 (and that was a small trip) so we only ate a fraction of the cost of those grocery runs on the trip itself.



Every day, we ate the same (good at room temperature!) lunch: avocado and tuna with mayo for me (top left), a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with applesauce for Kyle (bottom center).  My breakfasts were oatmeal with peanut butter and either sausage quiche (prepared at home) or microwavable turkey sausage (bottom left).  Our hosts often provided Kyle with breakfast (top right) and on the other days he ate a bagel.  Our snacks were raw vegetables, peanuts, berries, cheese crackers, pork rinds, and Ritz crackers.  That’s about it for the food we packed!


Preparing our own food even required us to fix our lunch by the side of the road (top center)!


We decided to stop for one fast-food meal per day of driving, more to break up the monotony of being in the car and eating all the same food than anything else.  I very rarely eat fast food and wasn’t too impressed (bottom right).


We were prepared to buy dinner Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday evenings (the wedding was on Saturday), but as it turned out our hosts for those nights (our college friends) treated us to dinner!  We left a tip at a restaurant and bought a shared snack but that was it!  We need to remember to be so generous when people visit us in Durham.  The final few dollars were spent on ice to maintain the cold chain for our cooler-food.


So that was our trip!  As far as the getting-to-Chicago and being-in-Chicago cost goes, we spent in total as much as we would have spent just on plane tickets if we had flown.  I call that pretty successful!


Have you ever attempted a really frugal vacation?  What cost-saving measures do you attempt on trips?  Do you think we took it too far?


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14 Responses to "Super-Frugal Chicago Trip"

  1. bogofdebt says:

    I haven’t taken any real vacations in a while but the last time we went, we packed a cooler and took some road snacks and water so we wouldn’t have to be stopping for food. Much more healthy and cheaper than if we would have bought the food on the trip.
    bogofdebt recently posted..Friday the 13th’s Link Love

    1. Emily says:

      Packing food for a road trip is so easy and cost-effective! I do it when I fly, too, if I’m going to need a meal on a layover or something. The downside, at least for car trips, is that you can graze all day!

  2. I need to be better about packing lunches — since my diet is fairly limiting, I get bored very quickly with the salad that’s available. Thanks for the tips, I wouldn’t have thought of canned tuna and avocado, but that would fill me up!
    Kathleen @ Frugal Portland recently posted..I paid off $11,800 in eleven months!

    1. Emily says:

      My diet is very limiting, too – avocado+tuna+mayo and raw vegetables were the best I could come up with for room-temp food! Salad would have been okay nutrition-wise but it’s too voluminous – I was looking for calorically dense foods that would fit okay in our small backpack along with our water bottles.

      I started writing a post titled “How to Stick to Your Budget and Your Diet While on Vacation” but I figured I should wait and see how successful I was, and while the money worked out really well I didn’t meet all my dietary objectives. Plus this isn’t a diet blog so that would be a little off-topics.

  3. Also, how dose your fly vs drive calculation work? Do you not value your time at X dollars an hour?
    Kathleen @ Frugal Portland recently posted..I paid off $11,800 in eleven months!

    1. Emily says:

      Haha, NO, we do not value our time and we are salaried so it makes no immediate difference. Calculating pay per hour for grad students is a depressing exercise. Actually because flying takes so much time, too, we probably missed at MOST one extra day of work.

  4. […] presents Super-Frugal Chicago Trip posted at Evolving Personal […]

  5. […] added up all the weekend-of expenses from our Chicago trip (June 30 – July 4) and that money came out of this account […]

  6. […] time that we left.  We didn’t go out for a meal even once with my family (I guess they’re superfrugal too!), but ate well (and all day long) as my brother cooked for us several times and we cobbled together […]

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  8. […] It was a nice relief for Kyle and I not to be the most frugal people in the group like we were on our Chicago trip with a similar group of […]

  9. […] Driving over flying: Kyle and I have determined that if our destination is within a 14 hour drive of Durham we will consider driving over flying.  The decision hinges on how much money is in our Travel account and how much time we can take off from work.  Last summer we really wanted to go to Chicago for a wedding and the only way we had enough money for the trip was if we drove and brought much of our own food. […]

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  11. […] This trip was definitely not the frugal triumph that our road trip to Chicago was. We spent quite freely, for us, as this was basically our only vacation in the last couple […]

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