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Blow-the-wad Vacationers Vs. Contrarian Travelers

contrarian travelers find nice vacation stay hotels for less

$75 a night, not $500

“Yes, we’re very excited,” said the woman holding onto the cart with four large suitcases. “This is our first real vacation in four years.”

Apparently they needed a lot more clothing than me for their trip to Los Cabos, a place that rarely dips below 75F degrees at night. But extra baggage fees weren’t the real tragedy. I did the math based on current flight prices and where they said they were staying and figured their rare vacation was probably costing them at least $5,000.

“We get together with our old friends every four years at some beach resort area. We always say we’re going to do go somewhere else on our own in between, but there’s always something else we need to spend our money. S0 it never seems to happen. Thankfully this one is scheduled so it makes us get out of the house and take off.”

Good lord. I was just eavesdropping on this conversation while in the customs line at the airport, so I didn’t bust in, but I had so many questions I would love to ask. Like what are you spending all your money on that you can only take a vacation every four years? Why can’t you just take a shorter one every year within driving distance? Or go to another destination that is a fraction of the price of Los Cabos? What do you do with all that saved up vacation time? Sit around the house and watch TV?

More Travel on a Small Budget

No person who really loves to travel would wait four years to get away. As I’ve traveled around the world, I’ve met people who have very modest salaries who are spending weeks on the road. I’ve met bartenders, social workers, and teachers who have been to dozens of countries. The thing is, they’re not staying at this place:

Los Cabos resort

I do stay at places like that as part of my travel writing job sometimes, on someone else’s tab, but there have only been a few times I’ve opened up the wallet to pay for them. Like most contrarian travelers, I know how to use a calculator and I know better than to follow the herds. I don’t assume that the way “most people” travel is the smart way to go. If a million people are willing to pay $500 a night for a hotel somewhere (in Los Cabos that won’t even be a luxury place), then I’m going to find the spot where I can get a similar experience for $100 a night instead.

Those hotels are not hard to find. They may not have six pools with a swim-up bar and a room that’s bigger than your apartment, but they’ll be quite nice if you are in the right destination. Two weeks ago I was researching an article on hill stations in India and was finding big, nice hotels with pools for less than 30 bucks. In 2018!

Even in Mexico, choosing Mazatlan or Puerto Escondido is going to chop your beach vacation budget in half compared to the top resort areas. Head into the interior and your budget can drop by another third or half. Head down to Nicaragua or Guatemala and it’ll drop again. Ease up on the star level of your hotel and the next thing you know, that $5,000 will last two people six or eight weeks of travel instead of six nights getting sunburned and paying for overpriced excursion tours.

Hey, I do get the appeal if you just want to lay around and de-stress for a while. I’ve spent my own money on an all-inclusive resort that will make the family happy. Plus when I twice won stays at those kinds of resorts in Puerto Vallarta and Ixtapa, I was happy to accept. We had a blast and few things make me happier than a non-stop open bar.

But if I had to wait four years to take a vacation just to get that kind of walled-off experience? No thanks. I’d rather take off eight times and ratchet back the marble and infinity pools. Contrarian travelers have a different mindset and a willingness to get away no matter what.

For a beach break that won’t break the bank, see this post on the cheapest beach destinations to escape to from the USA and Canada.

Pay the Vacation Machine When You Must–Sparingly

I’m not here to judge on the traveler vs. vacationer division as I’ve been in both camps quite a lot. At times I’ve had all the time in the world. But things do tend to change when you have a kid. I once drove to Orlando just for the day to take my birthday girl daughter and two of her friends to a water park. Like everyone else there, I was a tourist. No way around it. If there were any question about it, look what we paid to rent a locker—and we needed two of the big ones.

travel budget

Since my wife, daughter, and I took advantage of cheap Southeast Asia the same summer, we know a thing or two about what it costs a traveler with the time and means to get out of the USA or Europe. For that $22 we spent on two jammed-full lockers for five people, we could have eaten two good meals, taken 10 taxi rides, or gotten four one-hour massages. For what those lockers cost, one person can enter some of the great wonders of the world.

For what a beer costs at this park ($6.35 for a 16-ounce Yuengling—I passed), I could have gotten legless in Siem Reap with 12 drafts and a tip or six bottles. For what I spent on parking alone, you could get an air-conditioned hotel room with a private bath in Vietnam. (When we went to a smaller water park in Merida, Mexico, parking was free and a locker was a dollar.)

If you’ve been around the world, you’re used to traveler prices. If you only go on vacation for a week or two once a year, you’re used to tourist prices. That’s why most of your relatives think travel has to be expensive. It can be—especially if you’re headed to one of the most popular foreign destinations for Americans—but not if you’re taking your time exploring The World’s Cheapest Destinations.

It’s not that one camp is smart and one is stupid though. They’re two different worlds that sometimes intersect in the town square. Many in one camp could never dream of being in the other, but both can be just as happy because the don’t even want to be on the other side. In some places they’re all getting a bargain, like in Southeast Asia.

In some ways this is a “life phase” transition. When you’re making the big bucks and have more money than time, you tend to value to former less and the latter more. But still, if you can only take one vacation every four years? You might want to take some quiet time to evaluate your priorities.

The contrarian travelers find a way to hit the road often because they find the time and the money by traveling smart.


Sunday 29th of April 2018

Inconceivable to wait 4 years to travel/take a vacation. I’m a single mum and only work pt, but in the past four years we’ve been twice to Europe, twice to Malaysia, to Cambodia, Singapore, three times to Indonesia, and recently to Laos and Thailand. Trips range from 10 days to 7 weeks. This is perfectly possible if you make the time to do some research. I’ve never felt like I was disadvantaging my child by prioritising time and $ to travel - quite the opposite. Nor have we been uncomfortable, or stayed anywhere I’d consider unsafe. I’ve been tracking all my travel costs and I know that in Asia I can easily do $75usd per person/day including flights from Australia, without scrimping. We don’t do hostels or shared facilities by personal preference, but that would decrease cost again. We eat both local and at high end restaurants, take cooking classes etc. all included in this budget. I’ve never stayed in a $1000 pn resort. Probably never will. But I’ll get one if not two trips each year!

Wade K.

Sunday 29th of April 2018

In the last year I've spent 3 months in Mexico, 1 month in Kazakhstan, 2 months in Georgia, and am about to go to Kyrgyzstan. Haven't spent more than a $1000 a month in any of them minus air travel. Have been comfortable and got to know locals renting out rooms and studios on and Airbnb. But I have a pension income and don't have to work. When I was maintaining an American lifestyle I was too exhausted and broke to do much more than go visit relatives. I traveled by taking job transfers around the U.S. and getting to know a new area. And these days many people work two jobs just to get by. It is a matter of priorities, but for most their family's needs take up their time and money.

Anthony Thomas

Friday 27th of April 2018

The word of the day for this piece is priorizes. I read a financial blog post about 6-7 years ago saying it is conceivable that a American middle class lifestyle can cost you $100,000.

When you have full cable or sat package, 2,000 sq ft home, everybody has a smartphone with data plans to match, gym memberships, children's enrichment (sports, arts, etc) and the parents are both driving German luxury cars = $100,000 plus

The average American can in-fact travel more if they really want too, they don't really want to Tim.

The cost of the above trip is seen as a deterrent from doing it more often. It's how people sabotage themselves and blame others.


Friday 27th of April 2018

Tim, all the things you suggested take some research and stepping out of the comfort zone of 'perceived safety of high end resort solutions in well known destinations' and this type of inexperienced travelers just isn't willing/ready to do that.


Friday 27th of April 2018

Agreed, Josh. Well stated.

My other comment: As per Tim's experience in the customs queue, I've long stopped making recommendations or observations to the folks you've described, Josh. Why waste my breath? I'll settle for the obligatory face-palm.


Thursday 26th of April 2018

I’m with you on the financial piece.

But most Americans don’t get much vacation time off work. If you only get ten days per year personal business, sick children and such can gobble them right up.

Yet another reason financial independence is a Good Thing.