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Scrimp vs. Splurge: When Does Spending More Actually Improve a Vacation?

Several years ago, an author I’d hired to do a chapter in a guidebook returned it to me with a major tourist sight missing from the text. He explained that he’d left this particular historic site out because he’d been angered by the entrance fee.

I got another author for the next edition of the book (and input the material based on my own research).

I did this despite the fact that the guidebook was for people traveling on a budget. I felt that to cover hotels, restaurants and the like, but not include the major reason one would go to this particular town, betrayed a serious lack of judgment.  We nicknamed him “penny wise” in the office, and hired another author.

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But, most people DO want to save money when they travel. So when should one splurge and when can one scrimp without hurting the quality of the vacation? Here’s my cheat sheet:

Hotels: Scrimp. What’s a hotel primarily for? To sleep in. And that can be done as effectively (usually) in a well-maintained $65-a-night-room as in a $350-a-night one. Unless the property is in a beachy resort area where the hotel is the vacation; or the hotel is so poorly located staying there will mean a major increase in the amount of time spent getting from place to place, I think one can choose cheap without regrets.

Airplanes: Scrimp. For most of us, riding in a tight airline seat for a few hours is uncomfortable but not unbearable. Upgrades to first and business class, unless you’re flush with miles, are not worth the money, especially when that cash could be used for a treat in the destination. An exception to this rule would be if you’re choosing between two flights and one cuts drastically into the amount of time you’ll get to spend on the ground. In that case, paying a bit more to gain actual vacation time makes sense.

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Meals: It depends. Do your research before you decide this one. In many regions it’s the street food, the down-home cooking, the cheaper foods that are celebrated. Pay more and you resign yourself to eating only with other tourists. In other parts of the world, California Wine Country, say, or Paris, culinary masters are at work and dining at their establishments, while pricey, could be the experience of a lifetime. If you do decide to splurge on meals, consider doing so at lunch when prices will be lower often for the exact same dishes.

Sightseeing and Activities: Splurge. Traveling to a far-off destination, and then deciding not to enter a museum, historic site, amusement park or nature site because of a high entrance fee, seems like a bone-headed strategy. The same goes for not trying local activities like scuba diving, surfing, canyoneering, cooking classes or what have you. These are likely the attractions and activities that drew you to the destination in the first place! Ten years from now, it will be these experiences you’ll remember, so budget in a little extra for the fun stuff.

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