Frugal Travel Tips for the Budget-Savvy Colorado Traveler
By Emily Krempholtz
After the year we’ve just had, we could all use a vacation. But there’s a major difference between treating yourself and completely draining your savings account, and believe us, travel doesn’t have to mean the latter. When you’re traveling in Colorado (or anywhere, really), you have so many options it means that even if you’re on a strict budget, you probably don’t have to compromise as much as you might think.
Why are you going on this trip? What is most important to you? Is it the food? The nightlife? The outdoor adventures? Skiing? National parks? Hot springs? Museums? A fancy hotel with all the best amenities? The breweries? The dispensaries? Hiking? The challenge of seeing as much of Colorado as you can in a single week?
Okay, you get the idea. We have a lot to offer here in Colorado, and it’s important to have an idea of what you want to do when you’re traveling on a budget. If you know you want to hit up some national parks, then you can set that as a priority and do some research about costs—for example, a day pass at Rocky Mountain National Park will cost you $25, but if you’re planning on going more than once, a 7-day pass is only $10 more. And if you want to see any of Colorado’s other national parks during your visit, you can buy an annual pass which will get you into any national park in the country. It’s a bigger up front cost, of course, but if national parks are your priority while traveling, you’ll be able to determine whether you’re actually saving money by purchasing a pass. (Keep in mind too, there are discounts for seniors, some young students, active military members and their families, volunteers, and other populations.)
When setting priorities, you’re telling yourself what you’re okay spending money on, and the categories toward the bottom of the list are those you’re okay with sacrificing some of the glamour. If food and restaurants are your priority for example, you might consider staying at a budget hotel, Airbnb, in a friend’s guest room, or even on a stranger’s couch via a site like Couchsurfing.com. Then, you can divert the money you save on accommodations to other parts of your budget.
Consider Hidden Costs
If you’re prioritizing staying in a fancy hotel, that often means you won’t have access to a kitchen, which in turn means you’ll probably be eating out for all your meals. And if you’re prioritizing the ability to get around easily by renting a car, make sure you factor in the costs of parking and gas. On the other hand, if you’re not renting a car, that means you’ll have to budget for public transportation, Lyft and Uber rides, and time spent walking. When you make your decisions based on priorities, it’s important to factor in these hidden costs so they don’t come as a surprise during your trip, ruining what would otherwise be a wonderful experience with stress about how fast that number in your bank account is dwindling. Being prepared can help you plan accordingly, and the best way to be prepared is to be aware.
Check the Calendar
If the weekend you’re planning to stay in Denver happens to fall on the same schedule as the Great American Beer Festival or the National Stock and Western Show, or your trip to Breckenridge coincides with Ullr Fest, prices are bound to be a little higher, and availability a little lower. When planning your trip, make sure you’re aware of what else is happening in and around your destination so you can factor in fluctuating costs. Similarly, if you’re traveling to Colorado specifically for an event, make sure you have factored the cost of the event itself into your budget.
Checking the calendar can also have some great added benefits, especially if you’re flexible about your trip dates. Traveling in the off-season can mean scoring better deals on accommodations, and sometimes means major attractions like museums and zoos offer free admission days. Likewise, traveling during the week as opposed to the weekend can often mean fewer crowds, great happy hour deals at restaurants, and lower prices for some attractions.
Create a Budget
Using your priorities and your knowledge of hidden costs, create a budget before you go. Check some menu prices online for an idea of how much each meal will cost you, and set a daily or weekly limit for how much you’ll spend. Do the same for lodging, attractions, transportation, souvenirs, nightlife, and any other priorities on your list. Want to treat yourself to a fancy dinner one night? Go for it, but it means you might have to make your own meals in your Airbnb kitchen for a day or two so you stay under budget. Really looking forward to that zip lining experience over Royal Gorge or seeing your favorite band live at Red Rocks? Make sure these things are part of your budget, and consider spending a couple other days during your trip doing cheaper or free activities.
Travel With Like-Minded People
So your friend Derek is the one who suggested traveling to Denver, and he’s a lot of fun to hang out with. What’s the problem then? Well, Derek loves to go out every night, and is really looking forward to catching a Nuggets game or maybe a concert, when you’d rather spend your time exploring the city on foot or driving into the mountains to bag a 14er. Going along with Derek’s plans, or even compromising, means you’ll undoubtedly be spending money on things you don’t prioritize or value, and that’s a no-no when it comes to budget travel. If you’re traveling with others, make sure you make it clear what kind of budget you’re traveling on so there’s no resentment when one of you wants to splurge on a fancy meal the other one can’t afford or skip the game in favor of an overnight backpacking trip. Making sure your priorities align isn’t just good for your budget, after all—it’s good for your relationships.
And remember, if you’re traveling with someone who has different priorities, it’s perfectly okay to split up. Send Derek to the game while you hit up the Santa Fe Art Walk, and meet up afterward for a green-chile smothered burrito or a pint or craft beer to catch up and share what you both experienced. It might feel awkward at first, but believe us, it’s better for you both.
Find Activities to Do For Free
Like we said above, checking the calendar for free days at museums can make for an easy attraction that won’t break the bank. Depending on the season, you might also find free concerts, festivals, art shows, and other events. But your calendar doesn’t need to be the only deciding factor when it comes to exploring Colorado. We have thousands of miles of trails in this state, and if you’re into hiking, biking, or other outdoor activities, you’ll probably have a pretty easy time finding something to do for free (as long as you prioritize transportation or have a friend with a car, that is!). Exploring Colorado’s great outdoors is beautiful, exhilarating, and fun, and while some parks do charge an entrance, reservation, or parking fee, there are literally hundreds of options for you to choose from that won’t cost you a dime.
Other activities, like farmers markets or live music in public parks, are often dependent on the time of year, but can be a ton of fun when you’re exploring a new place (and some of the local products at that farmers market can easily be incorporated into your food budget!).
If you’re a student, senior, member of the military, or traveling with young children, many attractions and restaurants also offer discounts or even free admission, so do your research before you travel to make sure you’re getting the best bang for your buck.
Why Budget Travel is the Best
Traveling on a budget doesn’t mean your trip won’t be fun. In fact, the added challenge of a budget often means you’ll be more conscious and aware of how you’re spending your time and your hard-earned money, meaning everything you do on your trip will be because you want to. Treating your budget like a game can make it easier as well, and when the prizes are as beautiful as the Colorado Rocky Mountains and as tasty as Colorado’s craft beer, you’ll be more than glad you did.
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