Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Road Trippin' on a Dime

I'm a big fan of road trips.  Years ago, we trekked with one-month old Jackson and Winston the Wonder Weimaraner out to California in our 1985 Land Cruiser.  And no, I did not keep my baby securely strapped in his car seat the whole time; I freely admit that.  With an exclusively breastfed newborn eating and pooping constantly, there were plenty of in-the-lap diaper changes and feeding sessions.  For any of you that are now dialing Child Protective Services in an effort to protect my children from their neglectful parents, I vividly remember road trips as a child where my brother and I would press our eyes against the rust holes in the floor of our parents' VW Bus so we could watch the road whiz by underneath us.  Miraculously, my brother and I made it to adulthood with our eyes intact.  My point?  Neglect is a genetic disorder; don't blame me.

Two years later, we made the same trip to CA with a 2-year old Jackson, a 6-month old Alex, and Winston (by this time we had sucked it up and resigned ourselves to owning a minivan).  Despite driving a minivan, there is something freeing, adventurous even, about driving somewhere other than Target or to a child's birthday party. 

I don't require high-end luxury when traveling, but I do make all efforts to stay in hotels that don't have the Gross Hotel Blanket.  You know, the one that you use tweezers to immediately peel down when you get in the room so you don't have to actually come in contact with it (I have seen too many Dateline NBC shows exposing the filth on those blankets...).  My efforts are not always successful, though--between Salt Lake City and San Francisco there are not a whole lot of overnight options, and we spent one memorable evening at a hotel that had a dead rabbit in the parking lot and a condom stuck to the side of the building.  And one night in a room with moist, matted shag carpeting so foul that Sam laid down a towel path (think of the Follow the Yellow Brick Road scene, but absent the happy song or the crowd of happy midgets) to walk from the shower to the bed to avoid actually stepping on it.  Good times.

We now have three kiddos (and sadly, no dog), and I decided on a whim that we should take a weekend road trip during Sam and the boys' spring break.  We don't have a lot of cash these days ('these days' meaning the last, oh, 6 years) and I'm definitely what you would call 'thrifty'.  I decided on Santa Fe because it was relatively close (6 hours' drive)...and between you and me, I read about this really great chocolate shop that I wanted to check out.  Here is a recap of our weekend vacation on a budget, listing some tips that I found helpful and rough prices (*modestly patting myself on the back as I write...*).

1.  Last-minute vacation-rental deals!  Hotels can be expensive, and staying in one hotel room with three children?  Not fun.  My kids go to bed at 7:30, so sitting perfectly quiet in a hotel room is not our idea of a vacation.  Has anyone used
I found a number of vacation rentals that were still available 5 days before our trip, so I wrote requesting a total lowball, last-minute deal.  I chose this gorgeous, 3-bedroom place a few blocks from the Plaza.  It was advertised at $315/night, and we paid $125.  Even with the cleaning fee and rental tax, it was less than what we would have paid for a hotel suite and had so many more amenities!

2.  Plan some make-ahead meals!  Eating out every meal (with three growing boys) can get expensive very quickly.  My husband, with his hummingbird metabolism (damn him!), snacks constantly and the boys follow suit.  The night before we left I spent a few hours in the kitchen, but it saved us tons of money.  I made:
  • breakfast burritos with egg, bacon, potato, and cheese--just wrap them up in a paper towel and freeze.  When you're ready to eat, pop them in the microwave for 2.5 minutes, and open up for a sec to spread a little salsa.  They taste awesome, and are a nice, filling breakfast before sightseeing.
  • cardamom granola bars--these have become a staple snack in our house--SO good!
  • vegan blueberry muffins--don't let the word 'vegan' scare you, they are delicious, I swear!
I also packed up cereal, milk, yogurt, fruit, and peanut butter-n-jelly sandwich stuff.  Cutting back on the meals out allowed us to enjoy an authentic New Mexican meal, complete with green chile, at Maria's New Mexican Kitchen (known for their margaritas!). ($50, including a house margarita each)

3.  Use the internet to make a rough itinerary.  On the way down, we stopped for dinner in Trinidad, Colorado, famous for being the sex change capital of the world.  Yes, the world.  It's not known for much else, and wanting to ensure we didn't end up at the local McDonald's for dinner, I used Yelp to decide on a restaurant ahead of time.  This also cuts down on the driving around aimlessly factor.  With such a short trip, Yelp also came in handy to get a feel for how we wanted to spend our time.  I thought for sure Trinidad would have some amazing people-watching, or surgeon's offices on every corner, but there was literally no sign of anything interesting going on.  At all.  Luckily, the brick-oven pizza we had was really good (and the oven actually came from all the way from 'It-lee', as I learned from a Trinidad bank teller). ($30 for pizza and salad)

4.  Scope out the free entertainment. 
We arrived in Santa Fe on Friday evening and had all day Saturday to explore.  I had a delicious mocha from Ecco Espresso (scoped out from Yelp) before browsing the offerings from the Native American Vendors.  We bought Alex a metal guitar pick with a cool hunter scene stamped on it (and amazingly, there was no word from Jackson about wanting something as well).  We also briefly checked the St. Francis Cathedral as they were preparing for their big Easter shindig (since it was right there; I'm not a big cathedral goer). ($24 for guitar pick, coffee drink, and tamales) 
After lunch and rest for the kiddos, we drove a little ways out of town to Shidoni, an art bronze foundry and sculpture garden.  I had contacted them ahead of time to find out when they were pouring, and we got to see them pour the liquid metal into the molds.  We all enjoyed walking around the sculpture garden.   There is also a glassblowing studio next door, which would have been another great activity if we had timed it right ($0!).

The highlight of my day was our trip to Kakawa Chocolate House.  We all sampled different styles of their handcrafted European and Mesoamerican Aztec drinking chocolate and split a piece of a delicious chocolate-covered caramel with smoked sea salt on top.  I bought a package of one style to bring home with me, and there's no way I'm sharing with my family ($22).

5.  National Parks/Monuments are cheap and awesome.
The next morning we packed up and made a slight detour to the southwest to Bandelier National Monument for a hike and to check out the Indian ruins.  We paid our car's $12 entrance fee and spent a couple hours on the Main Loop Trail.  Our friend Joel (who is living with us in Denver for the time being) sprung for the $1 guide book that provided information at numbered spots along the trail.  This monument is amazing--an easy hike and so many interesting things to see!  We all had a ball climbing the ladders up into the cavates to see how the Ancestral Pueblo people lived.

All told, the trip cost us under $500, which is just a hair over what Sam and I pay for a dinner and movie date and a babysitter.  I totally have the bug for weekend travel and am itchin' to camp at the Great Sand Dunes this spring.  I can hear my yard quietly weeping, because it was really hoping I'd get off my ass and pull some weeds.  And I know my half-finished bathroom would appreciate being dressed with some baseboards.  And a doorknob for said bathroom might be nice.  And I bet my neighbors would appreciate Sam chopping up the huge pile of free wood that is sitting at the top of our driveway.  sigh...Life slips by too quickly, but I hope to squeeze in little family adventures like these more often. 


  1. That is great! We did Santa Fe with the 3 girls last year over a long weekend and had a blast. You and I are sooooo similar. I am very frugal and conscientious about spending...must come from having 3 kids close together and husbands that eat alot! I too packed up food from home and we indulged on one really nice dinner out! So much fun!!

  2. Wow - I thought I was good, but you're REALLY good. I managed to score a 2 BR duplex in East Vail for $75/night last summer, but had to do the cleaning myself. It was a lousy way to spend the last 4 hours of a getaway weekend. Sounds like you had a great trip - great place to stay, great itinerary, and all for a great price. Nice. Thanks for all the tips!

  3. I love that Joel sprung for the $1 guide map. Teeheehee.

  4. If I were there, I would've sprung for waaaaaay more chocolate. "To freeze for nostalgic purposes," you could've told Sam. Hahaha!! You guys sound so fun, and I think my boys would have a ball with your crew. Someday....

    Hey, Budget Travel Lady, know any $20 flights from New York to Denver?!?!?!


  5. Lisa, it took a LOT of self-restraint not to buy more. I chatted with the owner about chocolate, and he did give me a piece of 80% cacao with nibs, which was so tasty.
    We would LOVE to have you and the boys out here at some point, or even just you while Joel's around. I'll keep my eye out for cheapo tickets...

  6. So cool! I've always wanted to go to Santa Fe! In the meantime, I'm definitely checking out and I'm going to attempt the breakfast burritos...

  7. Kami, is so awesome; we also used it last year when we went to Laguna Beach for a weekend. And I'm going to be making a batch of breakfast burritos this weekend, just for around the house convenience. We can have a virtual breakfast burrito date!