Routine can be attractive and certainly has its uses, but life is no fun without a little spontaneity. If you've always wanted to visit a new place or just get the hell out of Dodge, make it happen. Here's how to make great, spontaneous travel plans on a budget.
On a personal note: I'm doing this right now, which was the inspiration for writing this post. I'd always wanted to go to Seattle so I just packed up and went. One of the perks of writing for and reading Lifehacker is all the great stuff we've accumulated about traveling well on a budget, so making plans was easy. Actually going on the trip taught me a few things as well. So this post is about sharing both of those things—the practical and frugal way to have a great, last-minute vacation, and what personal experience has taught me about making it even better.
Choosing Your Destination
The important thing you need to remember is that you're being spontaneous, which goes hand-in-hand with not being picky. There are probably a handful of places you want to go, but stay open to ones you haven't thought of yet or don't pick a destination at all. When you're looking for cheap airfare—which we'll get to in a minute—consider locations with great deals. Find fun things to do in the area or just somewhere you can relax. Sometimes driving just an hour outside of town for a change in scenery is enough to do the trick, so don't limit yourself to grand destinations. You might find a perfect getaway somewhere quiet and small. Simply concentrating on finding new experiences, rather than the specific ones in your dreams, is a great way to still have a great time without getting caught up in too much planning.
Making the Time
One of the hardest parts of simply packing up and going anywhere at the last minute is finding the time. In fact, aside from the cost, that's probably why you're sitting at home reading this post rather than enjoying a nice meal in a semi-far off land. If time is holding you back, there are a few things you can do.
First things first—let go. Maybe you only can take a weekend trip because it's truly impossible to get away from work right now. Do it anyway. It may seem hard to justify driving or flying somewhere new when you have to return so soon, especially when it's an added cost, but even a short change of pace can make a huge difference. Even a small change in your work environment can help avoid burnout, so imagine what a weekend away can do.
If you want to, or can get away for longer, however, that's always a plus. The problem is making those plans last minute. If you have sick leave stocked away, it's easy enough to fake an illness to gain yourself a couple of extra days. Sure, this isn't 100% ethical, but mental/emotional sick days are not currently not part of your benefits plan. If you really need one it's not so terrible to fib a little. Alternatively, if you have an understanding boss, just ask. Generally one day off won't be too hard to get and you can always make the case that a quick refresher will let you gain some energy back that you need to be more productive. Additionally, you might be able to negotiate a situation where you're just working remotely. While not all jobs are flexible enough to let you work from home with regularity, if it's a rare request and your job can be done away from the office there's certainly no reason you can't ask.
However you go about it, the important thing is not to find time but make it. If you've been putting off travel plans for awhile, you'll gain quite a bit of relief when you just stop making excuses and do what you want.
Getting a Cheap Flight
There are many ways to get a cheap flight. We love Hipmunk, and now Google Flights, for finding great deals. Invisible Hand is also a great way to get alerts when there's a cheaper flight you might be missing.
But these tools can only take you so far. The best thing you can do is do your own research and weigh your options. When searching for flights, always use a date range search rather than specifics whenever possible. Airlines like Virgin America make this easy as they show you a range by default. Often times you'll cheaper flights in the evening on weekdays, or simply by looking for airfare on a Tuesday afternoon.
The key is just to remain as flexible as possible. If you can't be too flexible with your dates, be flexible with your location. Go somewhere you can drive or that provides a cheap train or bus ticket. For example, there are many inexpensive bus lines between big cities like Boston and New York and regional trains will often offer free parking if you drive to the station. There are plenty of ways to save money, so don't rule anything out and remain open to all possibilities.
(If you want a few more tips, be sure to check out our frequent flier's guide to finding cheap airfare.)
Finding a Place to Stay and Things To Do
I think the most fun part of visiting a new place is picking your exact location, as every town or section of a city has something unique and interesting to offer. If you're fond of hotels and want to go that route, there are plenty of tools that can help (like The Bidding Traveler and Hipmunk), but I'd highly recommend using a service like Airbnb or VRBO to find a room or apartment instead. First of all, it's frequently cheaper. Second, you have the option of staying in someone's extra room so you get the benefit of the same privacy a hotel offers plus a local who is (hopefully) friendly enough to give you advice. Even if you simply rent an entire place for yourself, you still get the benefit of having an actual home with a kitchen. Depending on the property, you may also have access to computers, video games, movies, books, etc., so you'll have plenty of things to do should you fail to predict an impending natural disaster and get stuck inside. (Also, personally, I think it's just neat to see how other people live.)
Aside from considering price, when you're choosing a specific location you should pretend that you're moving there. When you approach a trip this way, you'll learn far more about the destination than you would by simply asking what you should do when you get there. Some of the best things any place has to offer are the normal things people do every day. Chances are you're not going to jam-pack tourist attractions into every minute of the trip. At some point you'll probably want to catch a movie at the cool movie theater in town, grab a drink at a esoteric dive bar, pick up a new pair of pants, or something along those lines. Tourists get directed to tourist attractions. Prospective residents get to hear about what normal people do, and sometimes that can reveal the best opportunities. If you've never moved to a new city before, our guide can help you understand how it works. Obviously you're going on a vacation and not actually moving but, as discussed, a lot of the same tips can help.
While planned vacations are definitely fun, the occasional spontaneous trip is a great trump card to play when you're feeling stressed or just want to have a good, exciting experience. Hopefully these tips will help you manage a great, inexpensive, last-minute trip full of lots of great memories. I'm writing this because I'm on one right now and I'm having a great time. I hope you do, too. Also, if you have any additional tips and experiences of your own, please share in the comments!
You can follow Adam Dachis, the author of this post, on Twitter, Google+, and Facebook. Twitter's the best way to contact him, too.