Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Vacation savings and splurges

We just returned from a week-long family vacation in Colorado. We decided to do something completely different than anything we've done before: we rented a cabin in the mountains. This is probably the first vacation that our kids did not even bring their swimsuits! I grew up in the Denver metro area, so we've been to Denver a few times for family visits, but this was our first major Colorado vacation.

Here are some ways we saved money on this trip:

*  We only ate out once a day. We bought groceries when we arrived and stocked our cabin. Usually we ate breakfast at the cabin and packed a lunch with us (yes, we are THAT family that picnics at attractions!) I figure this saved us at least $50 a day (we are a family of 5), or $350+.

* We bid on a rental car through Denver is one of the more expensive cities to rent a car, and although I searched for many online discounts and coupons, the Priceline rate was about $150 less than anything else I could find.

* We flew on Spirit Airlines instead of a more mainstream airline. Our tickets were only $117 each. That price was at least $100 per ticket cheaper than anything else available. With Spirit, you have to read the policies carefully, or you will be charged extra money. For example, if you don't print your boarding pass online or at a kiosk, you are charged $10 a piece. Also, all food and beverages cost extra. Pre-paying for checked luggage is the cheapest way to go. Spirit allows a free small carry-on if it fits underneath the seat; otherwise, carry-ons are $100 at the gate. We packed lightly, so we fit everything for all 5 of us in just 2 checked bags.

* We used an online discount code for airport parking, saved 15%.

* Before our trip, I scoured the internet for coupons for the attractions we were going to visit. We found a Groupon for one, and several online coupons for others. In total, we saved about $120 vs. just walking up to the gate and paying full price.

Now, our trip wasn't all about saving money. We did have some major splurges:

*  Our rental cabin was our biggest splurge. We saw it on and fell in love with it. Initially, we were looking to rent a condo or a cabin in Colorado Springs. But, in retrospect, we all agreed that the cabin was totally worth the extra money.

* Flying instead of driving was another splurge. Originally, we planned on driving. The drive takes around 14 hours, and we would do it in 2 days each direction. Once we saw the $117 airline tickets, we did the math. Flying cost us more initially, but we also saved 2 days of pet sitting, gas, a day of hotel, etc. In the end, flying cost us about $300 more...but well worth it to us.

*  Eating out--even though we only ate out once a day, we didn't want to waste our splurge on a chain restaurant that we could get back home. We researched restaurants on, and picked ones that were unique and highly rated. We found some real treasures in Manitou Springs and the surrounding areas. Our kids' favorite restaurant was the Airplane Restaurant in Colorado Springs, which was inside an airplane.

The outside of the Airplane Restaurant

Eating inside the airplane

The cockpit was available for the kids to play in before and after they ate. They didn't want to leave when dinner was over!

My husband and I enjoyed a little gem of a restaurant that was just a mile away from our cabin. The Wines of Colorado in Cascade had peaceful, creekside dining.

So although we only went out to eat once a day, we did pick restaurants that were pricier than fast food and some major chains.

Favorite attractions:

Our kids' favorite attraction was The North Pole. I went there when I was 5 years old, and I wondered if it would still seem as magical to my kids. It did not disappoint! The North Pole is a Christmas-themed amusement park at the base of Pikes Peak. There are 25+ rides (mostly carnival-type rides) and Santa is there at his house! My 2-year-old could ride all of the rides except for one. This is a great park for kids ages 2-10.

The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo was also another great day. This zoo is on the side of a mountain, and for me it ranks right up there with the San Diego Zoo. It was highly interactive for the kids, and the animal habitats were phenomenal. Not to mention the gorgeous views!

The highlight of the trip for me was taking the cog railway to the top of Pikes Peak. It was truly beautiful. We lucked out--the temperature was about 50 degrees on top with no wind, so it wasn't too cold.

My oldest loved touring the Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine. He is really into Minecraft, so he found touring a real mine fascinating.

We also enjoyed the Ghost Town Museum (only $15 for all of us to get in), Garden of the Gods (we took a Jeep tour), and the Downtown Aquarium in Denver.

Attractions that were not as big a hit with us included the Cripple Creek Railroad and the Dinosaur Resource Center in Woodland Park. We made the mistake of going on the Cripple Creek Railroad after we did the Pikes Peak Cog Railway, and it just paled in comparison. Plus, we were all covered in soot after the ride. The Dinosaur Resource Center was a bit difficult for my two younger kids since there was a lot of reading involved, and they were short on attention. But I think families with elementary-aged kids or older would like it.

After each vacation, I make a music video and a photo book so our kids remember it.

Prior to this vacation, our last two family vacations were Disney cruises. And I must admit, we were spoiled by them. Mainly because the cruises have activities for all ages at the same time. If my kids got fussy doing something, they could always go to the kids clubs and do what they wanted. On a vacation like this one to Colorado, we all had to stick together in one rental car. There were definitely times when my kids got sick of something (like too much scenery) and started whining and complaining. And, on the cruises, my husband and I got time together by ourselves. Not so on this recent vacation, which made us a little more tired and exhausted. We didn't feel as relaxed after this vacation as we did after the cruises. But, we all experienced something different. And we can't go on a Disney cruise for EVERY vacation. But we will return to them soon. For our own sanity. :)

We would like to return to the Pikes Peak area of Colorado when our kids are older, so that we can do some of the more intense activities, like hiking and white water rafting. This is the first vacation spot we've been to where we would seriously consider buying a home. (Ha! After we win the lottery, of course).

Have you been to Colorado? What was your favorite part?

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