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Written By Colin Graves



Travel hackWant a great travel hack?

On our summer vacation this past July, our family completed a 16-day, 3700 mile road trip for less than $1000. Actually, we spent less than $850…Canadian. That’s less than $650 U.S. Sounds like a pretty decent accomplishment for ONE person, let alone a family of five.

I didn’t plan to write this post today. It’s been my intention for at least a month, but for some reason it never got off the ground until now. The problem is that if I don’t write it today, it may never happen. Summer is over after all.

Before we proceed, it goes without saying that to save the amount of money we did, there needs to be a great plan, as well as some good fortune.

But another factor carries FAR more influence over any family’s ability to have a wonderful vacation on an extreme budget. Values.

Let’s face it, when you’re taking your kids on a summer vacation, it’s really all about them. You want your children to have a great experience. It’s about creating memories that will last them a lifetime.

How families go about creating those memories can vary greatly. There exists two schools of thought. And in our western society, one is far different than the other.

Allow me to explain.

Value System #1. We’ll call this the “Broke Parents, Spoiled Kids” model, or (BS). This is by far the more dominant value system found in our culture. In the BS system, parents will go to any length to ensure their children are provided with every possible luxury. Mass advertising bombards them with the message that their kids need the best of everything , and these parents stand by ready to deliver.

They are often willing to accumulate enormous levels of debt to achieve this, even compromising their financial future to ensure they meet these imaginary needs.

Now let’s look at the other model.

Value System #2. Let’s call this the “Liberated Parents, Contented Kids” model, (LC). This is the value system that Mystery Money Man readers ascribe to. It’s a MUCH less popular way of thinking, but that’s ok, because we’re not about being popular. This is the value system that understands that the pursuit of material things not only won’t make your kids more happy, it may make you, and by extension them, much more miserable. It has the danger of preventing your children from identifying what carries real value in life, and shifts their focus to the temporary satisfaction of materialism.

Let me summarize it this way. You’re odds are much better of travel hacking a $650 summer vacation for five people by ascribing to value system number two 😉


The main purpose of our trip was to visit family in Ontario, Canada, spending most of our time in the Toronto and Ottawa areas. To get there, we drove approximately 1400 miles to Toronto, staying in Madison, Wisconsin and Kalamazoo, Michigan along the way.

We spent four days visiting our family in Toronto, and then drove up to the nation’s capital, Ottawa, where we visited more family for another eight days. We then made the long trek home. On the way back, we spent a night in Ironwood, Michigan. Our total distance travelled over 16 days was in excess of 3500 miles.

It was one of the most enjoyable summer vacations we’ve had.

We made some stops along the way. In Madison, WI, we ate takeout sushi by the waterfront and watched the sun go down. We spent an afternoon in downtown Chicago, hanging out in Millennium Park while listening to an orchestra rehearse nearby. Afterwards, we went for deep dish pizza, and the kids shopped for souvenirs.


While in Toronto, we took in a Blue Jays baseball game and enjoyed a great time with our family. Our kids had a blast with their cousins, and the weather was beautiful.

Leaving Toronto, we headed to Ottawa and had a quiet week with our family. The kids were able to be in the pool almost daily. My wife and I enjoyed a beautiful evening in the ByWard Market downtown, going for dinner and walking along the Rideau Canal.

We drove in relative style, in a fully loaded SUV, and stayed in very nice hotels with swimming pools. We lucked out on the rental vehicle which was a nice bonus. That wasn’t planned. : )

Breaking down the costs:

First of all, travelling in two countries, we spent money in both Canadian and US currencies. To simplify things, I’ve expressed all of the expenses below in US dollars, including all money spent in while in Ontario.  In the summary, I’ll convert the total amount to Canadian to provide insight into both amounts.


Ahead of the game, right out of the gate.

Being away from home for over 2 weeks, there’s a significant amount of our regular budget that wasn’t used. In our case, that’s approximately $300 of groceries we wouldn’t be around to purchase.  Also, we started out saving $112 of fuel from our regular daily commutes.

I’ll even add in $15 to account for the savings on our water bill, as our house was vacant while we were away.

That’s $427 I was able to deduct from our gross vacation expense, as it’s money we saved by being away. I’ll include that in the numbers below.


I need to mention this.

Shortly before leaving on our trip, we received a fully paid for, rental SUV!  We had planned to make the drive in our 2005 Toyota Sienna, as we have in past years. It just so happened that in the weeks leading up to our vacation, our Hyundai Elantra had to go into the garage for warranty work.

The parts for the Hyundai were on back order, and the garage didn’t expect them to arrive for a number of weeks. Because of the delay, they covered the cost of a rental vehicle.  We were able to rent a 2016 Ford Escape from Enterprise and take it with us on our vacation, free of charge.

This ensured a small amount of money in fuel savings, as the Escape has slightly favourable fuel mileage to the larger Sienna, but the real blessing was not having to put thousands of miles on our older van!




In summary…

I wrote this post to illustrate how you can have an amazing family vacation without spending thousands of dollars. While this was probably the least expensive trip of this length that our family has made, (we do this almost every year), we usually keep our budget within about $1500.  In the case this year, it still felt as though we splurging on certain things, like food and coffee.  We certainly could have spent even less.

Also, while I picked pretty hard on big spending parents (BS), the underlying message is for ALL families to take a long, hard look at how much their spending behaviours are influenced by our consumer society.


  1. This is great! I love the point you make on the Value Systems – we also subscribe to Value System #2. As teens, our kids have balked at this value system a few times, particularly when it comes to food (if they want soda, they buy it). But, I can see the results already. Neither teen is too into the consumer-driven culture (at least so far).

    Thanks for the details of your trip! What a great value. And it sounds like a great time was had by all.

    • Thanks Amanda! Our kids are similar, in that they place value in experiences over things, family time etc. We do try to keep a balanced approach. For example, our 15 year old son likes to have a nice running shoes, so understanding that’s important to him, I don’t mind paying an extra $30. In return, he’s always been very conscious about spending on needs rather than wants. And he just got his first part time job, so it gives him more freedom to make choices for himself.

  2. My wife and I are hoping to do something similar with our kids next year. How did you habdle packing all of the clothes up? That’s always the hardest part for us, brining too much crap. We are considering picking up a cheap conversion van.

    • Hey Matt! We usually take our 2005 Sienna for our road trips, and so there’s lots of room. That was the plan this year, and it changed at the last minute. We weren’t going to turn down a free rental car (Ford Escape)! So, we really had to pack light. It was important that we bring our plug in cooler as we save so much money bringing our own food, so we decided to leave some sports equipment behind, and the girls couldn’t take as many pairs of shoes! : ) Also, one nice thing about the kids having iPods is that they don’t take up space. I think we also had to leave some books behind.


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