Canada Trip Part 6: Trip Wrap Up

montreal-cathedral

If you’re following along on our summer trip to Canada, check out the first five posts in the series:

Quebec City was as far as we made it on our trip.  We decided to call it quits, pack up, and go home after we found out our apartment for the week in Quebec City was really, really, really dirty.  That’s not to say we didn’t enjoy our limited time in Quebec City.  It’s a cool place with lots to see.  We, as a family, were travel weary.

We were worn out.  We set out on what was supposed to be a five week trip with dual goals of sightseeing and relaxation.  We visited all kinds of places and saw most of the things on our wish list.  But that took a toll on our efforts to relax.

Spending at least a week in one place is a great way to relax.  But moving to a new apartment is a big chore when you have two adults packing up stuff for two adults and three kids.  Then when you arrive at a new apartment that requires hours of cleaning, it breaks your spirit of adventure.  We missed out on visiting Ottawa and Toronto, but maybe that will be a different trip in the future.

Was the entire trip worth it?  YES!  Was it fun?  YES!  Was it exhausting at times?  YES!  Do we regret going on the trip?  NO!  Were we glad to be back home?  YES!

 

 

Our Trip Budget

While planning what was supposed to be a five week road trip to Canada, we budgeted $4,266 for the whole trip.  We ended up cutting the trip in half from 34 days to 17 days.  We came in well under budget at $1,316 for the 17 day trip.  We budgeted $125 per day initially, and ended up spending only $77 per day.

Our early retirement budget has $5,300 set aside for vacations each year.  If we can manage future vacations at $77 per day, that means we can afford about ten weeks of vacationing each year!  And we visited somewhat high cost of living areas in the northeastern US and Canada.  We also want to visit lower cost areas in Central America, Mexico, and Asia, so the main constraint on travel for us will be the kids’ ten weeks of summer vacation and not necessarily cost.

CategoryNotesProjected costActual cost
Restaurant Meals$19/day - lots of take out; a few restaurant meals1200323
Groceries$12/day - we cooked a lot at home600212
Gas 2,300 miles @ $0.135/mile600311
Parking~$10/day when we paid for parking35086
Tollsgood guess to start with!10092
Transitwe rarely took transit25036
Four Points by Sheraton (Philly)4 nights, 16,000 SPG points00
NYC Hotel2 nts, incl. $50 off coupon @ Expedia192192
AirBnB Apartment - Montreal8 nights471471
AirBnB Apartment - Quebec City2 nights (cancelled last 6 nights and received full refund for entire stay)4460
AirBnB Apartment - Ottawa$38 cancellation fee withheld from refund35738
Barclay Arrival Plus bonus$500 travel bonus for signing up-500-500
TOTAL LODGING966201
Entertainment/Admission Feesso much awesome stuff was free20049
Souvenirsno thanks; our house is full already00
MiscellaneousLaundry06
TOTAL TRIP BUDGET17 days at $77/day (vs. planned 34 days at $125/day)$4,266$1,316

The main areas where we came in significantly under budget were restaurant meals, gas, parking, and transit.  We cooked at our apartment more often than expected.  We found cheap or free parking in most places.  And we rarely took transit since we had the car with us on this trip.  Gas and parking is often cheaper than transit if you have five people traveling together.

I used Personal Capital (review here) to keep track of all our expenses while we were traveling.  Instead of worrying about keeping all the receipts from each day’s expenditures, I let everything flow automatically into Personal Capital where I can review and query the data when it’s more convenient.  Since we tracked expenses in great detail on this trip, we can budget better for future trips.

What we learned on the trip

This was our first big road trip as a family.  I think the mix of hotels and apartments was good.  Hotels are easy for a couple of nights (not much to unpack) and apartment rentals are better for stays of a week or more since you do have to spend more time getting settled in and unpacking.

On our next trip, we will focus on “slow travel” more by planning apartment stays of 10 to 14 days and plan on visiting fewer cities.  That way we can schedule in more “do nothing” days where we don’t do any sightseeing and we have plenty of time to relax, wander around the neighborhood where we are staying, and sit by the pool all day (if that’s what we want to do).  Montreal seems like a good place to spend a few weeks during the summer given their mild weather at that time of year.

AirBnB is still a good tool to find apartments that fit your needs, in spite of the one negative experience we had.  We will definitely see what apartments or houses are available wherever we go next.  Since we were traveling with our family, the extra space in an apartment made life a lot more enjoyable because we could spread out in different areas of the abode.  In a hotel we felt like we were bumping into each other all the time.

We saved a ton of money by shopping at the grocery store and cooking our own meals.  We were able to shop at local grocery stores and farmer’s markets and make some wonderful meals for a fraction of the cost of restaurant meals.

The only thing we missed was a dishwasher, since it sometimes took 30 minutes to wash all the dishes for the day versus 5-10 minutes loading the dishwasher at home.  I might add “dishwasher” to the search criteria for future apartment rentals if we plan on cooking at home.

We went for the cheaper apartments on this trip, and found a great apartment that way.  We also found a bad apartment.  We might aim for a slightly more expensive apartment than the absolute cheapest we can find that fits our minimum criteria.  Paying $600 instead of $450, for example, for a weekly rental would only cost an extra $20 per day but might mean a much nicer place, more room, more amenities, or better location.

Driving to Canada from North Carolina was a good choice overall.  Don’t get me wrong – it’s a loooong drive.  But having the convenience of a car was nice.  We didn’t need to wait for taxis and didn’t have to rely exclusively on public transit.  We also managed to make a few stops in Washington DC, Philadelphia, and New York City along the way that wouldn’t have been possible if we flew directly to Montreal.

Driving also saved us a significant amount of money compared to flying.  We spent less on gas and even including the $600 we spent on a new set of tires, we still came out ahead versus flying which would have been $1,500+ for the five of us.  Each day we were out sightseeing, we only spent a few dollars on gas and occasionally $10-15 on parking instead of $20-40 on transit and taxis.  The car also allowed us to run quick errands effortlessly.

We were traveling with our kids (age 2, 7, and 9), so driving made life easier, too.  After a long day of sightseeing, we jumped in the car (sometimes after I spent 15-20 minutes walking back to the car) and drove back home relatively quickly.  Sometimes we decided to tour around by car and not even get out.  Though not ideal, that’s a better choice than having a two year old screaming all morning if he decides he doesn’t like sightseeing.

As far as traveling with kids goes, I’d suggest building in plenty of down time.  I don’t mean visiting lots of kids museums, theme parks, water parks, and ice cream shops.  I mean unscheduled play time.  Visit the local swimming pool or library.  Spend the day at a local park and enjoy a picnic.  Find a quiet place to walk in the woods.  Let them watch local television for a few hours.

Travel Hacking

On this trip, we saved a ton of money by using some basic travel hacking strategies.

For stays in hotels, I used my Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) points when I found a good redemption option.  We stayed twice in Philadelphia (a total of four nights) on the way to and from Canada in a nice Four Points by Sheraton hotel for 4,000 points per night (16,000 points total).  This hotel is a Category 2 redemption, which tend to be great values.  We saved at least $500-600 compared to paying cash for the same hotel.

We got most of our SPG hotel points by signing up for the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card.  That card offers 25,000 to 30,000 bonus points when you sign up for a new card (with no annual fee the first year).  I signed up for one and Mrs. Root of Good signed up for one, so we each received 30,000 points (which can be combined into one account).  They also have Starwood Preferred Guest business cards where you can get another 25,000 to 30,000 points if you have any kind of business.  Check out my Credit Cards page for more info on the SPG cards and other good cards with sign up bonuses.

60,000 points translates to at least 15 free nights in a hotel, and probably closer to 20 nights if we stay on weekends or in Category 1 hotels that offer cheaper redemption options.

For the AirBnB reservations, we received $25 off the first reservation by using someone’s referral link.  You can use my referral link to save yourself $25 off any AirBnB reservation while saving hundreds more compared to staying in a hotel.

We signed up for a Barclay’s Arrival Plus Card that offers over $400 worth of free travel credits you can redeem on any travel purchase.  We simply paid for our AirBnB apartments, then requested statement credits totaling $500 (the $400 bonus plus 10% bonus points after each redemption plus $60 more credit for meeting the $3,000 spending requirement for the bonus).  $500 in travel credits meant our eight night apartment rental in Montreal was completely free!

We cut the trip costs in half by signing up for a couple of credit cards and using a couple of discounts.  Or looked at another way, half price trips mean we can travel twice as much each year!

 

 

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14 comments

  • Would have never thought about selecting an AirBnB with a dishwasher, but it makes total sense! Who wants to wash dishes in vacation?

    How’d the car do? I forget what you drive, but you must know it a lot better after such a serious road trip! Was it enough space for 5 people?

    • I didn’t even think about the dishwashing situation when we were researching places. We rent houses at the beach pretty often and they have always come with a dishwasher. It’s something we take for granted. We forget that older apartments may not have the same features as newer houses.

      We drove the 14 year old Honda Accord to Canada. It was spacious enough in the passenger compartment for us and the 3 kids. The trunk was a little tight with all our stuff but we made do. Driving a smallish car instead of a minivan or SUV was awesome in the cities. Easy to drive and find parking.

      We just returned from a 1600 mile round trip drive to Miami (from Raleigh) where we took a cruise. We left the 2 year old at home and took my 14 year old Honda Civic. It was plenty spacious for the four of us, and we had plenty of room in the trunk for our luggage.

  • “We also want to visit lower cost areas in Central America, Mexico, and Asia, so the main constraint on travel for us will be the kids’ ten weeks of summer vacation and not necessarily cost.” The costs will add up really quick if you are flying to these places and paying for 5 tickets. You did talk about driving vs. flying in this post, but $77 per day might be not realistic when you start planning international flights. You can always find a cheap place to stay with a kitchen where you cook most of your meals, but there is not much you can do about those plane ticket prices. And of course once you get there you’d spend more money on transportation since 5 people in a car will usually be more cost effective than 5 separate bus/train/taxi fares. I miss overseas travel and now that our son is 2 I started looking into it but plane ticket costs even for 3 are up there.

    • International flights aren’t always cheap – that’s for sure! However, we have many hundreds of thousands of frequent flyer points from past travel hacking, and I plan on collecting even more miles and points going forward. That means we can take a few international trips for free or very cheap ($20-100 in taxes/fees per ticket is a good guess).

      And we can always shop for flights and plan our trip around what’s on sale in a particular year. Most of Central America, all of Asia, and all of Europe are currently unexplored by us, so if we see cheap flights to an interesting destination, we can always start our trip in that destination. Right now, for example, I’m seeing flights to Cancun for $400 from Raleigh. $400 times five people will still put a big dent into our travel budget though!

      We also won’t necessarily take an international vacation by air every year. So we might spend $8000 on travel one year then $2000 the next year.

      Another component to the travel budget in low cost areas is the savings we’ll have by not spending money in the US. If we are gone for 2 months, for example, we won’t spend anything at home on groceries ($500-600/mo), gas, water, and some electricity (along with other more minor spending reductions). I figure we will save $1000/month by not being at home. So that turns our $5,300/yr travel budget into $7,300 per year if we spend 2 months traveling.

      We haven’t decided to pursue renting out our house, but there’s always the possibility that we could rent our house out while we are away on extended trips. That could net us another couple thousand dollars toward the travel budget (albeit with additional risk that our house is destroyed while we’re away).

      While we still have to focus on costs when planning travel, I still think the limiting factor right now is our energy to undertake long trips with kids and working travel around their school schedule.

  • Your slow trip through Canada sounds fun. I’ve enjoyed my work trips there, but always wanted to take the train across the entire country in the summer. I’ve heard it’s beautiful. Quebec City is on my travel bucket list. Hoping to get up there via Boston sometime in the future!

  • Did you leave a negative comment on the apartment’s listing on Airbnb? I’d like to know that Airbnb comments include the bad and ugly as well as the good.

    • I unfortunately could not leave a review for the Quebec City apartment. I cancelled my reservation very early in the stay, so it was as if I had never stayed at the place. I did file a complaint with Airbnb and provided pictures, so there’s a black mark against the landlord somewhere in their system. He actually removed the listing for the whole apartment after I reserved it, and the listing he still has up (bedroom and bathroom only) isn’t that bad for what you’re paying.

  • Doesn’t sound like a fun vacation at all. Cooking meals at home and washing dishes and cleaning apartments. You seem to be too focused on keeping everything super cheap. I’m all for frugality but give yourself and your wife a break.

    • The cooking at home was part of the plan (along with dining out occasionally) and we enjoyed shopping for groceries at the grocery store and local markets. With kids, it’s sometimes easier to get take out or cook at home than mobilize to a restaurant.

      The dishwashing was something we didn’t really think about ahead of time, but not too bad since our kids helped out some (and learned how to wash dishes the “old fashioned” way).

      In hindsight, I’m glad we decided to rent apartments instead of stay in hotels. Having the extra space was nice since we were planning on staying in one place for a while. We got very unlucky with the apartment in Quebec City since it was so dirty and tried to make the most of it by cleaning it up.

      I hope I didn’t seem overly negative in this article or my other trip summaries. We had a good time overall and managed to see a lot of places in the northeast and in Canada that we’ve never visited before.

      We did decide to cap off our summer with a last minute week-long cruise to Mexico, Honduras, and Belize. It was more expensive than the trip to Canada (closer to $150/day instead of $77/day). But very relaxing. Mostly because we left the 2 year old with Grandma – just the “break” we needed! 🙂 It was still a frugal trip, but much more luxurious than our Canada trip.

      We’ll probably mix up the budget travel and “luxury” travel in the future. We did that on the Canada trip to a certain extent by staying in some nicer hotels and then lower price hotels and apartments. I think building in some nicer stays along with cheaper stays is a good way to keep costs down while still enjoying nicer amenities occasionally.

  • Now that your kids are road trip pros, do you have any tips for keeping them occupied? Do you take any special things for them to do?

    • One kid gets car sick very easily. So we skip the standard video players, tablets, computers, etc and load up on Dramamine. This means they tend to sleep a lot.

      Otherwise, we always make an “hour chart” where we have intermediate cities or destinations listed roughly every hour. The kids check off the destinations with a sticker applied to the chart as we cross through the city or state border. For example, from Raleigh NC, we cross through Fayetteville NC at 1 hour, the NC / SC state line at 2 hours, Sumter, SC at 3 hours, Walterboro SC at 4 hours, Savannah/GA State line at 5 hours, etc. This way, we keep them engaged in the progress of the trip by making each hour a little sticker celebration. And when they ask “are we there yet?” we can tell them to check the chart. And answer “we’re only 15 minutes from the next checkpoint!”. Sounds better than “we’re still 7 hours away from Miami”.

      Planning plenty of time to stop and use the bathroom, stretch, and grab a meal is important too. Don’t plan on hurrying, so that getting stuck in traffic or stopping every hour for bathroom breaks is a huge interruption to your plans. Our kids look forward to McDonald’s because they have Play Place jungle gyms where they can go crazy and burn off some energy before hopping back into the car.

      On this last trip we just returned from, we played “spot the NC license plates” while driving through Florida and Georgia until I realized it was just me playing! Then we played 20 Questions for an hour or so (the 9 year old gets it, 8 year old doesn’t quite get it yet).

  • Hey…nothing wrong with washing dishes the “old-fashioned” way, especially when you have kids to help out =) I guess paper plates and cups could have worked too. I’ve actually never used a dishwasher in my life…never had one growing up and in my small one bedroom apartment, we use the dishwasher as storage. Not many dishes for a couple with a 14 month old anyway. Sorry to hear that you had to cut the trip early. I think we may take a trip up to Canada in the spring…I’ll have to refer back to your posts.

    • Yeah, the dishes weren’t that bad. Just a little more work than we were used to. I suppose paper plates and cups would have saved us some time.

      I love my dishwasher at home and we use it almost daily. Huge time saver with the five of us!

      I definitely enjoyed the trip overall, and highly recommend it in the summer time given the wonderful weather.

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