The Root of Good family made it back from our 3.5 week road trip a couple weeks ago. Here’s an after action battle report on our trip including highlights from all the places we visited plus a complete cost breakdown of our trip budget. Skip to the end for some travel hacking tips to save big bucks on your next epic vacation!
We traveled for 24 days with stays in the following cities:
- Between Charlotte and Asheville, NC – staying with family 3 nights
- Nashville – 1 night
- Bowling Green, KY (Mammoth Cave) – 3 nights
- Detroit, MI – 2 nights
- Toronto, Canada – 12 nights
- Niagara Falls (Canadian side) – 2 nights
- Washington D.C. – 1 night
- Back home in Raleigh!
When I describe this summer’s big crazy road trip to people, their first reaction is to drop their jaw, drool, and say “wow, sounds like an awesome trip!”. Their second reaction is to scrunch their eyebrows, and ask in a puzzling way “wait, Nashville and Toronto – those… aren’t anywhere near each other are they?”.
They aren’t. But we’re not complete geography noobs either. We wanted to visit Nashville and Niagara Falls (near Toronto), and decided to embrace the triangular path between those two locations, with Raleigh forming the third vertex of the triangle. And visit some cool places along the way (some of which you, dear gracious readers, suggested!).
For more detail on our trip planning, check out “The Great American Canadian Road Trip – Summer 2016 Edition“.
We only spent one night in Nashville, so we had to play the role of stereotypical tourist and see what we could during our limited time in town.
Bowling Green, Kentucky and Mammoth Cave
We only spent one night in Nashville so that we could spend two full days exploring Mammoth Cave. We stayed in the city of Bowling Green about 30 minutes from the Cave entrance.
Dayton, Ohio (Air Force Museum)
Thanks to all the commenters and Root of Good friends that suggested the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. It was a perfect break from our seven hour drive from Bowling Green, Kentucky to Detroit, Michigan.
Exactly zero people got excited when I mentioned that we were spending two nights in Detroit. It’s not exactly the kind of place you visit while on vacation apparently. My perception of the big D included active gang warfare, rounds flying overhead, and houses going up in smoke as the innocents suffered collateral damage to life and property.
We needed a place to stay half way between Toronto and Bowling Green, Kentucky, and Detroit was almost in the middle. And they have one of the only four Category 1 Starwood Preferred Guest hotels in the nation (the Four Points By Sheraton Detroit Airport was beautiful, by the way). So it was settled. We would pause for two nights, rest, relax, and possibly test out the thickness of the sheet metal on the minivan as we drive through the inevitable war zones.
Sadly, there was very little going on in Detroit. It was very quiet. No people. Almost eerie. Mid-day on a Saturday and there were basically zero people in downtown. Traffic was light.
We rolled around town to check out the blighted areas and they didn’t disappoint. Through the window, block after block rolled by. We saw more cleared or reforested lots than abandoned houses. Most blocks had no more than one or two inhabited houses. We didn’t see any crime probably because there were no people. Zero corner boys slinging their trade. No one running from the non-existent cops. No gunfire. Just a very peaceful drive around a mostly deserted part of town.
Upsides included the Renaissance Center on the waterfront and the burgeoning Mexicantown (which was booming!).
Toronto, Ontario Province, Canada
We spent 12 nights in Toronto in an Airbnb rental in the Roncevalles neighborhood a few miles west of downtown. Since we had our van, we skipped the streetcars and subway in Toronto and chose to drive or walk everywhere. Downtown was about 15-20 minutes away by car.
After leaving Toronto, we headed south to spend two nights on the Canadian side of the falls. On the way down we stopped at Welland Locks to watch a ship transit the canal up river.
Once we arrived in Niagara Falls, we planned to do the Maid of the Mist (also called Hornblower Cruises on the Canadian side) but learned that the wait to board the boat can be two hours. Poor planning on our part because we visited during the busiest time of year on the busy weekend. Instead, we explored the falls on foot and by bus from the US and Canadian sides.
Washington, D.C. (Smithsonian Air and Space Museum – Udvar-Hazy annex)
Washington, D.C. served as our last waypoint on the trip. We spent the night at an Aloft hotel near the Dulles airport (free with SPG points, of course) then woke up, played some pool, and departed for our last bit of tourism of the vacation. The Udvar-Hazy Annex of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
It’s got a bunch of cool planes, missiles, rockets, and spacecraft of various types. But the most awesome vessel in the hangar is the Space Shuttle Discovery. This bad boy flew to outer space 39 times over the past several decades. And we got close enough to almost touch it.
For anyone thinking of replicating our trip, the Air Force Museum and the Air and Space Museum had a lot of overlap (once you’ve seen several hundred planes from the various eras of flight, several hundred more planes don’t add a lot of marginal utility). Air and Space is still an awesome museum because of the Space Shuttle. The Air Force Museum stood out for having a few historic Air Force Ones that used to fly former presidents (and you can walk through the Air Force Ones). Both museums are free except for a $15 parking fee at the Air and Space Museum.
After 2,432.3 miles and 25 days on the road we made it home in one piece. Another great vacation on the books!
We budgeted $2,100 for the whole trip. We’re good at optimizing expenses on the fly and miraculously managed to spend only $954 for our 3.5 week road trip. Of course we’re travel hackers, so that total doesn’t include several thousand dollars worth of free lodging expenses (including 4 room nights at a USD$300-400/nt hotel in Niagara Falls). First I’ll show the travel budget with actual expenditures, then I’ll reveal some travel hacking tips so you can replicate some of my success. All amounts in US dollars with the US to Canadian dollar exchange rate hovering around USD$1 to CDN$1.30.
Lodging – $157 (budget: $476)
- 12 nights Toronto Airbnb rental – $43 (after $345 airbnb referral discounts, $85 cancellation/rebooking credit and $500 Barclay Arrival Card travel rebate/bonus, plus a $56 damage charge for our kiddo breaking a fancy pants light fixture)
- 3 nights Bowling Green, KY Airbnb rental – $47 (after $250 Airbnb gift card from Amex credit card reward bonus)
- 1 night hotel in Nashville from Hotwire – $66
- 2 nights x 2 rooms – Four Points by Sheraton Detroit Metro Airport – $0 (8,000 SPG points from Starwood Amex)
- 2 nights x 2 rooms – Four Points by Sheraton Niagara Falls Fallsview – $0 (12,000 SPG points from Starwood Amex)
- 1 night x 1 room – Aloft Dulles Airport North – $0 (4,000 SPG points from Starwood Amex)
We initially booked a two bedroom Airbnb apartment on the east side of Toronto. The landlord cancelled a month before our trip so we had to re-book a different property. Airbnb offers a rebooking credit of 10% of the amount you initially paid to help you find a replacement property. The new rental was a big win because it was cheaper and nicer.
Now for the bad news. Our four year old pretended one of the light fixtures was a steering wheel. He drove it hard. It broke. We agreed to the landlord’s request for $56 in damages to replace the light fixture. Otherwise the 12 nights in Toronto would have netted out to negative $13!
In other lodging snafus, let’s talk about the $66 Nashville hotel we purchased through Hotwire. The room itself was okay, but the hotel had serious issues with management. We showed up around five or six in the afternoon expecting our hotel room to be ready (check in time was three pm). It was not ready. We grabbed dinner nearby then checked in with the hotel. Still not ready. We gave up checking in at that point and decided to spend the rest of the evening touring around downtown Nashville. Fortunately when we returned to the hotel around nine pm our room was ready. The hotel had many cautionary reviews, but these weren’t visible until after we booked the room through Hotwire and they revealed which mystery hotel we booked. Next time around I think we’ll either book a higher class of hotel through Hotwire or book directly with a hotel and not roll the dice. Though at $66 for a room with clean sheets, clean bathroom and free breakfast in the morning, it wasn’t a horrible deal in spite of the six hour delay checking in. I might be able to get a partial or full refund if I fought and fought and fought, but it’s simply not worth $66 to me.
Transportation $264 (budget – $500)
- 2,432 miles – $148 (most gas was below $2/gal)
- Tolls – $6.50 ($5 bridge crossing in Detroit; $1.50 bridge to US in Niagara Falls)
- Parking and Transit – $110 ($18 for 24 bus pass in Niagara Falls; $92 for parking)
I used the Gasbuddy app to find the cheapest gas stations along the way. Most were under $2 per gallon. We filled up just before entering Canada because the average gas price north of the border is around USD$3/gal, so we only had to purchase a few gallons in Canada at those prices.
We somehow managed to avoid toll roads everywhere other than the one international bridge crossing from Detroit to Windsor, Canada (USD$5). We also walked to the American side of Niagara Falls for the day and spent USD$1.50 for the privilege of making a pedestrian crossing on the international Rainbow Bridge.
We budgeted $200 for parking and/or transit and spent almost half that. I used the Best Parking website to find the best deals for parking and frequently paid USD$3-5 for all day parking in downtown areas that might have been $20+ otherwise. Except one day when there was a Drake concert and the “event rates” kicked in. You win some, you lose some. For us, driving proved cheaper than transit so we went with the less expensive option.
Food $435 (budget – $720)
- Restaurants – dining out about once per day – $435 or ~$20 per meal
- Groceries – slightly less than what we usually spend at home ($125-150/wk) – $0 extra (but $208 total, mostly in Toronto)
It seems like we ate out constantly, but looking at the numbers, we only ate out once per day on average. At $19 or $20 per meal, this roughly matches our average from our Canada trip two years ago. Some of the meals were very inexpensive at $10-15 (think fast food dollar menu or BOGO falafel wraps), other meals were closer to the $20 average (inexpensive take out from a “real” restaurant), while several meals were $35-45 at regular sit down restaurants. We usually drink water with our meal and skip alcohol at restaurants. That plus the weak Canadian dollar meant some really good eats for under USD$50 for our family of five.
Entertainment/Admission Fees $98 (budget – $400)
- 2 days of Mammoth Cave tours – $96
- Touristy stuff at Niagara Falls – $0
- Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto – $2
The two days of Mammoth Cave tours was the only big museum or park admission cost during this trip. So many other museums are free all the time (Air Force Museum; Air and Space Museum) or certain days of the week (like the outstanding Art Gallery of Ontario).
We also visited the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto – a “name your own price” museum where I dropped two American $1 bills into the donation slot. It was worth every penny (they had Shaq’s boot available to touch and smell!) but not a lot more. Regular admission was crazy expensive so it’s unlikely I would have visited without the name your own price option. The museum wasn’t crowded even on the day you can get in for free, so I imagine the regular admission days are really desolate.
Souvenirs $0 (budget – $0)
- 5,024 pictures and tons of memories – $0
I don’t like souvenirs. Toronto’s City Hall handed out free TORONTO pins, so technically we received a few souvenirs but paid nothing for them.
Budget Wrap Up
- Lodging – $157
- Transportation – $264
- Food – $435
- Entertainment – $98
- TOTAL: $954
At $954 for 3.5 weeks of life on the road for a family of five, I’d say we did okay. Our goal wasn’t to travel this cheaply. It just happened. We also had several hundred dollars of Airbnb referral credit that brought costs down which might be hard to replicate if you don’t have a blog.
We saved about $200 on utilities while we were out of town primarily by setting the thermostat on 90 degrees and therefore using very little electricity. We also consumed zero water and almost zero natural gas for the hot water heater. Does that make our net vacation cost $754?
Travel hacking tips
When we plan a trip we try to leverage our existing stash of airline miles and hotel points for free flights and hotel rooms. For stays over two nights, it’s often cost effective to stay at a short term rental located through a service like Airbnb or VRBO.
Large credit card sign up bonuses are our main source for miles and points. Some cards entice new cardmembers by offering $400-500 reimbursement for any kind of travel expense (like the Barclay Arrival Card and the Capital One Venture card). Other cards provide 30,000 to 50,000 hotel points or airline miles. A third variety of cards, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Sapphire Reserve cards, offer points that can be transferred to a variety of hotel or airline programs or redeemed at the Chase site for 25-50% extra value (compared to redeeming for cash).
We slashed the lodging expense significantly by careful use of our credit card points. We redeemed the $500 sign up bonus from our Barclay Arrival card on the Toronto Airbnb rental.
I picked up a $250 Airbnb gift certificate by redeeming 25,000 of the 150,000 American Express Membership Rewards points we earned when we signed up for a pair of Amex Business Gold Rewards cards in December last year. That slashed the total price for three nights in an Airbnb rental in Bowling Green, Kentucky from $297 to $47.
We booked nine nights at Starwood Hotels (including Four Points by Sheraton and Aloft hotels) using 24,000 Starwood Preferred Guest points from a single Starwood Amex sign up bonus offer. The most amazing redemption of the bunch was a $400 per night (in Canadian dollars) room in Niagara Falls for 3,000 points per night (and one of our rooms was upgraded to the Falls View executive room priced over $500 per night).
Overall, we slashed what would have been $3,000 in lodging expenses to under $200 using credit card reward points and hotel points. Not a bad deal at all.
Travel hacking is how we traveled through Mexico for seven and a half weeks in 2015 for $4,500. If you like free travel as much as we do and want to get some of these same cards, check out these credit card offers.
Airbnb is an incredible way to save money while on vacation, particularly if you’re traveling with a family. We booked decent two bedroom apartments and houses for much less than the cost of a crappy hotel room suite. The biggest benefit beyond having tons of space is that we get a full kitchen so we don’t have to dine out for a month straight. If you haven’t tried Airbnb before, check them out for your next vacation and save $35 off your first stay.
Cooking at our house or apartment helps bring the food cost down. This doesn’t mean you can’t try new restaurants and cuisines while you’re vacationing, but simple things like cereal, yogurt, fruit, and eggs for breakfast are much cheaper when prepared at “home” rather than purchased at a restaurant. For lunch and dinner, we made a variety of wraps, sandwiches, and salads (on the easy end) while frequently delving into more complex culinary pursuits by cooking ribs, sausages, tortellini, spaghetti, and tacos during our two week stay in Toronto.
A few technological innovations helped us immensely. The GasBuddy website/app shows the cheapest gas stations along your route. The Best Parking website/app shows the cheapest parking for your area and time of day. Google Maps is another great free resource and allows offline download of maps with navigation (we didn’t have data on our cell phone while “overseas” in Canada).
It’s worth mentioning the financial benefits of slow travel. When you aren’t trying to hit all the bullet pointed sites in your travel guide within the typical American week long vacation, you can take time to relax and enjoy the trip more. Schedule a “do nothing” day every two or three days of the vacation and spend the day strolling around the neighborhood, take the kids (or just you!) to the pool, catch up on your Netflix queue, or cook a big feast in your kitchen. When you’re paying a weekly or monthly rental rate instead of a nightly rate at a hotel, it doesn’t cost much to take the day off from the sightseeing trail.
I also find tracking expenses and seeing where your travel dollars went to be a useful exercise. I don’t really manage our spending against the budget while on vacation, but that could be useful if you are on a really tight budget or need to conserve cash for another upcoming trip. Personal Capital is a great (and free!) app and website tool to track your spending automatically. Then you can see where your travel dollars go without spending lots of time manually tracking expenses.
Where to next?
For 2016, we increased our travel budget to $10,000. However we most likely won’t spend it all this year. Year to date through August we have only spent $3,100 for travel. That total includes our Canada road trip, $810 for a recently booked cruise in late November, partial payment toward another cruise in December, and some miscellaneous travel related expenses throughout the year. We should spend another $1,000 to $2,000 for the remainder of the second cruise and other cruise expenses. We will likely end the year with half of our $10,000 travel budget unspent.
Not to worry, as we are already talking about spending the summer of 2017 in Europe, so there’s a good chance we will use most of the $10,000 travel budget next year, and the $5,000 not spent in 2016 might come in handy too.
What epic trips have you taken? Where do you want to travel next?
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Wow $2,100 for the entire trip, that’s awesome! All the food pics look so enticing and make me hungry as I’m writing this.. Hmm.. The niagara falls pictures look fantastic. I went once and I like to say that I’ve been on “international trips” because of the short time that I spent on Niagara falls going over the border.
Great travel hacking tips. I love credit cards because of the rewards they provide and am sitting on 5 currently and eyeing a couple more to apply to before the end of the year. I’m pretty sure I average a 3% cash back rate over my entire year of spending PLUS all the sign up bonuses they give. Unlimited upside if one can use it correctly!
Canada is “international” though I have to chuckle whenever I refer to it as such.
Good job on the credit cards. I’ve only done maybe 5-6 for the two of us this year so far.
Great trip, and your hacking skills are top notch!
We just got back from a Canada road trip to Nova Scotia. The dollar conversion really helped on the Airbnb prices, but beer was pricier than expected. Next time, I’m bringing my beer in.
I’m definitely going to use your Airbnb travel hacking tips – we stay in them almost exclusively on our road trips.
Yeah, I love the airbnb places too. So far we’ve only had 1 bad place and all the others have been good to great.
I’m with you on the beer. We always pack wine with us because it’s 3-4x the price north of the border.
I guess I was lucky when I went to Niagra Falls, I was working at the Ginna nuclear plant, maybe an hour away. On our day off we drove to the Falls, I think we waited MAYBE 10 minutes to get on the boat for the tour. it was pretty fun because you get drenched from the falls, but overall it isn’t a game changer in viewing the falls. We were there in early May on a weekday. We did a fast trip to Universal Studios this summer. Next year we will take a week long trip centered around Bowling Green KY and hit a few fun spots on the way down and back up. We plan on hitting up Mammoth caves, Dinosaur World, The corvette tour, and Beech Bend Park. It will probably be a few more years until we work up to 3 – 4 week long vacations. I’ll have to check out the Air and Space Museum next time I’m in DC.
We decided to visit the Falls on the weekend which was crazy busy. The hotel where we stayed (Four Pts by Sheraton Fallsview) is cheaper on weekends when redeeming points (but double the price in cash terms) so we got a discount. Didn’t even consider the impact of crowds, since it’s an easy weekend getaway for Buffalo/Toronto folks and all of upstate NY I guess.
After seeing the long lines and talking to the hotel concierge, we took a poll and no one was adamantly wanting to go on the boat so we made the decision to skip it and spend more time taking in the falls (and I think pizza then a nap in the hotel room happened somewhere in that time slot too).
That Bowling Green trip sounds good. Nice place with a number of good destinations nearby. Let me know if you want the details on the airbnb I stayed at. Probably sleeps six (2 Q beds and a futon that might sleep 2 little ones). Maybe 7 since there’s a couch too. The host says max 4 but it might still work out. There was also another airbnb house that had 3 BRs and was priced similarly ($100-120/nt IIRC).
Justin- Amazing! So glad your family enjoyed your trip and didn’t have any inconvenient experiences with deer (I wrote to you about my sons’ Toronto trip and the deer collision on the way home)! I have a question about your credit card travel hacks. Is getting multiple credit cards hazardous to your credit rating? Do you open and then close them, or just leave multiple cards open. It looks like you would eventually hurt your credit because you would have too many open opportunities. Can you speak to this? Thank you.
Yes, very glad we didn’t hit any deer (though we did see a few!). I was thinking exactly that as we drove through the dark on I-85 south toward Raleigh from DC. Thick pine forests on both sides, just waiting for a deer to pop out and run across the road. The travel gods smiled down on us this time. Nothing bad other than bad service at the one hotel and the $56 broken lamp.
I can’t tell that there’s any adverse impact on credit. Our scored remain at 805-835 out of 850 FICO. We usually close cards that have big annual fees unless there’s some compelling reason to keep them. As far as I can tell, having tons of open but unused credit doesn’t hurt at all (other than making your average age of credit slightly newer). It’s when you have high utilization on one or more cards (using more than 50% or 75% of available credit, for example) that hurts. So the more cards the merrier? 🙂
Very impressive! We have just started experimenting with travel hacking but am happy to report we are taking a mostly free trip to Disney World using reward points. I love road trips though and yours sounded great. I especially liked the tour of abandoned Detroit. Love those old houses!
Great job on the Disney trip. That place isn’t cheap for sure, but making it nearly free with travel hacking is awesome.
Detroit was a neat place to visit. We didn’t hit the big Ford Museums that are in all the guidebooks (only had 1 day and kind of museum’ed out if you know what I mean) so spent the time doing urban exploration by car. As a retired civil engineer I marveled at what used to be there. Whole city blocks with 0-2 houses on them where you know 20-40 houses used to be. Who knows? Maybe it’ll all be redeveloped in the next several decades and turn into something thriving once again?
What a great family trip. I see you made a lot of memories, and captured them with the camera. Thank you for sharing. We cruised through Nashville last night, and are visiting family in Tennessee this week.
Looking forward to seeing some caves, waterfalls, and perhaps a trip to the big city. Nashville, not Detroit!
That sounds like a good trip too. Stay cool and enjoy!
Looks like an awesome adventure and I really appreciate how detailed you were about the spending. We are getting ready to head out traveling next year, so I am really looking at many of the details you provided. It is pretty amazing how you keep costs down. But there is an awful lot that is free out there to see! I grew up about 30 minutes from Niagara Falls – it is certainly a sight to see. And we saw the Air Force Museum when we ran the Air Force Marathon in Dayton a few years back. Can’t wait to see Nashville and Mammoth Caves though! That picture inside the hotel in the Grand Ole Opry is incredible… Love your souvenir budget too – we never buy things like that either.
As cheesy as it sounds, the Grand Ole Opry resort was probably the coolest thing we saw in Nashville (and it’s actually a ways out from the downtown area). Of course I love Vegas because of all the cool casinos (inside and out).
I took notes for your Toronto leg! The furthest into Canada I’ve been was Niagara Falls on a spring break trip with a family friend. You did it the right way! It snowed while I was there. In March. Brrrr. A favorite stop of mine in Niagara Falls was the Butterfly House. Who knew there were that many different species!?
I’ve got a lot of travel lined up. Next weekend will be spent in Maine visiting friends made on the Chautauqua, then FinCon in San Diego and then a two week trip to London/Europe the first two weeks of October! I’m going to see the Harry Potter play and figured while I was there I’d explore nearby countries too! My trip report will be a bit different since I will hopefully be leveraging a friend for lodging in London.
Crashing on the couch of a friend – the ultimate travel hack! 😉 Sounds like you’re doing way more traveling than us the remainder of the year. Have fun at Fincon and say high to all the other bloggers for me!
The caves look awesome!!! I’m putting them on my list for a visit.
Definitely check them out. Since I’ve already seen Niagara Falls before, the caves were probably my single favorite part of the trip (though space shuttle and air force ones were up there too).
Yuuuuuuum tacos al pastor (so hard to get the real ones outside of Mexico)! I cannot wait to be in a position to take such extended trips more often.
Our most recent epic trip was to Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore (business/first class with miles) for almost three weeks. OMG we ate sooo much (literally every 2 hours we made an attempt to just eat whatever we saw in front of us, even if we had no idea what it was (https://traveltravelandretire.com/2016/08/13/hong-kong-penang-malaysia-singapore/)! And we love street art, so much fantastic art both in Penang and Hong Kong, but it was especially easy as we walk a lot and we did not take the kids….
Before kids, we did New Zealand one month of self drive and Peru among other fun trips. Both I highly recommend (https://traveltravelandretire.com/2016/08/20/new-zealand-one-month-self-drive-tour-2005/ and https://traveltravelandretire.com/2016/08/20/peru-15-days14-nights/), but that was before we knew about miles and points so we want to recreate some of these soon with some travel hacking as the kids get older.
WITH kids, next on the list is a Ziva Hyatt all inclusive in Mexico, then Montreal/Quebec Canada as you know. After that I really want to figure out how to do Galapagos (making some good progress on a land based plan) and African Safari (perhaps starting in South Africa, seems easiest with kids in a couple of years) on the cheap/with hacking…if you get to it before me, please share!!
Thank you again for taking us traveling with you and your family.
I’m headed over to check out your Asia, Peru (it’s been on my list a while) and NZ adventures. 🙂
I’ll let you know if we ever figure out a cheap African safari (the kids would probably enjoy that more than me…) or Galapagos. I’ve always heard those are both rather expensive. Those probably won’t make appearances on our travel itinerary soon, but you never know!
Loved the foodie pics. Got me hungry especially with that Korean dish with BBQ ribs for $14.
We are headed to Quebec City for four nights between Christmas and New Year thanks to two Fairmont cards. Four free nights. Got an upgrade to a family suite for four also. Sweet! Taxes etc will be covered by the Barclaycard cash back. Also got $100 dining certificate for dinner which should be useful.
Then winter ski trip to Jackson Hole in February with four free flights with United miles from Boston for the family.
Our travel budget has been reduced by about $5000 already with hacking this year. Gotta love that.
That Korean BBQ was probably my favorite meal of the trip.
$5000 off from travel hacking. Very nice! 🙂
I loved hearing about your trip! I laughed out loud at the descriptions of the Detroit area expectations.
I had a question–I also have a family of five. How do you book award nights in hotels/airbnb for your family? It seems that everything is set up for a family of four. Do you just reserve your rooms for 2 adults 2 kids, or have you been able to get award nights for 2 adults 3 kids? Any advice on that?
Detroit was a-okay in my book. Not sure why it gets crapped on so much. It’s like Colombia I guess. Pretty bad a decade or two ago but the reputation lives on today in spite of reforms and changed political environment (and disarmament of the rebel forces lol).
The five person bookings are tricky. We go back and forth on whether we want 1 room or 2 (but our oldest are 10 and 11, so can stay by themselves). So on this trip we decided anything over 1 night we would book 2 rooms. Once we got adjoining rooms and once we had rooms across the hall and 1 room down. It’s more work to get a second room “set up” and cleaned out when you pack up, but nice to have space and peace and quiet (and 2 bathrooms!).
But if we’re booking a single room, we usually but 4 people on the reservation. I don’t think you can redeem for 5 people with SPG points because it’s hardcoded into the system at max 4 people. I called one hotel to check whether the fifth person was okay and they said it was no problem (Aloft Dulles Washington DC) – the guy didn’t even understand why it would be an issue (fire code? liability? profit motive to charge extra?). Maybe people put 5+ in room all the time? So YMMV I guess. We used to “sneak” in the little guy but I’m not sure if it’s necessary. I have never been asked what’s up with the fifth person so I don’t think they care. Not sure what the “official” policy is.
Do you need an international drivers license for Canada or will they accept an American license? What about extra auto insurance for out of the country travel?
I believe they accept US drivers licenses without question. Never had a police encounter so I don’t know. The Canadian border folks never ask about auto insurance or proof of ownership or anything, so I don’t think it is an issue (but keep your insurance card and vehicle registration in the car of course!). In 2014 I requested a “Proof of Insurance for Canada” card or something like that from my auto insurance company. It’s not required and I think all US insurance covers you in Canada, but I’d do your do diligence and read the policy and/or give your agent a call to verify. I didn’t request the Canada Proof of Insurance card this time (it’s free but I didn’t think about it). I figure they get enough US drivers that they work it out amicably somehow because they don’t want to start WW3 with their heavily armed neighbors to the south.
Looks like an awesome trip! We did a 6 week trip this summer with our 5 kids (plus dog). I love being able to make memories with the kids while we are still their favorite people in the world to hang out with!
So far our kids haven’t asked to stay home while we go on our adventures, but that day may come soon. 🙂
Outstanding trip, Justin! Over the years we have been at every venue you stated, between living in Upstate NY, CO, and now TN. You picked some absolutely great cities to visit as well; pretty partial to Nashville myself. Next time you go there try Jack’s for awesome barbeque at a reasonable price; right on Broadway with all the honky tonks. And if you get the urge to visit Canada again, we spent a lot of time in Montreal and Quebec when we lived in NY. Both a great cities to visit as well; more romantic for couples, but still great for families.
The kitchens in the rentals definitely help. Deb and I travel primarily with the Wyndham Vacation Ownership group because of the high points level we have purchased over the years, and we always have full kitchens. If we eat out it is once per day like yourselves, and because we can go on trips for months at a time, we bring a lot of food stuffs as well as shop at the local groceries. It really does save a ton of $. And the Wyndham trips are a form of travel hacking as well, since I have gotten pretty adept at finding all the places to get for half points during the offseason times that we like to hit the road, allowing us to travel even more.
Dang, that Vietnamese Vermincelli dish and the Korean BBQ look outstanding! Have to try them.
You know what, I think I saw Jack’s BBQ while we were walking around. They had a sign in the window for a $4 or $5 BBQ sandwich which seemed pretty reasonable given how touristy the area felt. I made a mental note to stop there if we were hungry and in the area (but we when we got back down there I was hauling a sleeping “baby” on my shoulder I think 🙂 ).
I love Montreal. We spent a week there in 2014 and I wouldn’t mind going back if for nothing more than the cool summertime weather and all the neighborhood parks.
That Korean BBQ and Vietnamese noodles were both good. The Korean BBQ place was very inexpensive too. CDN$6-8 for lunch specials, so about USD$4.50 to $6 for most of the menu during lunch time. Dinner wasn’t much more (got a noodle bowl covered in meat for USD$6 I think).
Mammoth Cave looks totally awesome! As a fellow engineer, Smithsonian Air and Space Museum was very cool for me to check out when I went years ago. Amazing that you only spent $954 for 3.5 weeks of vacation. That’s a successful travel hacking in my book!
The Smithsonian museums are awesome. I’d love to go back to DC and spend a week at the various museums.
Sounds like a great vacation. We go back and forth on just how frugal our trips should be and what negative or positive effect the frugality might have on the overall experience. On a macro level we “plan” the trip as a frugal event which saves us a lot of money up front, then at the micro level we tend to spend the money we saved on a few well placed extravagances. It seems to work for us. We don’t have the luxury of doing a slow travel vacation at this point, but considering my attention span that’s probably a good thing. In a couple years, I’m hoping to do the slow travel thru Europe (6 months to a year) and even make some extra money doing it.
That Europe trip sounds awesome! How are you planning on making extra money while on your trip?
Several of my friends have lived in Europe for extended periods and taught English at the local schools. Even though they were not certified teachers, there seems to be a big demand for English taught by Americans for some reason. The pay is relatively high and they are highly respected by the students and parents – i.e. diametrically opposite of teaching in American public schools.
I wonder if the American English is more popular than the British English that’s probably easier to learn in Europe (since UK is right next door to the Continent)?
lol, I never thought of that. My impression from talking to my friends is that Americans are viewed as more interesting or maybe exotic than other English speakers to (esp Eastern) Europeans who see a lot of the Brits who travel around Europe more than any other Europeans. I think there might also be a bit of resentfulness against the Queen’s English that is seen as colonial or imperialist amongst the poorer EU nations. I consider myself a fan of British culture and history – and like many Americans related by blood to British settlers…having said that I must say I found some Brits – esp the wealthier ones – to be haughty and aloof. I’m guessing that attitude problem might also explain why some Europeans prefer the more down to earth typical American dolt.
What a great trip! I love all the pictures. Even the Parthenon! Wait… isn’t that in ruins…:)
This Parthenon looked pretty much intact.
Your travel expenses are impressively low for a long trip with kids. Can you do a post on packing and logistics? Did you buy coffee/snacks/soda/ice-bags along the way?
You mentioned earlier that you got 2 FreedomPop SIM cards for international usage, did those work at all? FreedomPop has never worked for me in Canada. Weren’t you ever worried if your car broke down along the highway in Canada, you’d need a reliable service to search and call for help? Did you purchase any travel health insurance? Thanks?
We packed very light. Here’s the only post I have on packing (7.5 weeks in Mexico and we only packed bookbags). For the van, we carried about the same thing (4 changes of clothes) plus an extra laptop, food and snacks and a rice cooker.
We didn’t stop for ice, just refroze the ice packs we brought from home and kept in a medium size soft sided cooler. We usually drink water during the day, but bought some 2L sodas when we were in Bowling Green and in Toronto. The Airbnbs in BG and Toronto provided free coffee and coffee maker (K cups in one place, whole beans, grinder, and french press at the other). All the hotels had free coffee too.
We didn’t have the Freedompop SIMs in Canada. They don’t work there yet (mostly Europe and Mexico I think??). We only traveled on pretty busy highways (QEW and 401/403 in Ontario) so weren’t worried about being stranded. We got stranded in the middle of the Adirondacks in NY state 2 years ago and had a state police officer stop to help (no cell service there anyway on either of our phones!).
We didn’t buy travel insurance. Our regular policy covers emergencies. I’m not sure if it covers international emergencies, but we could self insure for quite a bit (and Canada doesn’t have ridiculous mark ups on healthcare like in the US – A $30000 surgery is $30,000, not $200-300,000).
Thanks for sharing Justin. I will spend most of the day “shaking my head” while cutting grass at one of my rentals in 90+ degree heat. The saying “working smarter…not harder” certainly seems to apply. The “costs” of this trip just leaves me dumb-founded. And also makes me think I obviously am doing something wrong…LOL. I for one am glad that the new van worked out….The thought of you guys stranded on side of the road with car trouble while on vacation…. I found troubling. But hey it worked out great!!
Time to hire out that grass mowing! And it’s tax deductible too.
Looks like a fun trip! The map w/ the circle actually makes the trip seem quite manageable yeah?
Interesting feedback about Detroit being so eery.
What about going to Cancun, The Bahamas, and maybe Cuba given you guys are on the East Coast? I’d love to go to Cuba!
The circle/triangle shape makes perfect sense. Hit a bunch of cities/places you want to visit along the way.
We went to Cancun last year and it was blazing hot and humid. Which meant pool and beach time for the whole week and we skipped the historical touring around the pyramids and ruins. Not a total bust but I really wanted to see some of that stuff. Next time!
We’re hitting the Bahamas twice this year and go just about every year on a cruise. I found an awesome secluded beach walking distance from the cruise pier in Freeport so we’ll probably spend the day there again.
Cuba is on my list, but we’ll have to go in winter because it’s super hot and humid in summer too. I think commercial flights open up any day now, so I’ll have to look into those. Maybe piggyback that onto our December cruise out of Miami? 🙂
Cuba would be so wonderful!
I think I remember reading you enjoyed places like Oaxaca and San Miguel in Mexico so, for a more traditional Mexico I recommend instead of Cancun (if you make it back) staying at Puerto Morelos 20 mins south of CUN (condo rental, if not using your miles/points) with wider beaches, great snorkeling and often no one around. Ask the locals where to buy fried fish (there is a random house that you go in and buy this by the kilo or just a huge fish that they just put in a fryer bucket thingy and give to you with warm tortillas and all sorts of salsas – seriously delicious and super cheap.
In town there is also a small Uruguayan restaurant that sells amazing top quality meat and the best empanadas I ever had, ever at a decent price. Cochinita pibil tortas from the street are also amazing (up there with tacos al pastor IMO), but make sure your stomach is ready for it haha. And if you can go visit Laguna Bacalar (absolutely stunning!), Coba (my absolute personal favorite) and Tulum for ruins. Definitely do not miss a swim at a cenotes if you or your kids have not done so already. I also love Xel-ha and swimming in that incredible natural water. There is also an annual (I think) international Jazz festival which is pretty good!
Since you have more time than most you can visit Chichen Itza but firt stop at the town of Valladolid on your way there and why not take a few days and visit Merida (mmm Yucateca food http://yucatantoday.com/yucatecan-cuisine/?lang=en and lovely Haciendas http://yucatantoday.com/haciendas-yucatan/?lang=en!).
Lastly, if you are into it, you can try go swimming with the whale sharks or just be lazy around stunning Holbox to the North and or check out The Centro Ecológico Akumal (CEA) to the South and go help release some turtles into the ocean.
Urgh – I need to retire now so that I can go do these things….(I used to have a small off the grid home in the area, what peace!)
I know you did not ask my opinion but there it is anyways ;).
We had some of that planned for our week in the Yucatan, but it was July and unbearably hot. We actually spent 3 days in Tulum, but after visiting the Tulum ruins/pyramids, and watching the kids melt we gave up on sightseeing in the heat. Instead we swam at the pool at the villa we rented, and ate street tacos (al pastor, steak carnitas, and chorizo I recall) from the guy a block down from our house. We sadly didn’t make it to any cenotes, though we had planned to do so.
Puerto Morelos sounds really nice. That was on my radar but the free Aloft hotel in Cancun’s hotel zone won out. It was very nice and convenient but it’s Cancun so not really my thing.
We probably need to go to the Yucatan in the winter when it’s more tolerable there to do any kind of sightseeing. For now, I’ll stick with the more temperate central highlands areas of Mexico. 🙂
Another great travel article Justin! I really love your travel articles, as travel is my family’s favorite thing to do! We just got back from a 10 day trip to South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. It was wonderful! We implement a lot of the same money saving techniques you & your family do.
We were able to use our “Every Kid in a Park Pass” for a lot of the things we did. We went to Jewel Cave National Park in South Dakota which was offering free cave tours to all 4th graders (the every kid in a park pass) and their family members, which saved us $48 in entrance / tour fees. Near by Wind Cave also offered Free Cave Tours for “Every Kid in a Park Pass” holders. We also went to Badlands National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Grand Tetons National Park, and Devils Tower National Monument all of which had fees that were waived because we had a 4th grader traveling with us! All of the places we visited had endless free things for our kids to do and see!
It just so happens that my boys are 13 months apart and so we have another 4th grader this school year and we will be downloading the free pass again next year & we are planning another trip next year too.
Oh wow, I didn’t even check into the 4th grader free park perk. Our middle kid was in 4th grade last year. The only National Park fees we paid were the admission tickets to the cave ($96) but maybe those would have been free?
I have heard that the National Park at Mammoth Cave itself is free, but the cave tour at Mammoth is extra, so I don’t think it would have helped. I believe each national park or monument, etc. was free for 4th graders and their family members but the “extras” like cave tours, parking, etc. varied depending on the Park or Monument so it just so happened that the caves we went to decided to include free cave tours (lucky me!)
Also, I am headed to Vietnam next Sunday, if you have any interest in travel to Asia, I can report back on cost, so far it seems that the biggest fees (and the reason it would be expensive for a family) is the visa fee (depending on country) & the cost of additional immunizations needed to travel to Southeast Asia.
Yeah, that’s what I figured. We didn’t have to pay anything to get into the National Park, so parking, hiking, and the neat but small visitor’s center/museum are all free all the time for everyone. When I was researching the 4th grader pass, it seemed that some parks would offer freebie/discount tours and the like, so maybe worth calling to see if anyone else stumbles on this comment.
Vietnam! We’re hoping to make it to SE Asia some day but not any time soon. The effect of heat and humidity on our kids scares me after they basically melted in similar conditions in Yucatan, Mexico in Cancun and Tulum. We were fortunate for that trip that the visas are free (or maybe a few bucks through the airline ticket taxes??) and the immunizations were all covered 100% by insurance other than $60 for an office visit for the youngest kiddo that I couldn’t get classified as “preventative”. At least now we have typhoid and Hep A immunity for a while. 🙂
Always impressive to see how you travel so intelligently, we have recently taken many of your travel hacking suggestions and put them into practice.
I wish I had known that you were going to Detroit and looking for suggestions… the city has gone through its fair share of struggles but there are some incredible renaissances taking place and I would have loved to share them with you (next time!).
Congrats again on a successful family trip and I for one think you should contact Hotwire to contest the issue with your room in Nashville… we had a similar issue on our trip to Cape Cod a few years ago and Hotwire was very accommodating.
Enjoy the fall and looking forward to your August update!
I think we saw the Detroit that we came to see. We enjoyed the hotel and the pool and wanted to take it easy on the one full day we were in town since before and after were pretty intense sightseeing or driving days. I know there are many nicer places and I wish we had more time to visit them. I almost went to Corktown for lunch but figured Mexicantown would be more interesting.
Man looks like you guys had a rocking trip there :)!
Great pics, especially the mammoth cave & Niagra falls..
Good to hear everything went off without a hitch as well
I’ve recently come back from Europe (4 & a half weeks) loved it, especially the summer weather & Africa / Asia next year 🙂
Very awesome! Where did you visit in Europe? Most memorable place/destination?
Went across to Spain (Barcelona + Ibiza), Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, Istanbul & various other Turkish cities along with a few of the Greek Isles & Athens..
Awesome, although quite expensive trip.. It cost about 2k Aussie $$ alone (about 2.8k American) at the moment to fly to Europe in summer, definitely not the most frugal use of cash although my next trip will be less expensive..
Favourite place would have to be Istanbul & Berlin, there’s a lot of history & culture in both of those places although loved all of Europe 🙂
Thanks for asking!
Good to hear Berlin made the top of the list. I’m hoping to make it there on this trip!
Yup, Bryce is such a rebel. I’m going to bully him into wearing pink next time.
If you go to Europe in 2017, I highly recommend Belgium, Santorini, Prague, and Switzerland. Those were our favs! Switzerland was INSANELY expensive but SO worth it. Luckily, we smuggled in some pastries from Germany so we wouldn’t have to pay the expensive grocery and restaurant prices.
But judging by your ninja budgeting skills, I suspect you’ll be able to do with half our budget.
Hmmm Prague. I keep hearing good things about Prague. And it’s cheap too, right?
Yup. Cheapest city we’ve been to in Europe so far. Cheaper than Toronto for sure.
And I think the kiddos are going to love Prague Castle. It’s free to walk around the grounds (which is MASSIVE. Also there are lots of peacocks everywhere for them to annoy to their hearts content 🙂
I poked one too hard and he almost bit my finger off. Peacocks are jerks.
“Cheapest city”, “free castle”, peacocks? Sounds like Prague is definitely on the list.
I guess we’ll try to avoid poking the jerk peacocks really hard to avoid a similar fate.
Wow, absolutely epic family vacation there RoG! And that budget is absolutely amazing!
I can’t wait to start taking epic FIRE vacations like this when our kids get older! For now, I guess I’m content to putter around the house. 😉
I want to spend a summer puttering around the house but somehow we always end up traveling somewhere long term. Maybe summer of 2019 we can hang out locally. 🙂
Looks like a great trip. I thought they were revitalizing Detroit…crazy that it was so deserted. There was nothing of interest to do there like a museum of cars or something like that? I should have went for an AirBnB in Toronto…I stayed at a Holiday Inn with points because it was near the downtown area. It was pretty old. How was the AirBnB location wise?
Some areas are gentrifying like the Mexicantown area. Lots more new-ish looking businesses there. But otherwise, I didn’t see the typical cranes and new skyscrapers like every other big city in North America. Detroit has a great Ford Museum with cars and other Ford stuff but we didn’t want to spend the day inside a museum. And I would be the only one that cares about the cars most likely. 🙂
The airbnb location was good. It was about 15-20 minutes to drive the 3-4 miles into downtown but plenty of local options for dining, recreation, swimming, groceries, etc. We often end up in that kind of a sweet spot – a short drive or transit ride into town but save big $ and enjoy the relative quiet and comfort of being away from downtown and in a regular residential neighborhood.
Wow, that’s an awesome trip man. Your kids are going to have high bars to live up to.
The cave looks fantastic. I’d love to visit someday. Detroit sounds like the opposite of Portland. There are so many buildings going up. I wonder if it will come back someday.
The trip was very affordable. Not much more than staying home. That’s great. Europe will be a lot more expensive so it’s a good idea to save up. We love Italy.
It really didn’t cost much more than staying home. I think that’s how all these perpetual traveler types like GoCurryCracker and Millennial Revolution end up spending $40k/yr in spite of traveling full time. Slow travel and intermediate to long term stays in places.
Looks like you had a great trip. I’m looking forward to having a lot more time to travel once I quit working.
Your budget is also pretty impressive. You really got the most out of your reward programs.
Rewards programs are great, aren’t they? 🙂
I love that you guys had the chance to take your kids on that trip! Toronto was one of my favorite cities that I went to growing up. We watched a full cricket match and ate tons of Indian food.
Mammoth cave is tons of fun, I should add that to my list of places to take the fam while we still live in the Southeast. I haven’t been there since college.
Didn’t know they have cricket in Toronto but I guess it makes sense since it’s a commonwealth country. I guess it’s cricket in summer and hockey in winter lol.
Had to pipe in here & say that loving cricket, yep there’s heaps of cricket in Canada & glad to hear it’s starting to be played more at an international level in the US with a 20/20 International there last week 🙂
What Cave tours did you choose? Thinking of heading up there – have a free hotel night to burn and it seems a good place to go.
We did two: Domes and Dripstones and the Historic tour. Both are highly recommended. The Historic tour was slightly more awesome in my opinion. But those two tours cover completely different parts of the cave (in fact they are about 5-6 miles apart I think). I’d recommend doing both if you have two days or plenty of energy (and no four year olds…) you can do it in one day pretty easy. They lasted about 2 hours each. You can book online ahead of time too (recommended since they usually sell out and you might get stuck waiting 4-5 hours for the next available tour).
What an excellent vacation! I’m glad your whole family had do much fun.
This post taught me so much about travelling at low cost. I really like how you go into all the travel financial expense details and methods of cutting costs because that’s what I need to learn. Between you and GoCurryCracker and MillenialRevolution, I feel like I have “The Smart, Tough” travel guides helping me along. All three of your blogs focus on different places at different times and all include the financial details of travel which is so helpful. Thank you for all the great information!
Great post and recap of what looks like an amazing trip! Thank you for doing my city (Toronto!) such justice – I loved the photos and the recap of all the cool things you managed to see here. I loved that you headed to the islands, hung out at High Park, and even headed to graffiti alley! I’m also thrilled you took pictures of international dishes – Toronto is only second to NYC when it comes to the percentage of its population being born outside of the country, and our multiculturalism reflects in our food culture for sure! Also, good job on keeping the costs low in what I consider a pricey place. Very inspiring!
It didn’t really seem that expensive in the city. Definitely much lower COL compared to NYC. We always drove, and parking was one notable expense that was WAAAY cheaper in Toronto vs NYC. We typically paid USD$3-7 for several hours to all day parking in or near downtown (other than that one day at USD$25 but there was a Drake concert so we paid up). Restaurant food was actually cheaper than here at home. USD$2 falafel wraps. USD$0.75 McD’s iced coffees. $5-6 for a variety of pho, stir fry noodles, etc. Even the grocery store was no more expensive than home. I think the 1.3:1 CDN:USD exchange rate helped a lot too.
Thanks for the open mind and honest review of Detroit! We’re in a suburb and don’t make it downtown more than a few times per year but we’ve got a soft spot for it and it is going through a slow renaissance as mentioned above. I think of it as possibly what Pittsburgh was like a couple decades ago, a post-industrial wasteland still figuring out what part it plays in today’s economy. There’s a few magnates that own most of downtown (not all are stand-up citizens) and some pockets have been redeveloped but it seems to be lacking a central theme.
And it is sad how empty the town is most of the time outside of work hours and sporting events. Hopefully with some of the loft development and new residential spaces things will improve.
It’s interesting how people say the same types of things about the “D” being dangerous as they do about cities in Mexico for example. With a little common sense there’s really no reason to be scared – granted there are a few gas stations I won’t be stopping at but that’s not unique to this city.
Glad you found the beautiful river walk by the RenCen, and kudos for exploring some of the wreckage of past neighborhoods. Talking to older generations who grew up in the city makes we wish I could’ve seen it in its heyday. To get a slower glimpse nowadays we participate in the Tour deTroit, a 25 mile bike ride with about 6000 people starting by Corktown, through Mexicantown, past many shuttered factories, around Belle Isle, and back to the train station.
My sister lives down by the Air Force museum so that’s always a fun trip and of course we’ve made our fair share of trips to Toronto. Love the Kensington market area – we always know we’ll find some unique places and great people-watching when we seek out the vegan restaurants in any city.
Glad you enjoyed it all and looking forward to hearing about the upcoming Euro trip. My wife is German so maybe we can even provide some tips considering I’m almost caught up to present day on RoG here.
People are idiots. I’ve always heard how horrible Detroit is so I had to check it out. Needless to say it was a pleasant surprise. We didn’t see the “bad” areas but every city of any size has those areas (I’ve found them in Charlotte by accident when following gasbuddy for cheap gas stations!). Your comparison to the overhyped security concerns in Mexico is very accurate. The really bad parts of town are best avoided but most places are generally safe.
Hi, I am making my way through your archives a few years after your trip, but I can’t stop thinking that you had a great option near Detroit: the Ford Museum (and the factory visit) in Dearborn MI. Just mentioning in case you go back again in the area!
We talked about visiting it but had a ton of other museums to visit along the way. So we skipped it this time around!