$500 Lake Erie Circle Tour Road Trip
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Road trips are a great option for frugal last minute travel. It has been a few years since we’d gone on a true road trip, and last month we zoomed off for a week long road trip around Lake Erie.
We didn’t set a budget, and since we’ve embraced daily frugality we don’t stress about a blip in the budget like a vacation. While traveling we eat food that sounds good and try activities that look fun.
To help save money and satisfy the planner in me, we booked our hotels ahead of time.
We tracked our vacation spending using Personal Capital to tally the final Lake Erie Circle Tour cost.
If you are new to practicing frugality, or if money is especially tight setting a budget is highly recommended. Instead of budgeting, our family prefers to spend money on our ruthlessly questioned values, so we are unlikely to buy those cute salt and pepper shakers.
Lake Erie Circle Tour Destinations
For those of you not from the Midwest, a popular road trip is to drive around one of the Great Lakes. We call those trips “circle tours.”
Based on highways and destinations we didn’t spend a lot of time near the a lake shore, and you know, winter, we didn’t spend a lot of time on the lake.
Metro Detroit (2 Nights)
We started off the trip by visiting family and having a baking day! Plus, we were able to ditch our dogs. We love exchanging dog sitting services with family and just gave them a six pack when we returned! We watched their dogs earlier this fall when they went on vacation. It helps us be frugal dog owners.
We played games, baked cookies, and laughed. It was great fun.
The second day we visited the Christmas ornament headquarters and wandered the shops. We enjoyed seeing all the crazy ornaments people dream up and wandering the shops. We didn’t buy anything and instead enjoyed window shopping.
Housing – $0 (Thanks family for hosting!)
Food – $21 (One meal out, and we brought some food to share/cook, that showed up in our monthly grocery spending)
Niagara Falls (1 Night)
We filled up on gas before crossing the US/Canada border at Sarnia and didn’t stop again until grabbing lunch in Hamilton.
We then kept driving to the main destination: Niagara Falls! I’d never been, which is just crazy! It was mesmerizing and incredible to see the millions of gallons rushing over the falls!
Plus, few people are crazy to go to the falls in December, so we had the place essentially to ourselves. The downside of a December visit is that we couldn’t ride Maid of the Mist. And the mist that did fall on us immediately froze…brrr.
We visited the falls twice to see them in the afternoon/evening and then again in the morning. And I highly recommend checking them out at different times of the day.
We snagged a Groupon for our hotel, yay, offseason pricing. The Groupon came with discounts at some restaurants, a free tour of a chocolate factory, and free wine tasting at two wineries. Well, you can probably guess which of those we used… the wine tasting! We passed on the other freebies, since they weren’t places we were interested in going.
We looked into using hotel rewards points, but decided against it, since we could get a room for $40. I’m glad we did, and the hotel upgraded our room for free since there were approximately 5 other guests in the hotel that night.
I have to be honest, with the last minute trip, and never having been to Niagara, I basically only knew to stay on the Canada side. I didn’t do a lot of research into which part of the city to stay in. We ended up in Clifton Hill, since it had the cheapest/reasonable option. The whole area was pretty walkable so it didn’t matter where we stayed.
If I were to go back, I’d either book a room in the Fallsview area (since we were there to see the falls!) or outside of Niagara closer to the wineries.
It was pretty ridiculously touristy (as was expected), but we enjoyed the city (since there were no people). We found a place for dinner, grabbed a pint at happy hour at the Niagara Brewing Company.
The city was very walkable, so after we parked it at the hotel, we didn’t move the car again until we checked out.
The next morning we ate some fruit for breakfast, walked down to the falls, and headed out for wine tasting!
I’m glad our Groupon included free wine tasting, since we would not have gone wine tasting at 11 am without it! The vineyards were cool to see with snow on the vines! We enjoyed trying the ice wine, but didn’t buy any bottles, since they were $75 each. If you haven’t tried ice wine it is suuuuppppeeerr sweet and higher alcohol content than traditional wine. It’s made using grapes that are intentionally left on the vine to freeze.
Food = $47
Hotel = $41
Parking = $11
Entertainment = $17 (wine tasting tip and brewery)
Buffalo (1 Night)
Next on the tour was one night in Buffalo! We crossed the border using the toll road, which conveniently saved us $2 in tolls since there’s no toll at the border crossing.
We got into Buffalo for a late lunch and met up with one of Mr. Kiwi’s childhood friends who lives there now. She gave us a cold tour of the city.
We went to the top of City Hall for the free 360 degree view. It was a cool vantage point and a pretty awesome old building.
Then we walked over to the Tim Horton statue and explored the Canalside attractions before jumping on the free tram back to downtown.
Our Airbnb in Elmwood Village was ready for us by then, so we drove up to drop our car and check it out. This was our first Airbnb experience and it worked out great.
The hotels in Buffalo were all over $100/night and it would have cost us 20,000 IHG points to stay at a Holiday Inn. We talked about staying farther out from Buffalo, but really wanted to stay near our friend, so Airbnb came to the rescue.
There was a lot of inventory and as the date got closer people kept dropping their prices. We ended up selecting a place that was much bigger than we needed since the location and price were right.
Having never used Airbnb before we snagged a $40 off coupon code (minimum $75 stay) and selected a place that didn’t charge a lot of fees. I had previously looked into using Airbnb, but found that the cleaning and booking fees often didn’t make it competitive to a single hotel room. But they have improved the interface of the app now, and the final booking price is much easier to locate. Airbnb stands out as a great option for multiple night stays, larger groups, or if you want to stay in a neighborhood. Hotels tend to be around all the chain restaurants and either downtown or on the edges of town. By staying at an Airbnb were able to stay less than a ten minute walk from our friend’s apartment and save money. If you haven’t tried it out, sign up through this link and snag $40 off your next stay!
Booking an Airbnb is slightly different than a hotel room. There are two options, those that allow for instant booking and those that don’t. We didn’t stress about this detail, and after booking had to wait to be contacted by our host. She reached out to confirm our ages and reason for travel (I’ve never had a hotel do that), then our apartment was booked.
Our apartment was on the main floor of a house and the Airbnb owners live upstairs. This wouldn’t be ideal if we were planning on having a raging party, but it suited us just fine.
The apartment was old, creaky, and a little chilly. But we love the cold and just piled on an extra blanket. For the price it was a great deal!
The kitchen was stocked with some basics: coffee, tea, cream, sugar, cereal, eggs, bread, peanut butter, and apples. I’m more of a morning bird than Mr. Kiwi, so It was nice to brew a pot of coffee and read in the morning in the living room. I had intentions of blogging, but it was vacation and my book sounded much more enjoyable.
We ate toast and apples for a late breakfast before heading out to explore Allentown. Well, Buffalo is definitely the city that sleeps, and nothing was open, so we instead just wandered and looked at the cool architecture.
Around noon we met up with our friend, only to discover we had locked the keys in the car! After a moment of panic, we got to work (this isn’t the first time this had happened). Fortunately we were parked outside of our friend’s apartment, so she ran inside to get: a wire hanger, doorstop, hammer, and screwdriver. We made due with what she returned with (plus Mr. Kiwi’s shoelace) and were able to break into our car in 20 minutes. Plus we saved the cost of a locksmith.
Then we piled into our car and headed to the Buffalo Zoo! Our friend is a zoologist, so she gave us an awesome behind the scenes tour. I was pretty impressed by the zoo and learned a whole lot about how they operate. The highlight of the day: watching the red panda do tricks for her daily banana treat.
After the tour of the zoo we headed out to our next destination.
Food = $69
Airbnb = $48
Zoo = Free (thanks friend!)
Jamestown, New York (2 nights)
Okay, so if Niagara Falls wasn’t the premier destination Jamestown, or more specifically, Southern Tier Brewery was. We had planned on visiting this brewery on our way to DC or somewhere else at some point, but Lakewood/Jamestown just isn’t really on the way to anything.
We were able to find a bargain and stayed at the Holiday Inn Express for 5,000 rewards points each night. The hotel was very new, clean, and the rooms were nice. We had the pool to ourselves (sadly no hot tub). I also got a workout in in their workout room.
All Holiday Inn Expresses offer free breakfast, so we got free breakfast both mornings. It’s not the greatest, but it suffices. (Just don’t eat the apples.)
By this point in our trip we were pretty tired of restaurant food, so we stopped at a grocery store and stocked up on stuff to make a spinach salad for lunch. It was cheaper, healthier, and tasty. While at the grocery store we also compared prices on bottles/cans of beer to take home vs. the brewery. We grabbed some beer to bring to Christmas celebrations.
Southern Tier Brewery was off the beaten path and in an industrial park (like most good breweries). We had a lot of fun playing games, drinking beer, and eating dinner.
The second day in Jamestown we set off to hike in Allegheny National Forest. Unfortunately, our trip was timed with the first big snowstorm of the year, so the hiking was a bit limited. But we did hike up along the river of the Bent Run Waterfall and check out Kinzua drive. Go slow, don’t step in the river and you can enjoy winter hiking!
Did I mention that the other key to enjoying a snowy winter road trip is to wear the correct clothing? Well, we kind of failed at that and left a pair of gloves and winter hat on the kitchen counter. After spending the first few days using my coat hood, pockets, and a scarf we magically drove past a thrift shop. We proceeded to splurge and spend $1.50 on lightly used gloves and hat. We now keep this set in the cab of the car, for future emergencies.
Since we were in a hilly area we also decided to buy a sled! Brand new, since there wasn’t one at the thrift store. After the hiking we headed out to find a sledding hill! Well that’s easier said than done, and we ended up sledding at a park that apparently doesn’t allow for sledding. Whoops, we’re from out of state. We didn’t know, and we didn’t get caught. Now we have a sled to use at home, in our decidedly less hilly city!
Grocery Store = $8
Brewery and growler fills for Toledo= $110
Beer to bring home/gift = $80
Sled = $21
Thrift Shop = $4 (hat, gloves, and a pair of J Crew jeans for Mr. Kiwi)
Hiking = Free
Hotel = 10,000 IHG Points for two nights
Sign up for this credit card if you want to start earning points to use for free travel.
Cleveland, Ohio (4 hours)
By the next day we were on full on vacation mode (sledding will do that) and slept in! Then we headed out to visit our friend who lives in Cleveland! She met up with us for lunch, showed us her favorite park (Lakewood Park), then we decided to get out of the cold and headed to her apartment for tea and catching up. I wish we had more time to devote to Cleveland, but I’m sure we’ll make our way back there someday.
Food = $30
Toledo, Ohio (1 night)
Then we headed out to visit our final friends on the trip and crashed with our friends’ in Toledo. We played games, sampled the beer we brought, and had lots of fun. They made dinner and we supplied beer.
By the next morning we were ready to pick up our dogs and head home.
Total Lake Erie Road Trip Cost
The trip came in pretty cheap for two people to get a week long vacation at just under $500. I took out the cost of the beer we brought home, since that isn’t really a vacation expense.
Here’s our spending, all nicely summarized:
Tolls and parking = $17
Gas = $70
Lodging = $89
Entertainment = $42
Food = $264 (includes brewery spending)
Beer to bring home = $80
Total Cost = $562
Total Trip Cost Minus Beer to Bring Home = $482
How Did We Keep Our Costs So Low?
We are frugal travelers and managed to have very frugal and fun (for us) vacation.
Frugal Entertainment and Lodging
We mostly stuck to free entertainment, stayed a couple nights with friends, and found cheap lodging for the other nights. We found a great hotel travel rewards redemption using some of our IHG points and were able to travel hack our way to two free nights!
Frugal Restaurant Eating
When we go out to eat while traveling we’ll normally split one entree or one entree and an appetizer since portions are so big at restaurants! This helps us keep the bill a little lower and keeps us from way overeating.
All in all a one week road trip for about $500 is great! And it fits in with our values!
Why a Last Minute Trip?
Well we didn’t realize that we’d have the option to take a trip until Mr. Kiwi got the offer to start grad school and then he quit his job.
We are firm believers in taking a break between jobs to enjoy a very mini-retirement during our working days of FIRE. Thus, while Mr. Kiwi is changing his career path, he opted to take a whole month off. This month has been mostly unstructured, but with lofty goals to relax, get some projects done, and work on his health.
Early Retirement Comparison
One month is not really a lot of time, but it’s enough to reaffirm our goals of working towards financial independence and optional early retirement.
This vacation helped reaffirm that we truly are great friends and partners. So we won’t go crazy with a bunch of unstructured time in early retirement.
Would this be a reasonable budget for a week of in early retirement if we sold our house and lived like nomads? Definitely not. We probably wouldn’t be able to mooch three free nights a week at friends houses! (Although I’m a pretty good cook, so we may be able to negotiate a deal.)
Plus, it doesn’t consider any costs like insurance (health and car specifically). But it does highlight that traveling doesn’t have to be expensive to be enjoyable. The whole week we lived it up, ordered what we wanted at restaurants, drank beer and wine, and even bought a sled.
Taking vacation is a key part to our FIRE path, since we are firm believers that you must enjoy the journey.
During our working years we try to balance spending vacation time seeing close friends and family vs. travel to destinations on our bucket list. Our free time is limited and love to invest in our relationships. This road trip was a great balance with three days just the two of us, three friends visited, and two nights with family. I don’t know what our early retired life with look like (especially as we keep pushing the date farther out into the future).
What else do you want to know? Is $500 a frugal vacation? What’s your favorite tip to frugal road tripping/traveling?