5* Trip for a 3* Budget: Our Tips & Tricks for a Great Trip

Continuing on today from my last post about how we orchestrated our 5* vacation trip for a 3* budget to Tucson, Arizona recently. Our overall travel m.o. is transferable to basically any locale if you get creative and have fun customizing your own trip to how it might work for you.

Our total trip cost for five nights and six days was just $899.08, plus gas, which we didn't log as part of the trip cost as Tucson is only a two hour drive one way from where we live in AZ and my hubby usually commutes two hours a day to work so we didn't have that gas bill while gone.  This total also does not include the things we bought in the gift shop to both enjoy and also to use in everyday life once we got home, either.

How we pay for our travels

We always use my Travel Budget Form to plan our trip expenses ahead of time, and we keep a line item/category called Travel in our overall household/personal budget that we fund monthly ongoing for future trips, plus we put our credit card cash-back points towards future travels too. Is it easy for us to put money away every month in advance for travel? Not really; in order to do it we have to be careful spenders and savers in other ways such as shopping sales, using coupons, and planning other large purchases carefully etc. We use our credit card when we travel so we can easily keep an accounting of what we spent, but we pay the credit card off in full at the end of every month as we avoid debt at all costs and if we ever didn't have enough saved in advance for a trip we just wouldn't go.

What's your travel style?

We've also developed a personal travel style over the years as a couple that works well for us, and our travel m.o. has changed with our life seasons somewhat too. Personally, we both prefer quieter trips vs. thrill-seeking or physically-taxing events so we avoid crowds and loud venues of all kinds as much as humanly possible. In other words, you won't find either of us at Disneyland, most loud sporting events, snowskiing, or hang-gliding! Museums, art galleries/art walks, historic sites, cute local cafes, scenic drives? We're there.

What's your personal style of travel? I think it's good to develop a travel style for yourself if you've never thought about it much, just like you choose your lifestyle. I'd be willing to bet you can also plan a 5* trip on a 3* budget if you get creative!

Our preferred style of travel is, by nature, not very expensive and here's why:

1. We travel off-season whenever possible and we have been able to do that because of our particular work and because we never had children in school that we had to schedule around. Traveling during the HOT off-season summer in Arizona, many venues are deeply discounted, with the best discount being for lodging. Hotels here often give discounts to Arizona residents as well since we have many snowbirds who "fly the coop" in summer here to go back to their cooler home climates. So now that we live in AZ, we are planning our future vacations for summer to get the best rates both to make our travel dollar go further, and to avoid the snowbird crowds too.

2. We usually drive vs. fly and we stay in Bed & Breakfast Inns for both economy, (so much is included for the rate!), and because we like them very much.  We stayed in a Bed & Breakfast "home stay style" inn this time which was $95 per night (vs. $140 in high season) for a spacious private-entrance suite with a King bed and that rate included a large hot homemade gourmet breakfast. Our Mon Ami lodging rate also included wifi and parking, a swimming pool, hot tub, and large quiet garden-esque backyard with patios and many tables. (This was our 69th Bed & Breakfast Inn stay, since 1987.)  Unlike resorts and hotels, inns seldom add on all the extra "service fees" that seem so common these days, and for things we don't use anyway.

3. We are both happy and content to just enjoy the "free" and quiet scenery of God's creation rather than schlepping through touristy venues with costly entrance fees and noisy crowds so simply taking a scenic drive is fun for us. I also took my Kindle and enjoyed having quiet time to read in the evening on our recent trip, while Steve used his iPad. Since we don't ski or boat or anything like that while on vacations, we don't spend money on lots of travel/entertainment "gear" either. Call us boring, but we are happy with the simpler quiet things both in life and when we travel vs. anything overly loud, fast, and expensive.

Arizona taken by Kathryn Bechen

4. We usually take our own light healthy snacks and bottled water from home which I prep before we go. We took our own trail mix, fruit, and refillable water bottles this time, avoiding more expensive snacks when out touring, but we do allow in our travel food budget for a serendipitous coffee break out if we feel so inclined one day, and when we do that, we enjoy it, usually at Starbucks.

5. We rest. It's free! We took afternoon naps this trip since we were on vacation and were there to rest and rejuvenate after our big relocation last year that took a lot of energy and work from both of us. Since we don't nap at home, this was a vacation treat! I realize not everyone wants to nap on vacation but for us, it was a real treat since we don't do this at home.

6. We usually eat lunch out vs. dinner as the lunch menu is often the same or similar, for less. We set an eating out budget $ amount by day before we leave home to account for one meal out per day, and we prefer that most of the meals be at nice sit-down places as we don't eat fast food unless there's no other choice, and usually plan ahead to avoid it. We ate lunch out around 2 pm this trip to avoid crowds/lines, and because we were still full from the great breakfast at the B&B, and we ordered and shared a large bottle of sparkling water. If we got hungry in the evening, a snack and cold drink was enough, and with a fridge in our inn room, easy. We did purposely eat one nice/romantic dinner out this trip as our delayed 39th anniversary (June 7) celebration, and we ordered whatever we wanted for that celebratory dinner at the gorgeous-view and good food Vivace's.

Vivace's beautiful night-time view and great food was worth every penny we spent.

The patio where we had lunch at the charming Maynard's Marketplace in downtown Tucson.

7. Our most fun on this particular trip was "resorting" -- as in we chose to visit one gorgeous resort per day that I had researched from home before we left to have lunch and/or coffee there, enjoy a walk around the beautiful grounds/scenery/take pix, and peruse and purchase at the gift shop where we didn't buy souvenirs but useful things like a new cap for my hubby, a floral jacket for me, (bonus: on sale!), a journal, and earrings I chose as my upcoming birthday gift.  We don't buy cheap souveniers when we travel, but useful things we'll use again, or a small piece of art.

We visited five resorts!

We love "resorting!"  Such beautiful places with native flora and fauna, beautiful decor and architecture, cute gift shops, and in Arizona they love it when locals come during off-season and sometimes even offer AZ resident discounts. I usually avoid the pricey resort spas unless I have a Groupon or gift certificate from a birthday etc. or it's been a hard trip for some reason out of our control and then I need a massage. (Like when we flew 5 hours on a discount airline across the U.S. sitting in a middle cramped seat. I learned!)

NOTE: We do spend money while we are on the resort properties rather than just loiter, which we don't think is right to do -- taking up their space for free.  Yes, we believe in being careful spenders on vaca, but not in being cheap or taking advantage of others, and there's a vast difference in our opinion. We no longer stay at others' homes when we travel -- because of my scent and food allergies, people's busy schedules so we don't want to impose/don't expect them to be our "hotel," and because in all honesty we prefer our privacy and private lodging choice that we pay for ourselves.

Loews Resort and their Flying V Bar & Grill overlooking the huge koi pond. We had hoped to eat there, but it was closed in off-season.

Koi pond at Loews Resort Ventana Canyon.

8. We take the slower back roads when possible on our travels. Maybe that doesn't save us travel money per se, but it sure saves us travel stress so maybe less stress saves on future doctor appointments or headache remedies.  Just a thought. :)  This time we took Arizona highways 60, 69, & 77 vs. the freeway. Great scenery!

Lots of native desert flora and fauna on the way, taken from our quick-moving car. :)

9. We pack what we need from home that we have bought ahead at sale prices so we aren't out shopping while on vaca and paying more due to lack of planning and buying it not-on-sale. Also, I don't like to shop while on vaca really, except in the hotel gift shops, or sometimes in little old-fashioned main street type stores in smaller towns which exude charm and nostalgia.

The back grounds of the gorgeous historic boutique Arizona Inn.

10. We like perusing local art galleries when we travel and rather than buy cheap souveniers that will later only go to Goodwill, we usually buy one nice small painting to bring home that is from a local artist. The Madaras Gallery in Tucson is beautiful to browse, as is her art that has been turned into every kind of product you could think of, at every price point.  We bought a tiny glass painting to hang in our kitchen where we thought one more small painting would look great above our Florida paintings from a previous trip. We have a gallery wall in our living room of paintings collected on our travels. None are very expensive, but all of them are precious memories of our trips taken together.

11. Other money-saving travel tips are we use AAA often for various discounts as we have been paying members of that auto club for almost 40 years, plus we also use any senior discounts now that we are in our 60s. (Marriott nicely offers 15% off for lodging now for seniors, which is higher than AAA 10%.)

We stayed at Mon Ami Bed & Breakfast in Tucson. All inns vary in our experience and in this case this one was in a lady's own home in a quiet residential area and was a very comfy stay for us as we had a large King suite and bathroom with a private entrance and access to the backyard pool and gardens. It was charming, clean, quiet, and restful. The owner Pat also did not use scented-everything so my allergies thanked her kindly for that, and I asked her about this ahead of time. Pat was a wonderful cook too and she made us a homemade full hot sit-down-in-the-dining-area breakfast everyday that was very delicious. To thank her for the exceptional breakfast service, I left her a hand-written art card of thanks along with a cash tip.

Mon Ami B&B backyard.

Our favorite resort was Hacienda del Sol, without a doubt. We had a lovely lunch there with white table linens and a view, and the entire historic property was impeccable from the grounds to the restaurant areas with gorgeous mountain/valley views, pool, library, cute gift shop, and spa. We would go back to Tucson just to stay at this historic resort as you would not have to leave the property really if you just wanted a quiet restorative getaway. Of all our travels across the U.S., this place is an historic elegant gem.

One of the dining areas at Hacienda del Sol.

Lunch with a great view at Hacienda del Sol. Obviously, my hubby Steve liked it!

Steve really liked The Westin La Paloma Resort, as did I, and I would stay there sometime if we went back to Tucson. They have great room rates in summer! We went there just before sunset and enjoyed appetizers and desert inside and then took our sparkling water outside to the patio to watch the sun set over the mountains and enjoy the blue-light pool. The property was impeccably clean and beautifully kept inside and out and the staff was friendly and helpful. Their Azul restaurant is beautiful. I didn't check out their spa, but it looks lovely.

The view from the front of the La Paloma Resort over the Tucson desert valley. Views from anywhere at this resort are incredible!

Side view at The Westin La Paloma, Tucson.

The back patio at The Westin La Paloma, Tucson.

Loews Ventana Canyon Resort is a beautiful resort set into the mountains on the outskirts of Tucson. The grounds are absolutely gorgeous, with water features, golf course, pools, and you name it. We honestly did not stay there long though as walking into the lobby they piped fragrance through the ventilation system which made me feel ill, so we mostly took pix of the resort grounds, got a coffee, and went out back to the patio to drink that but then left. (BTW, piping scents into resort lobbies and other commercial venues is really becoming "a thing" now and is so not good for those of us with allergies or asthma.)

My hubs at Loews Ventana Canyon Resort.

The Marriott at Starr Pass is gorgeous too. It's set in the mountains and there are so many cactus that it looks like a "cactus forest!" The property and grounds are HUGE. We had lunch there and perused the gift shop a bit and then walked around. I doubt I would ever stay there overnight as although lovely, it's so big to navigate and has slippery marble-ish floors everywhere with lots of steps and few elevators. We noticed many people walking very carefully on their floors, and for seniors especially, it's not worth a possible fall while on vaca, in our opinion. Also, there was a large convention there so the restaurants were full with a long waiting time, which we personally try to avoid ordinarily, so we took our lunch "to go" and went upstairs to a cute landing with a gorgeous view and sat there and ate it in comfy chairs in relative quiet and privacy where we could enjoy a nice conversation. Bliss.

Near the Marriott at Starr Pass, Tucson.

The Arizona Inn was a fun step back in time with its old-timey-elegance. We had an ice tea in the bar area as that's all that was open in the afternoon, and we then walked the pretty gardens out back and took a few pix. I also bought some things in their gift shop which is really nice with a great selection of quality items. If you like sedate and quiet Old-Money-ish historic elegance, you'll enjoy the lovely and historic Arizona Inn. We did!

The lovely main dining room at The Arizona Inn.

Other restaurants that we ate at besides the resorts:

Teto & Pep

A fun place where we had a great plant-based lunch and then splurged on a decadent chocolate dessert. The B&B owner referred us to here and it was a win.

Calle Tepa Mexican Street Grill

A cute little Mexican place with fab rice and beans! Great food and service. The B&B owner referred us here, which is another nice perk of staying in inns: they are usually great at referring you to local eateries and other places, which we love.

Maynard's Market & Kitchen

In an old train station in downtown Tucson. We sat on the back patio and watched the train go by and had a great grilled veggie sandwhich. Really fun place.


Of course, for serendipitous coffees out. (My hubby likes coffee from 7-11 but I vote for Starbucks when I'm on vaca, in spite of the price difference.) :)

I hope you enjoyed our Tucson "resorting" tour about how we orchestrated a 5* trip for a 3* budget. Total cost for our lodging, fun, and food for six days and five nights was $899.08 but did not include our gas, snacks/water we took from home, or things we bought at the gift shops.

(Yes, it's really .08 cents on the end of the $899 because my husband is a longtime career-banker who loves spreadsheets and he keeps track of our living expenses and savings using spreadsheets, including for this trip. Love my detailed banker husband, yes I do!)

Happy affordable travels, no matter where YOU roam!

Disclosures, policies, photo credits

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