DC Vacation Budget Recap

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Hi all! We are officially back from our week-long vacation/work trip and wanted to get our DC vacation budget out ASAP. But first, we needed sleep. Lots of sleep. This conference just sucked the life out of us. Especially when we were up until 3:30 am and need to get back to a conference session by 9 am. We had the best time, though, and we are pretty content of our overall spending for an 8 day trip to such an expensive city as Washington DC. 

Why Washington DC?

We actually went to DC for FinCon 2019. This is an annual conference popular among personal finance bloggers, podcasters, YouTubers, etc. and it specifically focuses on media for personal finance niches. Although we found that any niche could honestly come to learn about being an influencer. It was just particularly nice to gather with 2,500 other people that are just as passionate about talking about money as you are! And who actually get what you do for a living or hobby. 

And the best part was, some people actually recognized our brand “Ticket to FI.” That was one of my goals for 2019. I have NO CLUE how it actually happened, but holy smokes I am proud as hell. 

Even though I needed to sleep for 5 days straight, we are so excited to go back next year! We already bought our 2020 passes so hopefully, we will see some of you there!

Our Schedule

The conference this year was a 3 and a half-day event, starting Wednesday and going through the end of Saturday. We didn’t want to only be there for the conference and miss out on so much of the city, so we added an extra 2 full days to the start of the week.

We ended up flying in on Sunday and left on Sunday of the next week. This left us 6 full days there, with two and a half days for sightseeing (aka not much).

It was such a short trip and yet the longest one we have taken together. We felt so rushed to get so much done in the little time that we had. And at the same time, we didn’t want to push ourselves to the point of exhaustion (which we absolutely did).

We basically needed a vacation from our vacation when we got back. And unfortunately, due to our frugal flight choice, did not happen at all. We ended up getting home at 1 am PST which is 4 am on the east coast. And to top it all off, Nate had work bright and early Monday morning. Sorry honey!

PTO Hack

One great thing about our timing was that it was Labor Day Weekend when we flew out. This paid holiday allowed us to only have to use four days of PTO for the week rather than 5 on any other normal week! A nifty hack that we are able to save 8 full hours for the holidays now.

Normally, with most other paid holidays, vacations means traveling with the crowds and getting hit with higher prices for both airfare and accommodations. However, with the week after Labor Day, hotels are usually hurting for business as that is essentially the end of the summer leisure season. Given that we didn’t fly out of Thursday or Friday before Labor Day and stayed through the entire week after, we were able to snag those great deals and avoid the crowds of summer tourism.

Trip Prep

As we all know, vacations are not cheap. With travel costs and lots of eating out and activities, the bill for an 8 day vacation can make a major dent in your budget and your credit card. This is why we planned ahead for our trip and not only made a categorized budget for what to spend but also saved and set aside all the money we would need for the trip.

The only way we were going to be able to pay for this trip was to have money already set aside. So we set up a Washington DC Sinking Fund.

We didn’t just hope and pray we had enough money in our accounts to pay off the credit card bills when we got home. We knew we wanted to make it a vacation and actually enjoy our time with good food and drink.

To do this, we first set our estimated budget (outlined further below) and then started saving a bit each month. We put this money into a separate savings account just for our sinking fund expenses and have been saving small amounts each month for the past five months. 

This money came from extra items we were able to sell on Offer Up and Facebook as well as specifically saving 10% of our paychecks towards our sinking fund account. We also have funds set up for some camera equipment and Christmas spending. 

This allowed us to save $1,431.61 (to the penny) for the trip. And by only going $210.00 over, we were easily able to cash flow those extra expenses from our regular spending allotment of the paycheck. 

DC Vacation Budget and Spending

Now on to what we budgeted and why as well as a break down of how and why our actuals came out the way they did.

Airfare

One of the most expensive parts of travel is the airfare. Of course, if you are able to take other modes of transportation to the destination then that is awesome (as long as it isn’t too terribly time-consuming like a drive from LA to San Francisco up the 15…). However, for us to travel to DC we needed to travel by plane. So we thought strategically as soon as we decided we were going in February. 

Nate has been a credit card hacker to some degree for the past five years. He is always more than willing to get a new card if the sign-up bonus is worth it. And this one definitely was.

The Southwest Visa was having a limited-time promotion for 30,000 bonus points with $4,000 spend in 3 months AND a free companion pass good through the end of the year! FREE.

What that meant is we got a free roundtrip flight to DC for two. We paid 26,266 points for Nate’s roundtrip flight and I was able to join as a companion for free. Yes, there is always a government fee of $5.60 per one way trip, so it ended up costing us $22.40 total to fly to DC. And even though it was the majority of the points we received from the promotion, looking at other times and dates, this was definitely on the low end for a cross-country flight. 

  • Airfare Budget: $22.40
  • Airfare Actuals: $22.40
  • Trip Running Total: $22.40

Airfare was $22.40, bringing our total for the trip up to $22.40.

Accommodations 

Now the second most expensive part of vacations. With more and more options emerging, there is a whole new segment of accommodations now available with Airbnb, couch surfing, house sitting, and the large influx of hostels popping up.

For us though, we stuck with a traditional hotel for this trip due to the fact that Nate works for a major hotel corporation (and I used to).

One of the benefits of working in hospitality is the employee discounted rates. They run anywhere from $35 – $55 per night depending on the brand. And even at this very low cost, you still get all the same amenities that come with the hotel, like complimentary breakfast and evening socials.

Thanks to this great benefit, we were able to find 7 consecutive nights at a suite property in downtown Washington DC for only $35 per night (plus tax). So instead of paying the lowest rate, I could find for this hotel, $271/night or $2,145 for all 7 nights. We were able to save $1,863 for the same exact room. 

Honestly, if we didn’t have this discount, we would not have been able to attend FinCon. We knew that accommodations would just kill our budget so we checked this prior to buying our passes. 

Now, this may seem too good to be true, but this benefit is not always guaranteed. It is solely based on availability and is more often than not, unavailable due to high demand at the hotel. We were so lucky to find a hotel in the location we were looking for, let alone for 7 consecutive nights. That can definitely be hard to find but, again, this was greatly due to the fact that we traveled the week after Labor Day.

  • Accommodations Budget: $281.61
  • Accommodations Actuals: $281.61
  • Trip Running Total: $304.01

Ground Transportation 

This could be car rental, public transportation, rideshare, or even in this crazy world, bike/scooter sharing.

Budgeting for Rideshare Transportation

Taking a look at the activities we wanted to do, we noted that we were less than 10 miles to all of the places we wanted and needed to go. And since we were in downtown, we know intercity parking is always hard to find and expensive, we knew that we wouldn’t need to rent a car.

That said, we focused on ridesharing when planning the budget. Uber or Lyft are easy and convenient methods of getting around a well-developed city like DC. 

Uber has this ride estimator so you can plan ahead for your trips. This allowed me to plan out the ride from the airport to the hotel as well as the hotel to convention prices. Here’s what that looked like below:

  • Airport to Hotel (Roundtrip): $32.93
  • Hotel to Convention: $8.27 each way x 4 days (roundtrip = 8 trips) = $66.16
  • Buffer for Activities too far to walk: ~$50
  • Total: $150.00
4 Things We Didn’t Account For with Rideshares

The estimates were a good start but we were so so far off. We ended up going over by $120.04 just in transportation.

1. Transportation to the airport from home (duh!)

We actually park our car at a friend’s place closer to the airport since we are over 30 minutes away. That means we have to Uber from our friend’s place to the airport. I didn’t factor that cost into our budget. It ended up costing us $31.59 roundtrip.

2. Tipping the drivers

For all the rides we had calculated prior to leaving, I had forgotten that we always tip our drivers. We tipped an average of $3 per ride and in the budget, I had only estimated the costs of the ride itself. With just the rides I had anticipated, that would have brought our estimate up to closer to the $200 mark ($3 per ride x 14 estimated rides = an extra $42).

3. The weather

Originally, I had anticipated us walking to most of the attractions since we were in Downtown DC. We quickly realized that the mall is massive and our slowpoke butts were in no shape to walk the entire thing in two days.

We noticed that they had plenty of bike shares on the streets so we downloaded the app and low and behold, they charge about $8 a half-hour! And the scooters were just as expensive as the bikes.

We ended walking a ways more and found Capital Bikeshare. They had docking stations all over the city and it was only $2 for every half-hour. They also had 1-day, 3-day, and 30-day passes. Since the hotel was so close to the conference we figured we could ride them to and from the conference instead of using Uber as it would be cheaper and still not take too long. 

Two 30-day passes cost us $26.00 each and eliminated our Uber allocation for the conference, saving us $14 overall. Until it didn’t.

The weather was in the 80s with high humidity and our SoCal selves were not ready for that. We would bike for 10 minutes and be drenched in sweat. Definitely not cool when you are biking to a work event. So we ended up using Uber a few more times than planned.

4. How we are always late

This is nothing new for us. We are always running late. Either we slept too late, or we decided to make a pit stop or we just took forever chatting. And of course a couple of mornings we hit the snooze button too many times and decided to take an unplanned Uber to the conference.

Also, we left our water bottle at a restaurant in Alexandria so had to Uber back over there on the way to the airport and that cost us an extra $17. Sadly enough, I lost the water bottle again less than two hours later in the terminal…

  • Ride & Bike Share Budget: $150
  • Ride & Bike Share Actuals: $270.04 (+$120.04)
  • Trip Running Total: $574.05
Shared Nachos - TTF

Food & Drinks 

Overall, we tried to keep our categories simple so we categorized all meals, drinks, snacks, and groceries into this one category. 

I had calculated the budget as:

  • $100 per full day (Monday – Saturday) = $600 
  • $25 for Day 1 (just dinner for 2, preferably fast food)
  • $75 for Day 8 (a quick/easy lunch and a packed fast food/sandwich lunch for dinner)
  • $100 for snacks – for the hotel room, at the airports, ice cream stops, etc. 
  • Total: $800.00

How We Saved on Food & Drink

A couple of things helped us to stay on track. 

1. Free Breakfast / Evening Social at the Hotel

I am honestly not sure how people can travel without free breakfast. I would hate to have to put down $20/meal for eggs and bacon. We strategically try to pick our hotels where breakfast is included. Even better, we try to find hotels that have evening socials. This is sometimes limited to just week days but usually includes appetizers, a salad bar, and beer or wine.

Our hotel offered both so we took advantage of the offering as best we could. On our free days, we would head back for the light meal and the head out for dinner where we weren’t nearly hungry and didn’t need to spend nearly as much money.

2. Packed Lunches

No packed lunches are not the most delicious but we often find that neither are the fast food options or the other quick and easy options we so often turn to for lunch on vacation, especially at the airport. For our flight to DC, we packed a lunch (cold pizza for the win). We should have packed a lunch for our flight out too, but we forgot and had to pay for it.

We also used our uneaten bagels from breakfast and some peanut butter & jelly for our lunches on Monday while we were sightseeing. I threw in some chips, granola bars, and a water bottle as well so we set up a picnic on the back of the Lincoln Memorial and spent no money on lunch! A great view and free, I’m always in.

3. Beer/Happy Hour vs. Cocktails

We drank mostly beers and shopped for the happy hours whenever we were looking for a refreshment. Beers are usually the least expensive drink on the menu and we both are big fans of a nice refreshing glass of beer, so no harm no foul.

Additionally, large cities are poppin’ with Happy Hours during the week. Be sure to look on Yelp for Happy Hours and always look for a sign outside or just ask for the happy hour menu when you arrive. They aren’t hard to find and usually allow us to get an appetizer for cheap as well. 

4. Share Meals

Lastly, we try to share meals as often as we can. I rarely finish a whole meal in one sitting anyways. I usually don’t mind as I can take the leftovers home and either of us can eat it as an additional meal. But on vacation, it can be a lot harder to take home leftovers. Although we had a fridge and a microwave in the room, we were biking quite often back to the hotel and without a basket, it can be hard (and kinda dangerous for me) to carry back to the hotel. And sometimes we aren’t planning on going straight back to the hotel.

That’s why sharing is such a great option for us. This way we can get an appetizer and an entree and be all set. Or we can leave room for dessert, both of which are cheaper than two entrees.

Le Diplomate Dessert

Splurging on Food & Drink

There’s one thing that I want to be clear, we don’t deprive ourselves on food and drink on vacation. We are ordering food we still like and aren’t “going hungry.” We are just being strategic about our spending. For example, we like beer, we aren’t just forcing ourselves to drink beer because it’s cheapest. And if we’re still hungry after dinner, we’ll get dessert.

One example of us not depriving ourselves is our fancy date night. We decided that our last night we would go out for a fancy dinner at Le Diplomate. Actually Nate planned it and it was wonderful.

The thing is, budgeting isn’t all about cutting back. It’s about cutting back on what you don’t care about but you should be able to spend more on what you do care about. Date nights are one of those things I really care about and Nate knows that.

We ended up going out to a French restaurant and order steak and scallops and a couple of their signature cocktails. And of course, we got their fancy dessert. The bill was $175 for the two of us and it was exactly what we wanted to spend that $175 on.

  • Food & Drink Budget: $800
  • Food & Drink Actuals: $892.35 (+$92.35)
  • Trip Running Total: $1,466.40
Nationals Game - TTF

Activities/Misc.  

I had talked to a lot of people about DC over the past 6 months and I kept hearing one thing: you could do a lot of activities for free. And it was true, most of the National Mall was free! There are some privately owned museums that were paid admission but all the Smithsonian museums we came by were free.

We didn’t end up spending anything on Monday for activities. On Tuesday we ended up doing a Harbor Cruise for $58.80 and we went the (best) National’s Game (ever) for $51.50.

Errands Time

I also circled in miscellaneous spending with activities because I didn’t think we would have any. This was what actually surprised me. Looking back at the trip we ended up spending quite a bit of time running errands, essentially.

Nate got sick so we had to pick up medicine. And he finished an ENTIRE bottle of medicine in one day so we had to get more. We didn’t bring sunscreen and it was hot. I didn’t bring notebooks to the conference. We had to get beer for the hotel room.

All in all, we spent a lot of time running these errands, although we had a blast biking around the city for the bigger items. But we ended up spending $87.31 on random items we needed that weren’t food & drink.

  • Activities/Misc. Budget: $200
  • Activities/Misc. Actuals: $197.61 (-$2.39)
  • Trip Running Total: $1,664.01

DC Vacation Budget Recap

The trip came and went seemingly in a blur. We had a great time and can’t wait until our next vacation already. Here is the overall breakdown of our expenses again.

ItemExpected Actual Over/Under
Flights$22.40$22.40$0.00
Hotel$281.61$281.61$0.00
Transportation$150.00$270.04+ $120.04
Food$800.00$892.35+ $92.35
Activities / Misc. $200.00$197.61– $2.39
Total$1,454.01$1,664.01+ $210.00

How do you spend your money on vacation? What do purposely splurge on?

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About US

Hi all! We are Alicia & Nate. We are couple currently living in San Diego learning and teaching the ropes of all things personal finance. We love dogs, chips, and Friends! Hope to see you around! 

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