Is Northern Vermont really a budget friendly travel destination?
I've always believed that you can live large on a teensy budget – especially when you’re travelling. It’s one thing to travel frugally, but it’s another altogether to do so in a way that feels rich! And that is exactly what I wanted to accomplish with the $200 challenge. We chose Vermont as our first location.
See previous posts on the Vermont $200 Challenge:
Vermont: The Conception
Vermont: Planning Stage 1
It’s about a 4-5 hour drive from our home in Ottawa and a great choice to enjoy the fall colours. We reasoned by going early enough in the season we could still manage to camp warmly and still enjoy the autumn display.
We reserved our campsite at Smugglers’ Notch State Park about a month in advance. We chose this location for its convenience to the town of Stowe and proximity to the fabled Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. We were thrilled with our campsite – the state park was small but spotlessly clean – the bathrooms were immaculate, with bowls of potpourri and decorative gourds on the counter, and the campgrounds had the gravel and soil raked between guests to ensure cleanliness. We enjoyed a dramatic scenic drive on the way in to the park and the entire surrounding area was beautiful. Our tent set up went smoothly and, overall, we were very happy with our accommodation selection.
Our first evening, we drove into the popular ski resort town of Stowe to enjoy dinner at a dog friendly restaurant. Chester was certainly pleased to be seated on the heated patio, with a bowl of water and some dog cookies. Our meal was hot and nice, if not particularly spectacular. We had a fire back at the campsite, and enjoyed some local micro-brew beers and ciders we had picked up earlier in the day.
The next day started off well. The weather was beautiful and the fall colors and smells were lovely. Our homemade breakfast of hot chocolate, Maui peaberry coffee, peaches, pancakes, and Vermont maple syrup started off well. However, when we went to make the second round of pancakes, the camp stove suddenly stopped working. Changing the fuel canister didn't help, and we are still at a loss for its sudden demise.
We had an excellent day exploring Northern Vermont. The fall colours were just opening up and were beautiful. We traveled through several charming villages, played with Chester at a dog chapel/sanctuary, visited the truly unusual and striking Bread and Puppets Museum, and toured bake shops and trading posts. We had a fantastic lunch of incredible homemade pizza, and ate tons of local donuts and cookies.
By the time we got back to our campsite, it was pouring rain. And I mean pouring! I don’t think I've ever been outside on such horrible weather before! It wasn't unreasonably cold, but boy was it wet! I was so, so happy we had spent the extra money on the premium campsite with a lean-to shelter. I was also happy we didn't get more firewood than we needed on the first night -it was obvious we wouldn't be having any fires that night! I have to admit that this was not my favourite part of trip. I was pretty miserable and, even when I considered the many ways the situation could have been worse, I was really wishing we could have afforded a gorgeous suite at a Hilton, not a sopping wringing wet campground. Ryan was much more philosophical than I was, happy to be under the dry shelter and drink lots of beer.
The next morning we were thrilled to discovered the rain had finally stopped! The dead camp stove was still dampening our style, and we headed out for breakfast. We were grateful that we could pack up the campsite when it was warm and dry and we enjoyed a very scenic drive home, with some leisurely stops along the way to look at caves and rocks, lakes and streams. The drives to and from Vermont were bright and beautiful and it made the road trip a real pleasure.
We spent a few hours exploring Stowe in the afternoon, drinking coffee and hot cider, eating pumpkin creme brule, and looking at Art in the Park displays. The displays were beautiful, but unfortunately priced out of range (just like at home!). During the early evening, we visited the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream factory and the Cold Hill Cider Company, enjoying free samples and looking at neat products.
So - How did we do on our budget?
Well, no guessing here: We were over! The critical problem came really when the camp stove died. Plans for one supper and a second breakfast fell apart and added two large expenses to the budget we were not planning on. Another contributing factor was a bit of excitement on the first day when we went a bit overboard and purchased a few too many microbrews to sample. We felt confident we could make this up on the second day (via an inexpensive camp stove dinner), but this of course didn’t turn out to be the case.
In the end, we spent $282. On one hand, this is a huge percentage over our original $200 budget. On the other hand, it works out to about $70 per person, per day, which is still a reasonable amount for a vacation. Here’s how it broke down:
$65 for a premium campsite with a lean-to for two night, plus one bundle of firewood. As far as non-hotel accommodations go, this was great. The location was beautiful and clean. The bathrooms were spotless and the showers – while quarter operated! – were hot and full of good pressure. Our new tent held up well and we had our huge, firm blow up mattress and our own soft, clean sheets and duvet from home. Having been to a lot of lackluster hotels in my day, I have to say our accommodations were very acceptable – not withstanding the big rain storm that made me dream of a Hilton suite!
$50 on gas. Thank you Vermont for cheap fuel prices!
$30 for 6 large bottles of local micobrew beer and cider. As someone who only likes cider, not beer, it was a real treat for me to try a few new varieties and my beer loving husband had fun as well. We probably should have spent $5-10 less and put back a few bottles, as this was an expense that tipped us over budget. On the plus side, had we gone to a bar or club and ordered just two regular size, regular beers, we would have easily spent $30 and had very little “experience” to show for it.
$44 for our first dinner out: This was definitely more than budgeted for. While I had reviewed the menu in advance and noticed several options for under $10, when it came down to it we each selected items for $12-$14. Still reasonably priced overall, but we should have been more careful. The little bit of extra money didn’t result in a better meal, but it did result in paying out more in taxes and tips. We also tipped very well, as they were very kind to Chester, who accompanied us on the patio. Had we been more careful ordering – and maybe tipped 20% instead of 25% – we very easily could cut this bill by $12 or so. Lesson learned.
$27 for lunch out: This included a large coffee, a local rhubarb soda, and a huge, delicious gourmet pizza. It was one of the best I have ever had. Buttery, garlicy, thin crust, bubbly and hot. Money well spent. But their large size was huge. We could have saved $5-8 by ordering the medium size. The idea that we would eat the pizza later didn’t work out. We didn’t have a way to store it, like we would at home, and I’m not a huge left-over pizza lover. And given that we ate so much of it at the time, I think we were “pizza’d out” when were done. So the pizza was worth it, but the large size was not.
$21- breakfast the second day: A good question to ponder further is the merits of over tipping. The service was friendly, the food was quick and hot, if somewhat forgettable. But we tipped 22% on a simple breakfast service. Is this rather foolish? Or are we foolish to try to save $2 by tipping a more reasonable 15% and depriving a waitress of a few bucks? Or are we seen as suckers on vacation, plucking down a wad of cash when the locals are likely rounding up to 10% at best. Please weigh in!
$17 – coffee, pastries, and soup in the afternoon in Stowe. In lieu of making a camp stove supper, we grabbed a large snack as park of our supper. It was delicious and filling, but likely the total bill could have been cut by a few dollars. We didn’t need that many treats!!
$28 misc expenses: included donations at sites, toll fare crossing the border bridge, various waters, soft drinks, coffees, a tour at Ben & Jerry’s, pay showers at the campsite, marshmallows and more!
Overall, we had a rich travel experience. We visited an unusual museum (Bread and Puppet) and a more common one (Ben and Jerry’s). We visited touristy locations (Cider Mill) and some off the beaten track ones (Red Sky Trading Post) in search of homemade baked goods and treats. We had one pretty good sit down dinner, an amazing pizza eaten picnic style, and an unmemorable breakfast that won us over because it was hot and we were hungry! We had great snacks we brought from home and the one homemade breakfast we did manage to make before the stove went was delicious. Our accommodations were clean and – remarkably – kept us dry. We accomplished our goal of seeing the beauty of the region and, despite some ups and downs, I found myself relaxed and enjoying myself. Considering the circumstances, I think we did reasonably well on our budget and learned many lessons for saving money. While we didn’t manage to do it, I think if we went again and applied these lessons we would have no problem spending under $200.
I’m excited about the $200 challenge and I’m already looking for a second location to do it again soon!
Has the $200 Challenge inspired you? Here's where else it's taken us since writing this article.
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