Surprise, Surprise! Your vacation cost you Four Grand!

... we never found Uncle Charlie, but we did go to Mardi Gras. 

by Don and Lorry Norris

Are all prices going up? Gasoline, during a recent winter vacation trip to sunnier climes, reached $1.53 at one point, which happened to be at a gas station right in the middle of the oil fields near Galveston. The cost of motel rooms has zoomed, and food -- all that good southern food I was brought up on -- is now priced in the "delicacy" department.

Since my wife wants a new counter in the kitchen, we decided to spend only one month in Florida this past winter, rather than the two or three months we have been known to do. We are in that category of "fixed-income seniors" whose income remains rather flat while inflation -- even at a modest 2.5 or 3 percent -- eats away at the nest egg. We have to be careful of our pennies.

Here's the killer: This abbreviated vacation cost us a total of $3807, whereas earlier and often longer stints in Florida never came close to this figure. Where did we go wrong?

No question, gasoline added to the total. We paid $298 to mostly discount stations, but then we travelled much farther this past trip. We added 1500 miles by taking a side trip to Galveston, Texas, to do some genealogical research, which proved totally negative. In all, we went 6000 miles only to find out the folks buried in Galveston are not our Uncle Charlie and Aunt Henrietta. Well, we were on vacation, too. And we did get to Mardi Gras in Galveston!

... life's bumps and aplomb ...    

Don't get me wrong. It was the best winter vacation we've ever had. Perhaps it's that we're older now, less inhibited, less offended, and can take life's bumps with more aplomb. But the fact is the weather was fantastic, the accomodations on Perdido Key were excellent, and we (quite frankly) pigged out!

When it came to the menu, we threw the budget out and splurged. We ate shrimp by the pound, we had oysters regularly, we had catfish, redfish and other Caribbean creatures night after night. We discover crawfish, and we discovered crawfish etoufee, a dish that is to savor forever. We economized by eating out only at lunchtime, but we never got through any lunch for under $20 (for two) and mostly they pushed $30, including tip, and I tend to be generous if the service is good -- after all, southern cooking and southern hospitality are worth whatever they charge.

The Court House Restaurant in the small town of Warrenton, Georgia, provides tasty, hearty meals at a fair price. Shops like this surely beat the fast food places.

But to get back to dollar costs -- we ate out 52 times during out 54-day voyage. Of course that includes coffee-and-donut as well as full-blown lunch at The Back Porch in Orange Beach, Alabama, at $38. That was a great two-martini lunch served by this adorable young lady who really knew her business. Anyway, the point is, we ate out much more than we usually do, and the price of that eating out appears to have risen significantly.

... so you eat out ...

Here's a number to ponder: It cost us $603 to eat out 52 times. That averaged $11.60 per meal. Cheap, right? Well, it shows that we searched out those small, local restaurants that the Southerners choose, where a meal is much more reasonable. But our problem is that we ate out too much. But what do you do when, of our 54 days vacation, we spent 24 on the road. You simply can't cook for yourself after driving 200 to 600 miles a day.

So you eat out. Not auspiciously, but certainly not in a fast-food chain either. Often we had but one organized meal a day, and some days those meals were Cuban sandwiches bought at the Winn Dixie. We saved a lot that way (we felt), and kept the two-month weight-gain down to seven pounds each.

Consider, however, that had we stayed home in Melrose, we would have spent (according to our rather meticulous record-keeping on a Lotus spreadsheet) a total of $400 to eat out for that same period. So therefore, the $603 we left along the road was only $200 more than we have budgeted. Not bad. I'll bend the numbers any way I can to justify a good vacation.

But that's just eating OUT. We also spent 30 days of our 54 at a lovely condo on Perdido Key, on the Panhandle in Florida. It is cooler there in the winter, but certainly less costly for accomodations. I mean, where can you find a beach-front condo with heated pool, for only $927, including tax (10%) and cleaning charge ($47). Base price was $775 a month for a one-and-a- half bedroom, full kitchen, nice living room, and marvelous balcony.

... Shrimp, oysters, crawfish ...

So for 30 days we ate at least some meals In. We did a lot of entertaining (we have some 400 first, second and third cousins in the area), so that meant we cooked special meals on occasion. Like shrimp, and oysters, Jarlsberg cheese, delicacies. And so the grocery bill for those 54 days added another $383 to the food bill.

For two months away, we ate $986 worth of food, either in a restaurant or at the condo. And this doesn't count the half-dozen times we were invited to dinner at a cousin's home.

(At home, our Lotus records tell us that dining out and groceries would have cost $850 for that same 54-day period. So, in balance, we exceeded our budget by only $136 -- which makes me feel much better. By the way, you can see that I'm making these calculations as I write this story).

So much for food. All that good eatin' wasn't the cause of our over-spending. And the cost of gas, no matter how high it went, was still a bargain. I mean, we spent 54 days using our car as a sightseeing vehicle (there's a worthy pun), and having spent $293 for gas and oil works out to an average of $5.43 a day. For two! There's a bargain if I ever saw one. Compare that to flying, then renting a car -- one as nice as our Honda.

... So just What cost so much???

Where's the big cost? If the food is reasonable, and the car costs are negligible, what brought the cost up to $3800?

Hmmm, let's go through our categories.

There were Additional Travel Costs -- things like ferries, highway tolls, bridges and parking. But that was only $40.95 round trip.

Entertainment, mostly entrance fees to plantations, NASA Space Center near Houston, and a boat tour of the Achafalaya Basin, were only $90. Cheap enough, two people for two months.

Additonal Clothing (mostly for summer-weight stuff since we ran into exceptionally warm weather) was another $103. And we still have that to use this summer.

Books, pamphlets and newspapers ran up the bill by $61. And a special category called "Genealogy" -- which has been a ten-year quest for us -- added $159.

Household expenses, those everyday things you need Right Now, amounted to $103.

But the big bugaboo on our expense list was housing. That cost for 54 days amounted to $1970.50. First off, we reserved the condo at the Grand Caribbean on Perdido Key at a total cost of $927, for more than half our time away from home. The rest was for lodging at motels.

We spent 24 nights in motels, ranging in cost from the cheapest (an Econolodge in Hammond, LA) for $33.41, to the most expensive, a Ramada Inn on River Road (facing the Mississippi in Luling, LA) at $59.40.

The total for 24 nights in a motel was $1053, for an average of $43.88, including taxes and any tips I left.

Generally our choice of  accomodations was dictated by where we happened to be at the end of any day, for we don't travel by strict plans. We tend to wander the back roads in an effort to see the country and meet the people. Our trip is much richer for that.

But we do carry the AAA booklets, whose listed prices are anything but realistic. Most of the places we stayed had rooms listed at 80 to 110 dollars, yet we averaged $44. We argue and persuade about prices, and discounts, and try to get a better price while maintaining a positive attitude with our host. It usually works to our benefit.

One other tip is that the Choice chain of motels -- Comfort Inn, Sleep Inn, Econolodge, and several other brands -- offer a 30 percent discount to seniors who call a reservation service and ask for the "prime rate for seniors". The numbers are confusing for the industry has jacked up base prices in anticipation of having to discount them.

In conclusion, it isn't automobile costs or even the cost of food that hits the hardest. It is the accomodations. While the motels averaged $44, our lovely condo on the beach averaged only $31 a day. Now that was a bargain, we had a blast, and met a raft of nice people from the mid-west.

(Author's note: This vacation was so good that my wife and I plan to do a series -- at least one more article -- on our travels this winter. We went for the most part off the beaten track, stayed away from tourist traps, and saw marvelous country and met great people -- wherever we went. And we celebrated Mardi Gras in three different towns).

April 7, 2000

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