Summer can be tough when you're on a budget.
The weather is beautiful, the sun inviting, schedules wide open. The neighbors are going on a cruise, your coworkers are renting houses in the Caymans for several weeks of snorkeling and sunbathing, your relatives are traveling across the country. But alas, due to some trading on the foreign market that sounded like a good idea on the commercial you saw while watching the Cartoon Network, you're not in the financial position for summertime world travel. What do you do?
Never fear. With a little creative marketing (example: that commercial on the Cartoon Network), a good time can be had for just pennies on the dollar.
Itinerary One: The backyard. The swimming pool hasn't been cleaned or treated in nine months, rendering it a completely unusable, algae-invested toxic soup. Or has it? One man's nightmare is another man's travel destination. Say hello to eco-adventure with the Doughboy Bay Aquarium. Listen to the oooohs and aaaahs as your family watches a new species of kelp forest evolve at the bottom of the pool. Encourage your children to learn about science as they help you identify those strange, squirmy things floating in the water. Interact first hand with the cutting edge of medicine as you visit the emergency room time and time again to cure strange ear and gastrointestinal infections contracted from playing in and around the water. Inexpensive, educational adventure. You can't beat that.
Itinerary Two: The neighbor's front yard. It started two years ago, when they tore out the existing driveway and decided to put in an RV pad. The sprinkler system went. Then they excavated a wide swath through the lawn to put in a wrap around drive. As the lawn grew long, dried out and died, the entire neighborhood was entertained to see rebar put in, rebar taken out, then rebar put back in and taken out again. Cement was poured, removed and repoured. The facing on the house was taken down and put back up. Is it an example of poor planning? Is it an attempt to drive the property values down in the neighborhood? No! It's the Winchester Mystery Lawn, a unique example of local history and legend.
Itinerary Three: The driveway. Your children love animals. When they grow up, one wants to be a veterinarian, the other one wants to host a reality TV shows on Animal Planet. Don't worry about an expensive trip to the San Diego Zoo, just take them around to the side of the house. There's wildlife galore close at hand. Flip up the lid of the garbage can and let them see where local flies are rearing their young at the bottom of the can. Unlike bears, mother flies don't mind people handling their young; be sure to tell your children to enjoy the rare opportunity to get so close to baby animals in the wild. And unlike some more expensive zoos, in your driveway the fun doesn't have to end when the sun goes down. Enjoy a dusk-til-dawn safari at the woodpile, where dozens of nocturnal denizens come creeping out to the delight of your little nature lovers. See animal behavior first hand as your neighbor's cat comes to mark his territory. Catch a glimpse of Warfarin-resistant strains of rats as they feed off a steady diet of rat bait and dog food stolen from your family pet. Pick through the woodpile to find black widows, brown recluses and any number of scorpions, ticks and snakes in an adventure that would make Steve Irwin gush with envy.
Itinerary Four: Exotic resorts. While your neighbors take off for the Cayman Islands, you can save money by taking the whole family to the K-Mart Islands. You can browse through quaint markets with their third world charm, where the American dollar just seems to go farther than in more civilized areas, even if the hygiene is a little poor and there is no evidence of indoor plumbing. If you're lucky, you can spot celebrities who have fled the country due to criminal activity, and not yet been extradited back to the States. Well, if you don't see her, you'll at least see her line of interior decorating items and house hold goods. In a similar vein, if a more urban setting appeals to you, you can always take your family to stay in the luxurious WalMart-Astoria.
No matter where you go, a savvy traveler can continue to save money with a few techniques like eating at the Neighbor Cafe. Simply knock on any door on your street, invite yourself in and let the culinary adventure begin. Rummage through their refrigerator and cabinets as you catch up on their lives. Find that they're too tight-lipped to draw out the conversation long enough for you to scrounge up a satisfying meal? While away the mealtime with a litany of trivia from your own life instead, from memorable moments in your teenage son's school career (starting with kindergarten Star Assemblies) to a complete debriefing of your medical history and decades long battle with prostate inflammation.
Yes, with a little ingenuity, summer fun and adventure can be had on even when money is at its tightest. Now if you'll excuse me, I promised my daughter I'd take her out to the garage where we have the cold weather stuff stored so she could go to Space Heater Mountain. Nothing is too good for my family, shoestring budget or not.
Comments and travel tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article first appeared in the Manteca (Calif.) Bulletin