budget vacation

How To Pack For A Vacation In San Francisco and Sonoma In Just Two Carry-On’s

“If you’re going to San Francisco
Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair
If you’re going to San Francisco
You’re gonna meet some gentle people there”
“San Francisco” by Scott McKenzie

I’ve been humming the soft melody of this famous song as I pack my carry-on today for my upcoming trip to San Francisco.

Problem: I don’t own any flowers to put in my hair. #NotAHippie

As a teenager, I watched the Forrest Gump movie several times and owned the soundtrack – both of which featured this song. To me, this classic tune befits the free-spirited history of the city of San Francisco, and reminds me of the open-minded nature of its residents. Similar to New York City’s history, San Francisco was built by dreamers.

Chinatown in SF with trolley going down the street

Chinatown in SF with trolley going down the street

As you read in last week’s blog post, I’ve planned several types of activities for my upcoming vacation. I’ll admit I am by no means an expert on packing for San Fran in the springtime since the only other time I’ve been was in December. That said, I’m going to take you all along for the ride as I piece together my SF springtime wardrobe and other travel essentials.

The first thing I did was check the weather to understand how many layers I would need each day. The difficult aspect is that I will be in the city of San Francisco for two-thirds of the trip, where the highs are estimated to be in the low 60’s next weekend. However, on Saturday and Sunday I will be in Sonoma County where the highs will be 15 degrees warmer in the upper 70’s!

As a result, I need to pack both dresses AND jeans – major bummer when it comes to saving space. On top of that, the expected temperature variance means that I’ll need to bring BOTH sandals and closed-toed walking shoes, along with a pair of nice shoes for fancier restaurants. Three pairs of shoes – eeeeek! Thank god Derek’s brother miraculously has a hair dryer at his apartment so I don’t need to bring my own!

Anyway, without further ado, here’s how I’ve packed for SF in two carry-on’s.

SF Packing List:

In the backpack:

  • Laptop and charger
  • Camera (with case, charger and memory cards)
  • Cell phones and chargers (work and personal phone)
  • California guidebook
  • (2) magazines
  • Eyemask
  • Day purse (with wallet, travel medicine kit, headphones, pens, house keys, mints, mini hand sanitizer, etc.)
  • Small empty water bottle
  • (1) pair of sunglasses
  • Hotel reservation print-outs

In the roller duffle:

These are all of the things that I am packing in my roller duffle (top left corner)

These are all of the things that I am packing in my roller duffle (top left corner)

  • (2) toiletries bags
    • (1) for liquids
    • (1) for non-liquids

      Unpacked toiletries bags

      Unpacked toiletries bags

packing 7

Packed toiletries bags

  • (1) umbrella
  • (1) bag of instant coffee and oatmeals for the mornings
  • (2) leather belts
  • (2) pairs of jeans
  • (1) pair of shorts
  • (1) black skinny stretchy fabric pants – wearing on the plane
  • (1) wool jacket – wearing on the plane
  • (1) canvas jacket
  • (1) black cardigan sweater
  • (1) blue linen blazer
  • (1) light weight zip up sweatshirt
  • (2) good quality cotton tshirts
  • (2) ¾ sleeve blouses – wearing one on the plane
  • (2) sleeveless blouses
  • (2) dresses
  • (2) black cami’s – wearing one on the plane
  • (1) tshirt for sleeping
  • (1) pair of cotton capris for sleeping
  • (8) pairs of underwear
  • (1) strapless bra
  • (1) regular bra
  • (6) pairs of socks
  • (1) pair of black waterproof ankle boots – wearing on the plane
  • (1) pair of fashionable sneakers
  • (1) pair of black strappy sandals
  • (1) hair straightener
  • (1) set of earplugs
  • (1) makeup bag

    My makeup bag (I love cosmetics)

    My makeup bag (I love cosmetics)

  • (1) small bag of jewelry and hair accessories
  • (1) evening purse
  • (1) daytime cross-body bag
  • (2) lingerie bags for dirty clothes separation

Just like with my packing guides for Europe and Florida, I’ve been able to pare down my packing list to just the essentials that I know I will need, plus one or two extra outfits – just in case. (I mean…I’m AM a girl!)

packing 1

Everything is packed and ready to go!

Took a little effort, but the duffle bag zipped all the way closed

It took a LITTLE effort, but the duffle bag zipped all the way closed

Because I focused on the essentials, I don’t expect to have to buy anything extra on this trip. As you saw last week, this trip is going to be pretty expensive despite only being gone for six days, so the less things I need to pick up in SF, the better.

To close, I have to be honest with you: my boyfriend and I will probably ship home a few cases of wine to our apartment as Sonoma County souvenirs. But…I mean…it’s not like I’d ever pack numerous bottles of wine in my carry-on anyway so…no harm no foul for this packing post!


How To NOT Go Over Budget While You’re On Vacation

It’s very easy to spend more than you expect when you’re on vacation. Even if you plan in advance, your “vacation brain” can set it. Actually, I think they call it YOLO these days.

We’ve all been there. You’re relaxing by the pool – it’s hot as heck – and you absolutely needed all four of those $8 strawberry daiquiris with the mini umbrellas that the pool boy placed on the table next to your lounge chair. Then you get the bill – $36 including tax! Plus you have to tip! Yikes. You just spent $43 and you haven’t even gone out to dinner yet.

After several OMG DANGIT moments like that in my travels, I learned that the tactic that works best for me is to map out my daily expenses ahead of my trip so I know exactly how much I’m in for.

You're at a moonshine distillery in Gatlinburg, Tennessee with your friends. Ergo, you will probably buy a few rounds.

You’re at a moonshine distillery in Gatlinburg, Tennessee with your friends. Ergo, you will probably buy a few rounds.

Please understand that my budgeting tactic does not involve planning every single detail of my vacation in advance. Au contraire, mon ami!

Instead, I map out what I know to be true, and give myself an allowance for the rest. Since many of my readers typically travel with at least one companion, I thought the most relevant example would demonstrate what it looks like to travel with a buddy for ten days. The example below is from my trip to Seattle and Vancouver in late summer 2013 – and my boyfriend was my buddy.

Planning to $5K Vacation Budget - my Vancouver/Seattle Trip 2013

Planning to $5K Vacation Budget – my Vancouver/Seattle Trip 2013

As you can see, I estimated each of our expenses by day, and included notes about what was planned in advance. Most notably, I divided up my budget tracker into four vacation expense types:

  • Transportation
  • Lodging
  • Food
  • Activities & Souvenirs

Based on my experience, all travel expenses will fall into one of those four buckets.

Ever since I started pre-planning my trips using this spreadsheet tool and making sure to stay within my allotted budgets, I have not had any issues with overspending at a “YOLO” moment. (for all non-Millennials reading this, YOLO stands for “you only live once”)  I know exactly what I can spend each day on food and souvenirs, and I stick to it.

A few budget-busting tendencies to avoid during your travels are:

  • Not packing what you truly need. Last year I went to Ireland in the springtime without waterproof shoes. On the second day of my trip, and after several spontaneous rain showers, I scoured the shops in Dublin for a pair of boots that could get me through the next six days. I ended up spending 60 euro on a new pair of shoes, and had to make up for that cost within my food and souvenirs budgets over the rest of the trip. Major bummer.

    Shopping with my best friend for warmer clothes in Cork, Ireland.

    Shopping with my best friend for warmer clothes in Cork, Ireland.

  • Not being realistic about your food/alcohol budget. You’re on vacation. You will most likely have at least one coffee and one alcoholic drink per day. If you’re planning to go out at night, budget for a few more drinks than you usually consume. It’s always better to over-estimate what you’re going to spend on food and drinks than under-estimate. And don’t forget about exchange rates! If you’re in London, there’s absolutely no way that you’re going to spend the equivalent of five dollars for lunch on-the-go.


    Create a realistic budget for what you will spend. (image source: flickr.com)

  • Forgetting to account for fees. Before you leave, think through carefully when you’ll be charged specific fees. There are many examples of this to choose from. Most airlines charge around $25 to check a bag. Some hotels charge a small fee to print out your boarding pass. Some train stations have pay-per-hour lockers to store your bags for the day while you tour a city. If you’re renting a car, you may have to pay to park near a tourist attraction. Whatever the case may be, I recommend that you brainstorm all potential fees in advance of your trip so you can factor them into one of your four trip expense buckets.

    Think through all potential fees in advance so you're not caught by surprise (image source: timeshighereducation.co.uk)

    Think through all potential fees in advance so you’re not caught by surprise (image source: timeshighereducation.co.uk)

I hope I’m not being the bearer of bad news as I explain how expensive dream vacations can be. Trust me – I am just as eager as you to explore the world! And I know that people who read travel blogs are usually looking for inspiration rather than a reality check. So for that reason, I’m sorry!

But, by using my budgeting tool to help you take affordable trips, I sincerely hope I can help you experience an enjoyable vacation that you won’t have to pay off for several months upon your return. To me, that idea alone is inspirational!

So, feel free to download my vacation budgeting template here, located in my MeansToTravel google docs.

Here’s to hoping my tactics can work for you too!

Washington D.C. – A Budget Traveler’s Dream Weekend Vacation

As the old saying goes, “sometimes the best things in life are free.”

What endears me so much about Washington D.C. is that many of the city’s main attractions cost zero dollars. In two days my boyfriend and I were able to walk to every monument as well as go to the National Gallery without dropping a penny!


My boyfriend Derek and I in the Summerhouse outside the Capitol Building


The second floor at the National Gallery of Art


Derek at the White House


Me on the steps of the D.C. War Memorial

And that’s not even all we could have done for free! If we had a few more days to spend in the Capital, we could have gone to many more museums without shelling out cash. How positively London-esque…

Back home in New York it’s very difficult for tourists to save money. Most of the landmarks have an admission fee, and museums either have a high entrance fees or strongly encourage donation upon arrival. You may literally get the stink eye from the docents if you ask for a museum ticket without offering some form of donation.

For budgeting reasons, I can see why Washington D.C. is a very popular trip for families and travelers alike. My boyfriend and I had an easy time finding an affordable hotel room near the White House at the last minute since most government offices and businesses are closed on weekends. Additionally, the subway system was easy to navigate (and clean!), which made getting from point A to point B quick and affordable. And for meals? There are many affordable chain restaurants allowing you to eat inexpensively.

Me eating a crepe

Eating a delicious and filling savory crepe at Point Chaud Café & Crepes

If we had been on a very tight budget, I assume we could have kept our food costs pretty low. However, for a few meals and drinks we decided to pull the yuppie card and mix a little budget consciousness with a little fun splurging.

Friday dinner/drinks:  Blackfinn, Downtown
Saturday brunch: Point Chaud Café & Crepes, Downtown
Saturday dinner: Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak, & Stone Crab, Downtown
Saturday bar: McClellan’s Retreat, Dupont Circle
Saturday post-bar carbo-loading: The Diner, Adams Morgan
Sunday breakfast: Cosi/Starbucks, Downtown
Sunday lunch: Potbelly, Chinatown

Derek ordering

Derek ordering at a cafe


Half-eaten delicious crepe. 🙂

In order to get from NYC to D.C. we chose to take the slowest and cheapest form of transportation – the Eastern bus. It took about five and a half hours each way, but only cost us $60/person for the round-trip (we bought the tickets the day before we left, so I believe you can save money by purchasing in advance). If we had rented a car, purchased Amtrak tickets, or flown, the cost would have been in the hundreds of dollars per person – a few extra travel hours saved us a lot of mooooo-lah!

Since the city is well lit up and boasts wide roads and sidewalks, once we arrived in Chinatown we decided to walk a mile with our roller duffles to our hotel – the Capital Hilton. Honestly, the weather was really temperate that evening, so it was a fairly pleasant trek. Saving that cab fare was a simple choice.

Once we checked in to our hotel for the weekend, we met two friends out for drinks at a nearby downtown bar. While the drink prices were comparable to NYC, I was shocked at how empty the bar was! We were in the touristy area and we could easily get a booth! My takeaway that night was that if you want to go out in D.C. and really experience the nightlife, you should think about exploring the neighborhoods. And we did JUST THAT the following night.

The next day began our first true foray into the tourist scene – and oh boy were there a lot of us tourists there! My boyfriend and I chose to follow a free TripAdvisor walking tour that we had dug up online, which started at the White House, wrapped us around to the Washington Monument, and then kept us meandering through all of the memorials. We saw the WWII memorial, Vietnam memorial, Lincoln memorial, Korean War memorial, FDR memorial, Jefferson Memorial, and more within a matter of hours. I found it remarkable that you could see all of those iconic landmarks so quickly! D.C. was definitely well-planned out for sightseeing.

Derek and I at the Washington Monument

Derek and I at the Washington Monument

Me at the WWII Memorial

Me at the WWII Memorial

Me and Derek at the Lincoln Memorial

Me and Derek at the Lincoln Memorial

Korean War Memorial

Korean War Memorial

MLK Memorial

MLK Memorial

FDR Memorial

FDR Memorial

If you know anything about D.C. this time of year, you might be itching to know if we saw the cherry blossom trees in bloom. Ever since the Mayor of Tokyo gifted D.C. with dozens of cherry blossom trees in 1912 as a token of our nations’ developing friendship, the cherry blossom trees bloom for a couple weeks every April at the Tidal Basin’s waterfront. The sight is breathtaking, and both locals and tourists flock in droves to see the blooms and attend the National Cherry Blossom Festival. The day before our trip we refreshed the cherry blossom blogs like banshees in hopes the blooms would start to open. Alas, when we walked around the Tidal Basin on Saturday, it was clear that we had come a few days too early.

The cherry blossom trees along the Tidal Basin on April 4, 2015

The cherry blossom trees along the Tidal Basin on April 4, 2015

One of the first blooming cherry blossom trees in D.C. in 2015 - 4/4/15

One of the first blooming cherry blossom trees in D.C. in 2015 – 4/4/15

The “blossom blogs” (as I would like to call them) have explained that this year’s delay was a result of the cold weather that the East Coast experienced this winter. However, the lack of blossoms didn’t stop the D.C.-er’s from beginning the celebration! Near the paddle-boat docks at the Tidal Basin we found the Cherry Blossom Festival in full swing – complete with drummers and funnel cake! It was a true cultural experience, and we sat for a while to watch the families and tourists enjoying the day.

After a long day of touring, we took a short nap/shower break back at our hotel before heading out for the evening. I had managed to nab a reservation through a family friend at one of the newest downtown hotspots (Joe’s), where we enjoyed an incredibly delicious meal with some friends. The vibe was trendy and posh – exactly what you would expect eating walking distance to the White House. After the meal we made our way to Dupont Circle, were we explored the bar scene and ended up at a new place called McClellan’s Retreat next to the Russia House. I giggled when our friends told us that the place has been the embassy of a small African nation only a few months before – that’s so D.C.

Enjoying the company of friends at Joe's Seafood!

Enjoying the company of friends at Joe’s Seafood!

After a couple hours and a couple glasses of wine, we decided to make our way to Adam’s Morgan where we went to a place called “The Diner.” Once there, I ordered a slice of pie and a hard cider. I’d say it was a combination that I never would have dreamed up myself, but I was NOT upset about it. My friends ordered similarly and we all chatted happily over sweet drinks and sweet desserts. Finally around 1:30am we called it a night.

Friends enjoying drinks at dessert at The Diner!

Friends enjoying drinks at dessert at The Diner!

Waking up the next morning was tough – but I was motivated. Our bus left at 2 and I REALLY wanted to see the collection at the National Gallery before we left. We hid our Starbucks in our camera bag as we got on the metro (apparently you’re not allowed to eat on the metro in D.C. – must be how it stays so clean!) and made our way to the museum. I’m an art lover, and it did NOT disappoint. Their collection of European classics was extensive, and I’d venture to say I enjoyed the collection more than the Rijksmuseum’s in Amsterdam! (And…as I mentioned before…it was free to get in.)

Browsing the paintings in the National Gallery of Art

Browsing the paintings in the National Gallery of Art

While the collection is vast, the painting that was the most special for me was Claude Monet’s Houses of Parliament, Sunset – pictured below. My grandmother introduced me to Monet as a child, and he has been my favorite painter ever since. When I studied abroad in London I discovered that Monet had painted a series along the Thames in 1903 and 1904. The series captivated me – my favorite artist had painted my favorite city! The National Gallery contains several pieces from that series, but my heart belongs to the sunset’s reflection in the work below.

Me at Houses of Parliament, Sunset by Claude Monet

Me at Houses of Parliament, Sunset by Claude Monet

Due to tight timing we were only able to be at the National Gallery for a little under two hours before we had to leave to catch our bus home. We grabbed our bags from the hotel (and some sandwiches at Potbelly’s) before making our way to the queue.

While waiting in line for the bus, I want to quickly note that we met another young couple standing behind us. They were from Minsk and were visiting the U.S. for an international law competition in Virginia. The competition had just ended, so they were planning to spend the following few days in NYC before heading back to their law school in Moscow. I mean, that’s so D.C. Where else will you strike up a conversation with law students from Belarus?

But, to be honest, I find the international flair of D.C. to be part of its charm. The city itself is much smaller than New York (D.C. metro area has about 5.8M people). Yet, it still feels large enough to get lost exploring, and also lovable enough to regret when you leave. There is so much left for me to see in D.C., and I’m looking forward to my eventual return.