Our Budget Friendly Week in the Smoky Mountains

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Travel is a luxury that Mr. Taco and I have made a priority in our lives. We know that each year every single one of our vacation days will be used to get out of Dodge and experience something new. 

Because of this, we make an effort (keyword, effort) to budget for this indulgence each year. Unfortunately, in 2018, Mr. Taco and I budgeted for travel but pretty much threw the plan out the window by taking a few extravagant (for us) trips.

This year we are more focused on streamlining our spending and trying to increase our savings rate. So, although we thoroughly enjoyed last year’s more pricey trips, we knew we wanted to reel it in for 2019.

Enter some strategic planning and a little travel hacking to help us reach this goal.

Chimney Tops

Strategic Planning for a Budget Friendly Trip

When planning our 2019 trips, we tried to think of ways to experience the world outside of Milwaukee, WI on a tighter budget. From experience, we knew spending time in major cities can be taxing on the wallet, so we limited our 2019 travel adventures to just one long weekend in a city: New Orleans.

We went to New Orleans before the blog was up and running, so I didn’t keep detailed records of our spending. But what I can tell you is that we spent $1700 ($212.50/day per person) for a long weekend in our favorite US city. We had a blast joining a second line parade and watching one of the first Mardi Gras parades of the season. We don’t regret the money we spent.

That brings us to our most recent trip: The Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, where we avoided cities and immersed ourselves in nature. 

For this trip, our goal was to have a vacation where we could hike, relax, read, drink wine/beer, and experience some time outside of the city in one of our beautiful national parks while limiting our spending. Mr. Taco and I love the outdoors, so it’s an easy go-to for a budget friendly trip.

Now that we had our low cost destination, the next step was saving as much as we could on the actually expenses of the trip. 

This was an amazing trip that was also amazingly inexpensive

Travel Hacking to Reduce Trip Costs

During our initial planning, we knew we didn’t want to be so frugal that we would have to take red eye flights and eat packed sandwiches for every meal, but we did want to watch our overall spending.  This is where travel hacking came in.

Mr. Taco and I are in the beginning stages of learning the ins and outs of travel hacking and decided to get Chase Sapphire cards. 

Disclaimer: Before using credit cards to travel hack, please make sure you are able to use credit cards responsibly. At the least, this means you pay your bill in full each month and only purchase what you can afford. 

We like the Chase Sapphire cards since they make it really easy to earn and redeem points. The Chase Ultimate Rewards Portal allows you to transfer points to several partnering airlines and hotels, including our favorite airline, Southwest. They also have an easy to use Ultimate Rewards Portal where you can quickly redeem points for flights, hotels, and car rentals.

For these reasons, we have been really happy with the Chase Sapphire cards and feel they are a great starting point for anyone looking to get into earning and using points for travel. 

Over the past few years, we have been racking up the points with only the occasional reward redemption to get free flights. So in 2019, we vowed to use of our points to cover more of our travel costs, like car rentals and hotels, to help us travel without blowing our budget.

Our most recent trip to the Smoky Mountains was a success from this standpoint. With some strategic planning and a little travel hacking, we were able to enjoy our least expensive trip to date without much sacrifice.

Lookout from the summit of Mt. LaConte

Getting to nature

After hemming and hawing, we decided to fly to Nashville, TN and rent a car. It was possible for us to drive the 10.5 hours, but we decided that we wanted to save some time and fly.

While Nashville isn’t the closest airport to the Great Smoky Mountains, at the time, it had the cheapest direct flights and and also the least expensive rental cars.

Mr. Taco and I like to fly Southwest whenever we can for three reasons:

  1. Southwest has the most flights leaving Milwaukee.
  2. We love the Southwest way:  no change fees and free checked bags.
  3. We can easily transfer our Chase Sapphire Ultimate Reward Points to Southwest.

Note: Another great benefit of Southwest is their Companion Pass. While we didn’t have the Companion Pass on this trip, it’s a great benefit for those who fly Southwest often.  To learn more and to read how we obtained our Companion Pass for 2020-2021 check out: Southwest Companion Pass: Tips and Tricks to Earn Yours

To get the best deal on flights, we also tried to be flexible the dates of the vacation. We knew we wanted to go in May and used Southwest’s Low Fare Calendar to find when it would cost us the least amount of points to fly. 

After transferring about 24,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards Points to Southwest and paying $22.40 in fees we had our flights booked.

Living within 5 miles of the airport makes getting to the airport relatively inexpensive. Our departing flight was early in the morning so we took a Lyft to the airport, but on the way home we were able to catch the city bus for a whopping $2/person.

Flight and Transportation to and from Airport: $38.78

Trip total so far $38.78

Laurel Falls

Rental Car

We reserved a mid-size car for seven days through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal for 16,814 points. This is where we started to up our travel hacking game. In the past, we would have never considered using points on a rental car.

Unfortunately, we did end up spending some actual cash on our rental car after all. Our original return flight was cancelled and we were booked on a flight about 6 hours later. This resulted in us having to pay out of pocket for another day for our rental car.

Nashville is 3.5 hrs away from the Great Smoky Mountains, and our road trip to most of the hiking trailheads required a bit of driving, so we spent a lot of time in the car and filled up the gas tank 3 times during our entire trip.

Car Rental/Fuel Costs: $112.11

Total Trip Cost so Far: $158.89

About to hike through a giant rock on the Alum Cave Trail

Lodging around the great smoky mountains

Mr. Taco and I played with the idea of camping, but after we decided to fly we realized it would be quite difficult to figure out how to camp without a car full of supplies.

Remembering that our goal was to have a relaxing vacation where we could unwind, read, drink some wine/beer/bourbon and experience some time outside of the city, we stayed away from hotels and focused on Airbnbs or vacation rentals in more remote areas of the mountains. 

I’m not sure if it was just luck or the fact that we were looking for places 5 months in advance, but we found an entire private place on Airbnb for $50/night + fees. At first, we thought it had to be too good to be true. There is no way something that inexpensive doesn’t have rats climbing all over it! The reviews were amazing so we took a chance and booked it. 

Good thing we were wrong! The hosts were amazing and the guest house we stayed in was unique beyond words with amazing views of the mountains. Heck, we got to lay in bed and watch the sunset each night! Absolutely amazing!

We could not have asked for a better experience. If you are ever thinking about heading to the Smokies on your own or, as two people, this is the place to stay.

Lodging Costs: $423.15

Total Trip Cost so Far: $574.04

The view from our porch at the Airbnb

Activities in the Great Smoky Mountains

The beauty of going to a national park is that it’s really, really inexpensive to have an amazing time – as long as the weather cooperates.

Mr. Taco and I spent four days hiking through those beautiful Smokies, which didn’t cost us a dime since the Great Smoky Mountains is one of the national parks without an entrance fee.

Our favorite hike was a four mile out and back called Ramsay Cascades. Mr Taco loved it as we spent the last half scaling boulders and hiking through narrow paths. I loved it since we were able to sit by the cascades after the strenuous hike and eat our lunch with no one else around. That moment was worth all the effort of the hike for me.

We did have two days when we didn’t hike. One was due to rain and the other because our 40 year old legs can’t hike 8+ miles every single day!

On the rainy day, we took a day trip to Asheville, NC, which was only an hour away from our Airbnb. Neither of us had been there so we thought it would be a great opportunity to check it out. Where we ate brunch and checked out a few breweries and one winery.

Our second day of rest from hiking had us touring a cavern and eating our favorite meal of the trip at a trout farm.

Cost for Activities not including food: $102.60

Total Trip Cost so far: $676.64

Ramsay Cascades

Food for a week in the Great Smoky Mountains

We love food, so we knew this would be one of our biggest expenses.

One of the reasons we wanted to stay in an Airbnb is so we would have access to a kitchen. Having a kitchen allowed us to reduce our food costs by being able to prepare some meals at our home base. The plan was to cook our breakfast, pack a lunch for the day and eat out at night. And we did just that for all of our hiking days.

On our way to the Airbnb we stopped at Walmart and loaded up on groceries and the necessary supplies we couldn’t pack, such as sunscreen and bug spray. We also brought some snacks with us from home as I found some killer deals combining the Ibotta app with Target’s cartwheel deals.

When we did find ourselves eating out, we did our best to stay out of the tourist areas in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. We were looking for unique places to eat, but also assumed the meals would be less expensive if we looked elsewhere.

Even though we tried to save as much as we could, our food costs were still one of our biggest expenses on the trip. And we were ok with this since food is something we truly enjoy experiencing.

Some food highlights include a place called Monell’s right outside of the Nashville airport. We got there early and had a family style southern breakfast. It was delicious and it kept us full until dinner.

On our second day off from hiking, I we had lunch at The English Mountain Trout Farm. This place was unique in the fact that you could catch your own trout and they would cook it up for you. We opted for having them catch it, and eating freshly caught trout was one of our favorite experiences of the trip.

We also found an extreme bargain meal one night at a place down the road from our Airbnb. Carver’s Applehouse is known for their home cooked dishes. There I had fried catfish and Mr. Taco had some good old southern fried chicken. Both meals included apple cider, apple fritters with apple butter, salad, two huge sides, and biscuits all for less than $30. The portions were so grand that we also had enough food for a meal the next day! Since we live in a larger city, this value blew our minds.

Cost of Eating Out and Groceries: $492.01

Total Trip Cost so far: $1168.65

I ate all the trouts

Three Hours in Nashville

As mentioned above, our flight home was pushed back to later in the day so we suddenly had some time to kill on our last day. Since neither of us have been to Nashville, we decided to end our trip by checking out the honky tonks on Broadway Street. We had three hours and were on a mission to experience all downtown Nashville had to offer.

We had fun checking out the rooftop bars, hearing different live music play on each level of every bar and watching the parade of bachelorette parties on tractors, buses and pedal taverns go by. I had no clue Nashville is tagged as the bachelorette capital of the world. I now know why.

Experiencing a hot second of Nashville was fun, but holy crap was it expensive!

Between drinks, lunch and parking we spent: $151.24. It may not sound like a lot, but when we compare it to the rest of our trip it was quite the expense.

Cost of three hours in Nashville: $151.24

Total Trip Cost: $1319.89 = $659.95/person for 7 nights = $94.28/day per person

Bachelorette party on the back of a monster truck

Our Wallets are feeling good and yours can too

$94.38/day per person is a huge accomplishment for us. I mean just a few months ago we spent $212.50/day per person in New Orleans. I don’t even want to know what our cost per-person per-day was for our 2018 trips.

We had an amazing and inexpensive trip where we didn’t feel like we were missing out on things because we didn’t want to spend the money.

Our goal when planning the trip was to save as much as we could on the larger expenses up front like the flights, rental car, lodging and making sure we had the ability to cook at home. Saving on these items helped keep our costs down. This allowed us to splurge on a trout lunch and a three hour mini-vacation in Nashville while not being concerned with how it affected our budget.

This trip taught us that traveling on a budget while not feeling deprived is totally doable. Our plan is to continue to learn about travel hacking and continue keep expenses down.

Is traveling hacking something you are thinking about? Do you have any travel hacking tips you want to share? I would love to hear your comments below.

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Hi! I’m Melody and I want to help you create a vision for your life and provide you the necessary tools to use your money to make your vision a reality. 

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