A 33-Year-Old's $889.36 Weekend Trip To California With The In-Laws

Welcome to Away Game, a Refinery29 series where we tag along as real millennial women embark on trips around the world and track their travel expenses down to the last cent. Here, we offer a detailed, intimate account of when, where, and how our peers spend their vacation days and disposable income: all the meals, adventures, indulgences, setbacks, and surprises.
This week's travel diary: A 33-year-old business analyst heads to the Bay Area to attend her spouse's grandma's 90th birthday party.
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Age: 33
Occupation: Business Analyst
Salary: $33/hr (hours vary)
Travel Companions: Spouse J and in-laws (MIL and FIL)
Location: Portland, OR
Trip Location: Bay Area, California
Annual # Of Vacation Days: 25 (must be used if too ill to work, no separate paid sick leave)
Trip Length: 3 days (Friday, Saturday, Sunday)
Flights: $411.92 for J & I
Airbnb: $298.90
I booked an Airbnb a couple of days after the flights, which is a whole mini place for $298.90 (total) for two nights.
Pre-vacation spending: None. Our friend agreed to cat sit for free. (We’ve been swapping cat care for years.) I didn’t get around to thinking about what to wear/a birthday gift until two days before we left, so I went DIY with a handmade card and selection of family photo prints leftover from printing a bunch post-wedding in 2014 and called it good. I kinda wanted to get a new party dress for the trip right before we left, but worked late instead of shopping. #adulting

Day 1

5 a.m. — SERIOUSLY? Why am I awake? I shuffle downstairs and listen to my current audiobook while snuggling cats.
6:30 a.m. —I feed the cats and wave vaguely at my husband. We are not morning people.
7:12 a.m. — My MIL lets herself in (she’s welcome anytime) and calls hello. I finish tidying up the bedroom and head downstairs. I stuff the last few things in my backpack and zip our joint suitcase. J is less than 5 minutes behind me, and we pull away from the house barely behind schedule. It feels like a miracle. All three passengers proceed to give my MIL directions to the airport with a little comfortable bickering. Ah, family.
8:07 a.m. — We scatter at the airport door to perform our individual airport rituals. J and I wander sleepily in search of breakfast. All of the restaurants at PDX have non-airport locations and are required to have the same prices at airport and non-airport locations, so there are tons of good options at reasonable prices. I look longingly at Blue Star Donuts and contemplate taking on the post-security hike to get a mint Oreo smoothie at Burgerville on the opposite end of the airport. Ultimately, I grab a frittata square from Elephants ($5.09) and J winds up with a bagel and cream cheese and dried sausage stick ($4.95), also from Elephants. (We check out separately because yes, it is too early to make synchronized decisions.) I see LaCroix priced at $2/can and mentally congratulate myself on brining a Polar from home. $9.04
8:30 a.m. —We wander around the delightful pre-security retail area (I love the Portland airport). J gets a book at Powell’s (normally I would too but I’ve been saving one I bought a couple of weeks ago). I take pictures of some shoes I like (my work flats are getting quite shabby) but conclude this would be a poor time to make $100+ decisions. $15
9:05 a.m. — We’ve all four passed security and found one another at the gate. I figure I’ve got 45 minutes before my boarding group is called, so I settle in with my noise-canceling headphones and knitting. Each of the four of us does most of our travel solo (for work) so we pretty much each do our own thing until we deplane at our destination. It took a few years to arrive at this arrangement, but I think we’re all happier with this than the travel as a herd default we started with.
1 p.m. — Our flight was packed with small children going to visit grandparents; it’s been awhile since I’ve seen that many frazzled parents in one place. Our rental car smells like a combo of stink bomb and original Febreeze. We’re all a bit nauseous by the time we pile out of the car for J’s Yelp pick. El Mono is Peruvian comfort food in Richmond, and it hits the spot. I have a spiced avocado purée sandwich with sweet potato fries (the Pan con Palta); my companions try three of the highlighted signature dishes (Causa de Atun, Lomo Saltado, and Aji de Gallina) and everyone was pleased with their choice. My FIL pays at the counter; I think it worked out to about $60 with tax and tip and beverages all around.
1:54 p.m. — We roll out with all the windows open and the car odor improves. Thank goodness.
2:30p.m. — Coral Castle (aka J’s aunt’s house) ahoy! J’s aunt and grandmother are home and it’s hugs and updates all around. Turns out both of the Bay Area cousins are temporarily living at the Castle right now. On the bright side, this means that my cousin quality time mission is TOTALLY on track, but man, I’m glad I’m not the aunt and uncle living with the consequences of two fresh break-ups. The other ladies take off for an art show and J, FIL, and I bask in the peace on the patio. The weather is perfect.
3:30 p.m. The family starts trickling back in and by five p.m. there are ten of us and it’s loud and happy. We eat dinner (fresh grilled salmon and grilled portobello mushrooms and grilled eggplant and a giant salad and cheese and crackers) and spend the evening putting away three (four?) bottles of wine and telling stories. It’s been ages since I talked this deeply and freely and laughed so hard. I break out the semi-random stack of wedding photos I brought in case J’s grandmother wanted some and they’re a hit. She lets others pick a few and keeps the rest of the stack. I definitely did not expect that. After watching his clan react to having great candid pictures of each other (not a thing prior to this moment, as the whole lot are camera shy), J is finally starting to get WHY it mattered to me so much to spend money on photography.
10 p.m. — J’s parents drop us off at our Airbnb on the way to their hotel (I think it’s on the way anyway). It’s tiny and quiet and the perfect antidote to the even bigger crowd of family we’ll see tomorrow.
10:30 p.m. — I semi-guiltily catch up on Instagram (seems like a dumb thing to spend vacation time on). My favorite local jewelry artist has a picture up of things she’s planning to list on Etsy this weekend. It includes a necklace I’ve been crushing on, and juuust in case I DM her to see if she’ll just straight up sell it to me instead of listing it. She’s in! Eight minutes later I own it and am planning what to wear with it next week when it comes in the mail. Jewelry falls in a budget gray area between clothes (a joint category with my husband) and our personal fun money. I ran the necklace itself by J but we didn’t talk about categories. I’ll probably regret not clarifying that in advance. Maybe I can talk him into treating it partially as a vacation souvenir? I’m down to $4.86 of my monthly $190 personal funds. $120
Daily Total: $144.04

Day 2

8:20 a.m. — I wake up thirty minutes before my alarm, realize J is OUT, and take the first shower. I mentally note for my Airbnb review that anyone over 5’7” would have a tough time with the bathroom. We’re short though so it’s all good. The cupboards are stocked with a random assortment of hotel-sized toiletries and makes up for our haphazard packing nicely.
9:20 a.m. — Shockingly, we’re ready before J’s parents planned arrival time so we take a neighborhood walk. We discover that our house in Portland, which is two miles from our downtown jobs, would cost 3.5 times as much in this Marin suburb, which is a good 40 minutes from downtown SF. Without traffic. No wonder the cousins have moved home.
10:15 a.m. — We arrive to full-blown hustle and bustle at the Coral Castle. The crowd is up to 12 and piles of fruit salad, bagels and lox, and avocados are disappearing. I pause to consider the grocery bill for the weekend and am doubly grateful that the most prosperous members of the family are also the most generous. I chill with J’s grandmother and knit as the balance of the party trickle in over the course of the morning. I duck out to the quiet, quiet patio and do some introvert recovery. The weather is still perfect. The view is still insanely gorgeous. (Yesterday evening when my sister-in-law’s boyfriend walked in he stopped dead when he saw the view. I turned to him and said “I know. Ever since I first saw it I’ve been trying to plan vacations around sitting on that patio.”)
12:30 p.m. — One of J’s cousins returned from Thailand earlier in the week and then promptly found a local purveyor of jackfruit. She showed up yesterday with a 10-lb. specimen, and now she turns opening it up and processing it into a group activity. It is delicious. Also sticky in a way that requires industrial strength solvent to clean up.
1:45 p.m. —At this point, I’ve now socialized more in the past 24 hours than I normally do in two months. J and I borrow a car and retreat. J gets In-N-Out burger ($12.67) and I hit the local Safeway with ice cream in mind. I eye a freezer case of gelato bars, but the flavors are insanely high-brow, high-concept so I get a Ruby Jewel sandwich ($3). Because apparently I prefer Portland local treats even hundreds of miles from home. We retreat to our Airbnb and read and nap in peace. $15.67
5 p.m. — The Castle crew is up to fifteen; I chat with J’s grandmother’s friends and nerd out over textiles and design. We eventually manage to break ourselves into four cars to head to the Seafood Peddler in Sausalito where the birthday dinner for 20 will happen. J’s uncle, wine aficionado, brings along 7 bottles. I predict he will end the evening cranky with how the restaurant handles the wine.
6:30 p.m. — Dinner commences. There was no advanced seating plan, but I wind up reasonably happy with my position. It’s super loud, and the food is pretty meh, but the wine is great and watching a bunch of people eat giant lobsters inexpertly is damn entertaining. (I get mine already sectioned out with risotto, so I feel smug.) The prosperous members of the boomer generation in the family split the bill quietly and with remarkably little rancor. It works out to about $60 per person. (J’s uncle is indeed displeased about the wine handling, but expected the total bill to be much higher, so he’s pretty chipper driving home).
8:30 p.m. — The entire set reassembles at the palace for ice cream and homemade flourless chocolate cake and birthday speeches. J’s grandmother had a very poor prognosis 18 months ago, and I know I’m not the only family member who expected our next gathering would be for her funeral. A birthday party is so, SO much better. I get in some good talking with each of the cousins at dinner and after.
10:30 p.m. — I’m hoping for some late night cousin time, but with the Coral Castle packed to the gills (even the dining room has an air mattress in it) people need to be able to sleep. My in-laws drop us off at our Airbnb. (We are pretty much the envy of the clan; we’re spending less than the hotel folks, but still getting the most privacy of the lot.) J and I spend a couple of hours talking.
Daily Total: $15.67

Day 3

9:06 p.m. — FIL knocks impatiently on our Airbnb door. J agreed to a 9 am pickup even after I said I thought 9:15 was the absolute earliest I could manage. (This IS vacation.) I finish the Airbnb checkout at 9:14. I spot an AWESOME weaving exhibition opening in Oakland today, but keep my mouth shut. My FIL has (perfectly legit) Bay Area traffic paranoia, and there is no universe in which we will make a stop in Oakland other than the rental car center and the airport.
9:30 a.m. — More bagels, more lox, jackfruit fruit salad, and eggs. One of the cousins thankfully breaks into the leftover chocolate cake and I cheerfully follow his lead, smearing my slice with avocado. It’s an olive oil based cake, so this is less crazy than it sounds. So good. We chat and chat and chat, and then suddenly it’s time for group photos and departure.
12:10 p.m. — Predictably, we hit traffic and my FIL’s insistence on leaving 3.5 hours to travel 35 miles is justified.
1:30 p.m. — We arrive at the airport and I promptly ditch the fam. I have been to the Oakland airport recently and know that the convenience store/newsstand situation is where I’m most likely to have a satisfying food experience.
I decide to try an RxBar (their relentless Instagram ads finally get me) along with a giant pack of Twix and Diet Coke. (All about the responsible adult food decisions today, obviously.) The RxBar is tastier than the Builder’s Bar I usually go with when I need nonperishable protein. Next time they offer me 12 for $20 I’ll take it and restock my desk protein supply. $10.31
2:15 p.m. — J shows up after an unsatisfactory Burger King experience. $8.52
2:30 p.m. — I spend a quality half hour providing phone tech support to my MIL. I find it quietly hilarious that J is a software engineer but I’m the one who does more parental tech support. (I am slightly less likely to make them feel dumb. Not by a lot though — it’s always a struggle to not grab the phone and sort it out for them.)
5:15 p.m. — We land in Portland. I skimmed through my shoe pictures during the descent and didn’t like anything well enough to stop for. (Though admittedly at this level of cat deprivation, there probably aren’t ANY shoes I’d stop for.)
6:30 p.m. — We get home and cuddle the cats. We talk about getting takeout, then about getting something delivered, but ultimately J makes our fallback hot meal of bean burritos. We agree to introvert in separate rooms for a while.
Daily Total: $18.83
How did you prepare for this trip?
I pretty much didn’t. A few months ago I got the family directive to be there for J’s grandmother’s 90th birthday party on the Saturday and that is the whole extent of the plan. I love J’s extended family and haven’t seen them en masse since our wedding in 2014, so I’m excited about the trip. When I hadn’t gotten around to booking anything at T-10 weeks, my FIL forwarded me the flight info he’d booked, and offered up sharing their rental car to get from Oakland to the Marin area where we’ll all likely gather. I tried to convince J we should stay a day longer than his folks and do fun San Francisco stuff, but since we’re both extra busy with work this time of year, he convinced me we should stick with a one-vacation-day trip length. I did some half-hearted fare searching and wound up booking the exact same flights as my FIL. (He’s great at finding the cheapest airfare and also travels way more than me, so I wasn’t surprised.) We were too late to grab one of the bedrooms at the “Coral Castle” aka J’s aunt’s house where folks are likely to gather, so my FIL sent me their hotel info as well. I balked at $225/night for three stars (ugh, Bay Area) and found a cute Airbnb for less located between FIL’s hotel and the Coral Castle, figuring we would be able to Uber or get rides with family. My dream vacation is going someplace with a nice view and chilling out with people I like. There should be knitting and reading; cats and wine are good add-ons. J’s clan isn’t super into chilling out (they’re more: Go places! Do things! Preferably with exercise involved!), but after 12 years, they’re used to me and my relaxed couch potato introvert ways.
Do you have credit card debt as a result of booking this vacation? If so, how much
Nope. We’re planning a much bigger trip later in the year, so I’ve been stashing extra cash in our vacation budget category in YNAB for months.
When did you book your flight? Do you think you got a good deal?
I booked 10 weeks in advance, and was happy with the price. If I’d been willing to wait and gamble on a fare sale, I might have been able to trim total flight expense by $40, but for Friday and Sunday travel dates sale fare availability can be iffy, so I’m glad I didn’t wait.
Is there a tourist trap you wish you had avoided?
Skip the Seafood Peddler restaurant; I’m told the lobster itself was good, but everything else was “meh” at best and it felt super touristy.
What advice would you give someone who is traveling to the same location?
Don’t stay at a hotel! You might have to check through multiple services (there are multiple local competitors to Airbnb in the Bay areas) but you’ll for sure find something that’s a better value.
Is there anything about your trip you would do differently in retrospect?
I wish I had planned to take the first work day following our return off. The rest of the week would have gone much more smoothly if I’d done laundry and grocery shopping and generally gotten my introvert sorted out. I also wish I’d thought to see if my parents would be welcome and would have liked to come — they get on really well with my in-laws (thirteen joint Thanksgivings and counting) and I think they would have liked being part of a family reunion.
Would you stay at your Airbnb again?
If it was just me, absolutely. The mattress was memory foam though, and didn’t suit J.
Where were you located in the specific city and would you recommend staying in that part of town?
Our Airbnb was in Mill City, about a 20 minute walk from a shopping center with a nice grocery store and also about 20 minutes from a bus line with fairly frequent service to and from SF across the Golden Gate Bridge. Marin County is gorgeous and worth exploring even without its proximity to the city. If you’re traveling with a combo of city and outdoorsy people, it’s a great spot!
Is there anything you wished you had time to do, but didn’t?
We were there during the beginning of a month long open gallery event, and there were a bunch of textile galleries and exhibitions I wished I could have stopped by. If J’s grandmother is still doing well next spring, I’d like to bring my mom (also a fiber arts enthusiast) and take in all the textile shows together. With our knitting in hand! It would be inspiration overload! Plus my mom and J’s grandmother are the snarkiest ladies in all the land; the running commentary would be amazing.
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