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Travelling on a budget and getting more than I bargained for

Guest blog alert! This year’s Saskatchewander, Leah Mertz, has travelled all across the province during a challenging year and has picked up some travel tips along the way. From spending and budgeting tips to the best spots in Saskatchewan to check out, Leah has some great advice for what to check out in the province’s own backyard (when it is safe to do so) and how to save some coin while doing it. 

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Hi, I’m Leah!

For the past 10 years, the Government of Saskatchewan has selected a ‘Saskatchewanderer’ to explore the province—showcasing its hidden gems and best kept secrets. To my surprise and excitement, I became the 2020 Wanderer after applying last fall. But within weeks of being on the job, things quickly shifted as the pandemic took hold. However, my determination to see Saskatchewan remained. With Conexus as the program’s new title sponsor, I became more motivated than ever to find ways of keeping travel affordable during uncertain times.

Where it began…

Growing up on a farm, times were busy. My father was a poultry farmer, and as all keepers of livestock know, there’s usually very few days off in a year—if at all. That’s why every summer, I couldn’t wait for our annual road trip. Each year in August, he would leave the farm in good hands for 10 days, and my family would pile into our Ford Aerostar for our next adventure.

As a kid, vacations almost seemed like a fantasy. There’s very little concept of time as the days become full of swimming, ice cream, bike riding, games, and… more ice cream. You don’t have to worry about paying for accommodations or gas, preparing or finding meals, and driving long hours with impatient kids in the back seat. I look back on our annual family vacation and wonder how exactly my parents kept their sanity. It’s a lot to manage! My siblings and I would have the best time without a care in the world. As an adult, it’s sobering to realize how hard my parents worked to not only afford taking time away from the farm, but also keeping costs at a minimum while on vacation.

Fast forward to 2020

Since becoming the Wanderer, I’ve found myself in charge of planning and executing the largest road trip of my life. I’ll admit, it’s been very challenging and I’ve been reminded of my parents’ hard work every step of the way. However, seeing so many beautiful places (Cypress Hills, Greig Lake, Castle Butte, etc.) and meeting dozens of wonderful people has helped put me at ease.

In the past few months, I’ve learned some hard and fast lessons surrounding money. Here are a few things that have helped me cut excess costs, save in unexpected places, and keep morale high while traveling in high-stress times.

Reusable anything keeps money in your pocket

Two reusable items I’ll never leave home without are a water bottle and a microwavable container. I’ll always fill up my water bottle at a hotel and therefore eliminate the urge to buy one when I stop for gas. Since I’ve been eating out on the road a lot, more often than not a takeaway container isn’t microwavable. Nearly every accommodation will have a microwave and since I started bringing my own container, I’ve never let my leftovers go to waste. We all know how generous Saskatchewan restaurants can be with their portions so on many occasions I’ve happily turned one supper into two—the enormous Perogy Poutine from the Black Grasshopper in Estevan comes to mind!

Preparedness pays off

This may seem like a no-brainer, but unexpected expenses can add up when traveling. Make a packing list before your trip and include everything you could possibly need. Early in the year, I would forget something simple, end up buying it, and then immediately regret it when I returned home to find it sitting in my drawer. I’ve unnecessarily spent hundreds of dollars on duplicates like: sunscreen, bug spray, gloves, hair ties, tweezers, vitamins, and even flip flops for the hotel pool. Plus, if you have to pick something up at a gas station or a convenience store, products like Advil or chapstick have a higher markup compared to where you’d purchase them otherwise. Convenience can be costly.

Oh, and speaking of pools, the Residence Inn in Regina has one of the fastest waterslides I’ve ever been on. Seriously, I might have experienced some g-force on that thing.

Score with loyalty points

Many food chains, and even local establishments have their own loyalty programs that allow you to earn free food, discounted prices, and more. Thankfully our smartphones conveniently allow us to store our loyalty numbers or barcodes. I used to absolutely hate keeping track of loyalty cards, but now that I can have them in my phone or through an app, I’m all in. I won’t admit how many free coffees I’ve scored this year from a certain green mermaid, but I will tell you that she’s been very kind to me. Also, I’ve kept loyalty points with every hotel I stay at, and in a matter of months have earned my way to free nights, higher loyalty point accumulation, and guaranteed late checkouts. Doesn’t get any better!

Keep tabs on your data

On some of my early trips, I was on Google Maps non-stop and endlessly streaming music and podcasts while on the road. I quickly noticed my cell phone data was going over and incurring extra charges. Now, I’ve been diligent in trying to download music, podcasts, and even map directions to my phone while I have Wi-Fi. It took one egregious cell phone bill at the beginning of my Wanderer term for me to be more mindful of data usage while out and about.

Seeing the best of Saskatchewan

With those money saving tips in mind, here is my unofficial list of the best places I’ve been in 2020!

Best food: Just Chicken in Kindersley. Think chicken tenders but like schnitzel. They have some of the best side dishes I’ve ever had—candied bacon, homemade slaw, fry bread, and more.

Best accommodation: The Resort at Cypress Hills. When a fresh blanket of snow falls, it’s a magical winter wonderland with tons of things to do. You can go cross country skiing, snowshoeing, or cozy up by the fireplace in the lodge.

Best trail: Sunset Interpretive Trail in Douglas Provincial Park. This is a beginner level trail that all can enjoy. Halfway into the loop you’ll have one of the best views for a classic Saskatchewan sunset. It’s simply stunning looking out over Lake Diefenbaker as the waves crash against the shoreline below.

Best campground: Anderson Point in Great Blue Heron Provincial Park. With plenty of walking trails and a secluded beach, this area truly feels off the grid while still being close to the amenities of Christopher Lake. Many locals have expressed that this is their favourite place to spend winter too. I hope to return before the year is over!

Best coffee shop: Route 26 in St. Walburg. This place has probably one of the most immersive ambiences I’ve ever experienced. It’s in an old character house adorned with hundreds of nostalgic artifacts. Outside there are plenty of picturesque places to sit as you hear classic country tunes playing in the background.

Best sightseeing spot: Saskatchewan Landing Provincial Park. The rolling hills of the southwest truly look incredible anytime of year. Once you drive down into the valley, you’ll have a 360-degree view of some of the finest natural wonders in Saskatchewan.

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