My Best Vacations Were School Field Trips

From Medieval Times to Italy and Greece.

Photo credit: Kai Lehmann, CC BY 2.0.

My family isn’t a big vacation-taking clan. The best we did were camping trips by one of Florida’s many, many lakes or rivers where my dad tried tirelessly to bestow his love of fishing onto me, his only daughter. His attempts failed so hard that I eventually became a vegetarian. (Sorry for the disappointment, Dad.) Every once in a while we’d camp at a legit campground that was right on the beach and had amenities like a pool and an arcade. Those were the kind of camping trips I could get behind.

But, for the most part, vacations just weren’t part of our lifestyle. My parents were always hourly workers, so taking a vacation meant losing money, not only because they were spending it on a trip but also because they were missing days of work. It just wasn’t something we could budget for.

This meant that my biggest vacations came in the form of school field trips. These still cost money, of course, but sending one kid on a trip vs. our family of four was obviously more cost-effective. (Not to mention the significantly lowered group rates schools are usually able to get.) Sometimes the trips were one-day events, like when we went to Medieval Times, Universal Studios, or that one weird chorus trip to see Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat starring Donny freakin’ Osmond. Others were more elaborate trips, like a week in Washington D.C.—or the once-in-a-lifetime trip to Italy and Greece I took in my senior year.

That trip was the stuff of dreams. Ever since I was young, I had an inexplicable obsession with Italy. It was the one place I wanted to visit more than any other. I was too young to fully understand where Italy was geographically, but I knew it was a place I needed to go. When it was announced that our senior trip would be ten days in Italy and Greece, my parents were determined to do anything in their power to get me there. And so was I.

I don’t remember the exact amount we were asked to pay, but I remember it being around $3,500. The trip was through EF Educational Tours, and our tickets covered airfare, hotels, breakfast and dinner every day, several tours, and any assorted transportation costs (ferries, buses, etc). I was also responsible for getting a passport and bringing enough money for ten days of lunches and any souvenirs I wanted to buy.

I picked up as many shifts as I could at my waitressing job and saved everything I could. I was monumentally bad at that job and have steered clear of restaurant work ever since, but somehow I still did okay. My favorite customer was the owner of an art gallery across the street who came in every morning for an 85 cent cup of coffee and left a $5 tip. I plan to build a monument in his honor one day.

On my parents’ end, they were also working and saving tirelessly, but weren’t making much progress. As all lower to middle-class families know: if you could be saving money, you already would be. As we inched closer to the payment deadline, they decided to ask for help. My aunt and uncle happily gave us the money we needed for the trip, since they had watched their niece babble on and on about ancient Rome and Michelangelo since she was three years old. They were thrilled to make this happen for me.

The trip was one of the best experiences of my life. It was full of history and art and the best food I’ve ever eaten. Our guide taught us local customs, like the appropriate amount to tip. She said if your total was $4.05, your tip should round up to the next dollar. (Please don’t yell at me if this is incorrect information. It seemed wrong, but Natalia was so adamant!)

The money I had saved mostly went towards souvenirs, lunches, and a lot of alcohol since I had just turned 18 and could legally drink abroad. (Sorry about that, Mom.) As a hoarder of sentimentality, I still have every single thing I got while I was there: an intricately design glass from the Vatican, a necklace and bracelet I got at a boutique jewelry store in Rome, a dress from an outdoor mall in a small town I can’t remember, a stone from the Mediterranean Sea (I didn’t pay for that, obviously), along with every menu and every train ticket. I wanted to remember it all. I wanted to appreciate it all.

I also knew I had to force my wants to match my budget. I brought close to $1,000 and spent every bit of it. If I had brought only $500, I would have made that work as well, maybe by not drinking quite so much Limoncello. On the other hand, if I had brought $5,000, I probably would have found a way to spend the full amount. I was constantly seeing things I wanted to buy but was limited by my budget and the amount of stuff I could fit into my luggage—including the gifts I brought back for my family.

I haven’t always done the best job of appreciating the sacrifices my parents made so I could have opportunities, because I often looked around at other kids who had way more. The truth is, I may have gone without a lot of stuff I wanted, but I never went without something I needed—and I never missed out on an experience even when I knew we couldn’t really afford it. Even if that senior trip was all my parents ever did for me, it would have been enough. I hope I can give them their own life-changing vacation someday.

Stephanie Ashe is a freelance writer, cat mom, and pop culture devotee. She’s probably talking about a 90’s movie on Twitter right now.

This story is part of The Billfold’s Vacation Series.

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