Oh, how I love being on vacation.

That's where my wife and I were last week, on the northwest side of Hawaii's Big Island. So enamored am I with where we were that I want you to follow in our footsteps. But I also want to challenge you to do it more cheaply than we did.

Anatomy of a travel cheapskate
Quit smiling. I'm not about to make it easy for you. Our travel to and from Hawaii -- save for $200 in fees and taxes -- was paid courtesy of Mileage Plus, the affinity program that analysts say could be worth $7 billion to United Airlines parent UAL (NASDAQ:UAUA).

Our seven nights of accommodations also came gratis, thanks to Hilton and its award-winning HHonors program. (Our secret for booking hotels on the cheap is here.)

Renting a car cost about $200 -- that's cheap for a week in Hawaii. The deal came courtesy of our Costco (NASDAQ:COST) membership, which keeps partnerships with several travel-related companies, including Avis Budget (NYSE:CAR), Disney (NYSE:DIS), and MGM Mirage (NYSE:MGM). Each booking earns the retailer referral fees.

So far, so good, right? One week of airfare, hotel, and car for less than $500. In Hawaii of all places.

You want how much for that bottle of wine?
But on arrival, we got lazy. Hundreds were flushed away on bad restaurants, unneeded gifts, and, honestly, poor planning.

Some of that was good, though. I mean, really, who wants to investigate a good, cheap local restaurant after spending 20 hours on the road, as we had when we finally arrived? Outrageously expensive Chinese food was just a short walk away. We indulged, and hated every minute of it.

Thus today's lesson. When planning a resort stay in Hawaii -- that's right, if you're the sort for condos on the beach, you already know what you need to know -- realize (hopefully before we did) that resorts make their money on amenities, not on rooms.

See all those ads for the (ahem) "award-winning Italian restaurant run by world-famous chef Marco"? Hotel management sees dollar signs every time you watch. Big, fat wads of cash. Don't feed this currency-crunching beast. Instead, follow these three tips for stretching your vacation dollars.

  1. Repeat after me: "It's only a room, it's only a room." A room is a room, even in a resort. All you really get is a bed, a bathroom, and a TV. Nevertheless, the more time you spend in your cocoon, the more likely you are to spend money. Let's count the ways: room service, pay-per-view movies, room service. You get the idea. Get out and get some air.
  2. Do nothing. Hawaii is great for doing ... nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. And the best part about doing nothing? It's 100% free, baby. We spent hours by the pool reading books. Then, at sunset, we'd move to the beach. Watching the sun fall under the horizon with my wife was, honestly, one of the highlights of the trip. Make time for catching up on your sleep, reconnecting, or simply enjoying the view.
  3. Follow the locals. I'm often amazed at how the most expensive restaurants are the least pleasing. Nowhere have I experienced this more than in Hawaii. Our favorite discovery was a small place called Tex that was frequented by Big Island locals. There, you can get a half-dozen sugared doughnuts called Malasadas for about $6. Add two cups of coffee and you've got a heavenly, cheap breakfast. Or lunch. Or dinner. The lesson? Ask the locals where they go -- you'll save moola and eat better.

Not-so-blue Hawaii
Three times we ate at the resort that hosted us. We were disappointed all three times, and sometimes dramatically so. But we learned our lesson fast, and for the rest of the trip, we either packed snacks or stopped at places where locals gather. Our spending declined dramatically as a result.

We also had more fun in these off-the-wall places -- for either a visit or food -- than we did in our hotel. And, of course, when we were at the resort, we took advantage of what's free: the view, the walks, the pool, and plenty of space for quiet reading.

That, really, is the wonder of Hawaii. So much of what you'd want to do naturally is either free or cheap. So get the points, get the nights, and then break free of the resort as fast as you can. I won't tell, I promise.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.