3 steps to planning an affordable vacation
Regardless of whether it’s your annual spring break trip with the kids or a once-in-a-lifetime vacation, it’s important to set a travel budget. Don’t ruin the magic of your dream get-away by returning home to a huge credit card bill.
1. Research your destination
Planning your vacation can be almost as fun as the trip itself. Watch YouTube videos, attend travel seminars, and let your fingers do the walking online to learn about your destination and determine general costs. You may even uncover hidden treasures that will help you avoid expensive, touristy areas.
- Start by pricing all-inclusive trips. This will give you a good initial benchmark of what you can afford. Then use this information to decide whether you want to get a package deal or plan your own adventure.
- If you’re a member of AAA, Costco, Sam’s Club, AARP, or other groups; if you’re a veteran, a teacher, or a senior; and even if you just have Groupon, look for special travel discounts.
2. Be flexible with timing
If you have any flexibility in terms of when you travel, you can often find significant savings. Look at mid-week stays or last-minute deals that can offer deep discounts. Check with a travel agent for off-season bargains.
3. Set a budget you can afford
Your budget should include:
The cost of flights and rental cars can be expensive; always check prices on multiple sites. And, don’t forget to factor in the cost of checking your bags with the airline. For flights, you may be able to save by purchasing two one-way tickets on different airlines. If you’re getting a rental car, book early, but then check prices again right before you travel. Prices can drop if the agency has too many cars in inventory. If so, simply cancel your original reservation and rebook.
When planning your flights, it’s a great idea to use online travel sites to find the best airfare. But when it’s time to book, it’s usually better to do so directly with the airline. This way, if something happens (your flight is canceled, for example), you can deal directly with the airline to get rebooked.
While resorts and hotels make sense for many travelers, private home or condo vacation rentals can offer savings, particularly if you are traveling with a family. They also allow you to spend less since you can do your own cooking. Also, consider cutting expenses by booking inside cabins in the lower part of the cruise ship, or hotel rooms away from the beach. How much time will you spend in the room anyway?
It’s not uncommon to find daily valet parking rates at downtown hotels of $50 per day and higher. Skip the car, ask about offsite parking, or consider hotels outside the city center.
Check ahead to make sure the hotel’s Wi-Fi is free. Sometimes, all it takes is to join their ‘frequent traveler loyalty’ club to get charges waived.
Dining out can be a real budget buster. Plan a few special meals and then do your best to ‘eat locally’ for the others. Or, try dining a little early to take advantage of happy hour specials.
If you’re in a hotel, get a room with a refrigerator, then plan to have at least one ‘do-it-yourself’ meal each day. For example, buy fruit and breakfast bars, and skip the expensive breakfast buffet.
If there’s a special tour or activity you want to do, include the cost in your budget. But there are many ways to do fun things and not break the bank. For example, if you want to see a Broadway show, consider attending a matinee or look for ‘day of’ discounted tickets. A quick online search for ‘free things to do’ at your destination will give you a list of activities you may have missed otherwise. If you’re on a cruise, check into booking your own shore excursions instead of through the cruise line.
Before you travel
- Save for your trip by establishing a separate savings account with automatic deposits.
- Do you have frequent flyer miles? Even if you don’t have enough miles for a free airline ticket, you can use the miles you have to ‘buy down’ the ticket price, or you can buy additional miles to make up the shortage.
- Hunt ruthlessly for travel discounts, they're everywhere!
Pro Tip: Consider applying for a travel rewards card, like the Alaska USA Visa® Credit Card. The reward points you earn with everyday purchases could offset the cost of tickets.
While you’re on vacation
- Avoid the ‘let’s splurge because we’re on vacation’ mentality and give yourself an allowance.
- Set a specific daily limit for your everyday spending, then keep track of your expenses.
- If you’re traveling overseas, use ATMs instead of your hotel to get money; you’ll usually get a better exchange rate.
- If you’re traveling abroad, familiarize yourself with the exchange rate so that you are always aware of how much things really cost.
If you’re short on time and want to splurge on a special activity, search for ‘skip-the-line’ tours at busy attractions such as the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, or the Sistine Chapel. You’ll spend a bit more for the tour, but you could save hours of waiting in line. Some of these tours may be included with city sightseeing passes for multiple attractions, or ‘hop-on-hop-off’ bus tours.