Save Money on Vacations

Vacation season is upon us and plans are now being laid for what could be the single most expensive week of the year for more than a few people.

Vacations are often the biggest single component in the family entertainment budget, and often (and easily) can run into thousands of dollars for a single one week trip. In many homes, the family vacation has become an annual rite, bordering on necessity.

But in a lot of households, the past few years have been draining on the budget, with one or more periods of unemployment and possibly investment losses as well. Recovery from such hits is often only gradual in coming and it may be best to come out of the gate slowly if you?ve experienced either or both situations.

From a pure financial standpoint the best advice would be to not take a vacation. Vacations are NOT necessities, no matter what the prevailing attitudes in your community or in the culture at large, and you should not be leaving bills unpaid or your bank account empty to make them happen. This truly is an expense that should not be incurred unless all other expenses are paid AND some money has been put away for savings AND the trip can be paid for without incurring significant debt.

With that caveat on our minds let?s focus on ways to take vacations at much lower cost.

Rule #1: Avoid the beaten paths

Avoiding the most popular destinations is one way to save money. The more popular a destination the more it will cost to visit.

Last summer we had planned a trip to Disney World, where we?ve been many times, but schedules and finances didn?t allow us to go. Instead we decided to stay in-state and took a trip to Savannah, Georgia.

None of us had ever been there except my son who had only good things to say about it. My wife and I are fully open to going to new places, but our kids, still hung up on the Disney idea, were less than enthusiastic.

We did a four day, three night trip, staying at a delightful bed and breakfast that was in a building constructed before the Civil War, alleged to be haunted, but oozing with charm throughout. Savannah is an old city filled with interesting and unusual architecture, beautiful city parks and squares, and a very active waterfront. Complete with superb seafood restaurants and enjoyable activities, we had an outstanding time and plan to go back again.

We would have thoroughly enjoyed another trip to Disney, except that it would have cost thousands of dollars. The Savannah trip was only few hundred and the kids can?t stop talking about it. You don?t have to go to all the cool spots to have a good time–there are plenty of fun places all over if you dig a little deeper, and in most of them, there?s money to be saved too.

Rule #2: Distance equals money

Keep your trips closer to home. Air fare adds considerably to the cost of any vacation, and can also necessitate the renting of a car upon arrival. Long distance driving is much cheaper, but gas, tolls and wear and tear on the vehicle can be significant, and long hours behind the wheel of a car are also exhausting. But if you do a little investigating, you will find plenty of destinations within 500 miles or so of home?or roughly the distance you can reasonably cover in a single days? drive.

Unless you have of a frequent flyer program with a major airline, or have complete time flexibility in your travel plans, getting airfare on the cheap is becoming increasingly difficult. There?s been a kind of an industry wide flattening out, where the discount airlines aren?t such a discount anymore and the full service carriers aren?t so full service. Either way we all lose in the shift.

This is complicated by the fact that in planning a vacation, you need to select a certain period of time and work the air travel around it; because of work or activity/school schedules, most people?families especially?aren?t in a position to fly stand-by, where the best deals can usually be had.

If you must fly, always shop between various airlines, but don?t make the mistake of assuming you?ll be getting lower fares on any of the online travel services. They?re always worth investigating, but often have no real deals compared to buying direct from the airlines; sometimes they?re even more expensive, so be careful.

Again, best advice here is to eliminate air travel completely when planning vacations. I travel for business, but when it comes to vacations, I prefer to avoid the expense as well as the hassles and aggravation of navigating airports, clearing security and risking flight delays or cancellations. Sometimes the airports aren?t even faster, let alone cheaper.

Rule #3: Time equals money

Here?s my favorite piece of vacation advice: take shorter vacations. Not only are shorter vacations less expensive, but they?re less likely to disturb business or work activities, which is important if you?re a commissioned salesman, a small business owner, or especially an upstart business owner.

If you keep your vacations local, you may be able to take two, three or even four trips per year for no more than cost of a single full week mega vacation. Consider three or four day stays at the beach, the mountains or historic communities in your region. Plan carefully and you can probably go on each trip for as little as few hundred dollars. More trips will give you more places to visit and more vacations to look forward to each year.

Always look for discounts and bargains. Off season–even slightly off season–can mean big savings.

Rule #4: Join and take advantage of preferred customer programs

Join frequent or preferred customer programs offered by one or more of the major hotel chains or airlines. My family and I are members of the Marriott Rewards program and in addition to the fact that the chain has excellent facilities across the U.S. and around the world, we?ve saved quite a bit of money over the past 15 years as a result of that affiliation.

We receive regular email updates on upcoming promotions and discounts, as well as an accounting for our accumulated member points. Recently we spent three nights at a local Marriott taking advantage of a weekend special of $89 per night PLUS a 30% Rewards discount offer. Result: $62 per night at a full service hotel.

You can hardly get a crappy roadside motel at that rate any more. If you are in a preferred program with a major hotel, it may help to plan your vacations around the specials they offer; as in all things financial, you?ll usually save money if you can be flexible.

If you aren’t in a preferred customer program, or don’t like the deals being offered (sometimes they DO come with stiff conditions), check out the numerous discount comparison sites on the web. They are sites for airlines and for various attractions, but some of the very best deals to be had are on hotel comparison sites. Do your homework any time you travel, and do it on the web where ever possible.

Rule #5: Watch those calories!

Somehow food tastes better when you?re away from home, and there are often ?must have? foods that are unique to an area?like seafood at the beach. But food is a vacation ?soft cost? where budgetary control can be lost in a hurry.

When we travel, we look to stay in hotels that include breakfast with the room, or offer it as a relatively inexpensive add-on. If breakfast is prohibitive at the hotel, we?re not above stocking the room with bagels, doughnuts, cereal and milk. Not only does this save money, but it?s also a lot quicker than sitting in a restaurant waiting for service.

Another alternative is to cut the number of meals per day from three to two, by having a late morning brunch, and dinner later in the day. If you?re away for a week and you can substantially eliminate one meal per day, that’s more savings or more money to be spent on other activities.

Vacations can be certified budget busters, but with some planning and rearranging, substantial money can be saved and vacation dollars stretched even further.

What are you doing to control vacation spending this year? Or are you just canceling it in favor of other expenses?

( Photo courtesy of hdreisler )

10 Responses to Save Money on Vacations

  1. I take stay-cations. I take off from work but don’t go beyond 15 miles from home. I’ve not been on a vacation in years… can’t afford it. But that’s OK, I enjoy my little 3 or 4 day weekends I get every so often. 🙂

  2. We’ve done that more than a few times. But for a change of scenery, we’ve spent a few days at a local hotel where we’re preferred customers.

    Sometimes just changing your location for a few days is all you need. (Easy on the budget too!)

  3. Those are all great tips! I recently wrote a similar post on saving money on vacation but it only available to a certain group of people. These are tips that everyone can use!


  4. I love vacation, and it has actually become a priority to our family. Of course, we don’t travel abroad or anything, but I try to take in a new state here and there with the kiddos. As a matter of fact, we just booked our summer vacation for Myrtle Beach and then the
    Smoky Mountains. Vacation keeps me sane, and I love the family time. However, we don’t go if we don’t have the money either.

    However, I research to get the cheapest price I can, I pack a heck of a lot of food myself, and we hate giftshops. We usually go for about a week in the summer with a couple more 3 day weekend trips mixed in. I think vacation is a higher priority for us than many though, and others would probably think we were crazy for spending what we do on trips. But, I only have my kids around for so long, so I want to share as much with them as possible.

  5. Lakita – from the quality of the content on your site I’m guessing what you’ve written will be a benefit to a lot of people. You’re way to humble!

    Everyday Tips – I agree about kids and vacation. The time spent with them while away is priceless, and they so look forward to going. Part of the reason we like to go on the cheap and with shorter trips is so that we can take more of them. Some of our best times as a family were away from home where none of the usual distractions were.

  6. Love Savannah, so glad you mentioned it. Did you make it over to Fort Pulaski or Tybee Island? If you’re looking to take advantage of Georgia state parks as part of your vacation, you may still be able to check out a park pass from your local library.

    As for a vacation this year, I’m looking at Washington, D.C. because of all the national monuments, museums and parks. I’ve also got enough miles for a free ticket on Delta. I’ve stayed on a college campus on vacation before for cheap, so I’ll be looking into something like that for housing.

    I don’t have kids, but I value the family vacations I had growing up. Mom would get hotel deals from the Entertainment book, we’d drive to the location with the car filled with snacks and the first stop once we arrived in town was always to the grocery store.

  7. Tybee Island yes, Fort Pulaski no–but from what we’ve heard we should have. We’ll be back and we’ll check it out for sure.

    Regarding the state parks, a good friend of mine is making it a point to bring his family to everyone of them and they’re really enjoying it.

  8. It’s always hard to save up when you’re on vacation. These tips would surely help.

  9. Rory – that’s why it’s so important to have a game plan ahead of time. When we’re away from home and having a good time, resistance weakens and the chance of overspending is a real issue.

  10. Great tips! This article will come in handy for our anniversary. Trying to do something special but frugal.

Leave a reply