By Alene Laney
April 13, 2022
Vacations are supposed to be a time for us to rest, relax, and recover from the stress we endure in our everyday lives. Worrying about the costs involved in making it happen can be counterproductive to that end.
That's where budgeting comes in. Carefully thinking through all the financial aspects of your vacation and coming up with a smart approach to saving for it can relieve a lot of the pressure that vacation planning can bring.
- Establishing a specific goal and financial plan are key to a successful vacation.
- Regular, planned saving helps ensure you have money set aside for your trip.
- Money-saving hacks can help you stretch your dollars while you're traveling.
Why create a vacation budget?
Budgeting works. It might sound boring, but having a plan can ensure you'll actually make it happen. And when the money part is taken care of, you don't have to worry about going into debt making memories with your family.
"Your budget is the tool that turns travel dreams into a reality," says Jesse Mecham, founder of the budgeting app You Need a Budget (YNAB). "By creating budget categories for travel and saving money toward those goals, you can reduce stress and completely disconnect and enjoy a trip you know you can afford. (And won't still be paying for weeks, months, and even years later)."
4 money tips to make your dream vacation a reality
We've consulted with experts in the travel industry for the best ways to budget and save money for travel. You can start using these strategies immediately to reach your vacation goals.
1. Set your sights on a goal
Putting a vision together for your vacation is a great way to start the budgeting process.
"To budget for your travel goals, start with the fun part: dreaming, research, and planning," says Mecham. "Where do you want to go? When do you want to go? About how much money will the trip cost?
"You might not be able to nail the total trip cost down to the exact penny. Still, you can get a reasonable estimate by considering airfare, lodging, transportation, activities, pet care, souvenirs, food, etc."
2. Do plenty of research
Basic research and estimates can help you get initial costs down on paper. Google Travel, Reddit, Facebook groups, blogs, websites, and other forums have more information than ever before.
You may find during your research that traveling to some places is less expensive than others.
"Travel can be a lot cheaper than people think," says Travel blogger Drew Binsky. "Finances generally scare people away from traveling."
"The biggest tip is to choose countries wisely. If you want to go to Singapore or Hong Kong or Japan, you're going to spend a lot more money. If you want to travel and don't have a big budget, go to Southeast Asia, go to central Asia, go to some Latin American countries. For $50 a day, you can travel full time and comfortably."
Doing research early will enable you to take advantage of deals when you see them. For example, if you know that flights to Paris typically hover around $900, and you see the flight go on sale for $500, you'll know it's a good time to snatch that low fare.
3. Use smart strategies for saving
Saving money isn't always easy, but there are some smart strategies that can help.
Break down the amount by day, week, or month: Saving $3,000 for a yearly vacation comes out to just $8 per day or $250 per month. Breaking it into smaller amounts makes the goal more attainable. If you have less time to plan, Mecham suggests dividing the total amount you need by the number of months you have until departure. "If the number doesn't feel realistic for where you are right now, consider pushing the trip back a bit. Keep adjusting until the monthly payment feels right for you," he says.
Establish a sinking fund: A sinking fund is a reserve of money set aside for a planned expense. When you contribute proactively to an established fund for expenses such as a vacation, you can feel good taking the money out when it's time to book.
Put money in a separate account: Setting money aside in a separate bank account makes it less tempting to access. Don't carry the debit card on you and don't have it be the same account where you withdraw your everyday expenses.
Automate savings: Designate a portion of your earnings to be automatically deposited into your vacation fund. You can do this through your employer, or on your own. Schedule a recurring transfer from your main account to your savings account at least once a month (or more often). You can set the transfer date to the same day your paycheck is deposited so you never miss the money. Set it and forget it.
Reduce discretionary spending in other parts of our budget: Analyze current spending to see if there are areas you want to cut. Is it worth it to eat at home instead of eating out? Can you save money by switching insurance or canceling a subscription? Are you willing to live with second-hand household items? If a vacation is important to you, it makes it a lot easier to save in other areas of your life that you value less. Spend according to your values.
4. Learn money-saving travel hacks.
To get the most out of your money, there are some smart money-saving hacks to help your dollar go further. Here are some great ideas to get you started.
Be flexible with dates and times: "The first step in making your vacation dollars go further is to be as flexible as possible," says Matthew Kepnes, author of the travel blog Nomadic Matt. "If you have a specific destination and a specific date in mind ('I want to go to Paris in July') then you're going to be forced to pay whatever price the flight and accommodation cost. You're at the whim of the industry."
"However, if you add some flexibility ('I want to go to Europe in the summer') you'll be able to find way more details on flights and hotels, which can cut your expenses in half."
Go when prices are low, such as during shoulder seasons: When fewer people are traveling, prices for hotels and flights are much lower. In the spring and fall, airfare and hotel prices will be lower when fewer people are visiting. As a bonus, there are also typically fewer people crowding out the attractions.
Use your credit card reward points: Credit card points and miles can be a powerful and valuable tool for taking a huge chunk out of your vacation expenses.
"My favorite way to save money on travel is to not pay for it at all," says Chris Hutchins, host of All the Hacks, a podcast about upgrading your life, money and travel. "I've 'travel hacked' trips all over the world by using the points and miles I've accrued from credit cards to fly or stay in hotels for free. Many rewards cards offer sign-up bonuses for opening a new card that can be as big as 100,000 points or miles, which is often enough to cover a flight anywhere in the world."
When your flight and hotel can be paid for with credit card points, it makes going on vacation cheaper and more attainable.
There's a whole industry dedicated to helping people earn and redeem credit card points and miles. Taking advantage of these resources can make your vacation dollars stretch more than you may realize.
Subscribe to a flight deal alert service: If your vacation involves flights, it may be worth subscribing to a deal alert service, such as Airfarewatchdog or Scott's Cheap Flights. They notify you by email or text when low airfares are available. The best part about being subscribed is someone else does the work for you. When you get a deal alert, you can book it and save without having to spend a lot of time online searching for a deal.
Quick tip: Google Flights is one of the best ways to find flight deals. You can calendar shop for the lowest fare for a destination. It also displays the average price for a ticket.
Find discounts: If you need to buy pricey tickets for an attraction, be sure to research where to find discount tickets. For example, you can often buy amusement park tickets at a Costco near the attraction for a nice discount.
Learn the best way to get around: Knowing the most cost-efficient way to get from one place to another can save you a lot of money. If you're traveling through certain parts of Europe or Asia, public transportation systems are typically very robust. In some places, taxis are pretty cheap. In others, it may be cheaper to rent a car. Binsky recommends exploring cities by foot or bike. It allows you to go at your own pace and deeply experience a place.
Quick tip: Low-cost carriers in other countries can save you a lot of money on flights. Take a look at Air Asia, Ryan Air, Jetstar Airways, and others.
Prepare for the unexpected
Don't forget that things can go awry with even the most-carefully planned vacations. Always be ready to cope with a financial emergency.
If you're traveling internationally, familiarize yourself with the locations of your home country's embassies. They may be able to provide you with emergency financial assistance if needed. Carrying emergency cash and keeping a backup credit or ATM card with you also are smart moves in case you run out of money and your primary accounts become inaccessible.
Travel insurance can also protect you against a range of financial risks and losses. These include the cost of emergency medical care and transportation, lost or stolen baggage, and even help if you become a victim of identity theft while abroad.
A vacation is intended to provide some relief from the stresses of work and our daily lives, improve our health, and leave us feeling refreshed and recharged when it's over. Taking a smart approach to financial planning so you don't have to worry about what it costs can go a tremendous way to making that happen.
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