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If you look at just the numbers, it may seem like the Great American Family Vacation may be dying off. Last year, only 35 percent of families took a vacation to a location more than 50 miles away.
But the reality of it is that many people are holding back from taking vacations because they think they can’t afford it. With proper planning and education, it’s actually possible to take great trips and not drain your savings account.
As Seth Kugel has pointed out, “the less you spend, the more you see (and the more people you meet and the more fun you have)”. So, if you’re interested in getting out there and having a fun trip on a budget, here are a few tips that you need to follow.
1. General Travel Tips—Pre-Planning
Many people dream of just hopping in their car and driving wherever the road takes them. This may sound like a great dream, but if you’re serious about traveling, you need to do a lot more planning than that! There are several steps you should take before you even start booking your trip to get the most out of your vacation.
Get rid of your assumptions about travel.
Many of us have the image of the perfect vacation, but those are just empty images that may have no basis in reality. If you get realistic, then you are probably going to save a good bit more money in the long run.
Don’t let others ruin your expectations.
For some people, social media is a means of bragging about all the exotic places you’ve been to. Don’t let those pictures and posts make you ruin your expectations about what makes a good trip. You are going on your ideal trip—not their’s.
Make a list of what you want from your trip.
Are you looking to visit historical or culturally significant places? Are you looking to go to an amusement park where you can have mindless fun? Do you want to lounge all day on a beach or do you like being active hiking or exploring? By finding your vacation comfort level, you can begin to narrow down where you want to visit.
It’s important to create a household budget early on. By doing this, you know exactly how much you have to work with, so you don’t have to put everything on a credit card.
Look at every essential household bill, figure out how much you have left over to live on, and then put aside a portion of that each month into your vacation fund. This needs to be enough that you don’t have to struggle to make ends meet, but still leave you with something to work with when the trip rolls around.
Get a guidebook.
Although there is a big trend right now to try vacationing “off the grid,” many people are finding that just arriving at a destination and winging it can be expensive and downright dangerous.
Guidebooks may seem hokey, but they are indispensable when it comes to getting around safely, cheaply, and without being a victim of scammers. And now, you can load these on your cellphone and not look like a complete tourist carrying your book around with you.
2. General Travel Tips—Booking
Now that you have an idea of what type of vacation you’re looking for, it’s important to start booking your trip as early as possible. If you wait until the last minute, you’re going to pay through the nose for flights and hotels with the possibility you won’t be able to get to the location you wanted.
So now, let’s look at a few general rules to follow when booking your reservations:
Use Aggregator Sites
These are websites that will check for airfare and hotel accommodations online and then report back to you with the best deals. Think of them as a special search engine for travelling.
It works like this. Let’s say you want to stay in New Orleans, LA. You can pick your arrival and departure dates and the size room you need. The aggregator site will then scour the internet and find you the best deals.
These sites also allow you to set up email alerts to let you know if there is a price change in your desired categories. You can set a percentage decrease on the alert so you can get the best deals—such as only alerting you if the price drops by more than 20%.
This may seem counterintuitive, but once you have a rate quote from an aggregator site, call the hotel you are interested in directly. Many hotels pay heavy commissions to the aggregator sites to bring them business.
As a result, you can actually save money once you call them up and explain that you saw the rate on an aggregator site and were wondering if they had any other specials that might be cheaper. Many will offer you a deal just so they can keep all the money for themselves.
If you fly directly from one city to another, you’re going to pay more for the flight than if you say, made a connection between one or two other cities along the way. This may sound like a hassle, but it can actually keep your flight costs very low. Usually, your travel day is going to be tiring anyway, so why not make it a little longer if it will make your flight affordable.
While this may sound strange, when you use your browser, it collects cookies on you and can track your data. As the websites track you online, they can use the data to analyze where they think you might be going.
Get Cash Back
Many aggregator websites have partnerships with plug-ins and websites such as Giving Assistant that will funnel up to 7% of your payment back to you in the form of a cash-back bonus. If you don’t want to try that option, you can also place your bookings on a credit card that either offers cash back bonuses or offers reward points you can use at a variety of stores or services. By doing this, you can earn cash back and not max out your credit card if you pay it off immediately with the money you had set aside in your travel fund.
Many hotels and airlines offer loyalty reward programs whereby you earn points for future travel bookings when you use them. Sign up for these if you can. Many are free to join and they can really save if you use them wisely.
Be Careful of Refund Policies
If you book early, be aware that the hotel or airline may have a policy regarding cancellations. If you cancel your reservation, you may have to pay a penalty or get a partial refund (or not one at all).
If you’re unsure about your travel plans, don’t get on the hook for too much in case you have to cancel later. However, if you’re absolutely 100% positive of your trip, then go ahead and book early and take advantage of discounts.
Look for Some Freebies
Be sure to look for free upgrades and amenities while booking to lock in a few free items that will help you to save money when you arrive at your destination. One of the easiest ways to save money is by staying at a hotel that offers a free continental breakfast. Rather than drop $5-$10 per person each morning of your trip, simply taking advantage of a free continental breakfast can really help you out in the long run.
Another good freebie to look for is free shuttle service. If you’re staying near an amusement park or shopping attraction, then you can take advantage of shuttle services to these locations and save on either cab fare or parking fees.
Airfare can be the biggest expense if you’re planning to travel a long-distance, especially overseas. One tip to consider is to travel on holidays.
Sure, the week leading up to Thanksgiving or Christmas can be a nightmare for travel. By flying out on those holidays, you can save money. Airlines are looking to book seats those days because most of the travelers have already gotten to where they want to go.
If that doesn’t work with your travel plans, consider booking on a Tuesday or Wednesday as those are the two days of the week with the lowest fares. (Don’t believe us? Just check out the fares for Saturday versus Tuesday.) Also, you can look for lower fares if you fly at odd hours such as taking the “red-eye” flight.
3. Camping/Hiking Tips
Now that we’ve covered a lot of the general travel tips, let’s take a look at some of the ways you can save money with specific types of trips. One of the easiest ways to save money when it comes to vacationing is to also “get back to nature.”
Staying in a campground or along a hiking trail is a lot more affordable than staying in a four-star hotel in Paris. But here are a few other specific things you need to be aware of before you head out to the woods:
Know the Best Times—Obviously, if you’re camping or hiking, you’ll have a more crowded site if you go during the spring or summer and on the weekends. But if you go during the “off-season”, like the middle of the week or the late fall and winter, you can save money as campsites offer discounts.
Additionally, if you go during the off-season, you can save money by not making reservations. If you just show up for a site, you can skip paying the online booking fee. But if you do this, beware—you could get to the site and find that you don’t have a place to stay if the sites are all booked.
Primitive Camping—Many campgrounds charge fees for services and features such as public showers and toilets with running water. If you go for something a little more “old school” with no amenities like running water, you’ll save on camping fees.
Look for Military Discounts—Many campgrounds offer discounts for retired or active military members. In addition, there are several military installations in the country that offer similar accommodations either on the base itself or at a nearby location for rest and relaxation. If you’re currently serving or served your country in the past, this is another good option.
Bring Your Own Food—Many campgrounds are in smaller locales without a lot of shopping options when it comes to food. If you buy in bulk and bring your groceries with you on the trip, you can save more money. Also, skip the pre-made “camping” packaged foods sold at outdoor/wilderness shops and go for simpler products at your regular grocery store.
Borrow—One of the downsides to camping is that you have to bring your own gear. This can get expensive and may not be practical if you don’t camp often.
Instead, ask friends if you can borrow a tent or sleeping bag to use. Try out the experience and see if it’s something you really enjoy enough to invest in the equipment. (And, if you do invest in equipment, spring for the good, quality stuff that will last.)
Bring Your Own Entertainment—Many campgrounds are located near attractions that may try to lure you out for “something to do.” (As if soaking in the beauty of the great outdoors isn’t enough!)
Instead, bring along a book, a board game, or just a deck of cards. Bringing your own entertainment can save money and give you more quality time together when you’re taking a break from exploring.
Your Tax Dollars at Work—Private campground sites are run just like hotels—they’re meant to turn a profit. Go for the cheaper campgrounds at state or national parks. These are offset with tax dollars you already pay and will serve you well in keeping down your costs.
4. Amusement Parks
The phrase “cheap amusement park vacation” may be a bit of an oxymoron. Between the overpriced food, tickets, and souvenirs, not to mention the additional activities not covered by the ticket price, the vacation cost can be daunting.
Here are a few ways to take the family to enjoy the rides and characters without sacrificing their college fund:
If you plan to go to the happiest place on earth, you’re going to want to fly there on an airline that partners with Disney parks. These airlines offer deep discounts on flights if you’re headed to Disney.
Similarly, you can book your trip with a Disney certified travel agent who can also get you discounts on tickets. The cheapest way to experience Disney is to stay off the property and get a discount on your room in the surrounding area.
But if you do want to stay on-property, be sure to choose one of the inexpensive or moderate properties instead of the plush resorts. (After all, you’re there for the park, not the hotel room.)
If you’re worried about ticket prices, you might want to check out some of the time-share companies in the area. For having to sit through a four-hour sales pitch on one day, you may be able to walk away with complimentary park tickets for your family.
Ways to enjoy Disney without your wallet bleeding
As for food prices, you can save a lot by simply bringing your own lunch with you. After spending the day at the park, go outside the property and eat out for much less. Instead of spending a lot on bottled water and soda during the heat of the day, ask any of the food kiosks for a free cup of complimentary ice water.
Finally, when it comes to souvenirs, resist the urge to buy everything you see. Instead, look through the different shops making note of what you really want and then buy just one “must-have” item on the way out of the park.
Or, you can make your own souvenir by bringing card stock paper and a sharpie with you. Have the characters sign the card stock while taking your own pictures with them and then print these out when you come home to put together your own special scrapbook.
When you take into account the theme park and water parks owned by Six Flags, there are 18 different options to choose from. One good option for taking it all in is the Gold Pass which gives you the opportunity to buy an annual membership. It pays for itself in two trips to the park.
Additionally, the pass gives you free parking at the parks, as well as discounts on food and games. The pass runs the whole season from April to October. But if you buy the pass over Labor Day, you can still have two months of park fun at a 70% discount.
If you’re just planning to go for a day and don’t want to invest in the pass, bring a Coke can with you. Six Flags partners with Coke and offers up to $20 off tickets if you bring in a can. If you’re staying near the park, you can also use an Uber or Lyft to drop you off at the park instead of paying the $25 fee for parking.
Finally, you can use the Read to Succeed Program to get your child reading AND get them a free Six Flags ticket.
One of the big new amusement parks is Legoland. Tickets for Legoland start at $90, so it’s a good idea to look for discount tickets. Educational tours can actually cut the price down to $10 or you can look at other discounts including “homeschooler weekends” or military discounts.
Lego Magazine and Costco also give discount tickets and one of the best ways to get discounts for Legoland is to check out Groupon to see if they have discounts for tickets or nearby accommodations.
5. Travel in the U.S.
Depending on where you want to travel, there are A LOT of options for cheap vacations. Let’s take a look at some of the most common US vacation destinations and what to look for:
Washington, D.C.—Washington is a history lover’s dream city, but it also provides an opportunity for a great cheap vacation. First, the city is known for its museums, monuments, and memorials. Most of these are free to all. You really must check out the Smithsonian Museums including the Air and Space Museum and the Natural History Museum.
Must-see monuments include the Lincoln Memorial located on the Mall right next to the Vietnam Memorial. You can also pay your respects to John F. Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery. These locations are easily accessible from the city’s affordable public transportation.
Hotel accommodations are also reasonable if you don’t stay in the city itself, but instead get a room in neighboring Alexandria, Virginia.
Atlanta—A crown jewel of the South, Atlanta is becoming a major tourist attraction. One must have experience in Atlanta is a visit to the Georgia Aquarium, one of the best in the nation. If you want to save money visiting the aquarium, you’ll need to look for discount tickets online.
Have a unique experience while eating frugally at the Varsity diner. This location is world famous and definitely worth a trip that won’t break your bank. You can also get a city pass for about $80 that will get you into several different locations including the World of Coca-Cola and the Atlanta Zoo.
New Orleans—This beautiful city has been rebuilding since Katrina, but it’s still a wonderful vacation destination. There are actually a lot of affordable things to do in New Orleans, not the least of which is just walking through the French Quarter and Garden District to check out the exquisite architecture.
If you want great music, you don’t have to pay expensive cover charges or tickets. Just hang outside of Preservation Hall Jazz Club and you can enjoy the music from the street or check out the street musicians at Jackson Square.
Finally, if you’re looking for the creepy side of New Orleans, choose a guidebook and do a self-guided tour of one of the cemeteries replete with gothic mausoleums.
New York City—Many of the essential tourist attractions can have tickets purchased ahead of time online at a discount. Use this technique to check out the Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building among other locales.
Also, don’t think that you have to stay in Manhattan itself and pay those prices for hotels. Many people go for cheaper accommodations on Staten Island, for example. Then, you can take the ferry into New York and be right at the subway line so you can get just about anywhere.
Boston—Another must see for history lovers, Boston has great affordable travel options. Like Atlanta, Boston has a City Pass option that gives you admission to the Museum of Science, the New England Aquarium, the Harvard Museum of Natural History or a cruise of Boston Harbor, and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, all for one low price.
Las Vegas—Vegas can be expensive if you plan to hit the casinos and aren’t very lucky at blackjack or slots. But, there are still some ways to come out ahead in the long run.
Many casinos are famous for offering deep discounts on entertainment, food, and drinks as a way of drawing in gamblers. While you may not be able to find a $5.99 steak and shrimp buffet on the Strip, it’s still possible to enjoy the high-end buffets with a Buffet Pass that lets you check out a variety of the options at different casinos.
Going on vacation doesn’t mean that you have to go into debt. Instead, with careful planning and realistic expectations, it’s possible to really enjoy yourself and spend time with your family.