As of June 20th, it was official: summer arrived. The seasonal depression of winter has passed, the sweater weather is over, and the lovely summer season is upon us! It’s finally summer and we all need a vacation to celebrate making it through the hardest parts of the year. Yet, we don’t all have the means to take the luxurious vacation we so totally deserve. That doesn’t mean we can’t take the break we need, though! Some people believe that vacations can only be roughing it, like camping in the Poconos, or glamorous, like five star resorts in the Bahamas; but for savvy travelers like ourselves, there is certainly a gray area. You don’t have to rough it to keep it affordable, and you don’t have to forage for deals to have a relaxing time.
Vacations can end up taking a major toll on our wallets, but they don’t have to. Most of the major expenses from vacations (outside of the costs of planes tickets and hotel room costs) come from needless souvenirs, impulse buys, and a lack of foresight, planning, and organization. These are all problems and expenses you can easily prevent, with just a little bit of practicality and know-how. When planning far in advance it’s even possible to plan a last minute vacation on a budget, if you do it right!
If you are in desperate need of some time off, you’re not alone. Fear not! Here is your total guide to planning your PTO on the cheap. Here are fifteen tips for keeping your vacation under budget and affordable.
15. Set A Budget Up Front
Okay, you’re on vacation: TIME TO PARTY! But wait! That doesn’t exactly mean it’s time to make it rain. Just because you’re not home doesn’t mean that you don’t have the same responsibilities as you did before. Remember, once you’re home, you’re going to have bills to pay, groceries to buy, and plenty of things to pay for. Do not let the nirvana-like effects of vacation fool you- you do not have unlimited funds, and you can not shirk your responsibilities just because you’re taking a break from life.
The best way to avoid spending a lot on souvenirs or on impulse buys is by planning your budget ahead of time. Whether that means telling yourself how much you’re allowed to spend across the entire trip or giving yourself a daily stipend for food and luxuries, be upfront and honest with yourself about your finances, what you can afford, and what you ought to be spending.
14. Travel During Off-Seasons
Going to the beach in the middle of the winter doesn’t sound like fun, so this tip doesn’t always apply- you can’t always go to your ideal destination at off-season times. But sometimes you can! The hottest travel times are during the summer, spring break, Thanksgiving, and the winter holidays (Christmas/New Year’s Eve). With that in mind, you’ll save a lot of money already if you simply travel on the off season. Travel in the three weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas; hit up some beach hot spots before the spring breakers flood them in March; brave the Bahamian off-season in late summer and early autumn. Fortune favors the bold! You may get hit with some rain and bleak weather, but you won’t get hit with high prices and long lines.
13. Book Last Minute Deals Or Book WAY in Advance
The majority of vacationers book a few months in advance, with enough warning to take time off, make arrangements for kids and pets, and post pictures of their vacation to be on their Instagram and Facebook (“Look where I’m going to stay!”). Of course, airlines, resorts, cruise lines, and hotels know when you are most likely to book and hike their prices up accordingly, so it’s easy for them to trap you in their high prices. However, that also means that it’s easy for the savvy traveler to navigate around their price traps.
If you’re able to make reservations for your flights, hotel accommodations, cruise tickets, and/or leisure activities eight months or more in advance, do it! You’ll be able to avoid serious price hikes. That said, if you wait until the last minute (meaning, a few weeks or less before your trip), you can find very cheap airline/train/cruise tickets, and you may be able to find cheap hotel accommodations and leisure activities the day you arrive.
12. Consider Your Mode Of Travel
For most vacations, we immediately jump to one mode of travel: flight. If we’re going on a cruise from Miami to the Bahamas, we have to fly to Miami; if we’re camping in the Grand Canyon, we have to fly to Arizona; if we’re skiing in Albuquerque, we’ve got to fly to New Mexico. It’s easy to forget that, while airplanes are a very easy, quick, and convenient mode of travel, they aren’t the only one.
If you’ve got a car, especially one that’s fuel efficient, make the journey part of your vacation and save potentially hundreds of dollars on airfare. You won’t have to deal with sharing your armrest or getting stuck in the middle seat, and you won’t have to deal with pesky or fickle TSA agents.
If you don’t have a car, check out AMTRAK. Yes, trains still run, and tickets can run fairly cheap. Though the journey is long, you can kick back and enjoy the view of the scenic American countryside.
11. Go In A Big Group
Vacationing in a large group can cut down on a lot of expenses. Buying airplane tickets or hotel rooms in bulk can get you group discounts. Having a large group to split a few cruise cabins with can cut the costs down to a completely affordable level. If your group is large enough and your stay is extended, renting a house could be more affordable than paying for hotel rooms or space at a resort.
In most travel journalists’ experiences, the larger your group, the less you end up paying. Groups end up bonding over small and less expensive experiences, like drinking, cheap meals, games, and dancing. Smaller groups like to investigate finer activities, like snorkeling, wine tastings, fine dining, and tours. Large groups have the numbers for safety if they want to investigate local towns without a tour guide as escort, and large groups have more potential for fun without the guiding restriction of money.
10. Go On A “Volunteer Vacation”
Think about it: Katniss volunteered as tribute and got an exciting camping vacation in the gorgeous Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Why’d she complain so much? Her sister should be jealous, really…
Volunteering over your vacation time may not sound like a lot of fun. No matter what volunteer activity you’re doing, you’ll be working hard in service to someone or something else and spending your hard earned personal time on something greater. But that’s the thing – you’ll be spending your time on something greater. Plus, organizations often pay for your travel expenses, or room and board, and you often have personal time in addition to your volunteer time. Whether you’re building homes for those in need, cleaning up a natural habitat and restoring an ecosystem, or teaching a new language to someone in a different country, there are plenty of volunteer opportunities to get you out and about.
9. Eat Like A Local
It’s easy to go on vacation and look for the finest restaurants and most elegant cuisine. It’s also easy to go somewhere and pine for the familiar, and splurge on chain restaurants that remind you of home (restaurants like The Cheesecake Factory, Macaroni Grill, and Bonefish Grill). While a few nice meals on vacation sound lovely and delicious, keep yourself grounded and don’t be afraid to eat like the locals do.
Push yourself to try a few local joints and eat food that the locals do. Don’t eat at the most expensive restaurants; rather, eat where neighbors and employees do. Not at McDonald’s, but at the neighborhood grill or at the locally owned diner. Try a locally owned microbrewery or a small town chef! Not only will you find it forgiving on your wallet, but you may find that your choice to stray from the norm pay off when a local recipe or chef gains renown!
8. Go Off The Beaten Path
It’s very expensive to travel, given, but it doesn’t have to be. One reason expenses rack up quickly is because you’re traveling to really expensive places! Some of the most expensive places to visit are London, New York City, Paris, Luxembourg, Singapore, Toronto, Sydney, Tokyo, Geneva, and Oslo. Of course these locations are expensive to visit: they’re iconic to the countries they belong to, they’re packed with things to do, and they’re totally tourist hot spots! No matter what time of year, it’s going to be fairly expensive to visit these cities- tough luck.
If you don’t care where you’re vacationing and are just looking for an escape, go somewhere less traveled. Visit somewhere cheap to get to and cheap to stay in, like Vietnam, Northern Thailand, Morocco, Albania, Indonesia, or Nepal. While some of these places require you take a few extra safety measures and precautions, they are much cheaper to visit than your typical destination vacations.
7. Leave Empty Room In Your Suitcase
Both men and women are bad packers. We’re all guilty of over-packing and cramming way too many things in our suitcases when it’s completely unnecessary. When travelling to Hawaii in July, you don’t need to pack two jackets; when travelling to Miami, you don’t need to pack five swimsuits (a couple will suffice); when travelling to the mountains, you don’t need to bring multiple pairs of hiking boots and sneakers. Pack smart and pack light. By bringing too many unnecessary items, you’re only giving yourself fines to pay at baggage check and hassles when you’re repacking your bags for your return trip.
Furthermore, leave extra room in your suitcase when you leave home for your destination. That way, you know you’re not going to need to check a second bag on your return trip and you also know that you’ll have room for some souvenirs and gifts, should you choose to do some shopping on your trip.
6. Keep Your Trip Brief
Usually, the duration of our trip isn’t entirely up to us. Our jobs usually keep our trips fairly brief, due to the limits of our paid time off, our crazed work schedules, and the need for us to keep building our savings accounts so that we can pay our bills. However if, for some reason, we have the ability to take longer trips, our expenses will certainly rack up and our wallets will definitely take a hit. Extended hotel stays rack up incredible prices, and the longer you stay in your paradise world hiding from your work, bills, and responsibilities, the longer you neglect your bank account and the maintenance it requires.
Keep your trip brief to keep your wallet full. Trips of a week or less are likely to be optimal, though trips of the duration of a long weekend can be even better for a quick vacation away from the workplace.
5. Bring Your Own Food
One of the perks of vacations, especially if you’re travelling with a family and small kids, is not having to cook all the time. Everyone loves taking a vacation from all aspects of life. That said, bringing food with you on vacation could save you a lot of money, not to mention time. Bringing such little things as jars of peanut butter and jelly as well as a loaf of bread for sandwiches can make things like lunches on busy days much easier and cheaper.
Also, going shopping at a cheap store for healthy snacks on the road trip/airplane/train ride or for in between meals will save you a ton of money and will keep you from bailing on your normal diet and from gaining weight that is so often gained on vacations. This little trip to the store will save you a ton of money in the long run and will keep you in vacation shape, even after the trip is over.
4. Plan In Advance With Groupons And Deals
Nothing is worse than scouring the internet for a last minute deal and having to settle for the worst. Don’t end up like Larry and his dad going to a gay sauna in Orange is the New Black because it was the only decent Groupon they could find.
It sucks to plan to go somewhere fun, like New York City or Orlando or Los Angeles or Chicago, and then not plan exactly what you want to do. If you’re smart, you’ll check out a website like Groupon or some other deal finding site and look for deals on expensive events that interest you. While you don’t need to look for deals on inexpensive activities like putt-putt golfing or club entries, you should look for deals on things like city tours or group events. While it sounds silly and seems like it might not make a big difference, having a few discounts and a plan before you go into a city, and knowing what to do before you get there will improve the experience and be easier on your budget.
3. When Adventuring, Take Tips From Locals And Take Advantage Of Last Minute Tours
While planning things out in advance is the best way to take advantage of online deals and coupons, you may also prefer to be more spontaneous when going on vacation and going on adventures. If that’s the case, so be it! It requires a different kind of savvy and know-how, but it’s totally possible.
If you want to explore but keep things cheap, ask locals for tips. As you do so, just keep your wits about you and make sure to stay on your toes. You might discover free walking tours engraved into the concrete (like the ones in Boston) or local dives that are actually local favorites (like Cookout in North Carolina). You might also discover tours that are looking to fill available slots last minute at a big discount (the tour leaves whether or not they fill all their slots – they’ll offer a spot to you at a huge discount, just to fill seats). Don’t be afraid to be spontaneous on your vacation- spontaneity doesn’t have to come at a price!
2. Don’t Pay for All Inclusive, Unless It Includes A Lot
A lot of people will pay for “all-inclusive” vacations because they believe they are catching a deal. In reality, a lot of people are fronting payments for inclusive vacations when they don’t actually use most of what they pay for. Consider what you’re paying for with a cruise vacation: you’re paying for several buffets, multiple course meals every night, unlimited drinks (of a certain variety, usually not alcoholic), unlimited activities like billiards and shuffleboard, multiple pools, several performances like stand-up comedy and theatre, club entertainment, and lounge entertainment. That’s a lot of food and a lot of entertainment. Most people aren’t able to and don’t take advantage of all the amenities on a cruise ship, which is why they’re able to get away with charging you so much.
Pay attention to what you’re paying for. On catamaran rentals, for example, when you’re paying for your cabin, unlimited food and beverage (including alcohol), and privacy, all inclusive is worth it. Know when it’s worth it and when it’s not.
1. Avoid The Hot-Ticket Locations During Peak-Season
No matter what deals you find or how big a group you go with, there are some places that are going to be crazy expensive no matter what you do. Disney, for example, is always going to be expensive over any kind of ‘break’ (summer break, spring break, even winter break). The winter holidays, Christmas and New Year’s Eve, in New York City are going to be insanely expensive, no matter where you stay (unless you sleep in your car – but good luck finding cheap parking). And if you go to Universal Studios within a year of a Harry Potter ride opening, it’s going to be pricey.
Go to Disney or Universal Studios while school is in session and you’ll be able to take advantage of some great deals! Better yet, get year round passes to Universal Studios or Disney for an amazing deal, if you want to go more than once. Wait for the New Year’s Eve fanatics to clear out of New York City before going up and you’ll be able to snag some better deals on hotels. Time your trip well to get the best deals.