How to Plan a Vacation That Won’t Break the Bank

Over the past few years, Brad and I have been trying to take advantage of every opportunity we can to travel. Maybe it’s a few hours away to Dallas for a concert or across the country to visit friends in San Diego. Either way, we’ve grown accustomed to building a few vacations into our schedule each year. Neither of us bring home a huge salary and I can almost guarantee that you on your own make as much or more than both of us combined. So it’s not like we can wake up one day and book a trip with little to no planning. Last summer I did a boatload of research, created a savings spreadsheet to track our finances and booked us a vacation to Mexico for the end of summer 2014. Unfortunately, a few things came up and we had to postpone the trip until next year. But I thought I’d share a few of my tips and tricks to help you plan your best vacation yet.

How to Plan a Vacation

1. Decide where & when you want to go. Whether you’re planning a week-long tropical getaway or 3-day trip to run a marathon, you should have a pretty solid idea [especially if you’ve already registered for said marathon] of where you’d like to stay. Negril boasts beautiful beaches in Jamaica but it’s several hours from the airport, while Montego Bay is less than twenty minutes away. If you want to squeeze every single minute out of your vacation, a location closer to the airport would probably be best. If your mind is set on a quiet relaxing week of doing absolutely nothing in Mexico, you should avoid the Hotel Zone in Cancun and research resorts in Playa Mujeres or Riviera Maya. A cruise might be more affordable in winter months but it might be due to lower temperatures. Make sure you review the average highs and lows [as well as historical precipitation totals] for your destination so you don’t end up spending that beach vacation playing board games in the room.

2. Set a savings goal. After preliminary research you’ll probably have a rough idea of how much this vacation will cost you. Do you want to sacrifice a little quality to spend $1500 at an all-inclusive or are you willing to buckle down to spend $2500 at a nicer resort with more perks? It all depends on how much wiggle room your budget has. Can you save $50 or $150 a paycheck? Also, does the resort require only a deposit to secure your reservation and the balance is due at check-in or do they need the entire stay paid for when you book? Sandals charges a $400 deposit [unless booking a package with airfare, in which case it will run you $1,000+] while Excellence Resorts collect the cost of the vacation a week prior to check-in. The latter may be a better option if you don’t have the money to shell out up front. Make sure you count meals, souvenirs, parking at the airport, baggage fees, etc. They may seem like small insignificant charges but they’ll add up and should definitely be accounted for.

Savings Goals 3. Do your research and read the fine print. Become best friends with Trip Advisor and other similar sites. Take all reviews with a grain of salt. If you’re staying in a city with public transit and want to avoid renting a car, look at hotels close to rail stations. In both Philly and DC I was able to take the rail from the airport to my hotel and also to travel around the city. Rail passes are much cheaper than renting a car AND you won’t have to pay for parking at your hotel, which averages $20/night in bigger cities where parking is at a premium. Find out if your hotel charges incidental fees and how much they are per night. In Vegas we were hit with $750 in incidental fees at check-in and it put a significant dent in our vacation fund. Lesson learned. Use a credit [not debit, unless you have unlimited funds in your checking … in which case, I’m super jealous] card for incidentals. The charges usually don’t drop off for 3-4 days after you check out. Are there additional resort fees? Some charge an additional 15-18% per night to cover things like WiFi and Fitness Center access. It’s best if you do a little research beforehand so you know exactly how much you’re looking at spending on accommodations and can include them in your budget.

Excellence Playa Mujeres on Trip Advisor

4. Book far in advance – and shop around. When planning my race weekend in Philly, I started looking at hotels and airfare in June for the November trip. This resulted in roundtrip airfare for two + 3 nights in a 5-star hotel for only $1,000. For Marine Corps I started even earlier, researching [and booking] in February for the October trip. This landed us a hotel less than a 1/4 mile from the marathon finish line and a one-bedroom suite with a full kitchen for less than $200/night. I started planning an August 2014 vacation in August 2013. Planning that far in advance gave us a reservation for a two-story rooftop terrace with a private plunge pool for the exact same price as a standard room without a view in April or May. If you have to book last minute, use either Priceline’s Express Deals or Name Your Own Price tool. It gives you control over the price and star-rating of hotels, while allowing access to exclusive deals to hotels trying to fill their vacancies. Hotwire is another excellent resource.

Priceline Express Deals and Name Your Own Price 
5. Put on the finishing touches. Book your airport transfers, buy tickets to that show you’re dying to see, crowd source for must-try restaurants in the area you’re visiting. If you’ve been on a vacation with me, you’ve probably caught a glimpse of my trip itinerary in Google Drive. Prior to departure, I get a spreadsheet together with an hour-by-hour schedule. It’s not an ‘end all be all’ plan, but having some general direction gives me peace of mind. It avoids the “what do you want for dinner?” “oh I don’t care, what do you want?” “eh, I’m not really in the mood for anything in particular. what’s around here?” “I have no idea” conversation. Then it turns into a big clusterfuck because no one can agree on anything. Yeah, no thanks. Restaurant reservations, museum tours, excursions, pool time, after dinner drinks, shopping, etc. It’s all plugged into the spreadsheet. Even if things aren’t done in the exact order, at least there’s an idea bank to work from and everyone on the trip has access to it so there’s no surprises. Maybe I sound crazy [I call it organized] but if you ever come with me on vacation I can promise you won’t have to worry about a thing.

And while we’re on the subject, here’s a list of my Top 10 Travel Tips.

What’s your best vacation planning tip? What mistake have you made on a previous trip that you learned a lesson from?

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