For many, it's time to hit the road again, and family vacations and getaways are back in season. Unfortunately, the costs to visit the places we enjoy are going up, and those that may have considered a vacation "budget" are looking at ways to see more of the world for less cash. Whether you're keeping it low-cost with a simple camping adventure or sailing the world in affordable luxury, the simple rules of watching what you spend still apply. (Follow these nine steps to get a picture-perfect summer shack at a great price. Refer to Tips For Renting A Vacation House.)
Control Your Cash
Cash is easy to use, and may be an essential tool when traveling to small or remote locations where plastic is discouraged. Unfortunately, handing over bills can leave you wondering where all your money went to, so it's important to take careful notes of where you're leaving cash. Cab tips, taco stands and souvenir shops can all add up to more than you're prepared to part with, and it's recommended that you keep a notebook of all the cash purchases to be totaled every night. ATMs should be visited rarely (if at all.)
Grab a Gift Card
In an updated version of a standard traveler's check, gift cards issued from American Express, Visa and other major players are giving vacationers the freedom to shop til' they drop, but within a set budget. By purchasing several of these cards ahead of time (one for gas, one for food and one for incidentals, for example), you can practice an adaptation of the "cash envelope method" without the dangers of carrying cash - and without the interest penalties of a traditional credit card. Travelers should be warned that using a prepaid card for gasoline purchases should be done in advance of fueling - not at the pump - to avoid having a temporary hold placed on your card.
Map Your Mission
If flying by the seat of your pants is your travel style, be prepared to pay more for the experience. Carefully planning out one or two reasonable restaurants near your hotel, on the other hand, can save money over having to eat wherever, whenever, and reserving all of your accommodations from your preferred hotelier months in advance can cut up to 40% from your final hotel bill (and rack up some valuable rewards program points). The bottom line will be much easier to handle if you can estimate some of the costs up front. (Find out how to have a fun and budget-friendly summer adventure. Check out 7 Ways To Save On Summer Getaways.)
Ease Up on the Expectations
It's the romantic vision of our dream vacation that can take the biggest bite out of the budget. If you go into the trip with only the highest prospects, it can be costly to maintain those hopes as reality starts to set in. For most ambitious travelers, it works best to pick one or two nonnegotiable experiences of a trip (swimming with the dolphins or visiting a favorite restaurant, for example.) Everything else should be allowed to succumb to "plan B" if needed, especially if your budget is at risk. By understanding that allowances can be made to make a trip more enjoyable - and affordable - you can keep costs from making your trip one that you will regret.
Divvy the Dollars
When all else fails, find some like-minded people to go halves with your vacation plans. Share a rental car, split the cost of a deluxe cabin or buy a package where you save more with each added guest. It's important that you choose those you can enjoy spending time with (or at least decide on an agreeable way to take turns with the accommodations.) This is one instance where the price really is "better in bulk."
The Bottom Line
Remember, the real work of seeing what you spent will happen when you get home. Be sure to gather all receipts and credit card statements as soon as it is reasonably possible, and see what the damage will be. Use this as a jumping-off point for next year's holiday. You can only get better with practice! (Don't let these excuses prevent you from reaching your financial goals. See Debunking 10 Budget Myths.)