Vacations are often one of the first luxury items to be cut when budgets are tight. But if you or your family are staging a revolt at the idea of just hanging out at home all summer long, then take these tips and do some advance planning. A cheaper vacation doesn't mean a day trip to the nearest, overdone tourist trap. With some time and savvy planning, and these tips in hand, you can plan a vacation that's not just cheaper but also better. (For related reading, also take a look at 4 Summer Vacation Ideas On A Shoestring Budget.)
IN PICTURES: Vacation Savings Tips
1. Use your credit card as much as possible to get frequent flyer miles.
Though programs will vary, meaning some purchases don't qualify for racking up the frequent flyer points, you can still accumulate some points between now and when you need to book tickets. Have a major purchase planned? Use your credit card and pay it off. Use your credit card for gas, groceries, clothes and other household purchases; pay it off before the next billing date to avoid interest and get those frequent flyer points. Be sure to read the fine print on your credit card agreement to find out about what qualifies and minimum purchase amounts to focus your credit card power where it counts. (For more on these types of cards, see Best Frequent Flyer Cards.)
2. Research for off-the-beaten-path destinations.
In general, the more popular a destination, the costlier it will be to go there. It's the simple supply-and-demand equation, and if you're adding to the demand then you'll pay for it. So take some extra time to research destinations that aren't as well known. If you have time to put into it, you can find beaches, mountains, resorts, spas, family camps, cruises, urban destinations, cabins, outdoor adventures, riverside cabins or whatever matches up with your ideal vacation ... just not in the most obvious places. Do a little research, and you can have the same great vacation for less cost.
3. Plan a group trip.
Traveling with a group can get you discounts on everything from your hotel room to your meals. You can either join a tour group or get your friends and family together and plan your own vacation. Be sure to ask for the person in charge of group sales when you make hotel reservations and group tickets for travel and activities. Often groups don't have to be huge; a group of 10 or 15 people can often be enough to get significant savings.
4. Plan your travel for "off" days.
Airlines often increase prices for weekend travel, so if you can plan your vacation to travel on weekdays instead, you'll save money on the exact same ticket that you would pay far more for on the weekend.
5. Search and compare for the best prices.
There is such a vast availability of "travel deal" sites on the internet that there's no reason, if you have some flexibility, that you should pay full-price for airfare or hotel reservations. Use sites such as Orbitz.com, Travelocity.com, or Expedia.com to search for tickets and places to stay. Visit the websites of individual airlines (Southwest, Jet Blue, Delta, and more) and get on their subscriber list to be notified of upcoming deals and special fares.
IN PICTURES: 9 Ways To Trim The Fat From Your Spending
6. Trade for a better place to stay.
If you're traveling with your family, squishing into a hotel room to save money isn't the only way to have a cheaper vacation. Why settle for a hotel room when you can get a house to stay in and save money? Sites such as HomeExchange.com allow you to search for houses up for barter and offer your own in exchange. You get the bonus option of being able to cook your own meals in the house's kitchen instead of having to eat out for breakfast, lunch and dinner. (For more on a related topic, see Tips For Renting A Vacation House.)
7. Make a list and prioritize before you travel.
One of the quickest ways to blow money on your vacation is to just show up, stash your stuff, and go out looking for something to do. Inevitably, you will find the costly tourist traps. Instead, spend some time online researching the area and its attractions before you leave. Check out restaurant reviews, local food markets (make your own meals), transportation options and all the activities available.
If you have a list of your top picks, and you know the comparative costs, you can make smart decisions about what to spend your money on when you get there.
8. Barter up.
Cash isn't the only way to get something. Bartering is making a comeback, even for unlikely items like travel deals. Got skills? Barter your skilled labor in exchange for a place to stay, tickets to an event, a great meal, or anything else you can think of. If you start planning in advance, you can use the local online classifieds to advertise what you have to offer and what you want in exchange.
9. Find the freebies in your travel destination.
Museums often have free days, restaurants have "kids eat free" days, and many interesting sites, such as National Parks, also have free days. Just because you're on vacation, you don't have to pay full-price. If locals can get free days and great deals, so can you. You just have to take the time to think like a local, which means finding out where the deals are and when the free stuff is available. Search local sites and forums to get tips from people who live in your area.
10. Take advantage (nicely) of friends and family.
Your parents have a hybrid, and you're going to drive cross-country? Ask if you can use their car for the week (be sure to check that you're covered under their insurance). You can get a cheaper ticket into a nearby city, and you have friends there? Maybe they'll pick you up, let you bunk with them for the night, and then send you on your way. No, you don't want to be a moocher; but asking - nicely - to make use of what your family and friends have available makes sense. Just be willing to give back.
The Bottom Line
Time and the internet are your best buddies when it comes to planning in advance and saving money on a normally expensive vacation. The more time you have to plan, the more searching you can do to find and obtain the best deals. So get going on your planning, and take a great vacation that won't break your budget.