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How to create a vacation budget without breaking the bank

At a glance

  • Don’t leave vacation budget planning to the last minute! Planning ahead can spare you considerable worry and expense.
  • If your budget is tight, consider choosing an affordable destination like camping or visiting a national park.
  • If a big city is your dream vacation, there are ways to make it affordable, like seeking out free or low-cost sightseeing opportunities.
  • Some small towns offer reasonably priced accommodations and, if you time it right, memorable events like themed festivals.
  • Saving money on your vacation is one thing, but did you know you can also save on your degree? Discover how University of Phoenix can help!

Getaway goals

Everybody needs a break now and then. In fact, chances are the more you have going on (work, kids, school), the more you need that vacation.

So, if you can find the time to get away, then paying for it should be the least of your concerns. That’s where setting a vacation budget comes in. Planning ahead on what you’ll spend on airfare, lodging, a rental car, experiences and food will make your vacation that much sweeter when it finally arrives. How do you make a vacation budget? These three tips can help make your next adventure, be it solo or with the family, a little more affordable.

Use our Savings Explorer tool® to see if your work, life and school experiences can give you a head start on your degree. 

1. Plan ahead

Whether you’re organizing a holiday escape for two or a summer vacay with the kids, paying for it becomes easier the sooner you start saving for it.

To that end, set up a vacation savings account where you can safely set aside funds. Then, tally up everything you’ll need to pay for on your trip and divide that estimated number by how many months you have to save for it. Be sure to factor in accommodations, rental car or other transportation, meals, admission tickets, souvenirs and so on.

Say the budget for your proposed trip totals $3,000 and you have eight months before takeoff. In that case, you’ll need to put away $375 every month.

If you’re already on a tight budget and setting aside close to $400 a month (or whatever your sum is) doesn’t feel feasible, you can reassess your trip. Maybe you need to adjust your timeline and current spending habits to give yourself a few more months to save. Maybe you need to change destinations or forgo something else in the interim. Whatever solution you settle on, it’s better to figure that out now rather than when you get the bill for your airline tickets.

2. Cut back on discretionary spending

A vacation can be the perfect incentive to temporarily slow or even stop discretionary spending for a while. Try putting a moratorium on the impulse buys you’d normally make, like takeout, happy hour, clothing, holiday lattes or movies. Put the money saved from not purchasing these things into your vacation budget. You may be surprised by how quickly it adds up.

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3. Consider a cash-back credit card with a bonus

Credit cards are loaded with responsibility and, if you have trouble overspending, danger. But for those who have good to excellent credit and the self-discipline not to misuse it, there are many credit cards that offer a bonus of $200 or more to customers who charge a fixed dollar amount within the first few months of opening the account.

If you have enough monthly expenses, you can leverage the card to cover the expenses you’d normally incur anyway. (Think groceries for the family, gas and other daily expenses.) Then you can apply that one-time bonus toward your vacation. Just be sure to read the fine print about the offer. If there’s a fee to hold the credit card, for example, you’ll have to factor that into your budget.

The big decision: How to choose your destination

One of the biggest financial decisions of any vacation is deciding where to go. This can be the make or break for your budget. The destination impacts your travel expenses, what you spend on accommodations, how much meals will cost and the price of entertainment.

With that in mind, here are some options that accommodate varying budgets and interests.

National parks

One way to economize on a vacation is by visiting national parks and historic sites. Many offer complimentary guided tours that are both memorable and enlightening.

National parks are also great options for camping, bicycling, fishing and picnicking.

Nearly every state has at least one national park, from historic trails like the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route in Rhode Island to Glacier National Park in Montana. Vacationers on a budget can find a variety of lodging options at them, from campgrounds and rustic cabins inside park grounds to budget motels and more upscale lodges outside the parks.

If you’ll be visiting several parks during a single year, you can save money by buying a National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass. Rates vary based on age and other factors.

Big cities

Big cities are notoriously expensive in terms of accommodations and food, but the attractions and experiences can be memorable enough to justify the expense.

For families and individuals who have New York or Washington, D.C., on their bucket list, there are ways to make visiting more financially feasible. If a city serves as a hub for an airline, for example, airfare to that destination might be a little more affordable. Be sure to check fares a few weeks or months ahead of time to get a feel for what’s a good fare.

Staying just outside the city can sometimes be more affordable, and if you can stay someplace with a kitchen, you can cook your own food (and hit local markets for another experience) to save money.

Try putting the free or low-cost tours and attractions at the top of your list to help you save money, and look into museum passes or public transportation passes ahead of time. Sometimes you can buy them early and save on both costs.

Most cities pack a lot of must-see entertainment into a relatively condensed area, which can cut down on transportation costs.

Here are some examples:

1. Washington, D.C.

Our nation’s capital is home to dozens of museums with free admission, not to mention historical buildings, monuments, memorials and parks. Exploring just the Smithsonian museums, the world’s largest museum and education complex, could fill up several weeks. Explore free sites and events, like military concerts, outdoor jazz concerts at the National Gallery of Art, the botanical gardens, the National Zoo and tours of federal buildings, before your trip to plan a low-cost itinerary.

You can get around the city easily by using the Metrorail train system, but energetic vacationers may want to rent a bicycle or even an affordably priced kayak on the Potomac River.

2. New Orleans

If you love music, good food and Cajun culture, the French Quarter is for you. Sightseeing on the city’s famous Bourbon Street is free.

3. New York City

Even the Big Apple offers free sightseeing. A visit to the Statue of Liberty is free (but not her pedestal or crown), and there is a charge for the ferry ride. Other free attractions include:

  • Central Park (including free guided walking tours)
  • The Staten Island ferry ride from Battery Park, featuring great views of Lower Manhattan and Ellis Island
  • Grand Central Terminal, a national historic landmark
  • The New York Public Library
  • Times Square
  • Rockefeller Center
  • The Chrysler Building
  • St. Patrick’s Cathedral
  • The High Line greenspace in Chelsea

4. Boston

There are plenty of free attractions, including historic Quincy Market and Faneuil Hall, free or “name your own price” walking tours at prestigious universities like Harvard, self-guided walks on the Freedom Trail and numerous museums.

5. Los Angeles

Take a stroll down Venice Beach Boardwalk and go celebrity-hunting on Hollywood Boulevard. Tickets to a taping of your favorite game show or talk show are free. There’s no charge to visit the California Science Center or Getty Museum, though reservations may be required.

6. Atlanta

Count on flights to Atlanta to be frequent and cheap. Once there, check out the Fernbank Science Center, the Governor’s Mansion and Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthplace — all free.

7. Las Vegas

Las Vegas offers free light shows and museums and is guaranteed to keep you entertained around the clock. Airfare to Vegas is low, and many hotels offer discounted rates with cheap buffets.

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Quaint towns

If the big city is not for you, you can experience the charm of small-town America with a variety of state fairs and festivals that are both amusing and entertaining. Many small towns offer reasonably priced accommodations, meals and attractions where you can enjoy a leisurely visit without the hustle and bustle, crowds or sticker shock of a larger city.

Here’s a sampling:

Camping

Camping remains one of the most affordable ways to vacation, and while you may have to give up a few creature comforts as you hit the sack in your bag, tent or camper, you may also be surprised to learn that roughing it may not be as primitive as you imagine. In addition to breathtaking beauty and hiking, boating, swimming and fishing opportunities, many of today’s campgrounds offer:

  • Wireless internet access
  • Fitness centers
  • Basketball, volleyball and tennis courts
  • On-site laundromats
  • Heated pools
  • Miniature golf and video arcades
  • Restaurants and cafes

Looking for something different? Consider Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, where you must boat in (or take the ferry) across the scenic lake to land in Weaver Point, a stunning, fjord-like valley in the North Cascades range of Washington state.

If you want to save money on gas, chances are you can find some campgrounds less than an hour away, and you’ll still feel like you’ve gotten away from it all. Here are a few more tips for saving while camping:

  • Camp during off-season months, like May and October, for further savings on campsites and activity fees. (You’ll also avoid traffic, crowds and mosquitoes.)
  • Save money on pricey restaurant meals in favor of old-fashioned cookouts over an open fire.
  • Bring the dog and save on kennel boarding fees.

Start planning!

Making downtime a priority can feel more important than ever when there’s so little of it. Online classes are a convenient way to create more flexibility in your schedule as are remote or hybrid work structures.  

Taking the time to thoughtfully consider where you’ll vacation is a worthwhile exercise. In fact, taking your time with the research and itinerary building can make the experience richer and more fulfilling. There’s nothing like anticipation to sweeten each experience. By planning ahead and choosing your destination wisely, you’ll avoid regrets when it comes time to pay those bills!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dawn Handschuh has been putting pen to paper for more than 30 years, writing widely on topics related to student lending, personal finances, everyday money management and retirement planning. She makes her home in Connecticut with her husband and two energetic German shepherds.

 

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