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How to Plan a Thrifty Summer Vacation

When you’re living on a budget, it can be hard to imagine stepping outside your weekly routine to travel. Vacations can be relaxing, but only if they fit within your means.

There are many easy ways to start saving for something big, but you don’t have to have a ton of extra money socked away to afford a fun vacation. In this post, we’ll talk through strategies for getting out of town this summer without spending outside of your budget.

Start with a budget in mind: pick your number

Decide how much you have to spend on your vacation before you start to plan the details. Look at your monthly finances and the amount of time you’ll have to save money before your departure date.

If you have $500 for a week of fun, that’s fantastic! The important thing is to know this up front. Figure out how much you’ll have to spend enables you to plan a realistic vacation.

Where you go: low-cost vacations near and far

  1. Consider keeping your trip within driving range. You don’t have to go far to have a relaxing vacation. Stay nearby to cut down on this cost.
  2. Choose your destination wisely. If your summer vacation dream is to go abroad, look for destinations with favorable exchange rates or places where a dollar will go a long way.
  3. Whatever the vacation of your dreams, consider picking dates that align with your budget if your work schedule allows: set flight alerts to figure out where you can fly for the least amount of money during the summer months.

If you’re stumped right out of the gate when looking for somewhere to go, here are two great budget vacation ideas:

  • Find the nearest beach, and bring a stack of library books you’ve been meaning to read all winter. Drive there with your bikes in tow and walk along the water at sunset. It’s easy to fill your days with low cost activities and simple picnics, whether you live near an ocean, one of the Great Lakes, or another fantastic body of water.
  • Plan a week of visiting local state or national parks that you haven’t been to before. If the entrance fee seems high, you can always borrow an entrance pass from friends. Car camping is easy, if for those who don’t consider themselves to be “outdoorsy types,” and the cost to rent a campsite is far lower than any hotel or rental. Word to the wise: campsite reservations tend to fill up fast! Make your reservation ahead of time to ensure you’ll have a spot in the park.

How you get there: book smart

Cars make for a fun road trip. A boat may get you where you’re going, but it’s unlikely you’ll have the time for a long trip (unless your summer vacation dream is a budget cruise experience). Unless you’re staying close to home and travelling by car, you’ll likely need to book a flight. Before you purchase your tickets, be sure to:

  • Check out budget airlines. They are usually cheaper than other name brands, but they don’t always show up in travel search engine results. (Southwest is the main example of this nowadays).
  • If you’re already part of a loyalty program, be sure to stick to it to make the most of your benefits. If you’re booking for your whole family and you’re not part of an airline rewards program yet, be sure to sign up to get any available mileage points or benefits.
  • Travel midweek if you can swing it with your employer. It’s also wise to pick the most affordable hours to fly: if the logistics on the ground are flexible upon arrival, take the cheapest flight out the day of your departure.
  • Always research and book in Incognito Mode. If you don’t make your browser private, you may end up paying more. Today’s digital marketers track what you’re looking for and how often you’re searching to predict when you’re going to buy. Sometimes, the prices reflect this. Be sure to do your flight research and book in Incognito Mode to avoid getting overcharged.

How to get around once you’re there

Taxis and rideshares add up quickly, but after a week of walking everywhere, your feet will feel tired. Before you go, as these four questions about your destination:

  1. Is public transportation available and affordable? If so, does it include a bikeshare program that you might use?
  2. Is the area walkable? Especially if you’re traveling in a rural area, it’s important to know whether or not there are sidewalks between the places where you’ll be spending time.
  3. Whether or not you drive to your destination, will you need a car? If so, it’s better to book in advance to make sure you can get the right kind of vehicle at the right price for your family or travel companions.
  4. If you plan on having a car with you: What are your parking options? Plan ahead and research parking near where you’re staying. If you’re headed to a new city and you won’t need your car to get around, you’ll likely be able to save by parking your car in a free or affordable lot and traveling in by public transit.

Affordable lodging

AirBnB and other home exchange websites have made it easier than ever to get an authentic, local experience in the United States and around the world. To save money on lodging, shop around. You may want to consider …

  • Short-term apartment rentals. AirBnB isn’t the only option out there.
  • HomeStay and CouchSurfing are an option for those who want to connect with locals. CouchSurfing is free, and no longer just for young travellers exploring Europe with a pack on their back.
  • WWOOFing is a great way to learn about the local ecosystem by participating! If you’re looking for an economical vacation from your urban life, there’s no better answer than staying on a small farm and doing a small amount of work for your keep.
  • Hostel over hotel. Hostels aren’t just for teenagers and backpackers. Be sure to check out hostel options in your destination.
  • Ever consider a monastery? If you’re headed to Europe, this can be an incredible way to experience a different subculture and save on housing costs. You will have to play by their rules (and go to bed before the doors lock for the night), but the cultural experience and locations can be an unexpected perk.

How to eat well on a travel budget

Buying a few staples at a local grocery store and cooking at your place of lodging can be a great way to save on daily expenses. Even if you’re not renting a whole apartment or AirBnB, look for places where you can easily plan your meals in advance.

It’s not a bad idea to search the map for grocery stores in the area where you’ll be staying. If there aren’t any nearby, this will allow you to plan using public transit or rent a car in advance.

While the price of an AirBnB is no longer necessarily less than your average hotel in many cities, consider the cost of food before choosing where you’ll stay. If you can make coffee and breakfast, and pack you lunch every day, it may be easy to fit going out to dinner into your budget for the week.

Think through the day-to-day logistics

One of the smartest things you can do when traveling on a budget is to pack light. Especially if you’re flying on a budget airline that does not include luggage, this can be a huge cost saver. Once you’re on the ground, if you don’t have luggage weighing you down, you’ll be more nimble

and more inclined to walk a mile to your lodging than take a taxi.

As you start to put your trip together, think through how you’d like each day to go. Do you want to eat at your lodging or will you pack a picnic lunch? Do you plan on visiting museums or cultural sites? Do you want to spend most of your day outdoors?

As you come up with the answers to these questions, opportunities to pack a lunch will present themselves.

Final tip for frugal travel

Create a daily budget and stick to it. Be mindful with your spending, even when you’re on vacation. Using cash can be helpful in this pursuit: when you run out, you’re out for the day. Hold onto your receipts and make sure you have a sense of how much you’re spending.

Your summer vacation is a chance to relax and enjoy the sunniest time of year. Don’t let extra costs pile up during your trip that will bog your budget down for the rest of the year.