Summer may be just around the corner, but it’s not too late to start budgeting for a warm weather family vacation.
Even if you’ve already saved a little, you may need to kick your spending savvy into high gear. According to TripAdvisor.com, 56 percent of U.S. accommodations and 40 percent of worldwide accommodations plan to increase their room rates over the next three months. Unfortunately, almost one-third of Americans — 28 percent — pay for their vacations with a credit card that may not immediately be paid off.
But don’t fret. You don’t have to go into debt to enjoy some down time with your loved ones. Whether you’re eyeing an international voyage or a lazy long weekend at the lake, our experts have six easy ways to save for a much-needed summer getaway.
1. Use the Internet to your advantage
Whether you’re analyzing your personal finances or checking out the best rental car deals for the drive, countless sites offer what you need.
“Budgeting tool Mint.com allows you to monitor your expenses, set goals like saving for a vacation or paying down debt and helps you track progress toward those goals,” says Trae Bodge, senior editor for The Real Deal by RetailMeNot.
Once you've set aside money and it’s time to book your travel, select packages that pair flights, lodging and car rental as opposed to booking a la carte, Bodge suggests. Online travel sites such as Priceline, Expedia and Travelocity indicate that consumers can save an average of anywhere from $200 to $500 by booking a customized vacation package versus booking elements such as flight and hotel separately.
When it comes to saving money on a travel essential such as gas, Tom Gilmore, CEO of VacationHomeRentals.com, recommends GasBuddy.com.
“With gas prices on the rise, it’s crucial to find the cheapest gas station possible. GasBuddy uses your location and finds the cheapest gas near you. It not only tells you the price of each gas type, but it even lets you know how many miles away the station is,” Gilmore says.
2. Coupon when you can — even on Twitter
We all know about grocery coupons, but what about vacation coupons? Granted, you probably won’t find a buy-one-get-one deal on a luxury cruise, but look closely at a can of Coke and you’ll often see specials for tickets to Six Flags amusement parks. Pick up a copy of your Sunday paper and you may find a local resort is offering a third night’s stay free when you stay the weekend.
“The best way to see this plan through is to not rely solely on paper coupons,” says Jackie Warrick, senior savings adviser with CouponCabin.com.
You may also want to check out some of the deals your Facebook friends and Twitter contacts are posting. Everyone loves to share a good deal when they find it, so don’t be afraid to jump on the bandwagon. Likewise, countless mobile apps offer last-minute deals and location-centric discounts, so be sure to check your phone when you’re looking to save.
3. Sign up for fare alerts and check for last minute deals
“People may not like the idea of receiving another email, but fare alerts instantly let you know when a price for a certain flight has changed,” says Mark Drusch, chief supplier relations officer of CheapOair. “On social media, a lot of companies post last-minute ‘fire sales’ where prices can be slashed up to 50 percent. CheapOair does this via their Facebook, Twitter and email newsletters.”
In general, Drusch says airfares are higher this year than last year due to higher fuel prices and reduced capacity. Airlines update their inventory and prices overnight, though, and the best time to check for fares is early in the morning.
“Tuesdays and Wednesdays are normally the best mornings to check for fares,” he says.
4. Get the whole family involved
“For a family vacation, don’t be shy about involving everyone, even small children. A joint effort yields a great result. For example, youngsters can participate by saving enough money from their allowance, chores or even gift money to buy their own ticket into the amusement or water park, or for a new bathing suit,” says Gail Cunningham, vice president of membership and public relations for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
“It will be a teachable moment that serves them well down the line,’ she says. “The goal for small children can be earning $100 by August.”
Budgeting may not sound exciting, but the key is to set and write down goals — and if you’re in a relationship and/or have a family, do so with your spouse and family members, says Kevin Gallegos, a vice president of operations for the Freedom Financial Network.
“Make sure to price out your hoped-for vacation and build it into your budget plan. Don’t forget to include other goals as well so that you can all save and prioritize,” he says.
5. Timing is everything
“Book in advance for the best rates on airfare and hotel stays,” says Bob Diener, co-founder of Hotels.com and Getaroom.com. “Also, unless you simply have to travel, try to avoid the Memorial Day or Independence Day holidays. Book a trip the week before or after a holiday for a smoother time.”
Even if you have your heart set on piling into the station wagon for a road trip, Diener advises looking carefully at the cost benefits of flying versus driving, especially for shorter or mid-distance trips. Getting stuck in traffic could take precious hours — or even days — off of your vacation.
“Driving costs money because of high gas prices, and it also costs precious time. Don’t spend half of the trip driving in misery,” he says.
6. Don’t forget your credit card rewards and frequent-flier programs
If you’ve been accumulating incentives on your credit card for the past few months — or years — now’s the time to find out how much cash-back credit you may have accumulated.
“If you have a credit card that offers rewards points, check your statements to see how many points you have,” Gallegos says. “Then visit the rewards website to find out if you can convert the rewards into cash or gift cards. Some credit cards even double the value of your rewards at specific retailers.”
When it comes to frequent-flier miles, even if you don’t have enough saved up for a whole ticket, many airlines, including Delta and United, allow you to buy additional miles for a nominal fee. If you’re 5,000 miles short of a reward ticket, don’t let that stop you!