When it comes to sticking to a budget on your vacation, it’s all about budgeting for what you enjoy the most, and cutting back on what you don’t value. Here’s how to put together a travel budget for a great trip.
Travelers often ask me about how they can save when planning a trip. Like the myth of travel bests, there’s no stock answer I can provide — the best way to budget for a trip is to really consider what you value when you travel.
Think back on your favorite trip. What stands out as particularly memorable? Was it an incredible hotel? A fantastic meal at a gourmet restaurant? Get really specific, zeroing in on what you especially loved. With your favorites in mind, you now know an area to budget — and maybe even splurge — for your upcoming vacation.
Conversely, think about a less-than-pleasant travel experience. Maybe it was a low-end hotel, an overrated pricey restaurant, or a rental car that didn’t suit your needs? Was it an area where, if you had spent a little more money, you would have had an improved experience? If so, you now also know an area where you’ll want to allocate a little more of your travel budget. If not, you’ve got an area to cut back — or something to avoid entirely on your next trip.
Let’s take a look at the major expenses of any vacation. Keeping your values in mind, let’s address where you should splurge or save.
Airfare is often the biggest piece of any travel budget, but you can plan accordingly by comparing fares well in advance of your trip. I like to use an aggregator with alerts, like Hopper or Kayak, and I start tracking fares at least two months in advance. That way, I’ll have a good sense of what the fares will be before I book, and can plan accordingly. And with this knowledge, when I do book, I’m confident that I got a deal that works with my budget.
If the fares aren’t going to work with what you can spend, it’s time to consider those values we discussed earlier. Is the destination accessible by other means? If so, maybe it’s worth changing course and taking a road trip. If not, what time of year has airfares that are in line with your trip budget? If you were hoping to travel in spring but see a better deal for fall, consider pushing back your travel dates to a more wallet-friendly time of year.
How much time are you planning to spend at your hotel? If relaxing in one spot is the purpose of your trip — for example, staying at one beach in an all-inclusive resort, beachfront hotel, or vacation rental — then it’s a good idea to splurge on your accommodations. If, however, you’re simply looking for a place to sleep after days spent exploring the surrounding area, then opting for basic/budget accommodations is a good way to save money.
If you’re traveling with a group of friends or family, also look into vacation rentals. You’ll be able to divide the total cost among your companions, have more space and amenities, and (often) get a chance to live more like a local.
I love going out to eat on vacation, and dining out usually takes up a big chunk of my travel budget. To save money, mix things up — eat breakfast at your vacation rental (get enough groceries to cover your stay) or hotel (go for places where breakfast is included). Before you go, research both mom-and-pop places, along with more expensive options, to balance out the costs of all those restaurant meals.
If you’re in a place that’s not known for food, though, stay in a vacation rental and cook your own meals each day. It saves a ton of money, and also gives you the excuse to peruse local markets.
Rarely do I recommend splurging on a rental car, except for road-trip focused getaways: places like California’s Pacific Coast Highway, Maui’s Road to Hana, or North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Parkway. In these cases, you might want to go for a convertible, the four-wheel-drive SUV, or other vehicle with extra features.
If you just need a car to get from point A to B, however, go for the cheaper car class and better fuel economy. You can use what you’ve saved on another area of your trip that will be more memorable to you.
Confession: I lived in Rome for six months, went back for a vacation a few years later, and I’ve still never gone inside the Colosseum. The reason? I never felt the urge to spend money on the official tour. Have I missed out on something awe-inspiring? Maybe. But I have no regrets.
My point is: As a Grownup traveler, you make the itinerary. There’s no rule saying you have to visit an area’s most famous tourist attractions, historic sites, and the like. If it doesn’t appeal to you, don’t do it — and use your travel dollars toward something that truly speaks to your interests.
A lifelong traveler and bookworm, Sarah spends her days thinking of new ways to explore and tell stories.
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While we hope the information and opinions offered by the author in this article are useful, it’s only intended to provide general education and it’s not intended as legal, tax, or investment advice, and may not apply or be useful to your specific financial situation.