Tips for Smart Saving – and Smart Spending – on Your Vacation

May 17, 2011

Family enjoying a picnic by the seaside

This is the time of year when a lot of people start to get serious about having fun. That's because it's vacation-planning time. Vacations are important because they can help you recharge after a long, hard winter. And they can create priceless family memories. But if you spend too much, it will make that post-vacation glow fade fast. And if you're too concerned about money, it won't seem like a vacation at all. So here are some expert tips for smart saving – and smart splurging – on vacations. Some can save you hundreds, and some just a few bucks here and there. But they all add up. And they can help you make the most of your time off.

Think outside the weekend

Your vacation doesn't have to begin and end on a weekend. In her article on abcnews.go.com, Eight Surefire Ways to Save on a Summer Vacation, Suzanne Rowan Kelleher gives good advice. When you look for airfares online, play around with your travel dates. "Very often," she says, "adjusting your getaway to leave and return on a Monday or Tuesday can save your family hundreds of dollars." Another good thing is that airports are often less crowded during mid-week. That can make traveling less stressful.

Seattle Times' Travel Wise writer Carol Pucci, has another good idea. "Book a midweek stay to cut your [hotel] room rate by half or more." In Las Vegas, for example, weekend rates are often twice as much as rates on weekdays.

Go where summer is the off-season

As Kelleher writes, "If it's high season somewhere, it's low season somewhere else." The best deals in the summer tend to be in places like Florida, Arizona, Mexico, and the Caribbean. It's hot, but who cares when you have air conditioning, a beach and a pool at a great price?

You can also find summertime fun where you might not expect it. Ski towns become family playgrounds in the summer. They offer biking, hiking, horseback riding and more. And as Kelleher says, "Lodging costs a fraction of what it does during ski season."

Stay on the "edges" of summer

Taking your vacation just before Memorial Day or right after Labor Day can mean big savings. If you're traveling without kids, or if your kids aren't yet in school, this could be a good choice for you.

Sign up online for cheap airfare alerts

Forbes.com offers good ideas in How To Save Money On Summer Vacations. Airlines are always changing their fares. "If demand for a certain route is strong, fares go up," she says. "If travelers aren't buying tickets at a rate that will fill planes, they go down." She suggests signing up for sites that will tell you when cheap fares come along. One such site is Airfarewatchdog.com.

How about a cruise?

Another suggestion is a floating vacation. As Forbes says, "Cruises can be the best buy out there, say travel experts. That's especially true for families." Many people are within driving range of a cruise departure site. Onboard, prices include meals and entertainment. Shop around to find a cruise that costs less per night than other forms of travel.

Compare rates

There are many online sites that can help you save on hotels, packages and airfares. These include Expedia.com, Travelocity.com and Priceline.com. But there are also sites that do more for you so it's easier to compare. Three of them are kayak.com, mobissimo.com and DoHop.com. To find out more, visit thegreenestdollar.com and check out How To Save Money on Vacation.

Join the American Automobile Association

The standard AAA membership costs about $50 a year. But you can make that up in just a few days on vacation. Kelleher says that membership gives you discounts on a wide range of travel services. They include train travel on Amtrak, Hertz rental cars, and the Grand Canyon Railway. You can cut 20 percent off your lodging bill at many hotel chains. And you can slice 10 percent off your bill at restaurants such as Pizza Hut and Hard Rock Café.

Try the Y

Many people are unaware of what the YMCA offers in terms of family vacations. Kelleher suggests looking into YMCA family camps. One she mentions is the YMCA of the Rockies. "It offers vacations all summer long in enviable locations in tremendously scenic areas," she says. "The focus is on an active vacation, with hiking, biking, fishing, ropes courses and more."

Stay closer to home

Check out your state's tourism website as well as those for nearby states. Kelleher suggests starting at SeeAmerica.com. "Not only will you find travel discounts and getaway packages, but you'll be surprised at how many terrific getaway spots are right in your backyard."

Limit eating out

Wherever you go, it's easy to eat up your budget if you have all three meals at restaurants. One way to save is to stock fruit, snacks, bread and sandwich fillers in your hotel room. Another is to choose a hotel where breakfast is included, or is free for kids. And it often saves money to splurge a little on a room with a small kitchen. That way, you can cook some meals in.

Of course, part of a great vacation can be trying local restaurants. Eating a few meals in can mean you'll have enough to enjoy some special meals out.

To save at attractions, bring your own stroller and bottled water

If you're traveling with a child and plan to go somewhere like Disney World, bring your stroller. As Dawn Henthern says in 10 Money-Saving Travel & Vacation Tips on about.com, "This can save $12 to $15 a day at some of the attractions." Bringing your own bottled water can save even more.

Give each child a set amount to spend

Henthern also suggests giving kids a small amount of cash for souvenirs. She found it does a good job of taming what she calls "the gimmies."

Do you really need that?

Kids aren't the only ones tempted to buy things they don't need on vacation. Lots of items will catch your eye, too. But before you buy, ask yourself if you really need it. If you do, go ahead: Buy it and enjoy it. But just by asking the question, you'll weed out a lot of things. Too many souvenirs just turn into clutter when you get home.

Know the fine line between saving money and missing the point

Don't get so caught up in saving money that you forget to have fun. As Heather Levin writes on thegreenestdollar.com, "I really, really wanted to sign up for this program where you could swim with dolphins. But the $200 price tag threw me. Yes, I had the money. But I didn't do it because I was trying to be frugal and 'smart.' That's a decision I regret. … To this day I can't remember where the money went. All I remember is not swimming with those dolphins." There are times when a splurge is worth every penny.

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