Summer vacation is right around the corner. I'm not a big believer in pre-planning every single detail – sometimes the best vacation moments are spontaneous. But unless your rich uncle is paying for the trip, you'll need to do a certain amount of preparation or your budget will fly out the window.
You do have a vacation budget, right? If not, here are a few suggestions for creating one and some cost-saving ideas to help keep expenses down:
First, be realistic about what you can afford. If your vacation will take more than a month or two to pay off, you may want to scale back on this year's trip and start setting aside money now for next year.
When building a trip budget, try to anticipate all potential expenses. Consider things like:
- Airfare-related expenses. Include taxes and fees for items like changing flights, extra leg room, priority boarding, Wi-Fi access, meals, and checked, oversized or overweight baggage.
- Kayak.com, Airfarewatchdog.com and Travelnerd.com provide handy charts that compare various fees for popular airlines; however, always double-check the airline's own posted rules before booking your flight.
- Transportation to and from the airport – at home and all travel locations.
- Car rentals. Factor in taxes, gas, fill-up penalties and insurance (check your auto insurance and credit card policies to ensure you don't pay for duplicate coverage).
- Hotel/lodging. Don't forget taxes and other local fees, charges for phone/Internet, room service, early check-in or departure, gratuities, etc.
- Hotel room rates often are based on double occupancy. Although kids usually can stay for free, many hotels charge extra for additional adults.
- Entertainment. Include meals and snacks, event admission and ticket-ordering charges, transit passes or taxis, sporting equipment rental, babysitters, and special clothing or accessory requirements (sunscreen, hiking boots, etc.)
- Throw in an extra 10 or 15 percent for unanticipated expenses – lost luggage, flat tire, etc.
Search for deals on flights, hotels and rental cars at comparison sites like Orbitz.com, Kayak.com, Priceline.com, Hotwire.com, Hotels.com and Travelzoo.com. But beware: Before clicking "confirm," make sure the final price matches the initial quote. I've seen fares jump $50 or more in just minutes or had the seat I was booking suddenly become unavailable.
A few additional tips:
- Follow and "like" airlines and ticketing sites on Facebook and Twitter. They'll often share sales, discounts and promotional codes with their followers.
- If the airfare goes down after you've purchased your ticket, ask the airline or ticketing site to refund the difference – it couldn't hurt to ask.
- Print and carry a copy of your airline's Contract of Carriage, which outlines your rights and the airline's obligations should your flight be cancelled or delayed for reasons besides weather or other "acts of God."
- Consider vacation rentals listed on sites like Airbnb.com, VRBO.com and HomeAway.com. You can often find cheaper accommodations with more space and amenities than hotels offer.
- Before booking a hotel room online, call the individual property to see if they can beat the company's posted rate. Also ask for member discounts for organizations you belong to like AAA or AARP.
Practical Money Skills for Life, a free personal financial management program run by Visa Inc., has a handy web-based travel calculator that can help you estimate travel costs and rejigger them to meet your budget needs (www.practicalmoneyskills.com/calculators). It's also available as a free iPhone app, which you can download from iTunes.
Bottom line: A little preplanning now can ensure you don't blow your whole budget on unexpected vacation expenses.