Summer is just around the corner, and you’re likely thinking about where you want to go with family and friends. As you start brainstorming locations, the best way to save money is to set your budget and book early. Whether you decide to purchase a vacation package or to rent a private home, planning is key.
“If you’re planning a trip and you can figure out the best price in advance, knowing that information will start to yield savings,” says Dave McNamee, director of public relations for Expedia.com, based in New York. “Adding the hotel and activities, that’s when you’ll start to unlock more savings.”
As you look at different destinations, doing your research is the best way not to overspend, so you get the most out of your time away.
Here are tips to help you plan a great trip without breaking your budget.
1. Set your budget.
Many people budget a certain amount for their vacation. But if you spend everything on a hotel and flight, expenses at your destination may be a problem. Making the right choices will help save the money you need. “You have to be smart with your planning so you can enjoy yourself at your destination,” says Keith Nowak, director of communications for Travelocity based in Dallas.
2. Consider alternative lodgings.
If you’re traveling with a group or a family, personal preference is important, of course, but booking an entire property may cost less than individual hotel rooms. “If you’re staying in a hotel and you need to rent a second room, that’s where you see the value of vacation rentals,” says John Gray, chief revenue officer for HomeAway based in Austin, Texas. “On average, it’s about half the cost per square foot of staying in a hotel.”
You can also take advantage of the comforts of someone's vacation home, or an Air BnB, to gain value. “[Renting a vacation home] helps you skip costs, like room service, by giving you a kitchen, where you can make your own meals; private pools, which are better than a community or shared pool; and common areas where you can talk with your friends and family so you don’t have to go to restaurants or bars,” says Gray.
If you rent a car, you won’t have to pay for parking at a vacation rental. Also, you won’t be charged for Internet usage or consumption of anything in the refrigerator. Since most homes have a washer/dryer, you can potentially save money on baggage fees because you won’t have to bring as much luggage.
3. Share rides to save money on cabs.
“For so many people, the first instinct is to get a cab, but these can be really expensive,” says Nowak. “A cab can be a budget buster. Do planning and research. A shared option, whether that’s Uber or Lyft, or a shared van, can save a ton of money.”
Many cities also have accessible public transportation that can get you downtown in the same amount of time as a cab, for significantly less money. This option works particularly well if you’re traveling light.
4. Watch for low rental-car rates.
“Rental cars can be very inexpensive,” says Nowak. “The secret is to keep your eyes on them -- the prices seem to jump around a lot.” Setting up fare alerts will tell you when fares have dropped. In certain cities, they can be as low as $5 a day, before taxes and fees.
Unless you find a great deal, know whether you’ll really need a rental car. This expense won’t make sense unless you’re traveling to many different places within a wide radius.
5. Figure out your activities in advance.
You can book your activities before you go, sometimes for a discount, too. “A lot of times, it comes down to the planning and what that will cost you,” says Nowak. “Everyone wants to share those unique experiences; and very often, those are the hidden gems.”
Not everything has to cost money. “Think about what you really enjoy and do some searching,” says Nowak. “It’s amazing how many great free things there are. You can find local tours and parks. Donation-based activities can be free or inexpensive.”
6. Consider a package deal.
“The best way to save for a vacation is booking a package or bundling everything together,” says McNamee. “It’s the same concept as when you go to your cable company and put cable, Internet and phone together.” Booking flights, hotels and a rental at the same time can provide real discounts of about $570 or more, according to Expedia.
“You can pick your flights and hotels, so you’re not locked into certain deals,” says McNamee. “You can add on cars and activities, and when you add more, you have the potential to save more.”
7. Book your flights early.
“[Booking your flight] is something that should be done a few months in advance, and it gives you more time to figure out the activities you want to do and research hotels and get the best flight option,” says McNamee. Within North America, booking 57 days in advance yields a savings of around 10 percent, while the booking window for flights to Europe is 176 days in advance, for a savings of about 11 percent.
8. Know your flight’s true cost.
Study your airline’s website to figure out how much you’ll actually spend to get to your location. “Airlines are unbundling their fares, so everything is an extra,” says Nowak. “It’s a matter of saving money on the base airfare and the ancillary fees. All those ancillary fees can really add up, and this can be disappointing for a lot of people.”
Checking two or three bags adds to your flight cost, so shipping them to your destination may be cheaper. Airlines also charge for food, so consider bringing snacks from home -- you may bring solid food, but not liquids, through airport security.
9. Be flexible.
You might find a better deal if you extend your stay or seek out the shoulder season between peak and off-season. “Some areas are packed during the summer, but less packed when kids are in school,” says Gray. “The weather’s great, but the area’s attractions can be less crowded and you’ll save money.”
Also, staying away from main attractions can make your lodging cheaper and less crowded. If you choose a lodging that’s removed from the attraction, you can use its yard, for instance, to play sports with your group that you can’t do at a hotel or beach. “Look at places that are a bit more off the beaten path,” says Gray.