Pinching Vacation Pennies

Stress and economic fear are strangers to no one these days. Most people could use a relaxing vacation right about now, but how to afford it in a time like this? Budget travel.

"There are three major things that can impact what you spend on vacation: where you go, when you go, and what choices you make while you are there," says Tim Leffel, author of Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune. "If you can control all three of these variables, you will always get a better deal than most people."

Where to Go

Go where the dollar is strong, of course! Don't give in to the glitz and glamour of hyped up tourist destinations - you can go somewhere similar for half the price. Instead of Western Europe, try Eastern Europe; don't go to Cancun, go to Panama; and forget San Francisco - Portland is incredible.

"We are in a rare period right now where the dollar is way up around the world, so apart from Japan, every country is on sale for us," says Leffel. He suggests places like Iceland, Hungary, South Africa, and Mexico - which is a "screaming bargain" - as countries where the dollar is significantly stronger than local currency.

He also notes, "There are bargains all over Latin America once you land and there's no jet lag getting there and back. From Guatemala down to Argentina, the dollar goes a long way."

Booking a Bargain

Booking a vacation through a travel agent can actually get you the best deal out there. Many people think it will cost more, but it doesn't. Travel agencies get paid by the companies they book for, not the by their customers.

"Travel agents know all tricks; they know what's on sale," says Susan Reesor, a booking agent at A Travel Center, one of Utah's oldest travel centers. "And a travel agent can guarantee the best price." For example, if you book a cruise for $500 a person six months in advance, but the price goes down to $250 three months later, an agent will adjust your price, guaranteed.

So what can you book for a deal these days? Reesor suggests a cruise, especially if you're LDS. Cruise prices are down as it is, but cruise lines count on alcohol and gambling for good chunk of their profit. They're not included in the initial price, which is why cruises can be found for so cheap.

Also, "You can get more bang for your buck by booking at the last minute," says Laura MacNeil, associate editor of Budget Travel Magazine. "You can also find tremendous bargains by booking - and paying upfront - for deals far in advance." A lot of hotels, airlines and cruises have fire sales for unsold inventory at the last minute. She says companies are offering deals with fewer profits, or even no profits at all, just so they can stay afloat.

MacNeil says other budget - friendly destinations include all - inclusive resorts and river cruises. "People want to know they're getting for their money’s worth," she says. Even in more expensive places like Europe, these types of vacations are a good deal.

Spend Your Money Wisely

Even if you get a good deal on your hotel and airline tickets, you can still rack up your vacation bill if you spend your money unwisely.

"If you take an extra bag for souvenirs without even knowing what's for sale, that's probably a good sign you’re going to be wasting a lot of money," says Leffel. If you wouldn’t buy it at home, you probably don’t need it.

Leffel says a lot of money also gets wasted out of laziness. It's easy to stay at an international chain hotel, but looking for an alternative with more character is usually cheaper. The same thing goes for eating out. Don't eat at tourist restaurants; find out where the locals eat. And don't take a special hotel taxi when the regular ones, or even the subway, are less expensive. "Just reading a guidebook before you go can easily save you hundreds of dollars on all counts," he says.

Other money-saving tips include:

  • See if your credit card company offers a discount if you book a vacation using their card (many do).
  • Go out for lunch and stay in for dinner.
  • Go grocery shopping for snacks and small meals instead of eating out.
  • Travel after peak season.
  • Stay fewer nights. If you're not willing to give up the destination, don't stay as long to cut down costs.
  • Skip the attractions and just enjoy the surroundings.
  • Go somewhere close; driving is generally cheaper.
  • Go with another couple and split the bills.
  • If you're planning a European vacation in the future, buy Euros now before they go up again.
  • Do a staycation. Stay local and discover what your own city has to offer.

Inexpensive Family Fun

"Remember that almost any place can be an adventure for kids, and the things they will get the most excited about are seldom the ones that cost the most," says Leffel. He suggests aimless adventure instead of overscheduling. Plan a day to just hang out at the pool, go on a picnic, or find a local park - they'll enjoy these far more than another museum. "Don't be afraid to be spontaneous, both in the planning and after arrival," he says. "You don't get extra points for leaving nothing to chance!"

MacNeil says road trips are some of the best family vacations. Consider camping at a state park - "National parks get all the attention and the crowds, but state parks are often under-utilized, which you can use to your advantage," she says.

Regardless of where you go or what you do, family time is an adventure in and of itself, and you’re sure to have a blast. Getting a little bang for your buck will only make it all the better.

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