Several years ago, friends and co-workers used to ask me how I “always seemed to be traveling somewhere.”
Well, I don’t know so much about always – in fact, in my own mind, I felt like I wasn’t traveling anywhere near as much as I wish I did. But it drove home a point: everything is a matter of perception.
Back then, I had a job that afforded me the salary and the time (to the tune of four weeks’ PTO/year) that allowed me to travel much more frequently. I’d spend half my vacation time visiting my parents (blowing my largest chunk of it at the holidays), and the other half would be spread out mostly among long weekends of 3-4 days, versus longer vacations of 1-2 weeks like most people seemed to prefer. I had a high-demand job and it was important, from a mental health standpoint, to get away a little more frequently, even if it wasn’t for as long.
Lots of times, when I talk with friends about travel, they wax poetic about dream vacations in exotic locales, and often end by saying something like, “…someday, when I win the lottery, I’ll take that trip.”
Well, why wait?
I’m not suggesting blowing a hole in your bank account or credit cards, but with a little creativity and more importantly, budget planning, anyone can afford to go to those dream locations. Ask yourself: A) would I rather downscale my grand vacation ideal, and get to see __ location that I’ve always dreamed of, or B) do I want to wait until I’m retired or can otherwise afford this trip? After all, life is uncertain, and you never know what might happen – not just to yourself, but to your dream vacation spot.
Examine your dream vacation, and figure out what you can do less expensively.
Something that’s important to keep in mind when traveling: every place has a “high” season and a “low” or “off” season. Of course, that’s driven by weather – how many people are eager to fly someplace cold in the middle of winter, for example. The important thing to know is just how different the low, off, or “shoulder” seasons may be from the high season – being willing to travel at other than the peak times can save you considerably in terms of flights and accommodations.
For example: in areas like the Caribbean and Florida, it is actually high season in the winter, when everybody escapes the cold weather elsewhere. While hurricane season technically stretches from June 1 through November 30th, it is at its “peak” from mid-August through October, when the waters are warmest. But this is also generally a great time to be in the islands – regular rain makes everything greener, the warmer waters are more pleasant to swim in, as well as attracting more fish to enjoy while snorkeling or SCUBA diving, and there are less tourists than the winter high season. Hotels may be half the cost that they are “in season” – and in more remote locations, you may have hotels practically to yourself. Flights to Florida in September and October tend to be downright cheap, since school is back in session and it’s still considered hurricane season.
Another example: Paris in August is the low season – the locals tend to leave town in droves. Hotel rooms are cheaper, and the streets are less crowded. The city doesn’t completely roll itself up in August, but you’ll find fewer boutiques open, the city markets aren’t as active, and the weather is hot and sticky. If you don’t mind all that, there is still plenty to do around the city, and you’ll do it for less money.
Is your dream to have a week or two of high luxury? Well, that may require some careful planning and budgeting, especially if you have a particular luxury hotel or experience in mind, but again – it’s a matter of where you feel you can cut some expense corners and still have the kind of experience you dream of.
A few ideas:
- If your hotel doesn’t offer free breakfast, you can always go to the local market and pick up fresh fruit, snack bars, and pastries for less money than you’d spend on a sit-down breakfast/brunch.
- Related to this, getting a hotel rate that “includes breakfast” isn’t worth it if the cost is more than $5-10/person over the room rate, especially if it just consists of cereals and fruit. You could go to to Starbucks or McDonald’s and get breakfast for less than $10! (The one obvious exception to this would be hotels that are so far from anywhere else as to be inconvenient or expensive to seek breakfast elsewhere.)
- Restaurants often offer discounts or even two-for-ones between 3pm and 6pm (generally called some sort of “happy hour”), which tend to be their slowest times of the day; if you don’t mind eating then, it can help your budget. If you’re a late-night eater, some restaurants also offer price breaks after 9 PM.
A little flexibility can go a long way.
If you can travel midweek – Tuesday or Wednesday – that is when flights tend to be cheapest. Likewise, if you’re not traveling during prime hours of the day, you may find less expensive flights.
Do you have flexibility in your plans at either end? If the airline you’re traveling on requests travelers who might be willing to take a bump, you could find yourself in possession of free ticket(s) or airline funds; but the flip side of that is you will spend a little extra time traveling.
Depending on where you’re traveling to, and if you have the time to make up the difference, it may be less expensive to fly via an alternative airport.
For example, last fall, I wanted to visit Montreal for 4-5 days. Flying direct to Montreal – which would be an international flight – would have cost me over $450 round-trip. Instead, we got a round-trip flight via Albany, New York – at a cost of about $138 each – and a car rental for just $64. I ended up with free upgrade to a Prius. Even with the gas tank refill and the parking cost at our hotel, we still spent less for two of us to travel round-trip to Montreal than just one direct ticket there.
Yes, that meant a 3-1/2 hour drive each way, but had had enough time that it wasn’t important. I was able to fit in a side trip to Lake Placid, which I had always wanted to see, and on the way back, we stopped at the duty free shop on the Canada/U.S. border and picked up some incredible perfume bargains – so in the end, it was worth it.
Another example would be flying into an area like San Francisco or Los Angeles – cities served by multiple major airports due to the vast size of their city/region. Depending on flight and car rental costs, you may save yourself considerable costs by where you choose to fly in/out of. Alternatively, in some circumstances, should time be short and if you have a final destination somewhere outside of these very large cities, you may find the extra time gained by choosing an alternative airport worth the extra cost.
But if your time is limited, alternative airports are not always worth it. Do the math – both the financial and the clock – and decide what is worth it for you.
“The world’s a playground. You know that when you are a kid, but somewhere along the way, everyone forgets it.” – Yes Man
Can another destination give you what you want for less?
There are some experiences that you just can’t substitute for other places: sailing in the Greek Islands; setting foot on Antarctica; hiking the Annapurna circuit; sunrise over the Hawaiian volcanoes; taking in the opening or closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games.
But there’s plenty of budget alternatives for things like experiencing wine country, surfing at a beautiful beach, hiking in the mountains, and even luxury experiences like spa visits. For example, Napa is lovely – but it has gotten incredibly expensive, and is crowded on the weekends.Did you know there are vineyards in every state? You could do a “weekend in wine country” in your own part of the country!
Being creative about your destination and experiences can be fun. If your goal is simply to get out of town for a few days, why not pull out a local map and blindly put your finger on it, then choose to visit whatever place your finger lands closest to?
In the 2008 movie Yes Man, the main character, Carl (played by Jim Carrey), changes his life by choosing to say “yes!” to all of life’s opportunities instead of constantly saying “no”. He meets free spirit Alison (played by Zooey Deschanel), who fits that kind of mental approach to life.
Early in their relationship, Alison observes, “The world’s a playground. You know that when you are a kid, but somewhere along the way, everyone forgets it.” Once they have been going out for a while, they decide to go on a vacation together. As Carl is entering the airport, he runs into friends who he discovers are going to spend time at their father’s “little” place in Tahiti. You can tell that Carl at first is nervous in admitting he doesn’t have a destination; he’s too used to letting others judge him – and judging himself. But when Alison arrives, he happily picks her up and carries her to the nearest economy airline counter, where they ask for two tickets on the next flight out – which ends up sending them to Lincoln, Nebraska.
Not exactly a tourist mecca – and Carl and Alison have no idea what they’ll do once they get there. But they see a sign for a telephone museum in the airport, and they begin their adventures there, eventually visiting a meat processing plant, and taking in a University of Nebraska football game.
I’m not exactly suggesting you seek out meat processing experiences (I’ve had one – it’s pretty smelly), but I’ve tried to embrace that kind of traveling mindset ever since I saw the movie. Schedules can be well and good, but sometimes it’s great to simply explore places you would have never thought of visiting.
Think you can’t afford a vacation? Yes, you can – if you budget for it and stick to your savings plan.
You may need to track your expenses for a couple weeks to decide where you can prune corners from your day-to-day budget, but the easiest way to set aside money for vacation is as soon as you get your paycheck.
Do you have three specialty coffees per day? Do you go clothes shopping every week? It is “impossible” for you to resist a bag of your favorite snack every day at the supermarket? Decide what you feel you can live without, or at least live with less of, and put that money towards your vacation dreams.
If you don’t already have a savings account, open one up – then make sure a debit card is not attached to it, so there will not be a temptation to spend from it. (Out of sight, out of mind, so to speak.) If you have direct deposit, set it up so that an amount gets deposited from each paycheck – be it $10, $25, or more, based on your vacation target plans. You might be surprised at how quickly it can add up; and if your budget is often tight, your vacation fund can also do backup duty as an emergency fund.
Are frequent flyer mile charge cards for you?
Frequent flyer miles cards aren’t for everyone. Most of them come with a yearly fee from $69-$99, and most airlines require so many miles to get anywhere good that you might as well just pay for the tickets.
If I was going to recommend a frequent flyer credit card to anyone, it would have to be Southwest Airlines. Their flights are affordable in general, and you may be surprised at how few miles it can take to get free flights with them. (I’ve gotten flights on Southwest for as little as $59 one-way, and have redeemed miles for flights for as little as 4,000 points.) They also have far fewer restrictions on how miles are redeemed versus other airlines.
Trying to get creative with collecting frequent flyer miles can be challenging, and it can be time-consuming enough that it’s not for everyone. Do your research on them before deciding you want to pursue earning tickets for travel using credit cards.
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In short, there are plenty of ways to get creative, have fun, and enjoy travel – and even make travel dreams come true – without breaking your bank. It will take a willingness to adjust your budget a little in order to save for your goals, but anybody can travel if they plan ahead for it.