Tips to taking a vacation on a budget

Feb 16, 2020

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Some of my most memorable trips have cost surprisingly little. Even with a relatively small budget, you may be able to plan a vacation that fits both your wants and budget. In this guide, I discuss tips for taking a vacation on a budget and getting the most out of the funds you set aside for your trip.

In This Post

Think outside the box

South Rim Trail overlook at Big Bend National Park (Photo by Wyatt Smith/TPG)
Big Bend National Park served as an inexpensive yet relaxing vacation spot for me while living in Texas. (Photo from the South Rim Trail by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy)

Some of my most refreshing trips while living in Texas involved driving to Big Bend National Park and backpacking the Chisos Mountains. Although this may not sound like a vacation to many people, it was for me because it forced me to disconnect and provided time to relax.

Camping isn’t the only option for taking a vacation on a budget. But, you may be able to save money if you think of non-traditional vacation options that you will enjoy. Remember, you don’t necessarily have to travel far or stay at a luxury hotel to have a great vacation.

Decide what’s important

What aspects of your vacation are most important to you? Do you have any must-haves or deal-breakers? Answering these questions honestly will allow you to spend money on the parts of your trip that are most important to you. For example, if you prioritize flying non-stop or getting a room with a view, try to allocate funds to make it happen.

Of course, you may also need to identify what aspects of a trip aren’t that important to you and cut costs in these areas. For example, you may prefer to save money by flying in economy and staying in budget hotels so you can splurge on activities or dining.

Choose your season, destination and travel dates wisely

Our Premium King room at the Loews Chicago was comfortable and very livable.
By traveling during low season to Chicago, I was able to get a great deal at the Loews Chicago. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

Before working for The Points Guy, my husband JT and I were limited to traveling during peak travel periods surrounding holidays to make the most of his limited time off from work. So, our flights were usually expensive and award availability tended to be minimal. But, even though we couldn’t improve our travel dates, we could choose where we traveled.

Indeed, some destinations are more expensive than others and each destination has low and high seasons that tend to influence the price of accommodations and activities. For example, a week in Da Nang, Vietnam will cost much less than a week in Auckland, New Zealand, assuming similar accommodations, dining and activities. And, it’s less expensive to visit Chicago in the winter than in warmer periods. I saw this in practice when I was able to book a night at the Loews Chicago Hotel in March 2019 through American Express’ Fine Hotels and Resorts program for just $153 including taxes and fees.

Make a budget (and stick to it)

(Photo by Andrew Neel via Unsplash)
Vacationing on a budget requires planning. (Photo by Andrew Neel via Unsplash)

The details of your vacation naturally depend on how much money you can spend on the trip. So, I recommend creating a vacation fund that you add to throughout the year. Then, when it’s time to plan your vacation, you know how much money you have to plan your trip.

There are a few types of costs associated with every trip for which you should budget. Based on what is important to you, you may want to splurge in one or two of these categories. But, splurging on some areas of your trip may mean you need to cut back in other area. Be sure to price out the key aspects of your trip before booking anything non-refundable to ensure all your expenses will fit in your budget.

Transportation

Use Google flights to price out cash prices for flights, being sure to check surrounding dates and destinations to save some cash. If you’re driving, consider how much gas, tolls and parking will cost. And, be sure to consider transportation costs at your destination including buses, trains, metro, taxis, car rentals and flights.

Lodging

Decide what type of accommodations you want, and then check prices. If you’re looking to save money, you may want to consider budget hotels, home sharing like AirBnB, hostels and camping. Personally, I usually start by searching an online travel agency like Hotels.com as well as my favorite hotel brands.

Food

Budgeting for food can be difficult since dining costs vary widely based on location. You may want to use a site like numbeo to estimate dining costs, and then give yourself a daily budget for dining.

Activities and entrance fees

If you have certain must-do activities, be sure to budget for these activities specifically. Otherwise, you may want to give yourself a daily activity budget.

Miscellaneous expenses

Depending on the nature of your trip, you may need to budget for other expenses including supplies, visas, equipment and travel insurance.

Emergency fund

I recommend reserving a small portion of your trip’s budget as an emergency fund. If you don’t need to use your emergency fund on this vacation, it can start the vacation fund for your next trip or help you save for the future.

Use points and miles when appropriate

Since you are reading The Points Guy, you may also want to earn points or miles through your everyday spending that you can use to pay for part of your trip. Some credit cards earn airline miles or hotel points like the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card or the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card that you can redeem directly with the airline or hotel. Cards such as the American Express® Green Card and American Express® Gold Card, earn transferable points that you can redeem for travel or transfer to a variety of travel partners.

There are many different strategies for getting the most out of your credit card. You’ll generally get the most value when redeeming for premium cabin flights or luxury hotel stays. But, you may prefer to book economy award flights or lower category hotel stays using your points to stretch your points farther.

Bottom line

It’s possible to take an excellent vacation on a budget, especially if you put in the time to plan your trip, budget your expenses and consider using points and miles to decrease your out-of-pocket costs.

Featured photo of Bluegreen Vacations Fountains in Orlando, Florida by Katie Genter/The Points Guy.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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