Before you read any further, let’s make one thing clear: If you’re having trouble paying for your housing, food, and utilities, don’t go on vacation! Instead, to get a little R&R, try out these ideas for a staycation.
But if you’re like me, employed and paying bills, you probably get an itch to escape once or twice per year.
Although it’s empirically wiser to pay down debt instead, vacations have their psychological benefits. Research shows vacation improves your mental health and spurs creativity. Also, what’s the point to working hard if you don’t have fun with your money occasionally?
The key word is occasionally.
In my 20s, I used to travel up to six times per year. And they weren’t little getaways. I once spent a week in Nice, France because I found an air/hotel package for $699. I conveniently overlooked the fact that I’d be spending hundreds more to eat, drink, and get around.
These days, I still indulge in vacations a few times per year, but I’m smarter about my choices. I never come close to spending $1,145, the average amount an American planned on spending for a summer vacation last year.
You can travel cheaply, too, with these tricks:
1. Travel off season
Every locale has an off-season, a few months when the weather isn’t so great or famous attractions are closed. For most of North America and Europe, off seasons run between fall and spring. In Latin and South America, and warmer US locations, summers are generally off-season, due to high temperatures and periods of rain.
Financially speaking, off seasons are the best time to travel because everything is cheaper.
One tour operator found that couples who travel to Europe during off seasons save around $600 in airfare alone.
Lodging is cheaper, too. “Traveling in the low-season provides the opportunity to take advantage of lower hotel rates at some locations,” says Leslie Stachowiak, Communications Leader in Public Relations for the American Club, the Midwest’s only AAA Five Diamond Resort Hotel located in Kohler, Wisconsin.
Last winter, I visited the American Club a few weeks before Christmas, when their rooms were more than $200 cheaper than their high season rates. Beyond saving money, my husband and I practically had the sprawling, Shining-esque (sans the scary) resort all to ourselves. One night, we were the only couple sitting near their massive Christmas tree, which was decorated in hundreds of lights, while carolers sang in another room.
2. Don’t fly.
For most trips, airfare will be your largest expense. Sometimes, driving will save you considerable money.
At Cost to Drive, you can calculate how much it will cost you to drive from one location to another based on the fuel efficiency of the make, model, and year of your car and current gas prices.
Then compare that amount to the cost of an airline ticket. Just don’t forget to factor in your sanity – saving one hundred dollars may not be worth three days of sitting in the car.
3. Travel mid week
If you decide to fly, arriving and departing on a Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday will get you the best deal.
Last spring, for example, my husband and I went to New York. Flying on a Wednesday and returning on a Tuesday actually cost $120 less per ticket than a Thursday-Sunday trip.
Hotels are cheaper mid-week too. On that trip, for instance, we stayed at the Emerson Resort, a picturesque lodge in the Catskill mountains that discounts rooms $50-100 during the week. “Right now we have our Stay & Ski Package that starts at $53.00 per person, per night,” says Kaite Brady, an administrative assistant at the resort. “We recently also had a promotion that was stay two nights, get the third night free.”
Because of the savings, we splurged on a two-story room with a private balcony and two fireplaces!
4. Get the best deals through Facebook, Twitter, and email newsletters
Whenever I hear about a hotel I want to check out, I follow them on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up for email newsletters. It takes five seconds to do, and has saved me hundreds over the last few years.
For example, when I was pregnant, I found out that the Abbey, a luxury resort in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, has a hard-to-find pregnancy massage table with a hole in the center, so that a mom-to-be can get a face down massage to relieve lower back pain (usually, pregnant women get massages lying on their side). When you’re pregnant, a day at this spa beats a week in Hawaii. Trust me. I started following them on Facebook, and was alerted whenever they ran a sale.
These kinds of social-media-only deals can lead to substantial savings. “Our Facebook page is great for last minute deals, especially at the Spa,” says Sara Schmitz, Marketing Manager at The Abbey Resort and Avani Spa. “We have a Facebook offer for this week with a 35 percent discount off regular prices.”
Airlines often use social media to alert people to limited time, limited availability fares. For instance, JetBlueCheeps on Twitter recently advertised a $79 flight from Boston to Los Angeles. The first 25 people who clicked on the link scored the deal.
5. Get good—really good—at collecting points.
There is an entire online subculture devoted to maximizing the value of frequent flier miles and travel rewards points to score discounted or free travel.
The Points Guy is a good place to start, although it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Hundreds of blogs and forums discuss the intricacies of earning rewards quickly and getting the most value when you redeem your miles.
If travel is your thing, the right travel rewards credit card can start you on the road to a free flight, especially if you sign up for one that offers a bonus after your first purchase. Sometimes that’s enough for a free flight right off the bat.
The trick is to strategize — figure out which card(s) will earn you points the fastest based on your spending habits. It should go without saying, but only play these games if you’re free of credit card debt.
How do you save money on travel? In the comments, let me know how you save money while traveling.