By Andrew Housser
When you're on a budget, planning a vacation may seem like an unnecessary luxury. But studies show that taking a break from work and everyday life stressors is good for both physical and mental well-being. Vacations are rejuvenating. They also promote and strengthen family bonds. With some foresight and a little planning, you can enjoy your break without worrying about breaking the bank. Here are some suggestions to get you started.
1. Start saving.
You don't have to know where you're going in order to start socking away money to get you there. Take a look at your budget and figure out how much money per month you can afford to set aside in a vacation fund. Stash as little as $100 a month, and you'll have $1,200 to spend on next year's getaway.
2. Pick a destination.
Don't rush to zero in on an exact location. In fact, flexibility can be a money-saving friend. Determine the type of vacation your family has in mind -- tropical, historic, outdoorsy or a mix -- and make a list of potential vacation spots.
3. Go off-season.
You can save up to 50 percent or more on peak season prices by traveling when tourist traffic is at its lowest because hotels, restaurants and stores are more eager for your business.
4. Watch for deals.
Once you have a general idea of where you'd like to go, sign up for travel discount and deal sites such as Groupon Getaways, Living Social Escapes and TravelZoo. But don't let the bargains blind you: always read the fine print regarding extra fees, blackout dates, expirations and other terms.
5. Be alert.
Sign up for email alerts from airlines and rental car companies so you'll be in-the-know when they offer special deals. Travelocity's free FareWatcher service tracks roundtrip air fares for multiple destinations and notifies you of price changes. Other sites, including Kayak and Expedia, can help you find the lowest prices on airfare, rental cars and hotels.
6. Save money on meals.
If you're traveling by car or renting one, and you have access to a fridge or cooler, you can stock up on grab-and-go foods for breakfast and lunch (think yogurt, sandwich fixings). Another idea is to "switch" lunch and dinner. Because lunches are often less expensive than dinners, make lunch your main dining-out experience, and eat breakfast and dinner in your lodging, or outside as a picnic if weather cooperates. Once you know your destination, scope out nearby restaurants online to find ones with budget-friendly options.
7. Join an auto/travel club.
Despite the membership fee for organizations such as AAA, you'll still save money thanks to discounted pricing at hotels, restaurants, car rental agencies and more. The membership may also come in handy if you have car problems while traveling to your destination.
8. Rent a home.
Save money on lodging costs by renting a vacation home or condo, or seek out a resort hotel that also offers units with kitchens. Or consider traveling with friends or extended family -- and split the rental cost.
9. Pile up the points.
Check your credit card to see if it offers any award points you can use toward travel expenses. You may also consider opening a new credit card account if your credit is good, as some airlines offer free roundtrip tickets when you open an account and make a purchase. However, these cards can carry hefty interest rates, and unless you are extremely disciplined, having more than one credit card can create problems. If you go this way, make sure to charge only what you can pay off in full each month, and never charge anything that you wouldn't otherwise buy just to earn points.
10. Plan a staycation.
A faraway destination might not be in your budget this year, but you can still get away from it all without leaving home. Make a list of places and activities in your area that you've been wanting to check out. Think about amusement parks, museums, theater shows, zoos, water parks, festivals and family fun centers like bowling alleys, go-kart racing and miniature golf. Some public libraries offer free passes to museums.
Remember, your goal while on vacation should be to relax and enjoy yourself. You can't do that if you're constantly fretting about what everything costs. Worse, you don't want to return from vacation and cringe when the credit card bills roll in. Budget and plan wisely now so you can enjoy your R&R without going into debt.