This post will show you how to find the best deal for when and where to vacation and show you how to budget for vacation by giving you a detailed, step-by-step plan. If you have any further questions, feel free to reach out to me on the contact page!
Vacation can be expensive. Especially if you are just starting your career or if you have a family. Maybe that is why the average US employee only takes half of his or her vacation1. There is no doubt that the idea of vacation seems out of the picture at times. Heck, why not just stay at home and sleep…right? No! Vacations are more important than you know. Studies show that taking vacations are linked to lower stress and higher productivity2. Now that you know that you need some time away, you just need to know how to get there. Let us show you how!
4 steps to planning your vacation (and being able to pay for it):
Decide where you want to go and select a target date
Determine the costs
Creating the budget
Booking your dream vacation
Step One: Decide Where You Want To Go And Set A Target Date
Planning where you want to go is the first step on this list because this is where the price will vary the most. This will directly impact the price of the flight, cruise, food, and activities prices for your trip. This can take some research, but it is worth it and I will show you how. It is important that you plan your time-off around the best time to travel and not your travel around your time-off. If possible, this will save you hundreds.
Use Google Flights To Find Where And When
If you are looking for the cheapest option, then you need to start with the first or second most expensive part of any trip: The flight. We will not worry about where you will be staying until later because there are many options to find the price you want. Flights on the other hand can limit you because there aren’t as many options. I like to use the Google Flights method for finding and planning where I travel.
Start The Search And Decide Vacation Length
- All you have to do is go to Google flights and type in what airport you will be departing from. Do not edit the departure dates or any other information, yet. Click search and the map will enlarge. At this point, you can click on the dates and select “flexible dates.” Select either a weekend trip, one week trip, or two week trip and what month you would prefer to take the trip in. If you have complete flexibility, select “All” and it will find the cheapest flight for the selected duration for the whole six months.
Look Through The Results And Filter Your Options
- Then go to the map and look around. You can move it simply by clicking and dragging. The airport or country may not have a price at first, but zoom in with the buttons in the bottom right of the map and more options will appear. Keep in mind that it is going to show the cheapest prices and that can come with some inconvenience.
- You can adjust a few other filters such as “Stops”, “Airlines”, “Economy to First Class”, and “Round trip or one-way.” I personally only change the “stops” filter to “one stop or fewer” because I strongly dislike waiting anymore than I have to. However, do not completely disregard the “2 stops or fewer” option because there are occasionally flights that have 1.5-2 hour layovers which is perfect in my opinion.
3. Select Your Desired Destination And Modify Dates
- After finding a great deal to a location you would like to visit, click it on the map and select “View Flights.” This will show a list of flights that includes the cheapest option on the cheapest day. If the dates do not work for you, click “See More” on the Price Graph. There will often be surrounding dates with the same, or similar, price. You can even scroll between months looking at a graph view of the prices for the same vacation length that you selected before.
4. Select Your Flight And See The Itinerary
- Once you find dates and a price that work for you, select the departure flight that you were looking at. You will then have to select the returning flight. I highly recommend choosing the option that is the same price as the departing flight because otherwise it defeats the purpose. And yes, those are the prices for round trip ticket. Not one way. You will be able to see more detailed flight information like an itinerary, baggage restrictions, leg room, and Wi-Fi.
Eventually, after some research you will find the trip. Congratulations, you found the current cheapest flight to a place you dream of traveling. I recommend booking this flight as soon as you have finished the entire budget plan, because these prices can change dramatically over time. If you cannot pay for it yet, track the flight and google will send you updates when the price changes.
Note: I always look at Sky Scanner and CheapOair before booking my flight because they also have some great finds! It is important to look around. I highly recommend Google Flights because it is a highly reputable tool that is the first step in my planning. Don’t be afraid to look around, but make sure you read reviews for the website! Are OTA’s (Online Travel Agencies) like Expedia, Orbitz, etc. worth it? I will cover this in the next section.
Step Two: Determining The Costs
At this point we have already identified where we are going and when we are going. The next part is going to be identifying other costs that will be incurred during travel. We will start with the major costs and then fill in the rest to see the bigger picture. Then we will choose the best method for saving!
Identifying Major Costs
The largest expense is traveling, and we have already identified how much that will cost us. Luckily, that is (most likely) the most expensive thing during the whole trip. Next lets look at lodging. This is typically the second most expensive part of any trip, but it has many options. This only has to be as expensive as you need it to be.
Explore Your Options: Hotels or Airbnb?
The traditional way of staying in a hotel on vacation has been changing and evolving throughout the years. The home-sharing company, Airbnb, has emerged and is now a legitimate competitor to the hotel industry. Airbnb, and companies alike, provide a platform where homeowners can rent out a room or even an entire house to people looking for a place to stay. Let’s look at some of the benefits of each:
- Large reputable brands with expected quality standards are available
- Housekeeping services take care of cleaning your room
- Security- There are often cameras
- Located In Tourist parts of the city
- Typically costs are higher because of the location and services it provides
- Confined to one room of space
Airbnb (or alike) Services
- Prices can be significantly cheaper depending on if you are renting a single room or a whole house
- The location can be anywhere (Prime locations or cheaper locations)
- Potential for a lot more space and multiple rooms at a good price
- Security varies by location and property owner
- Privacy varies dependent upon renting a single room or a whole house
It would not hurt to look at your options for both before making a decision. It is easy to go with hotels because it is familiar, but Airbnb has some amazing options listed and millions of customers use it every year. The website provides pictures of the locations and descriptions to help you better get a feel for where you will be staying. You can do a simple search for airbnb and get $40 off your first booking when you go through here.
Searching for Hotels:
Book Through OTA’s or Directly From The Source?
- Millions of people book through OTA’s, like Expedia, Orbitz, Etc., for the convenience of having everything bundled together and because of the notion that it is cheaper. While we do recommend looking for deals on these sites, we do not recommend that you do this if the prices are not cheaper. If something goes wrong, it is a lot easier to be compensated if you book directly from the source. OTA’s offer the occasional unbeatable deal, but their customer service departments are painful to deal with. Google it.
- We recommend doing a bundled search on these sites looking for “deals of the day” or something alike. This is where you may see a deal that is hard to beat. Outside of those limited options, we fully recommend booking directly from the source.
Which Brand of Hotel?
- Major hotel chains, like Marriott and Hilton, have several options across the world, but there will be many other hotel chains that you may or may not have heard of. Do not be afraid to do some research on these options as well.
- Search for hotels near the location that you will be spending most of your time at and go through the list. I have stayed in many hotels and hostels that I had never heard of before and they were fantastic. Staying close to where you will be spending most of your time can save you a lot on transportation.
Book Now Vs Book Later?
- Prices at hotels can vary tremendously because of factors like occupancy and time of year. However, you can search through the prices and see a typical range that the rooms go for.
- I like to go ahead and book my rooms if it is on the lower end of the price range. I do this because a lot of hotels do not charge you until you actually complete your stay, and there is no cancellation fee if done with a fair amount of notice. However, read the cancellation policy to ensure you will not lose your money.
- After I book my reservations, I check in on the prices periodically to see if they have changed. If the price has reduced, I create a new reservation and cancel my previous one. I will stress this again: make sure you will not get charged for cancellations.
- Do not pre-pay for your reservation unless you are sure you will not have to cancel or change your plans because this generally means that you cannot get all of your money back. These options often come at a minor difference in price, but I find that the risk is not worth it.
- Please note that every hotel chain is different, and that you should look at their policies regarding refunds and cancellation policies. This will save you a lot of headache.
Filling In The Gaps
Congratulations! By this point, you have already taken care of choosing where to vacation, when to vacation, and the two most expensive parts: airfare and lodging! The next step is to fill in the gaps. We want to account for any other costs that you will endure during your vacation.
- Food – Do some basic calculations to see how much you plan on eating each day during your vacation and then add them together for the sum. Remember that food prices cost differently across the world. Do a Google search to find the average price of a meal. I often recommend going to places outside of tourist locations because the food is generally cheaper and better.
- Activities- Find a list of things that you would like to do while on vacation and then multiply the cost by 10% to 20%. People always tend to spend more than they intend while on vacation. Be careful saving for the exact amount that you are intending on spending as you may end up spending more. If you are looking for ideas, we may have a Travel Guide for your destination!
- Transportation- How will you get around from place to place? Will you take a cab or Uber or will you be walking ? Make an allowance for transportation, but try to walk if you can. I like to take Uber in countries where I cannot speak the language because I do not have to worry about miscommunication of the destination.
These costs are where you can make adjustments for total cost. There are so many different options for each of these types of costs that you can typically find ways to dramatically decrease how much you spend. I love activities that do not cost like going to the beach all day or going hiking!
Step Three: How To Budget For Vacation
Now that we know how much we are going to spend, we need to make a plan and stick to it. This does not have to be a difficult task, but it is important to stick to it. You will thank yourself when you are on that vacation doing everything that you wanted to do.
Add Up How Much Money You Need
The next step is to add up how much money everything is going to cost. Make sure to not forget anything. Then make a goal for yourself to save 10%-20% more than you actually have planned. This will allow you room for changes and less pressure during your trip. Besides, it’s easy to forget something. After you add everything together, subtract how much money you can dedicate to your vacation from your current savings and go ahead and separate that money from the rest. Then divide the amount of money that you need to save by the number of months that you have until your vacation. This will be your target savings amount per month.
Save Money Without Even Noticing
I had my most success saving money when I opened a new savings account with my bank and called it “Travel Money.” I then opted to have $200 directly deposited to that account from my paychecks every month. By the end of the year I had deposited $2,400 dollars myself. Luckily, I had a Discover Bank Account that pays a 1.8% interest of savings accounts. You can open one as long as you have a discover credit card. Enjoy a free $50 credit if you open a credit card through here!
Use Budget Tools
There are various tools out there to help you monitor your savings and spending for the month! These tools can help you stay on track and even reduce how much you are spending in other areas. I like to use Nerdwallet to monitor my spending and saving habits. They have a mobile application, but there are other notable mobile applications that help you monitor your money, like EveryDollar by Dave Ramsey, and Mint. All of these are reputable applications that thousands of people trust with their information. However, they are not a must if you do not feel comfortable with it.
It is important to create a realistic budget, and have a set plan to achieve it. I mentioned the methods that I like to use to ensure I am able to go on that trip! If you feel that the target saving amount is too high, then you may need to cut back in other places of your life or adjust the activities for your trip. Using one of the tools mentioned before can help you see how much you are really spending in different parts of your life.
Step Four: Book Your Dream Vacation
After you have decided where to go, when to go, how much it will cost, and how you will save for it, it is time to book that dream vacation! There is an amazing feeling that you get after you finally book it. Whether you wait to book the vacation until you have all of the money, or if you book the vacation before you are finished saving, it will feel so much more real to you. No more saying “some day” because you will know the day.
Once Again, Are OTA’s Worth It?
Just to go over it again, I will remind you that unless there is an amazing deal, I do not recommend booking through OTA’s. I have been burnt more than once from horrible customer service and I just do not think that it is worth it. However, there are sometimes some really good deals. The decision will ultimately be up to you. If there is a chance of things changing, then be aware that things are more difficult through OTA’s.