2020 has been quite a year, amirite? Most of us have been remote/sheltering-in-place/quarantining since March, and we are now in October! While 2020 has been hard, it's also been a catalyst for revelation for many individually and for our country as a whole. And hopefully it's provided a chance to re-evaluate our financial behaviors to set ourselves up better for the future. One of those future-facing things is vacation!
For safety reasons, a lot of our getaways had to be put on hold or cancelled altogether. I had planned on going to D.C., New York, VA for homecoming (shout-out WM!), and had started putting together a group trip to Bali. It would have been my first time to the Asian Continent. While I was sad to have to let go of those plans, doing some road trips to places in New England has given me a new appreciation for the area where I grew up.
Now that it's October though, I'm starting to think of the future...as in 2021 and the possibility (pending pandemic developments) of going on vacation again. Since I have vacation on my mind, I figured I'd share some of the ways I prepare for a vacation so that I can have a blast and not worry about how it's affecting my wallet.
First - I typically plan where I want to go around this time for the following year because I like to travel at least once internationally per year. I try to land on the approximate time I want to travel and put it in my calendar. Once I have the date decided, I plan backwards, thinking through all of the expenses that may arise before and during the trip.
The first of those is airfare. Typically, you can find cheaper tickets on Tuesdays. Whether you are traveling domestically or internationally, there are "sweet spot" windows of when to purchase tickets so that they are reasonable. By working backwards from my travel date, I pick which month I plan on purchasing the airfare. I try to buy at least 3 months in advance, allowing me time to save up and pay for other expenses for the trip. So if I am traveling in July, I try to buy tickets around April, taking the "sweet spots" for purchasing into consideration. When I set my April budget at the end of May, I scan Kayak and other airfare sites to see what an approximate cost will be for the ticket, and put that amount into my April budget. Another good tip is to sign up for airfare alerts for the date and location of your vacation. Once a reasonable price comes up, you can go ahead and purchase.
Once I purchase my flight, I look into lodging. There are many options for lodging depending on your budget and your comfort level. There are hostels, and couch-surfing, for a relatively cheaper stay that is enhanced by getting more of a locals-feel of the destination. Or there are airbnbs, home exchanges, and hotels which may be a bit more expensive (depending on what you choose!) but can help cut costs in other ways, like being able to cook at home, rather than eating out. When you first enter the site, use the filter settings to put in your budget constraints. There is no point in looking at lodging options that are way out of your price range, and doing so may convince you to purchase something out of budget. I also encourage you to look past the first three pages of offerings - you're likely to find something you really like, but you need to be willing to look for it. Lastly, try and find a location that is within walking distance to where you will spend the majority of your time OR within walking distance to public transportation (as long as that is considered a safe mode of transport where you are going). This will save you a lot of transportation costs. Taking public transportation is both easier than people typically think, and allows you to see parts of your destination you may not have seen otherwise. You might also get some great food recommendations from locals also riding public transport!
Many of the airline and lodging booking sites offer cash back through Rakuten, (formerly Ebates). Go through them to get 1-10% of your money back.
To help determine what my expenses are going to be during the trip, I (shockingly) do research. I look for what meals are most important in that culture. That way I know what meals I can save money on by cooking at my lodging, and focus on going out for meals that mean more to that destination. For example, in Spain (at least where I was), lunch is the most important meal of the day. I rarely went out for breakfast or dinner, but made sure to indulge in lunches. By cooking at home, you can also go to the grocery store (one of my favorite types of shopping!) and see all the ways food is different there then where you are from.
I also look up tourist attractions I may want to visit, and factor their entrance fees into my spending budget. Tourist attractions sometimes provide discounts if you purchase in advance/online, so I look out for that too. Some countries have passes that allow you to get discounts to many of their attractions. An example is the Dublin pass I used while in Ireland. Since I (hopefully) booked lodging near public transportation, I worry less about that.
Lastly, I look into typical spending practices where I am going. Americans are big spenders compared to most of the world, so I like to check out tipping practices, understanding hidden costs (like having to pay for water in Europe), and any other tid-bits on spending habits I can find. This way when I go to my destination, I'm not wasting money because I'm living by American standards, but rather adapting my spending to the standards of the location.
Once I've conducted my research, I can easily put into my budget for the 1-2 months in advance of the trip how much I need to put away. If it's $1,000, I might put $500 into two months of budgeting and put that money into a savings account so when it's time to travel, I don't have to scramble for spending money.
The last thing to consider is exchanging your money for international trips. You want to do this ahead of time and not at the airport. If you have AAA, they can exchange money reasonably and quickly. Another option is your banking institution, but you may need to give them more of a heads up. I would not go to a money exchange location as those typically charge a higher rate to exchange your money. You can look at a currency converter to see how much you are likely to get for your currency and also help determine when it's best to get your money exchanged, as the exchange rate does shift.
But what about spontaneous trips?! All of these tips are if you plan well in advance. You're right. I tend to be a planner. Here is my tip for a spontaneous vacation: in your budget every month, put a certain amount aside for vacations. Add that amount, say $50-$100, into a savings account. Then when a spontaneous trip comes up, you've already got some money set aside that you can tap into. AND those set-aside funds can go toward a planned trip as well.
Hopefully we can start traveling more and further in 2021, but even if we can't, you now have some useful tips on how to travel without breaking your wallet. Until then, enjoy these views from around the world to give you the sense of travel.