How to Plan a Cheap Vacation and Snag Sweet Deals
Want to spend your summer traveling? I know I dream of strolling leisurely alongside the ocean, or relaxing on a beach when summer rolls around.
But I, like many people, worry about the cost of even the smallest vacation. Even if you’re not going to the beach, the cost of traveling and accommodations can be expensive, regardless of where you go.
Summer is generally the most expensive time to travel, but planning ahead can help you catch sales by being among the first people to book. Last-minute plans are frequently more expensive, so getting a jump now can only help your wallet.
If you start planning early, summer vacation will be easier and less expensive. Check out these tips and learn how to plan a cheap vacation that both you and your wallet will love.
Pick Your Location Carefully
There are certain places that are cheaper to visit during summer. If you decide to head to the southern hemisphere, where it’s winter, you can save on flights and lodging prices.
Popular South American cities like Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro are cheaper to visit during our summer.
Of course, not everyone can afford to travel that far from home. But taking advantage of “off-season” pricing at traditionally colder locations can make your vacation significantly cheaper.
A trip to a cooler destination during the summer months can mean more moderate temperatures, scenic beaches, and a low cost to boot. While the mind may immediately think of resorts in Mexico and Florida when the temperature rises, there’s no shortage of equally suitable locales in the northern United States and Canada.
“Our friendly neighbor to the north is a great place to visit this summer,” says blogger and “travel tipster” Viktoria Altman. “The weather in southern Canada is perfect in the summer — warm with low humidity. Plus, the American dollar has a very favorable exchange rate with its northern counterpart.”
“Getting to Canada is cheap, too,” she adds. “Flights are short and inexpensive, and you might be able to drive, depending on where you are located.”
It might be worth looking into pricing for Havre-Aubert Beach along the St. Lawrence River, which was ranked the most beautiful in Canada.
Of course, you don’t have to go as far as Montreal, but shopping around and considering off-the-radar or untraditional summer locales, some of which may be a bit further north, is a great strategy to hit the beach while still saving some green.
We’ll Always Have Paris
However, if you’re set on a more exotic getaway, I don’t blame you. Location still matters, though.
For example, most Parisians leave Paris in August. French citizens get five weeks of paid vacation per year, and lots of people cash it in during August. If you intend on visiting the Eiffel Tower, buy your ticket for August by mid-March for a cheaper Parisian summer vacation.
Taking the Road Less Traveled
And if the beach is not for you — particularly if you are fair skinned and averse to crowds — the good news is you may be able to avoid the busiest vacation spots entirely and save the most money as a consequence.
For example, a great alternative to the beach can be found in our great outdoors and within a canvas tent through the timeless pastime of camping. I first went summer camping while still in college, and I’ve loved it ever since.
I like being outside, getting away from a noisy city, and feeling self-sufficient. No lie, setting up a tent gives me a little rush.
Camping is basically synonymous with roughing it, but for people who don’t have the guts to actually do it for real. You bring and cook your own food, drink water from gallon containers, sleep on the ground, and walk around in the outdoors for fun.
Camping is also cheap. You might pay a fee to enter a state or national park and another to rent the campground, but that’s it. Entrance to Big Bend National Park costs $30 per vehicle, for example, and staying in the campgrounds there costs between $12 and $14 per night.
If you’re looking to save money on a vacation, camping is the way to go. That said, if you like the outdoors but don’t want to rough it, you could also go glamping, or “glamorous camping” for a bit more.
Due to its glam nature, glamping is almost always more expensive than regular ol’ camping. For example, El Cosmico — a famous glamping site in current hot-spot Marfa, Texas — charges anywhere from $85 to stay in a safari tent to $170 to stay in a trailer or tepee. While pricier, it’s still cheaper than most hotels and comes with the added bonus of having greater proximity to nature.
With glamping, the hard work is done for you. Amenities may vary from site to site, but you definitely won’t have to set up your own shelter or cook your food over the fire like at a campsite. Summer glamping is a good idea if you want to retreat to somewhere beautiful without having to pack all the stuff you’ll need to eat, sleep, and have fun.
Being First Matters
When traveling, choosing which dates you depart and return can be one of the best ways to save money. Traveling last-minute on popular holidays like Memorial Day will likely cost you an arm and a leg.
By starting your planning now, you may catch a break on popular travel dates like the Fourth of July or Labor Day.
The cheapest days of the week to travel are generally Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday. Additionally, retaining a degree of flexibility when booking is always a frugal choice. Combine the cheap days with advance planning and you’ll save yourself a lot of money — the best time to look is roughly a month and a half out from departure.
“That tried and true statement of booking your flight at least six weeks in advance is a suggestion for a reason,” says Ashley Lomelin, public relations manager of online financial planning platform My Allegro. “Most deals are dropped on those days and have not had the time or data for an increase.”
“Book your flights eight to 12 weeks in advance, if possible — you typically find your best rates in this window,” says travel blogger Christine Wheeler. “And use Google Flights to search for deals. Try to be flexible with dates, if possible — sometimes leaving a day earlier or later can save you hundreds of dollars.”
Planning ahead is the best method by which you can ensure the cost of your trip will be low. That said, last-minute deals can be found throughout the week leading up to your day of departure, but many agree this is a risky financial strategy.
“Another way — a much more spontaneous way — is to wait a few days before takeoff,” Lomelin says.
“As mentioned, this is not the recommended strategy, but it does promise cheap flights for empty planes.”
Booking a last-minute flight may be a good strategy if you are staying with friends or family in your intended destination, as hotel nightly rates can fluctuate widely as they approach capacity. While risky, using this method can get you a cheap flight to a familiar destination if you need an affordable, last-minute getaway.
Live Like a Local
Lodging can carve a big hole in your budget, especially during peak travel season. Checking out short-term rental marketplaces like Airbnb can score you lower prices. Plus, you’ll have more control over what part of a city or area you want to stay in.
“Families are no longer relegated to staying in small hotel rooms with several children for a high cost,” says family travel expert Grainne Kelly of BubbleBum.
“Sites such as Airbnb, VRBO, and HomeAway offer home and apartment rentals with space for a family to spread out. It’s not uncommon to find homes for much less than a night in a hotel,” she continues.
When it comes to renting wheels, consider checking out Turo to see if it makes sense for you. It’s like Airbnb for cars — individuals list their cars for daily or weekly rental when they’re not in use. If the idea of using someone else’s car rubs you the wrong way, you can always turn to Zipcar and Car2go for vehicle rentals less than that of a traditional company.
Another budget buster on vacation is food. Eating out three times a day stretches your budget pretty thin. Seek out lodging with a kitchen and try to eat at least one meal at home. Hitting up the neighborhood grocery store for local breakfast foods will allow you to both save money and experience what life is like for a local.
Credit? Forget It
Besides looking for ways to slash the total cost of your trip, you’ll want to think about how you intend to pay, or repay, all of your travel related expenses.
If your first thought was to finance your getaway with the use of credit cards, you may want to think twice.
While it’s nice to reap the benefits of travel now and focus on repayment later, paying for your vacation in credit can potentially undo all of your cost-saving measures.
“If it takes you a year to pay off your vacation, and your credit card is at 20 percent annual interest, you’ve just paid 20 percent more for your trip,” says certified financial planner and behavioral financial analyst Natalie Taylor. “Ask yourself, Is it still worth it?”
Instead, go for a more financially salient option, such as creating a payment plan. This way you can finance your trip, pay back your vacation’s cost over time rather than all at once, and be subject to minimal interest.
“Set up automatic payments so that you get your trip paid off in a reasonable amount of time,” says Taylor. “Take whatever you’ve spent on the trip — let’s say it’s $1,200. Over the next six months, that’s only 200 bucks a month, plus a little bit of interest.”
Another way to use financial literacy when planning for travel is to establish a discretionary account to which you can save a bit every month, according to Taylor. “Open a ‘fun account’ so you can save on a monthly basis, and that way when you want to take a trip, you already have the cash stashed away,” she says.
Regardless of how you approach paying for your vacation, employ careful spending strategies to avoid excessive interest, and make all payments in a timely manner.
Cash Strapped? There Are Still Options
While all the options on this list are fairly affordable, there are years when money is exceptionally tight and you want to get away for the least amount of money possible. It’s impossible to spend zero dollars and zero cents on a getaway, but there are ways to make the price very affordable.
House swap programs are a popular method of finding somewhere to stay when you want a change of scenery. “There are a bunch of websites, like Home Exchange and InterVac, that allow you to swap homes with someone else,” says financial marketing strategist Amy Eury of MyBankingTracker.
“The sites may require a registration fee to advertise your home, but if you get to spend a summer in Hawaii, who’s complaining?”
While the sites in question require a small signup fee ($150 a year for Home Exchange and $115 for InterVac), your stay at another location is essentially free — all you would have to pay for are the transportation expenses to get there.
And while you can swap houses with someone in Hawaii, it’s equally easy to find another temporary vacation home within driving distance, making for a cost-effective vacation.
Even without overnight accommodations, there are ways to take advantage of the warmer weather by exploring parts of your community that are off the beaten path.
“A wonderful family vacation need not mean pricey airline tickets and a resort on a Caribbean island,” Kelly adds. “There are typically so many things to do not far from home if you do a little research.”
A Car Trip
“A car trip over plane flights saves so much money, too. Break up the trip and make it more fun for your family by stopping off along the way for interesting historical sights, recommended restaurant experiences, and off-the-beaten-path things to do. Even new parks can be exciting,” she continues.
In short, the assumption that a meaningful vacation must be expensive really is a myth. There are ways to make it work, regardless of your budget.
How to Plan a Cheap Vacation: The Bottom Line
Don’t put off planning your summer travel just because it’s still cool and cloudy outside. Let the spring weather inspire your travel dreams. Do your research, stay flexible, book early, and live like a local to save yourself money on your summer travels.
Additional reporting by Connor Beckett McInerney.