You might be familiar with this age-old story: You've saved a bit to go on vacation, and you're finally taking some much-needed R&R. But as the days of your trip creep by, you notice your bank account balance dipping faster than you planned — or you keep swiping your credit card without thinking about your total balance. You might be taking a break from your daily life, but there's a rude reality waiting for you back home.
Going over budget on a trip can dampen your enjoyment of the experience in the first place — or leave you feeling financially strapped after the fact. Before you fast forward to all that regret, keep these things in mind before you travel.
Start At The End
Americans are notoriously bad at using up their vacation days. So, when they do have the chance, there may be temptation to go all out. Taking the trip of your Instagram-influencer dreams may be incredibly tempting, but you'll regret it later if it's more than you can really afford.
So, rather than choosing a destination and going no matter the cost, work backwards from your budget, advises Elyssa Kirkham, a financial expert at Student Loan Hero. "Start with what you can afford and find a destination to match."
"The amount of money you will need certainly depends on where you are going," says author and personal finance expert Tiffany Aliche. "For instance, if you're traveling coast to coast, you have to anticipate flight costs. They can range anywhere from $350-$800. You also have to factor in lodging, but you can find an Airbnb hotel or a hostel for as little as $25/night."
Make Your Own Menu
Eating out can be one of the best parts of vacation. And what foodie doesn't dream of sampling the best restaurants in a new city? But nothing breaks a budget like an multi-day Yelp bender.
Aliche advises travelers to choose hotels with breakfast included, as well as planning prepping some meals so you don't have to exclusively eat out. "If your hotel isn’t all-inclusive, make sure that it at least offers a free continental breakfast and is close to a local market," she says. "This way you won’t have to worry about buying your first meal and you can cook/make the rest of your meals inexpensively with goods from the market."
Kirkham agrees: "Try to avoid eating out for at least one meal a day. Personally, I love my breakfast foods, so I always try a bakery or brunch spot when I travel. But I might make a peanut butter-and-banana sandwich courtesy of ingredients from the hotel's free breakfast buffet to pack for an after-lunch snack, or pick up a few cheap items to snack on in my room."
One of my biggest travel pet peeves is having to spend money on necessities I already had at home but forgot to bring. I once went out of the country and chose not to bring sunscreen, thinking I could go without for a few days. Not only was the sun so overpowering that I ended up needing it after all, buying sunscreen on vacation literally cost me $30. And I couldn't find any travel-sized bottles, so I also had to decide whether to check my bag or leave the (mostly full) bottle behind when flying to my next location.
"There is a balance, especially if you’re flying, for cost savings on packing. But even just thinking ahead enough to check the weather is important," Kirkham says. "I recently visited San Francisco and forgot a few essentials — hand sanitizer, refillable water bottle, toothpaste, sunscreen. I had all these items at home and could have packed them, but instead I ended up spending $20 on a trip to Walgreens that I would rather have spent on a museum fee or an amazing entree. If you pack appropriate clothing, snacks, and other necessities you can lower unexpected costs and stress, too."
Change Your Payment Method
Unless you're planning a trip at the last minute, you may have time to maximize your savings by applying for a travel-friendly credit card that offers great perks.
"The Chase Sapphire Reserve has a signup bonus worth $750 when you spend $4,000 in the first month — which you could easily do if you’re booking an overseas trip," Kirkham says. "Make sure you find out exactly how your travel rewards work so you can get the most out of them, too. Some credit card rewards will go further if used as points to buy airfare or book a hotel, rather than redeemed as a statement credit." (But do inquire about the benefits each year, as these may change.)
Just make sure you can fully pay off that $4,000 credit card bill, or you're not really getting a bonus. Another perk of the Reserve and its sister card, the Chase Sapphire Preferred, is that there are no foreign transaction fees. Many an overseas trip budget has been busted by failing to factor in the added costs of every swipe. Same goes for your debit card. If you are traveling abroad, another good idea is to bring along a debit card with low ATM fees, so you can take out cash without worrying too much about additional costs.
WalletHub Analyst Jill Gonzalez adds that many credit cards offer "great protection from travel insurance to rental insurance," meaning cautious travelers can reap extra benefits along the way. If you don't have a credit card, it's a good idea to apply for one based on your needs before traveling. We ranked the best travel credit cards here.
Be Flexible About How You Book
Not everyone has a ton of flexibility about when, where, and how they take time off. But if your vacation time is less regimented, you may save money by going with the financial flow. Carrie Sumlin, Ally Financial's digital consumer executive, suggests looking for countries with favorable exchange rates, considering off-peak season travel internationally and domestically, and being open to different options for accommodations.
"There's no reason why you can't enjoy your vacation during off-peak travel times. Traveling as little as a week later can save you hundreds, if not thousands of dollars," she says, adding that this year is "a great time" to travel on the dollar in South Africa, Mexico, Norway, New Zealand, Indonesia, Japan, and Iceland.
"You can often get discounted prices for four- and five-star hotels on travel sites if you're willing to be flexible about where you stay," she adds. If you don't have a rewards card that gives you points for lodging with specific chains, you might as well be open to a spectrum of options. "Often, car rentals are cheaper on these sites versus dealing directly with the rental agencies. Check prices for hotels versus hostels or even Airbnb."
Understand Local Customs
Sumlin says it's wise to research local customs about payment. Negotiating or not tipping are fair (and in some cases, expected) practices in many places — just don't be boorish about it. People in other locations should still be paid fairly and respectfully for their services; you don't want to be That American and insult a merchant by haggling endlessly over a reasonable price.