How to Save Money on Vacations

In December, we’ll be celebrating our 3 year anniversary. Our little tradition so far has been taking a vacation. Since we’re getting a townhouse a month before our vacation, however, we’re scaling back a bit this year. After talking with some friends about saving money on travel, I have some more tips to share.

Planning ahead and looking at the total costs of going on vacation can help you control your spending. Some people spend frivolously on vacation and then wonder where their money went. Like everything, prioritize your spending.

My husband and I like to have memorable trips, and love taking pictures as our main mementos. Some people like grabbing gifts and other like to spend money on food. Pick one or two areas where you want to splurge and cut back on the rest. It is possible to have a good time on vacation and not spend a lot of money.

While I share some things that have worked well for us and our friends, see if you can add some more tips in the comments. I’d love for everyone’s next vacation to be both fun and frugal.

Getting a car rental for the trip

We usually have a rental car for the trip. We’d like to avoid wear and tear on our cars since we usually drive some distance. We also like the option of turning in the rental car if there is a problem and exchanging it for another. It’s less hassle than finding a shop while out of town and getting a repair made.

Last year we tried renting a car through Priceline, and it worked well for us. We started low with a bid of$11/day. We then slowly raised that number until we got an offer. We ended up getting a mid-size car for $14/day plus tax.

Before going to pick up the rental I checked with my car insurance company to see if they provide rental car coverage. Our policy, like many others, will transfer all our liability and collision coverage to a rental driven in place of our own car.

If you’ve ever priced insurance at the rental counter, you know free insurance coverage is a huge savings. If you’re planning on renting with a credit card, you should also check to see if the card issuer offers any sort of insurance coverage.

Eating on road trips

If you’re driving to destination, I suggest packing plenty of snacks and drinks for the trip. This will save you from impulsively buying expensive snacks at gas stations and also cut down on stopping for breaks on the road. We also estimate our trip time and plan for a longer lunch stop to eat and relax. Using Google Maps, we can usually find a nice local spot that’s affordable.

Saving money on airfare

Friends of mine recommend using Kayak to compare airfares. It saves them time aggregating the best fares from several top sites at once. One friend is currently out in Oregon visiting family and friends — she got two cross-country tickets for $149 total! Her tip is to plan ahead and check repeatedly as prices change constantly.

If you’re also considering smaller, budget airlines, Nora Dunn (a world traveler) suggests using Which Budget to see if you can find better rates.

Packing for a vacation

If you’re flying, pack light to avoid luggage fees from the airlines. Call your airline ahead of time to find out about their baggage policy and fees. Travel expert Anne McAlpin’s “Pack it Up” has some wonderful tips on packing your carry on bag and for airport security.

  • Keep your clothes basic and choose outfits that work interchangeably with your shoes and accessories. If you’re traveling during the winter season, bring items to layer. If you’re traveling during warmer weather, McAlpin suggests getting some clothes made of natural fabrics.
  • Take inexpensive jewelry with you when you travel. Leave your nice pieces at home. The exception, of course, is your wedding ring.
  • Go easy on shoes. Make sure you have comfortable walking shoes, dress shoes for nice dinner, and possibly sandals.
  • Bring dryer sheets to de-static your knit items and help keep your luggage smelling fresh.
  • Take a photo of what you’ve packed in case the airline loses your luggage. It can be hard to remember who’s bag had what.
  • If you like to pack lots of clothes, consider getting compression bags. They can save you space and reduce your luggage count (but not weight).
  • Don’t stress out over getting luggage insurance. You may already be covered by the airline, your credit card (if you bought the tickets with it), or your homeowner’s insurance.

Making the most of your hotel

We again used Priceline to bid on a comfortable hotel near Disney World and ended up paying 1/3 of their regular prices. When we placed our bid, we requested a three star or higher property, and low-balled our price. We got accepted on our first bid (maybe we should’ve bid lower!) and wound up near both Universal Studios and a friend who lives just outside of Orlando — knowing a local person can be an invaluable resource.

When you get to the hotel, be pleasant with the staff and ask them for some local recommendations for places to eat. I use to work as a front desk clerk while in college, and I loved to help tourists discover local spots. Doing this can both save money and help you find a memorable place to eat. I would also ask the concierge (if they have one) for some smaller events that are happening around town.

Cutting your expenses home

If nobody will be in your house when you’re away, go ahead and unplug some appliances such as your microwave, toaster oven, computer, and stereo. Our electric company, Progress Energy, notes that “up to 75 percent of the energy used in home offices is consumed when the electronics are plugged in, but not in use.” You might also want to change your thermostat you’re out of town.

Your thoughts

Do you have any further suggestions for planning a fun and fugal vacation?

21 Responses to “How to Save Money on Vacations”

  1. Anonymous

    From my experience, saving money on vacations way are:
    – Book tickets for several months prior from departure.
    – Looking for a cheap hotel on the internet, then do the booking. For a cheaper cost, you can search for homestay.
    – Eating on road trips.
    – Create your shopping list.
    – Create a list of your destination and time.
    – Use a car rental for the trip

  2. Anonymous

    Very useful tips, Laura!
    Here’s what I to save on air travel – I left this info in another category, but I thought I would share it with you here:

    It takes a huge amount of discipline, but I found a way to save a bundle on vacationing. I agree that it’s foolish to borrow money to take a vacation- I feel I haven’t “earned” it if I can’t pay for it. But my method is that I pay for virtually everything with my Southwest Airlines Visa card, including all my utilities, business expenses, etc. I have 2 cards- one for business and one for personal transactions. For every $1200 spent, I get one credit, and I get a free round-trip ticket every 16 credits. It’s easy to rake up 2-3 credits per month. Here’s the catch: YOU MUST PAY THE BALANCE IN FULL EVERY MONTH! That’s not Visa’s rule- that’s mine. You can get into trouble quickly if you violate this rule! BUT, if you stick to it, it’s great- I haven’t purchased an airline ticket in years, and I can even transfer the ticket to friends and family (everyone wants to visit you when you live in Las Vegas!)
    Anyway, it takes discipline, but by doing it this way, I save a bundle on my vacations!

  3. Anonymous

    Totally agree! My wife and I wouldn’t think of taking a trip where we needed a hotel or car without using Priceline. We had an extra night on our honeymoon in Seattle and scored a 5-star hotel on Priceline for $100! It’s definitely the way to go. Our favorite road trip tradition is to pack a delicious snack called “pizza bread.” Keeps really well in the car, and tastes like a calzone!

  4. Anonymous


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  5. Anonymous

    I very much enjoyed this article and the ensuing discussion. My two cents worth: currently the best airline to fly is Southwest since it still doesn’t charge for luggage and flights can be quite inexpensive. Then, we always rent a timeshare – MUCH more affordable than cramped hotel rooms. For example, we stayed at a luxury resort at South Padre Island for just $75/night to sleep 4, and at Branson for just $55/night to sleep 6. Gorgeous accommodations like these at these prices can’t be beat!

  6. Anonymous

    Thank you for the mention, Laura! Budget flying helps; so does asking for free upgrades and discounts (no really!), hospitality exchanges, strategic use of restaurants, and penny-wise souvenir shopping.
    I love the note at the end about saving power expenses at home by unplugging things before you leave; great tip that people don’t think about!

  7. Anonymous

    When my husband and I went to Puerto Rico this past summer, I did my homework online and found the prices for the extras we wanted to do and what days they were opened (in foreign countries it’s not always Sunday/Monday so check ahead of time!). We seldom use the travel planners in the hotel. They charge twice the actualy price for the convenience of buying the tickets in the lobby. If you do your homework you can make reservations on your own. I check mulitple travel sites for their recommendations and then ask advice of anyone who’s been there.

  8. Anonymous

    I appreciate the feedback. We are learning with each vacation what works and doesn’t work for us. We look forward to going this year just to decompress and celebrate.

  9. Anonymous

    Another way we saved on airfare is checking air rates to nearby cities. Kayak has function to do this. Couple of years ago, we went to Orlando from NY but instead of flying in to Orland Airport, we chose Tampa Int’l which is 70 miles away. By doing so, we saved $100 on round trip tickets ($160 vs. $260). For family of four, that is extra $400 savings! We had to drive an hour into Orlando but car rental had unlimited mileage and we got to see two cities instead of one and Tampa International was less crowded and way better than Orlando airport.

    Also, make sure you bring your GPS when traveling. This device saves not only gas and time but also helps you locate local attractions, restaurants, etc.

  10. Anonymous

    Good stuff Laura. Happy 3rd year anniversary! Food is the big expense killer.

    The wife and I enjoy staycations in this economy, but especially enjoy going to our place in Tahoe.



  11. Anonymous

    You can also save money if you stay in a vacation rental instead of a hotel. It may seem more expensive at first but you can save by cooking meals like breakfast in the rental.

    Another way to is to make lunch your major meal. Lunch is often less expensive at restaurants than dinner and you have the same selections. Also try to eat a bit later in the afternoon so you can have a lighter evening meal.

    I also second the idea of trimming expenses at home while you are gone. Turn down your heat – both for the central heat and water heater. If you subscribe to Netflix, stop your subscription while you are gone. We have also stopped our auto insurance when we are gone for several weeks and not planning on driving while away.

  12. Anonymous

    As a frequent traveler I really enjoyed this post. I do have a few practices I’d like to add:

    1) If you’re going to a museum, zoo, etc. check the website before your trip. Many of them offer free admission during a day on the first week of the month.

    2) If you have a student ID, bring it!

    3) I use the Amex Hilton card (no annual fee) for all my purchases and at the end of a year I have enough points for a 1 week stay at a very nice resort! I’ll usually use these points for my trips and save myself a whole lot on hotel costs.

    4) Hit the grocery store when you arrive. I noticed I was spending quite a bit of money buying bottles of water here and there throughout the trip. I’ve learned to get a large bottle (or a 6 pack) at the local grocery store and bring it to my hotel room for consumption throughout the trip. (This is a good idea for snacks too!)

    That’s it for now…hope you have a great trip!

  13. Anonymous

    Thanks for this post! The packing for vacation thing is probably the hardest thing for me to be smart with. I’m so bad about throwing in anything and everything that I might “need”. So it’s good for me to see these tips from Anne McAlpin to help me pack better next time! In fact, the last trip I was on, I had to pay extra because my suitcase was “Heavy” – it wasn’t fun.

  14. Anonymous

    Ha ha, my wife and I follow most all of this advice so I wanted to point out my 3 favorite points.

    1. Pack your own food – brilliant! Not only for $$ value, but also from a health aspect. My wife and I eat about 90% local organic food and we do not want to compromise our budget or our diets!

    2. Rent a car – of course! As long as we’re going far enough we will always do this. We usually go with a Ford Focus because they newer ones get around 37 mpg highway. Once we figure in gas savings and wear & tear, this is a no brainer. Plus it’s more fun to drive a different car!

    3. Trimming home expenses while gone – Oh snap! Want to save at least $50 during the course of your week long vacation? Do this.

    There are a few things you mentioned that I was not aware of… I’ll be checking into them now, thank you.

  15. Anonymous

    Try to go somewhere you won’t need a car at all. that will save money big time. No need to drive when on vacation or if in a city, just use public transportation. Most vacations you should have an idea of how much the costs will be then add some cause you usually spend more than expected and budget accordingly.

  16. Anonymous

    Perhaps the most frugal travel magazine ever conceived is Budget Travel from Arthur Frommer. The wife and I subscribed to it for years and the budget friendly travel tips were OUTstanding. Plus, their top picks delivered in every issue were chock full of great trip ideas.

    What’s neat is that if we want to go to say Ireland, we can look back at this magazine and see when it popped into the ‘Best Deals’ column so we already had a fix on what time of year is least expensive to go. Also, they run a column of tips to save money that has saved me a bundle for business and personal travel.

    BTW, we definitely subscribe to the ‘travel light’ mentality. Most places we go will have laundry facilities if needed, so there’s no reason to pack a truckload…literally…of clothes you won’t need. Of course, we’re not the types to go out to fancy dinners as we prefer being out and about fishing, snorkeling, etc.

  17. Anonymous

    Thanks for including a link to my post. It is possible to travel cheaply. I like the idea of spending where it counts for you.

    When we traveled to San Francisco recently it was worth the extra $100 to have a non-stop flight versus a 3 hour layover.

    If you are flying be prepared to be flexible, had we been able to be flexible we would have made $700 by taking the next flight instead of the one we were booked for. Unfortunately we couldn’t extend our trip, so we missed out.

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