Saving Money

Getting Away without Getting Soaked: Part I of III on Vacation Budgeting

If you’ve planned a summer vacation but are worried about how you’re going to reduce your travel expenses, read on. Following this simple, five step approach to travel budgeting, you’ll get some of that blissed-out vacation feeling before, during and after your Big Trip, knowing that you’re able to afford that get away and won’t be returning home with maxed-out credit cards and a mountain of debt.

The first step is to think about budgeting your money ahead of time, based on what you’re most hoping to get out of the trip.

1. Visualize that Vacation Photo Album

Think about what’s going in the scrapbook at the end of this trip — and then plan your vacation budget around those images.

  • Pictures of you and your loved one holding umbrella drinks poolside?
  • Snaps of the kids in front of national monuments or in national parks?
  • Or images of your family admiring your newborn?

Once you know what’s most important about the trip to you — relaxation, adventure and learning, family connection — you’re ready to plan for a vacation budget that will help deliver the experiences you’re looking for.

2. Start with the Scenic View

Start with the big picture of the expenses you’ll need to cover in your travel budget. Many are obvious, like transportation to and from your vacation spot, lodging, food, and entertainment. But here are some common expenses which are easy (but hazardous) to forget:

  • Expenses before your trip: New luggage? New clothes?
  • Home expenses during your trip: House sitting? Pet care?
  • Transportation during your trip: Rental car? Public transport? Ferries?
  • Common post-trip costs: Photo developing? Shipping souvenirs?

About.com has a handy travel expense worksheet to help you total your travel costs.

3. Meet the Locals

Understand the costs of the key experiences you’re looking forward to.

  • If you’re visiting a big theme park, go online to find typical admission costs.
  • If you’re traveling to try a famous restaurant, what does Zagat say is the typical tab for two?
  • If you’re looking forward to sailing, scuba diving or snorkeling every day at your resort, what do they charge for these extras?

Check out our next post on vacation budgeting for smart ways to save on these big ticket items.

Mint tip: Keep it simple. Just look for details on the 3-4 experiences that are going to be most expensive. You can use your previous travel expenses to estimate a realistic vacation budget for the rest. Just search the Transactions Page in your Mint account using the dates of your last trip, the Travel category, or specific hotel, airlines, etc. for a quick snapshot of what you spent.

4. Choose the Right Road

At this point, most travelers find that their wants exceed their wallet. If you need to make trade-offs, keep in mind the goals you’ve established in Step 1. For example:

  • If your primary objective is to visit family, you might be able to stay with them and not pay for lodging. Just plan on buying the clan a nice meal out to thank them for putting you up.
  • If your days are going to be packed from morning to night, definitely go for the budget hotel as you won’t be doing much more than sleeping there.
  • If you’re intent on seeing every museum and monument in a big city, it may be wise to stay downtown (costing you more) where public transportation is available (saving you rental car and gasoline expenses).
  • If your goal is to relax and unwind poolside, on the greens, or in the spa, you might allocate a larger part of your personal budget to pay for a luxurious hotel … but check for packages that include resort activities!

5. Watch the Weather…and Adapt

At this point, you’ve got a realistic travel budget based on your goals, and you’ve made your trade-offs. Your last pre-trip step is to figure out how you’ll keep track of how your actual expenses are mapping to that budget. One option is to add your budget, and track your costs, in the travel journal you’ll keep.

Mint tip: Set up Budgets by category for the month that you’re traveling, and ask for email or SMS text messages when you exceed any of them. You’ll be on top of your spending without having to keep receipts throughout your trip.

By tracking your expenditures as they happen, you can adjust your spending during your trip. If hotel costs turn out to be higher than you expected, for example, you can compensate by spending less on food. Eat at less expensive restaurants, or buy some groceries and have your breakfast on your hotel room balcony and some lunches at a local park.

That’s your roadmap for a great trip — including some great and meaningful adventures, without the stress or surprises of overspending and post-trip regrets.

Have another suggestion for our readers? Are you planning a summer get away using Mint.com? A pair of Mint t-shirts to anyone sending us a postcard from their trip! We’ll be at 280 Hope Street, Mountain View, CA 94041 this summer, building out new features for you while you’re away.

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