By Andrew Housser
Summertime getaways are great ways for families to reconnect, reenergize and enjoy recreational activities. Yet that time spent away from home also can be hard on the bank account. The average family vacation costs about $1,400, according to a 2012 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The cost of reaching the vacation destination (the actual travel) accounts for almost half of the overall expenses. Fortunately, there are many ways to help keep expenses in check. Follow these tips to make your vacation affordable without sacrificing fun.
Analyze airfare options. Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday tend to be the least expensive days to fly. You also can find more affordable seats by taking early-morning or late-evening flights. Before buying, compare prices via sites like Kayak and Hotwire. Sign up with airlines to receive email notifications when fares go on sale. Do not wait too long to book your flight, either Airfares tend to be at their lowest prices seven weeks before departure, but you can still save money even after you book. New rules introduced by the Department of Transportation last year give you the right to change or cancel your flight plans within 24 hours of purchase. Some airlines give credit towards future flights if the fare drops any time between your purchase date and travel date. Sites such as Yapta make it easier to track these price changes. Go easy on gas. Gas can be a major budget buster if you are taking a driving vacation. Download the free GasBuddy app to easily find the lowest gas prices wherever you are headed. Before you leave home, make sure your tires are properly inflated (this helps with fuel efficiency). On the road, use cruise control. It helps conserve gas by moderating your speed. Plus, it can keep you from getting a speeding ticket (an expensive vacation souvenir). Seek out hotel deals. Some hotel chains may offer better rates or packages if you book directly through their online sites. With some, you can save money by prepaying for your room when you book, but keep in mind that these purchases often are nonrefundable. If you are not too particular about your hotel, sites like Priceline and Hotwire will find rooms for up to half off the regular price. You specify when you want to stay, the general location and your preferred hotel star rating (from one star to five). However, you will not know the hotel until after you have made your nonrefundable payment. YMCAs and rental homes also may offer good deals on lodging. Reduce your rental car rate. Car rental companies may tack on extra fees, so read the fine print carefully. For instance, you will pay an extra fee for the convenience of reserving a car near the airport. You may be able to take a shuttle to your hotel and get a rental car at a more affordable rate there. Before you leave for your trip, check with your auto insurer to see what your car insurance policy covers. Chances are you can safely decline the car insurance that rental companies offer. You also can book rental cars through Priceline and Hotwire the same way you do hotel rooms. And don't forget to fill up the tank before you return the car to avoid exorbitant fill-up fees.
Modify your meal plans. If you are traveling by car or have a rental car, stop at a grocery store and stock a cooler with drinks, snacks and meal essentials. Many hotels now include breakfast with each night's lodging. Another cost-saver is to eat a late lunch (which is often less expensive than dinner) and eat something lighter in the evening.
Vacations should be relaxing. But enjoying that R&R can be challenging if you are constantly counting nickels and dimes. Spend a little time upfront planning your trip, and you will find it is possible to stay within budget and create great memories while on vacation.
Andrew Housser is a co-founder and CEO of Bills.com, a free one-stop online portal where consumers can educate themselves about personal finance issues and compare financial products and services. He also is co-CEO of Freedom Financial Network, LLC providing comprehensive consumer credit advocacy and debt relief services. Housser holds a Master of Business Administration degree from Stanford University and Bachelor of Arts degree from Dartmouth College.