Monday, December 17, 2012

Travel Tips: Vacation Planning

(not sure where this pic came from - I've had it forever!)
The Hubby and I save our $$ all year so we can splurge a little on vacation... but I'm still a frugal girl at heart. So by "splurge" I mean carefully planning my vacation in such a way as to allow us to do what we most want to do for the least amount of $$ possible.

Step 1:  Prioritize

I'm not a fan of trips that are completely off the cuff with no forethought... I find those types of trips stressful, disorganized and very expensive (all those little expenses add up).  If you're one of those "fly by the seat of your pants" types, then you may want to skip the rest of this post and join me again on the next one.  However, if you're like me, then read on...

  1. Family Meeting.  At the beginning of each year, we have a "family meeting" and talk about where we want to go next for vacation.  M typically is a "go with the flow" kind of guy, so we've been checking things off my bucket list. That being said, I always make sure he actually seems interested/excited about the trip before making plans.  If he doesn't seem that into a destination, we scratch that one and I suggest something else.
  2. Research.  After deciding on a destination, I start researching.  I often start with Trip for ideas of things to do in the area.  I add any items of interest to an excel spreadsheet (I also include the address, phone or website, pricing info and any comments).  This information gathering step is ongoing.  
  3. Prioritize.  Once I have a good number of things to do on my spreadsheet, I'll check in with the Hubby again and see what things he wants to do and we'll prioritize the list (HAVE to do these 2, would like to do this, could take or leave the rest, etc.)
This prioritizing helps us decide what our money will go to first.  This way, we both get to do activities we're really excited about and we won't waste our  hard earned cash on minor things, only to find out at the end of the trip we're out of funds and still haven't done what we looked forward to most.

This may be hard to see... but this is the "things to do" section of my vacation planning spreadsheet.

Step 2: Getting There

Once we know where we're going and what we're doing once we get there, our next step is to decide on travel arrangements.  This is a whole post in itself, but I'll summarize here and say that for us, we've decided to travel on the off season as much as possible (not too much room for flexibility with our current jobs), reserve flying for warmer months and choose destinations within 1 day or less driving distance for winter months.

Finding good deals on travel arrangements can be tough.  Getting there is often the most expensive part!  We have decided, however, to spend the extra $$ on car rentals when driving more than 4 hours to a destination.  We feel that the extra expense is worth it since we're not adding to the wear and tear on the vehicles, mileage, etc.  For our upcoming Christmas vacation, we snagged a great deal using Priceline's name your own price feature and saved 47% off retail cost. 

Step 3:  Reservations

Once we make our "game plan", we try to break down the costs by purchasing or reserving one large or two small items per month over the course of about six months.  For example, for Christmas vacation, we try to reserve airline, bus or train tickets in June (if applicable).  In July, we would reserve 1 hotel.  In August, we would reserve another hotel (if applicable).  In September, we would purchase attraction tickets.  In October (or possibly November - we find the best rental car deals closer to the time of travel), we reserve the rental car and the remaining months we just put aside spending money, money for gas and meals, etc.

As I finalize the reservations, I track the costs on the bottom section of my vacation planning spreadsheet. We set a budget for the trip and I subtract each reservation cost from the total budget so I can see a running total of how much I have left to spend.  

This is a sample of our planning spreadsheet.

Typically, our summer vacation is about 10 days.  Christmas vacation may be 11 or 12 days depending on the year.  We budget an average of $2,000 for a 10 day vacation.  If we are flying, or have to book multiple hotels (like this upcoming vacation), we increase the budget to $2,500 in order to allow a buffer for gas, groceries, restaurants and souvenirs.  (oops... I just noticed a typo on my spreadsheet. I'll go fix that now...)

I'll finish up for now, as this post is getting long.  But, I'll be back with more vacation planning tips soon.  Let me know if you have questions or suggestions on getting the most out of limited time and funds on vacation - I'd love to hear your thoughts!

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