How to Save for Your Dream Vacation

There’s something strange that comes with spring every year: I inevitably feel restless. My computer and keyboard are like a ball and chain, and suddenly, listening my coworkers’ voices is like hearing fingernails scratching on a chalkboard.

So instead of being all I can be at work, I dream of leisurely lying on beaches. I want to go out to dinner at 11 p.m. and not care about waking up in the morning to start the daily grind.

It goes on for a few weeks before I realize what’s happening: I need a vacation. Then the reality hits: I need more cash to go on a vacation. Alas, with a robust economy, taking a one-week hiatus isn’t impossible. Budgeting three months of travel is more difficult, but also can be done. Before getting to that, however, let’s deal with paying for a seven-day excursion.

How to Save for Your Dream Vacation

Budgeting a Seven Day Break

No. 1 rule of advice: Don’t put your vacations on plastic. That doesn’t mean paying every single dime in cash —a dinner here or there on your Visa won’t kill you—but don’t charge anything you can’t pay off at the end of the month.

Plan in advance. Depending on the post-bill income you have every month, you’re probably going to have to start saving three to six months before your vacation.

Saving paycheck-by-paycheck is the best way to go once you’ve worked out how much everything—and that means everything—will cost for your holiday. One week off can easily run you upwards of $1,000, if you plan on paying for a hotel, transportation, meals, and entertainment, which can end up ruining your holiday if you don’t budget correctly. You’re going to have a lot of free time to kill, meaning the cash could come pouring out faster than you expected.

Get down to the details. In order to budget properly, you’ve got to be prepared for all expenses. The hotel’s $50 a night. Renting an hour on the tennis court—something you knowyou’ll have to do, costs $14. Flight/train/car costs, tipping the bellboy, touring the local museum—these are all expenses that can add up. Because you’re on vacation, it’s important to indulge more than you normally would, so don’t deny yourself. But if you aren’t expecting those extra costs, they could put you in the poorhouse.

Consider package deals. They’re less flexible but usually save you money. Cruises are especially good at getting the damage done up-front. But watch out and make sure to factor in other expenses—like if your cruise takes you to a small island for a day and you need to buy lunch and souvenirs. No matter what deal you get, there’s almost always going to be extra costs that need to be considered.

Know what you can afford. Figure out what exactly you want out of your vacation: Relaxation? Fun? Just to get away? Your needs may be fulfilled without an elaborate trip. And don’t forget, some of the best short vacations are often spent visiting friends or relatives who offer free room and board, a new environment and the chance to catch up.

Escape for Three Months

Some of us need to just up and leave our lives for a few months. Many people take three-month trips after college graduation, when money is tight, but they savor their freedom. I took a few months overseas with $15,000 in the bank and was frightened at how quickly the money disappeared —in four months I spent $8,000.

Sacrifice. The only way you’re going to be able to afford a grand trip is by putting aside the frivolous costs of daily life. You’re about to take the vacation of your life, so you can pass on manicures and weekend getaways. Eat at home more, don’t clothes shop—put every penny you can away for your adventure.

Use a travel agent. Internet deals have never beaten the prices agents nabbed for me, nor could they provide the invaluable advice many travel agents shell out for free. They can also give you much-needed checklists for all the expenses you’re likely to incur on your trip, making it easier to budget. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use Web travel services, of course—use both to cross-reference.

Know the costs of being free. Many long-term travelers have a difficult time budgeting because they don’t know where they’ll be every day. Eurail passes for backpackers are often a good deal but give you even more flexibility, which means less planning. Try to add up daily costs as best as you can ahead of time, including opting for a few nights outside of hostels, because you’re going to need it. Multiply that number by 1.5, and that’s probably what you’re going to be spending.

Factor in pre-travel expenses. This is the one that killed me. You’re living a different life in the world of travel, meaning you need different resources. I spent hundreds of dollars on good luggage, the essential Walkman, a Swiss Army knife, walking shoes, even extra underwear.

Don’t fly off with just enough money to get by.Things always go wrong, and trips always cost more than you’ll expect. Currencies and transportation costs can fluctuate, money can get stolen, your reservations could get cancelled, you might need to see a doctor. Be conservative with your cost estimates and make sure that you pay for a ticket home ahead of time. You don’t want to be stuck with a coin in your pocket and no way to get back.

Last but not least, try to stay with as many people as you can, but don’t assume that you’ll save as much as you think you will. Crashing for free means you should bring your hosts gifts and make or take them out to dinner. It’s also inevitable that you’ll feel like spending more because you’re “saving” cash by sleeping in a free bed.

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