By Mark Triplett
June 6, 2021
After more than a year of being cooped up in their homes, many folks are ready to get out of the house. If you are like my family, you’re planning your next vacation and you’re ready to make up for lost time.
In this article we will cover the 6 specific questions to ask yourself when planning your next vacation:
- Where are you going?
- How will you get there?
- Where will you stay?
- What will you do?
- How are you get around?
- What will you plan for meals?
Sharpen your pencil when calculating the estimated cost of each of the 6 specific areas is a wise way to begin planning your next vacation. Follow this guide to help you create a realistic spending plan. We’ve tried to make it easy to follow, and by doing this exercise you should be able to enjoy your vacation guilt-free knowing it has been well planned.
Where are you going?
Start your planning process by determining where you are going. I know this seems silly, but just do it. Name your destination and be specific. It will help crystalize everything else if you begin be specifically identifying your destination.
Decide if you going north, south, east, or west. Are you planning to visit the beach, are you headed to the mountains? Are you looking for a relaxing trip to the lake, or are you off to explore a major city? Will your travel plans be within the state you live, or are you planning on traveling out of the state? Are you planning on staying in the United States, or are you planning an international destination? Lastly are you planning on visiting multiple destinations on your trip, or are you headed to one destination for the entirety of your vacation?
Once you know where you are going you can start estimating the expense associated with answering the remaining 5 questions.
How will you get there?
What mode of transportation are you planning to use in order to get to your vacation destination? Are you planning on driving, or flying? Perhaps you were planning to take the train, or a bus. Each one of these modes of transportation comes with its own pros and cons, and costs to be evaluated.
Driving gives you nearly unlimited and unrestricted options when it comes to where you’re going (within the United States), and which route you will take to get there. Driving may provide the ultimate flexibility when it comes to creating a schedule and planning multiple stops along the way. On the flipside driving can add additional time to get to your destination, and unless you have others to share in the burden of keeping the dirty side of your vehicle down. You may not be as well rested when you get there (the childhood memory of my father passed out for what seemed to be the first 24 hours of our annual two-week trip to Estes Park, CO after arriving at our destination comes to mind).
If you’re planning on driving you’ll need to decide whether you will be taking your personal vehicle or renting one from a major car rental company. Driving your own vehicle may seem like the less expensive option. However, you you’ll be adding miles to the odometer, and you have to consider the additional wear and tear on your vehicle. Vehicle maintenance expenses such as oil changes before and after your trip should be figured in when evaluating the cost of driving your own vehicle vs renting. If you rent a vehicle you won’t be diminishing the value of your own vehicle, but there’s an added out of pocket cost to your trip that will need to be planned for.
Either way you slice it, you’ll have the cost of fuel to factor in. If your family drives a big gas guzzling SUV or a full-sized truck for your daily driving, your fuel budget for the trip may be significantly increased. However, if you choose to rent a more fuel-efficient vehicle you may end up saving a significant amount of money in total fuel expenses.
For years I drove an old pickup truck that was long bought and paid for. It wasn’t fuel efficient, and I never really knew which major component of the drive train was about to fizzle out next. If I wasn’t traveling more than 20 miles from home I didn’t give much thought to it. However, when it came to long distance business trips or family vacations I would rent a vehicle instead. The lower fuel costs and confidence in a nearly new vehicle offset the cost of renting versus driving my own vehicle. These are all things to consider if you decide you will be driving to your vacation destination.
If you’re going to be flying to your destination, you need to decide whether you’re flying coach, business, or first class. Will you be using a discount carrier like Frontier or Southwest, or one of the major large operators like United or American Airlines? The number of flights per day or even per week may be significantly limited with discount carriers. Thus, the choice of your departure and arrival times may be fewer, and you’ll have to factor that into your total trip expenses.
Purchasing tickets through an online comparison tool like Expedia or KAYAK may help you find reduced fares, but you might also be giving up some additional offers or perks provided by the airlines. You may also end up on multiple airlines for your trip rather than the same airline for each leg of your destination. It may be wise to check the online price comparison website, and then cross reference the airlines website to see if they have similar offers with additional benefits for booking through the airline website.
Although it’s less common today, there are many destinations that could be reached by train or motor coach (buses like Greyhound). These may be less expensive modes of transportation, or even provide a completely different travel experience.
Did you know that you can hop on the train in Osceola, IA, and be soaking in the natural hot springs located in Glenwood Springs CO 19 hours from now for less than $110? It’s true. Traveling by train will definitely limit your destination by wherever the track takes you, but you’ll be able to relax and start your vacation early knowing that you don’t have to worry about how or when you’ll get there.
When deciding how you will get to your destination be sure to factor in the time it will take depending on the mode of transportation. Do you have a limited number of days in which to enjoy your vacation? You could chew up several days using a slower mode of transportation like driving. That’s an expense worth considering. A more expedient mode of transportation like air travel may at first seem more expensive, but if you gain an additional 24 to 48 hours of your vacation experience you may find that it offsets the additional expense.
Where will you stay?
Planning your accommodations in advance will help you budget for your trip. Knowing where you are going will help you pinpoint the possible accommodations available to you.
Are you planning a camping trip? Will you be camping at an RV park, a camping resort like KOA, or a state or national park campground? They all have different costs and benefits associated with your choice.
Perhaps you’re planning on staying at a budget friendly motel like we did when I was a kid. Budget friendly motel chains like Motel 6 (Tom Bodett promises to keep the lights on for ya), Super 8, or Best Western often have low prices and swimming pools for kids and grandkids.
Maybe you prefer to stay at a reasonably priced hotel chain like the grownup version of me. A Hampton in by Hilton, Fairfield in by Marriott, or a Holiday Inn may be what you want to plan for.
Some travelers may prefer full-service hotels complete with a full-service restaurant in the hotel. A Hilton or Marriott property might be a likely choice for them.
Perhaps you’re planning a visit to a resort destination. Some resorts are all inclusive resort, while others may charge a resort fee, and then have options you can add to your stay.
It’s not uncommon for a hotel stay advertised online at $120 per night to end up costing you $150 per night or more, after paying local, state, and hotel/resort fees and taxes. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve booked a hotel for around $120 and the bill ends up being 25% more than the actual room was advertised for. It’s something I’ve come to expect, and it’s nothing to get upset about. Just be sure that you plan for it.
Sometimes these additional costs are worth the price when you factor in things like a complimentary Continental or even a full hot breakfast for the family. For example, if my family of three can enjoy hot breakfast every morning of our stay at no additional cost we may be saving money by staying at a slightly higher priced hotel than if we stayed at a lower cost motel and had to buy breakfast every morning of our stay.
What will you do when you get there?
Give thought to each day of your vacation. Try to visualize what you will be doing in your mind, and what will you need in order to do it. This exercise will not only help you pack appropriately for your trip, it will also help you budget your intended activities as well. Try planning out each day’s activities in advance, and assign an estimated cost for each activity for each day.
Some activities may have no cost at all. Activities such as hiking, enjoying the beach, swimming in a lake or the ocean, or exploring a major city on your own may not cost you a dime. There are many beautiful city, state and national parks to visit throughout the United States as well and often there’s no additional expense to consider when exploring them.
On the other hand, you might be planning on visiting a public facility like a zoo, or a museum near your vacation destination. Activities like these might have a minimal cost such as an admission fee for each member of your family. Some of these activities may have reduced admission for younger children, or a discounted rate for the more mature citizens of our great nation.
Perhaps you’re planning on enjoying guided activities. For example, if you’re head to the mountains and you want to explore the canyons in a unique way you might consider white water rafting tour. If you’re visiting a major city you may consider an option to join a guided tour learn a lot more about your destination from an expert tour guide than you likely would have on your own. Activities like these will often cost a little more because you are paying for the time and expertise of an expert guide.
Thrill seekers looking for a little more excitement may be planning on visiting a major theme park or enjoying some motor sports activities near their destination. Walt Disney World or Universal Studios are often whole day excursions with a significant per-day expense to consider.
Enjoying some motorsport rentals like ATVs or personal watercraft also tend to be a bit more expensive, and can be done hourly, half day, or even full day rentals. They’ll usually cost you significantly more than the other mention activities, and you also have to consider the added expense if you damage the property. I’ve witnessed friends of mine shelling out hundreds of additional dollars after an inspection of their rental vehicle revealed unusual damage caused by colliding with immovable objects.
How are you to get around?
We’ve already covered how you’ll get to your destination, but how are you to get around once you’re there?
If you’re driving your own vehicle the only additional expense to factor in is fuel. However, if you fly into your destination you’ll need to be able to get around since your car did not fit in the overhead compartment. Renting a vehicle at your destination will add additional cost. Often times rental stations near airports tend to have much higher rental charges and many additional fees than if you were to rent the same car from the same rental car company but at a rental station far away from the airport.
If you’re planning on staying in one place, for example a destination resort where you plan to be “on resort” the entire time, you may not have to worry about getting around. However, you might find that public transportation is a good way to get around if you want to see something “off resort.” For example, if you visit a vacation destination in Summit County Colorado (yeah, I spend a lot of time in CO) they have an entire bus system offering free public transit. The Summit Stage will take you from Breckenridge, to Keystone, to Frisco, to Silverthorne & Dillon and it won’t cost you anything to catch a ride. The buses run from the early morning till late at night.
You may also consider taking a taxi or using a rideshare service like Uber or Lyft. It may be difficult to estimate your expense for these type of services in advance, but give yourself a budget of $25-$30 each way for every trip away from your accommodations that you plan to take. For example, let’s say you plan on taking a ride share from your hotel to a local museum, and then taking another rideshare service somewhere nearby for for lunch. After lunch you are planning to take a third rider share back to your hotel. You might want to plan on an extra $50-$60 for that day just to get around.
What will you plan for meals?
How will you sustain yourself and your family while you’re away from home? You’ll have to plan for meals. Breakfast, lunch, dinner and perhaps snacks in between for each day can add up quickly.
If you’re staying at an extended stay hotel, or renting a condo through a service like VRBO you may have access to a full kitchen. In that case you can go to the local market and buy groceries for the week, and make meals for yourself. However, be prepared shop wisely, or waste a lot of food. Many supermarket items such as condiments, coffee and filter, or cereal come in packages and portions that would last much longer than your typical vacation trip. You may have to abandon the left overs when you depart.
If you’re going to be dining out a lot you have several a choice to make. Fast food restaurants typically have lower cost, but quality may be much lower also. When consumed continuously for an extended period you might also notice that if effects your health and how you feel?
Perhaps you’ll enjoy meals at places considered to be fast-casual. Maybe the quality is a little bit higher, but likely so will the price. If you are thinking about going that route, there may be some locally owned cafés that you can visit near your accommodations. You may be surprised to find that their prices are competitively priced, and the meals are made with locally sourced fresh ingredients.
There may be some local restaurants to want to check out as well. Perhaps you saw something on the TV show like Diners Drive-Ins and Dives (Triple D). Perhaps one of your planned activities is to visit that particular establishment. It might pull double duty as one of your activities for the day, and one of your meals.
If you are celebrating a special occasion you may also want to budget for a fine dining experience at some unique place. For example, neither my wife nor I are gamblers, but when we’ve visited Las Vegas in the past we’ve made it a point to enjoy some of the world class dining experiences available there. For us, that’s our entertainment as well as a meal or two.
Perhaps your meals for a day of your trip look like this. Breakfast at the hotel which is complementary as part of your accommodation has no additional cost. For lunch you choose a locally owned Café serving reasonably priced lunches made with fresh ingredients that will cost you approximately the same as if you were to eat at a national fast casual restaurant chain like Chipotle or Panera. You feel good knowing you are supporting a local entrepreneur and her family too. That evening you visit and award-winning casual restaurant/piano bar for an extraordinary dining experience that also doubles as your entertainment for the evening.
Each of these choices has its own cost associate. Whatever floats your boat, make sure to plan in advance so that you don’t bust your budget.
Create a Spending Plan You Will Commit To
Set a comfortable vacation budget for your next trip, and then create a spending plan around it. Allocate resources by answering the six questions we’ve just covered.
Estimate each daily expense for each of the six categories we’ve discussed. Use a simple spreadsheet to calculate your estimates. Using a simple grid system make one row across for each day of your trip, and six columns running down representing the six areas we’ve already discussed.
Be sure to add an additional 10% to the total daily cost in order to plan for local and state taxes or fees. This will give yourself a cushion too when budgeting for your vacation. Last total up all of the expenses for each day, and add them together for a grand total estimate of your trip. If the total cost estimate of your trip is more than what you have comfortably budgeted find some areas to trim back on.
Plan your vacation together as a family. Get everybody involved including the kids, or grandkids. Present “either or” choices for activities and meals. For example, “we can go to the zoo on Tuesday, and then out to dinner that night, or we can visit the amusement park and eat bologna and cheese sandwiches.” Evaluate the pros and cons and trade-offs, and then decide together. This is a great opportunity to teach younger family members about money and how to budget.
Pay Off Your Debt Immediately
If you’re like my family you’ll place charges on plastic like debit cards or credit cards instead of carrying cash. This can be a slippery slope to spending more than you planned.
Here’s a tip for you. Make sure you keep all your receipts. At the end of each day total up your receipts from that day. Now, compare it to the spending plan. At the end of the day did you spend more or less than you had planned to? If more, you may have to make some adjustments for another day of your trip. On the other hand, if you spent less than expected you could plan to allocate those resources somewhere later in your trip. It’s a great way to stay on track.
We call this exercise “cashing out” at the end of the day. When I was in college I worked at a local bank. Throughout my shift I’d help customers transact business depositing cash or checks for some, and cashing checks for others. My cash drawer started with one amount of money, and at the end of the day it would be different. The drawer at the end of the day had to balance out with all of the transactions that I’d helped customers make. This was the process of cashing out for the day and making sure that there were no errors. Try doing the same thing with your receipts for each day of your trip. Cash out at the end of the day. Determine whether you have overspent, underspent, or you are right on target.
When you return home from your vacation pay all of your credit card bills in full. There’s no rule that says you have to wait until your credit card statement comes in the mail to pay your credit card bills. Go online to the credit card company’s website, and pay off all of your debt from your trip using the cash that you had in savings to pay for your expenses. If you plan well you already have that money set aside in your bank account, and if you cashed out each day it should total up to what you had planned for your entire vacation.
Please do not rack up interest charges unnecessarily. There’s no reason why your relaxing vacation needs to become an anxiety inducing financed mess. Plan to only spend what you’ve allocated for your trip, and no more. If you spend more on your vacation than what you have readily available to pay for it you may soon regret it. Avoid piling up debt on high interest credit cards otherwise your vacation may soon become your nightmare.