Bright [Vacation] on a Budget : Avoiding Booking Blunders

I always look forward to vacation!  What I don’t look forward to is the stress or decision-making. Vacation is supposed to be a time when to relax, but sometimes I feel like I stress out for 4 weeks just to get to relax for 1 week–does anyone else feel like that?!  
After several months of going back and forth, Chauncey and I recently decided on a vacation location. While I was leaning towards the Dominican Republic (we love the Caribbean), we finally decided on Charleston, SC.  It’s our 5 year anniversary this year, and we wanted something romantic, but we didn’t want to be too far from Kane.  More importantly, we also wanted something affordable.  There’s no point in point in financial grief over vacation–set a budget you feel comfortable spending, and stick to it!  Stressing over how to pay for vacation, or taking a vacation you can’t afford, negates what vacation is all about!

Sandals Grande Rivera, 2009
Our Honeymoon
Now you all know me– I tried to price the best deals location-wise to help us make our decision, and then once we narrowed it down to a location, I really dug into the travel booking websites to make sure I was getting the best deal before I booked.  While I wish I could give you the magic formula for saving money when booking vacations, I can’t, but I can give you some tips to follow to help you save!
1.  Set a vacation budget and stick to it!  This is the #1 rule and it dictates all of the other rules.  Don’t skip it.  Don’t forget.  When setting your budget, set 2 numbers– the first number should be your absolute highest number you’re willing to spend on EVERYTHING, and the second number should be what you would like to keep your spending to.  

2. Make sure your numbers are realistic–this means include the cost of the hotel room, travel, food, souvenirs, internet (yes, some places make you pay!), parking, excursions, etc.  If you’re flying, include what you’re going to spend on crap you don’t need at the airport (those shops suck me in every time).  If you’re driving, use a fuel cost estimator like AAA’s to determine how much you’ll be spending in gas money. Even with an all-inclusive like Sandals, you will still be out extra money for souvenirs, excursions, spa packages, and/or professional photos. 
3. Watch what brand of device you’re booking your travel on.  A couple of summers ago, I read several articles (like this one from the WSJ) that said that Orbitz may be steering Mac users towards more expensive booking options.  While I was unable to find a follow-up article on this after a quick search, it doesn’t hurt to compare booking options on a Windows computer to a Mac and see where you come out better.
4. Be flexible on travel dates.  When I book a trip, especially when flying, I check several different date options to see what gives me better deals (on airline websites, select the option for flexible dates so you can see when it will be cheapest to fly).  Of course, if you’re going to the beach, you will usually save less if you’re going during the off-season as opposed to peak season.  But you can also save based on the time of week you book your trip. Typically, you pay less for hotel rooms on weeknights than on weekends.  So if you’re staying 4 nights somewhere, arrange your trip for Monday through Friday or Tuesday through Saturday, so that you’re not paying the weekend rate for the majority of your stay.
5. Look for coupon codes.  Google the name of your hotel, rental car website, etc. with “promo code” to see if you can find a coupon!  Sometimes you can hit upon a 10% or 15% off coupon.  Also, sign up for the hotel’s newsletter–many times they will email you with savings!
Sandals Grande Antigua, 2011
6. Check to see if your profession/professional organization gets discounts!  Many hotels offer corporate rates, or discounts if you’re a member of the military or a government employee.  If you don’t ask, you won’t know.
7. AAA– Sometimes you can save more with AAA, and sometimes not.  Sometimes the hotel may actually offer a rate better than their AAA, so always check out all of the options.  AAA membership usually runs somewhere around $60 for their base package, and the savings extend beyond trips.  
8. Don’t believe everything you read review-wise.  I used to obsess over travel reviews.  Now I don’t  People are going to have really bad experiences and really good experiences, and sometimes those experiences happen at the same place. If you do read reviews, take the middle of the road approach, because I’ve found those to usually be the most accurate.  Don’t talk yourself into spending more money on accommodations just because you think more money will equal a better experience–it doesn’t always!
9.  Check travel insurance and refund policies.  I always get travel insurance because I would hate to lose out on all of that money I saved for vacation!  Before purchasing travel insurance, however, check to see if you get it automatically through one of your credit cards, and if so, check to make sure those limits will cover your trip. I recently found out that one of my credit cards has excellent trip insurance, so I don’t have to pay out several hundred dollars extra in travel insurance.  Also, if you don’t purchase travel insurance, it’s sometimes better to pay a slightly higher rate on a hotel room for one that’s refundable if you end up not being able to travel.

10.  Don’t book in haste, and avoid booking last minute if possible!  Take time to search around and make sure you’re getting the best deal.  This is especially true when booking flights–a recent study showed that your airfare price can be impacted by how far in advance you book your ticket and even what day of the week!

I hope these tips help you to book a BRIGHT vacation on a budget!  Chauncey and I have chosen to drive to Charleston, and we’re staying at an affordable beach hotel near the city.  I’ll update you on our experience after we take our trip.




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