It’s almost summer. You’re deep into daydreaming about your out-of-office email messages and what they represent — the campfire s’mores, yoga on the beach and sipping mai tais with tiny umbrellas.
Before living out your vacation fantasy, there is one daunting task ahead: settling on how much you can afford to pay during one of the most popular travel seasons.
If you are one of the 52 percent of Americans who are planning to take a vacation this summer, your budget is likely tight, according to a Bankrate survey. Those who plan to travel this summer expect to spend $1,979, on average, for a trip. But that kind of expense is tricky at best when considering another statistic: Only 40 percent of Americans said they would use their savings to pay for an unexpected expense of $1,000, according to another Bankrate survey.
If you are still trying to save for your vacation, try not to freak out. There is still time to find deals and discounts for your getaway. But start now.
“The best thing is to get organized and don’t wait,” says Lisa Chastain, owner and founder of Millennial Consulting. “There’s nothing worse than saying ‘I wish I could have.’”
Here are six tips to consider when trying to escape for the summer on a budget for this year and next.
1. Determine how much you can afford to spend
First thing’s first: Establish your spending limit — the all-in number that you don’t want to exceed for your particular adventure.
“That is including your airfare, transportation to and from the airport, accommodations, activities,” says Erika Richter, director of communications for American Society of Travel Advisors.
Keep the number realistic, so that you’ll have a firm idea of what your getaway will really cost.
2. Search for credit card points you haven’t used
If you’re on the hunt for a discount on a flight or hotel, log in to your credit card account. Next, search for the points and rewards you may have already earned but not used.
“A lot of people don’t realize they have great points they’ve been accumulating on their credit card,” Chastain says.
If you have unused points, apply them toward your travel costs.
Don’t log out of your account just yet. Next, check to see if your credit card company offers card-linked deals. Some issuers offer discounts on, say, Airbnb and other travel-related costs, within their online portals. To get the discount, select the deal and then use the card.
3. Get a credit card with a sign-up bonus and use it responsibly
If you don’t have a rewards credit card yet, consider applying for one with a sign-up bonus to offset your vacation’s cost. Ted Rossman, a credit card analyst at Bankrate, recommends applying for a card that makes redeeming points easy, such as Capital One Venture. Yes, you will have to spend $3,000 in your first three months on the card after opening it to qualify for the bonus. But Rossman says the card is good for travelers on a time crunch because redeeming the miles is quicker than many alternatives.
“You don’t need to wait until the monthly statement closes to get your rewards,” Rossman says. “They typically post within a day or two of the transaction clearing, and the sign-up bonus is granted very soon after you hit the spending threshold.”
The card perks include a 50,000-mile sign-up (equivalent to at least $500 in free travel) and Capital One waives the annual fee of $95 for the first year. For ongoing rewards, the card also includes something unusual and useful: a “purchase eraser.” The feature lets you “erase” your travel-related expenses made within the last 90 days with the miles you earn using the card for travel purchases.
If you choose to get a credit card, treat it like a debit card: Pay off your debt every month to avoid paying interest.
4. Find the best deal on a flight
First, some good news. One of the costliest expenses of your trip — your flight — is lower than in years past. Prices for flights are down 7 percent compared with the same time period two years ago, according to May data from Hopper, an airfare forecasting app that analyzes billions of daily flight prices.
To get the best deal, you’ll still need to do your research. Hayley Berg, an economist at Hopper, says the price for the same route can vary up to 5 to 10 percent within a 24-hour period. One of the factors? Timing.
For vacation routes, such as New York City to Hawaii, Berg recommends booking the ticket four to six weeks before your ideal departure; the flight prices tend to drop as the time to departure gets closer. For business-focused routes, like New York City to Chicago, book the flights sooner; prices tend to get steeper the closer it gets to go time.
Don’t sweat avoiding weekend travel or rushing to book a flight on Tuesday morning, however. Counter to pervasive budgeting travel tips, Berg says airlines won’t charge a premium to fly over the weekend to most destinations, nor will airlines only offer the best flight prices on Tuesday mornings. “As long as consumers are keeping an eye on prices throughout the week, they won’t miss out on any deals,” Berg says.
You can also use a site like Hopper to get notifications when its algorithm thinks you ought to buy a ticket to get the best price.
5. Book your hotel earlier than you think
Hotel prices are like flight prices: They vary based on when you book them. To get the best deal, you want to book a room sooner than you think. “Usually, people book about a month in advance,” Berg says. “We would recommend looking further out — two to three months in advance.”
Also, scout for new hotels in the area you’re visiting to find the best deals. “A lot of times when a new hotel opens, it offers really great deals in the first two to three months of operation to try to get people in to get those reviews,” she says.
Don’t neglect considering renting a room or home on sites like Airbnb either. If you’re on a tight budget, consider staying at a hostel.
6. Hire a travel adviser to book last-minute getaways
It sounds counterintuitive, but hiring a travel adviser can save you money in ways you might not expect.
Richter says some travel advisers are free, or only charge $25 for their services. The price tag, of course, depends on the complexity of your trip. Even if you’re paying something, Richter says you will offset the costs in numerous ways.
As a travel insider, she says the adviser ought to know the best deals in the area you’re going to and can help you stay in-budget for costs you might otherwise overlook. Perhaps you found a great rate on a hotel, but all the Uber costs would make your so-called hotel savings more expensive than it would have cost you to stay somewhere closer to what you want to see and do. A good travel adviser would help you avoid this scenario.
If a travel adviser is buying in bulk, he or she can also negotiate on rates and help you score perks, like free breakfast or a spa credit. If you’re on the hunt for a last-minute deal, the adviser could connect you to flash sales, too.