Americans devoted $650 billion to domestic leisure travel in 2018. Their spending on vacations and visits to friends and family jumped by 7.1% from the prior year, far outpacing the overall growth in consumer spending.
If you’re like most American families, you devote a fair bit of money to airfare, food, gas and lodging when you travel. Knowing how to avoid spending more than necessary can help you stretch your budget and give you more memories for less money.
“Your vacation doesn’t have to be expensive to be memorable,” says Robert Aruldoss, senior financial planning research analyst at the Schwab Center for Financial Research. “There are many ways to save money, and none of them make the experiences any less special.”
Here are five ways to help keep travel costs down.
1. Go off-peak
You can save a lot of money if you can travel when others (think families on a school calendar) cannot. The prices of not just airplane tickets but also hotels and rental cars vary significantly based on demand. If you want to travel to Disney World with your kids, for example, steer clear of the weeks right around President’s Day or the Fourth of July. If you want to be really contrarian, go to a summer resort destination—in the fall. Or head to a ski mountain—to go hiking in the summer.
2. Buy early
Planning your travel can itself be fun, Robert says, and can get the whole family anticipating the upcoming vacation. Thinking ahead also saves money. Airfares climb fast in the weeks right before departure. An annual survey by CheapAir.com finds that flyers get the best ticket prices if they buy at least three weeks ahead of their travel date—but no more than four months prior. Airlines actually price tickets higher when they first publish the fares, according to the research, and then gradually lower prices until you get to that ideal ticket-purchase time window.
3. Be adventurous
If you favor experiences over expensive indulgences, you may come away with a more memorable vacation, Robert says. Camping in a beautiful park may cost less than a hotel in ho-hum surroundings. The travel industry likes to market luxury, but good company can make any meal or outing more fun—no matter how much you spend. Your vacation doesn’t have to be the occasion for your most expensive meal of the year.
4. Mind the fees
The revenue airlines collect for something other than flying you from point A to point B has quadrupled over the past decade. Fees for baggage, extra legroom and other niceties such as boarding early earned the big U.S. airlines more than . Minimizing those charges can save a lot. The first-bag-free feature that some airline-branded credit cards offer, and other perks, can be valuable. Similarly, you may be offered add-ons at the rental car counter—ranging from satellite radio to enhanced roadside assistance—that you don’t need. Optional rental car insurance may be redundant with coverage a credit card or your own auto policy already provides. Non-bank ATM fees are another expense that can add up when you’re in an unfamiliar territory. Check with your bank to see if they have a policy of refunding ATM fees.
5. Be flexible
Be willing to go to the next town over for a cheaper hotel, or fly at a less convenient time to cut money off the fare. Renting an apartment or cottage instead of a hotel has become much easier thanks to vacation-home rental services. And it may save you a lot of money, especially if it means you can buy groceries and cook for yourself instead of eating every meal out. Sometimes “living like a local” can help both save money and make your vacation more interesting.
Finally, don’t fall into the trap of feeling like everything has to be perfect—no matter the expense—when you go on vacation. Travel experiences tend to get better in memory, Robert says. “When you look back on a trip, the less-than-perfect parts will fade away and the good stuff will be what everyone remembers.”
A cost-conscious travel companion
A Schwab Bank High Yield Investor Checking® account* comes with a Schwab Bank Visa Platinum Debit Card that provides a wealth of benefits, including many that are helpful when traveling:
- It’s accepted at millions of merchant outlets and ATMs in more than 200 countries and territories worldwide.
- You pay no foreign-exchange transaction fees for purchases made with your debit card. ‡
- All ATM fees you incur are rebated on a monthly basis. §
- The card’s travel benefits include Fraud Protection for Unauthorized Transfers or Purchases; Travel Accident Insurance; Travel and Emergency Assistance Services.