Tips for Planning a Summer Vacation on a Budget

School is out, temperatures are rising, and for most of us, this means one thing: It’s vacation time! Are you dreaming of white beaches and emerald green waves? Or maybe fresh mountain streams and picnicking under a canopy of trees are more your speed. Perhaps you’ve got your eye on some major landmarks instead. But wherever you go, you always bring your budget with you, so you need to make sure to stay within its parameters. I wish we had unlimited travel funds, but the reality for most of us is that we have to scrimp and save to go on vacation. However, a great vacation is within anyone’s reach with a few money-saving tricks. And guess what? By sticking to our budget, we can ensure that we will be able to go on more adventures!


Ever seen pictures of our grandparents’ generation flying? They are all dressed up, seated in large airplane seats, and being served drinks in real glasses. It almost seems like a fantasy! You might think that finding plane tickets at a decent price these days is a fantasy, too, but the truth is that you can find affordable airfare, even to popular destinations, with just a few tricks.

Go Incognito

Ever notice that after you start researching plane tickets, your travel plans follow you everywhere online, showing you ads on social media with prices higher than the ones you found before? Travel experts say you should open an incognito browser window when looking at airfares. This way, the tracking cookies left by travel websites you visit won’t tell the airlines you’re searching for specific flights on specific dates.

Think About Where You Leave From and Where You Land

If there’s more than one airport within driving distance of where you want to go, consider them all. You might just find that it’s a lot cheaper to fly to somewhere a couple of hours away, even if you need to add the cost of a rental car or cab to get to your destination. This can be especially true for cities served by multiple airports. For instance, three airports are in or near New York City, and the costs of flights can vary significantly depending on which airport you are flying in and out of. Many other cities have multiple airports, too, and the smaller, alternative airports often offer excellent value. Going to Disney World? Look at Orlando, Tampa, and Daytona Beach to find the cheapest fare. Headed to San Francisco? Consider Oakland and San Jose.

Another trick some travelers use is to use hidden-city tickets. Here’s how it works. Say you want to fly from New York to Dallas. Because Dallas is dominated by one carrier, tickets are 20% more expensive than flights to other cities. So you book a flight from New York to Los Angeles (which isn’t dominated by one carrier) with a layover in Dallas, then just get off the plane without continuing on to LA. The important thing to remember with this trick is that you can’t check any bags (they’ll end up in LA without you), and you need to board early enough to find overhead bin space for your carry-on so you don’t have to gate-check it. And you’ll have to book your trip as two separate one-way flights: If you book round-trip tickets but fail to get on the second plane, the airline will cancel the rest of your itinerary, leaving you stranded. (Airlines aren’t a fan of this airfare hack.)

Find Great Deals

Make sure that you’re in the know about potential details. Start by signing up for the email lists of all airlines you might use. Here’s a helpful list of all United States airlines and their signup pages. There are also newsletters like the Thrifty Traveler that collect deals in one place. Fare aggregators, also called flight search engines, are also valuable tools. They compare fares from almost all airlines (usually not budget darling Southwest, though). And don’t forget apps. There are plenty of apps you can consult to figure out pricing trends for specific destinations, apps that will help you find sales on flights to where you want to go, and even apps that will show you the cheapest places you can travel to from your home city.

Traveling by Car

The family road trip is as American as apple pie. It also can be a real budget-saver, especially for larger families, for whom the cost of even low airfares adds up quickly. It’s also great not to have to worry about rental cars, and a road trip is a highly flexible way to travel. A flexible trip is excellent with young children or just as a way to have a low-key, kicked-back trip. Gas prices, roadside attractions, and other costs can add up quickly, but there are a few great hacks to ensure an inexpensive but still awesome road trip.

Plan Ahead

Use one of the many map apps to plan out your trip, and decide if you are going to go the quick and direct route or take the slower, scenic route. Check the Federal Highway Administration’s National Traffic and Closure Information page for roadwork on your way and determine if you’ll need to plan an alternate route. Also, take the time to find some interesting, cheap things to do along the way. For instance, factory tours can be fun, and many are free! Roadtrippers is a great site that allows you to put in your starting and ending destinations and find roadside attractions, natural landmarks, restaurants, hotels, and other great places to stop. Planning ahead can also mean preparing to leave early in the morning and switching out driving throughout the day, so you don’t have to pay for an extra night’s lodging.

Find Cheap Gas

Gas is one of the biggest expenses of a summer road trip. How do you stay on budget? Technology can help. Gas Buddy has a calendar showing gas price fluctuations over time; this will help you plan your trip for periods that typically have lower gas prices. The iExit app, available for iOS and Android devices, shows you gas stations nearby and their current rates. Also, keep in mind that many gas stations affiliated with grocery stores offer a discount for anyone with a grocery loyalty card. It’s usually easy to sign up for the loyalty card, and it can also save you money if you need to restock the cooler.

Pack Wisely

One of the best things about a car trip is the cargo space. Plan ahead and save money by not having to purchase items you have back at home. Make a first-aid bag stuffed with over-the-counter medications, bandages, antiseptic, bug spray, aloe vera, and anything else you think you might need. Don’t forget to bring sunscreen! Going to the beach? Toss in the beach toys you bought last year, and don’t forget the beach chairs and lots of towels. You’ll be so grateful for all of these things when you aren’t paying inflated prices for them at a souvenir stand. If you have young children, you might consider buying trinkets before you leave for the trip and then doling them out instead of buying things from gift shops. Theme park souvenirs are expensive, and your kid will be just as happy with the much cheaper versions you purchased at a discount store back home.


Unless you are blessed with a generous family member who owns a beachfront home, you will probably need to book lodging for your trip. Don’t worry; there are lots of ways to save money on your hotel stay, too.

Consider Your Location

Flexibility in exactly where your hotel is located can save you major money. For instance, staying one block back from the beach can net you considerable savings over oceanfront digs. When visiting major cities, often, staying one neighborhood past the city center results in a cheaper room. Visiting an amusement park? It’s usually much less expensive to stay off-site, and nearby hotels usually offer complimentary shuttles to the park.

Stay Loyal to One Hotel

If you vacation in the same spot every year, often, staying in the same hotel and building up a relationship with the front office staff can result in a loyal customer discount. Always sign up for loyalty programs for any chain you stay at. Hotels usually offer cheaper fares to loyalty program members, along with perks like free Wi-Fi or parking. Several credit cards offer a free night of lodging once a year and help you gain hotel points every time you use the card to get gas or buy groceries.

Vacation Bundles

Travel agents and websites like Expedia or Travelocity can offer discounts when you purchase flights and lodging together through them. When you create your profile, you can add your hotel loyalty number and airline frequent flier number, so you don’t lose out on gaining points.

Consider Different Lodging Options

Don’t limit your search to just hotels. Newer options, like Airbnb, offer lower prices and the ability to rent either a room in someone’s occupied home or an entire house. Renting a whole house gives you access to a kitchen, meaning you can eat some meals in your temporary home and save on restaurant costs. There are other websites where you can rent a home, too, and in favorite vacation spots, often, several real estate agents offer this service as well.


Food can turn into a significant expense on vacation. There’s a wide range of approaches for how to handle eating on vacation, ranging from eating at fine-dining establishments three times a day to eating every meal out of a cooler.

Pack a Cooler

You’ll want to pack a cooler if you want to save money. Frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches can prevent your third fast-food stop of the day, curb hunger when you’re in the middle of nowhere, and provide a relaxed taste of home. Other easy travel snacks include boiled eggs, cold pasta salad, fruit, bags of cut-up vegetables with small tubs of hummus, and meat and cheese roll-ups. Don’t forget to pack drinks! When you need to refill your cooler, the loyalty card you signed up for while getting gas will help save you money.

Eat at the Hotel/Cook Where You’re Staying

Some hotels offer a free daily breakfast. Take them up on it! Even a complimentary continental breakfast will help you save money. Hotels with attached restaurants may also provide discounts on dinner to guests staying at the hotel. That can save you money while feeling like a splurge. Did you rent a condo or house instead of a hotel room? Use that kitchen! Stock up at the grocery store for easy breakfast, lunch, and snack items. You might even consider bringing your slow cooker, which can be used to cook dinner with minimal effort.

Choose Restaurants Wisely

For most of us, no matter how budget-conscious we are, we still want to eat out sometimes. Planning ahead will help save you money. Dining at a chain eatery? Download their app and search for specials. Ask your hotel’s front desk for any tourist booklets or coupon packs they have on hand: Local restaurants want your business and often leave these with hotels so you will visit them. Look up any place you are considering online, so you know the cost of the meal before you get there and so you can make sure everyone in your crew will enjoy the food.

Other Ways to Save

Be Flexible With Travel Dates

According to Kayak, traveling on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Saturday will save you money when booking flights. Disney lodging is often cheapest between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Flying in the middle of the day is less expensive on routes favored by business people, while early morning and late-night flights are less expensive on routes to vacation destinations. And hotels in business districts are often an incredible value on the weekends, when their business customers are home. Take all of these factors into account when planning your trip

Coupon on the Go

Couponing isn’t just for home! Downloading apps for grocery stores you shop at allows you to clip digital coupons and take advantage of store loyalty programs. There are often coupon packs aimed at tourists available at state welcome centers, hotel front desks, and tourist attractions. And some cities have combo deals on popular attractions: For instance, Atlanta’s CityPass offers admission to five destinations for $76, while the Georgia Aquarium alone costs around $35 if purchased separately.

Tell Your Bank

Make sure to let your bank know you are traveling. Banks use sophisticated fraud-detection systems, and if you start using your debit or credit card in a new location far from home, they will sometimes freeze your card and issue a fraud alert. No one wants to be low on gas in a new city and find that their bank has canceled their card for suspected fraud! Some bank apps offer the ability to report travel through the app; otherwise, either call customer service or pop into a bank branch. If you do contact your bank and something still goes financially sideways, a personal loan may be an option to help you through an emergency.