Summer is still months away, but it’s never too early to start planning your next vacation. Most families, especially those with kids, will take their long vacation of the year between the months of June and September.
There are exceptions, of course. When I was younger, we took a 2-week ski trip every March or April, well before the traditional travel season. A lot of families also like to travel around the holidays.
But summer is coming, and since our family now takes a trip somewhere almost every summer, I decided to take a quick walk-through of our planning process and some simple strategies you can use to make sure that your next trip is stress-limited, and fun-maximized.
Budgeting for a trip is not rocket science. I think where most people fail is the need for a healthy dose of realism and flexibility. Here’s a quick sample of how we laid out a recent camping trip out of town:
- Car/Gas: $150*
- Accommodations: $200 (split 4 nights in a cabin)
- Food: $100
- Activities: $150**
- Misc.: $100 (and from what I remember, we used every penny)
*Extra padding for maintenance, oil changes, etc.
**You will want to do things while you’re there (wherever that is), no matter how much you tell yourself that you will be frugal and won’t. Plan for it.
Don’t make the common mistakes that plague trip, and family, budgets:
- Don’t assume the best-case scenario will pan out. Plan for the average.
- Do assume that taxes, fees, and all kinds of other charges are not included in the prices you got.
- Budgets bloat, regardless of your best efforts. Plan for some spare room and unforeseen items.
Keep it realistic (looking at past trips to gauge spending helps) and flexible (a bit of extra play), and you’re well on your way to having fun instead of worrying about how to pay for it.
Getting it Saved
Whatever you do, please don’t go on a trip you can’t pay for today, in cash.
This doesn’t mean that using a credit card is a bad idea for things like plane tickets and car rentals (many cards offer insurance and other bonuses on things like that), but it does mean that you save first, and you travel second.
Here are a few simple tips on getting your stash together:
- Put together a simple travel calendar. Our family would get “surprised” by trips constantly, until we sat down and mapped out exactly where we expected to be over the next 3 years. By putting it down on paper, we could start to see where and when we would need some extra money to keep to the schedule.
- Create a separate fund/account/envelope for travel money. In whatever way makes sense in your budget and account structure, separate your travel money from your regular spending, and even your emergency and long-term savings. The funds that go in are for travel, and those that come out are for travel–it keeps things simple.
- Use goal-setting software like Mint or your own spreadsheet. The beauty of Mint for goals is that you get help with setting up your initial goal, and help along the way to make sure that you’re on track.
- Determine to use a yearly windfall. This goes against my advice to aim for a $0 tax refund whenever possible, but it works for many families. Purposely over-withdraw during the year from your paychecks, and use the extra income from Uncle Sam every April to fund your trip for the summer. It’s a kind of forced savings program, but it can work.
The more time you can give yourself, the easier and more realistic it will be to get the money saved. In many ways, getting moving in February is already too late–but as they say, better late than never.