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When you work tirelessly all year, summer feels like a hard-earned payoff: your chance to enjoy long days, sunny weather and a big trip with family, friends, a partner or on your own. If you build up debt to do it, though, any post-vacation tranquility will fade faster than your tan.
Here's how to pay for a summer trip using smart strategies that will let you focus on the fun, not your finances.
Do: Stay Flexible on Dates and Locations
You'll find the best prices, and perhaps explore destinations you wouldn't have considered, by planning travel based on sales. Sign up for services that do the work of finding flight deals for you, like the Scott's Cheap Flights newsletter, which notifies subscribers of sales on international flights from their home airports.
Got a certain locale in mind? Search flights using services like Google Flights or Skyscanner, which show the cheapest days to fly throughout the month. Sign up for flight alerts on websites like Kayak and be ready to book when prices drop.
Don't: Reserve Hotels Too Far in Advance
When planning summer air travel, Scott's Cheap Flights recommends buying tickets two to five months in advance for domestic trips and three to 10 months in advance for international travel.
But hotels are a different story: Procrastination can pay off. You'll get the best deals on summer hotel prices if you book within a month of travel, according to an April 2018 TripAdvisor analysis. Reserving a hotel room a month beforehand can save you up to 40 percent in New York; even hotel rooms in Paris and London can be 25 percent cheaper if reserved up to five weeks prior, TripAdvisor says.
Do: Take Advantage of Credit Card Perks
Credit card rewards can lead to big travel savings, as long as you're able to pay off any purchases you make before you're hit with interest charges. When you use a travel rewards credit card before taking a trip, you can apply points earned to hotel or flight bookings. Plus, some cards offer other benefits if you use them to pay for travel, such as emergency travel assistance and trip cancellation insurance.
Before scheduling a trip, consider applying for a rewards credit card that comes with a big sign-up bonus and using those points to get even better deals on travel. You may have to spend $3,000 or $4,000 in the first three months you have the card, for instance, to get the bonus. Again, pay off those purchases by the end of the month, and know that opening new credit accounts affects your credit scores.
Don't: Take Out a Personal Loan
A personal loan can be used for several different purposes, like consolidating debt or paying for a big one-time expense. You'll pay it back in fixed payments with an interest rate tied to your credit profile, and the rate can reach up to 36 percent. But if booking a trip requires you to take out a loan, you can't afford it—interest will make travel more expensive, and your payment will add an expense to a potentially already tight budget.
Instead, assess how much of your cash savings you can safely put toward a vacation (while keeping your emergency fund intact), and opt for less extravagant trips if necessary. Even getting an Airbnb within driving distance, in a destination with free activities like hiking, could be enough to feel like a getaway.
Do: Save Up All Year
A portion of your tax refund or work bonus can help fund summer travel, but to have an even bigger pot of cash to draw from, set up a savings account specifically for vacation. Send just $50 a month to it, and you'll have at least $600 to work with a year from now.
Save more per month by choosing a few areas of your budget to trim—by doing at-home workouts instead of paying for a gym you don't go to, for instance—and creating an automatic transfer for that amount to your vacation fund. If you plan to travel with a friend or partner, motivate each other by setting a savings goal and celebrating when you hit milestones along the way.
Don't: Travel Without a Spending Plan
Arranging to leave town may feel like a win in and of itself, but you still have to pay for food, entertainment, souvenirs and getting around once you're there.
Don't let spending on vacation spin out of control, leaving you with a nasty surprise when you see your credit card bill or bank account balance. Set up a rough day-by-day spending plan, accounting for meals, drinks, gifts and transportation based on their average cost at your destination. Doing so before you even book travel will help you figure out how much to save in advance.
When you arrive, consider taking out a certain amount of cash per day and limiting yourself only to that amount. The size of your allowance doesn't have to be incredibly restrictive, but it will be a reminder that if you're on a budget, being on vacation isn't a free-for-all.
The Bottom Line
Planning on a budget, and keeping to one when you're on vacation, won't hinder your fun. It might even make you a more creative or communal traveler. Opt for free walking tours or lodging in a local's spare room via Airbnb, and you could meet travelers with similar interests as you—which is what getting away is all about.
Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer or other company, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. All information, including rates and fees, are accurate as of the date of publication.