Get Away in 2020: Planning and Budgeting for Your Next Trip
Like any new year, 2020 presents a lot of promise and opportunity. For those like myself who love to travel, that includes opportunities to explore new cities and rack up more experiences before the next year arrives. The only downside is that travel is rarely if ever free — and the need to engage in such petty activities like “work” often take precedent.
But don’t let that get you down! You can still make 2020 the year you embark on your dream vacation. It all starts with some planning, some budgeting, and some smart savings.
Planning and Budgeting for Your Trip
The key to saving on your travels is to plan ahead. This not only includes researching hotels, flights, and activities but also means building a budget and finding a way to fund your trip. Here are some simple steps to get you on your way.
Start and grow a trip fund
One of the best ways to begin planning and budgeting for your trip is to start a dedicated fund you’ll use to pay for the trip. This can really be anything from a savings account to a piggy bank, as long as it’s easy to make regular deposits and access the money when you need it.
When you’re building up your fund, one of the best ways to start saving is to set up automated transfers. Simply determine how much money you’d like to set aside on a weekly or monthly basis and keep up this habit until you hit your goal. Such arrangements can often be made through your banks or by using apps like Clarity Money — or, to add a little fun to your savings adventure, Long Game. In either case, it’s the automation element that is often key, as it will allow you to build up your savings without you really noticing the funds are gone.
To help you reach your travel goal faster, you can also consider contributing things like bonuses, gifted cash, and even tax refunds to your trip fund. Additionally, if you really mean business, try cutting out other expenses and splurges from your budget (e.g. dining out) and applying those savings to your travel goals.
Determine your destination (or let the deals decide)
Before you can build a comprehensive budget for your trip, you’ll need to figure out what a realistic number is. And to do that effectively, you’ll likely need to decide where your adventures will take you. If you don’t already have your dream destination in mind, there are a few ways to search for options.
First, there are plenty of sources to find inspiration, including books, movies, recommendations from friends, and random Google searches. Quiz-style sites like Tripzard can also help put a few ideas in your head. Another plan of attack is to figure out when you’d like to travel and see what prices to different destinations look like. A great tool for this Kayak’s Explore page as it will present you with some options and pricing. Similarly — but, then again, completely opposite — sites like AirfareWatchdog will send you alerts when deals for your ideal destination come up.
Do your research and book your accommodations wisely
If you didn’t already snag a great deal in your searches, it’s time to continue your research. For one, you’ll want to ensure that the time frame you have in mind is a good time to visit. This could mean the weather meets your approval, the crowds are likely to be lessened (and thus prices lowered), or there are some special events happening that you’ll want to attend. Additionally, if there are specific attractions you want to see in any given city, it’s always a good idea to make sure they’ll be open during you’re trip — as a Disney Parks fan, I’ve made this mistake before.
Next, you’ll want to take a close look at your hotel options. When it comes to finding the right room for your vacation, there may be some compromises to consider. For example, you might be able to save a few dollars by booking a room further out from your target location but those savings could be negated by transportation fees if you need to head into the city each day (not to mention the potentially wasted time). Also pay close attention to the amenities provided, especially if free WiFi is as essential for you as it is for me. Of course if WiFi is as critical for you as it is for me you might want to supplement your hotel WiFi connection with a Skyroam WiFi Hotspot.
Speaking of amenities, one of my favorite money-saving features is having a kitchenette in the room. This allows us to pick up groceries and eat in instead of dining out each day of our trip. If there aren’t any rooms with actual kitchenettes available then microwaves, refrigerators, and electric kettles can be the next best things.
There are many methods for going about booking a hotel room for your trip. The most common is probably looking online for something that looks nice at a reasonable price and is in the general area you want. Meanwhile, there are others who might gravitate towards a certain property in order to earn loyalty points or to cash-in rewards. These plans of attack are fine, but if you have a bit more flexibility you might be able to score a deal elsewhere.
For several years, I’ve used the site Hotwire to book discount hotel rooms for various trips. The catch is that you won’t know for sure what property you’re booking until you complete your non-refundable purchase. I used to try to get around this by comparing Hotwire listings to those on other sites but that was before I discovered Better Bidding. This site essentially does what I used to do manually and offers its best guess for what each hotel deal is. I’ve used it twice and it’s been correct each time, although they may not be able to nail down each listing. I should also note that I’ve only used the site to book domestic hotels and might be a bit pickier about my bookings if I were traveling internationally.
Another increasingly popular way to save money on accommodations is to book Airbnbs instead of hotel rooms. Not only can you often find rentals at affordable prices but typically they give you more space (assuming you’re renting an entire property, of course). Personally, I’ve only stayed at an Airbnb once and had a great experience, although it’s not hard to find horror stories online as well. Ultimately, it all comes down to what’s available and what you’re comfortable with.
To round out your research, it’s a good idea to get prepared for what your travels will entail. Do you need a special visa to visit the country you have your eye on? How will you get around each day? Are credit cards widely accepted? Is it safe to drink the water there? Depending on where you plan on visiting, these questions could prove extremely important and should be considered before you book.
Adding up your budget
Now that you have your trip all planned, you’re ready to calculate your budget. At this point, even if you haven’t booked it just yet, you’ll likely know how much your flights and lodging accommodations will cost you, but there are plenty of other costs to consider. This could include obvious expenses like dining, attraction entry fees, and transportation, but might also include things like souvenirs, tips, and perhaps some extra funds in case of emergencies. Although building a budget can be a bit tedious at times, by calculating these costs ahead of time and saving up the money required to cover them, it’ll be much easier to enjoy your trip without worrying about money or getting surprised by unexpected expenses.
Making Your Trip Budget Go Further
Now that you have your budget worked out, it’s time to look at how you can “trim the fat” from your trip and make your money go further. In addition to making compromises on certain costs, there may also be ways to supplement your budget with rewards or discounts. Let’s look at a few options for effectively stretching your travel budget.
Consider traveling outside of peak season or from a different airport
As I mentioned in the “Do your research” section, certain cities and locations are more popular at certain times of the year than others. Because of this, you may be able to save money by traveling during those off-peak times. However, there are a few things to be aware of.
In some cases, the “cheap season” to visit a destination may also coincide with their bad weather season. Incidentally, I’ve had two sets of friends experience this firsthand as their fall trips to Hong Kong had to be altered due to typhoons. Granted, bad weather and other events can happen at pretty much anytime, anywhere, but you should be aware of when such risks are increased.
Another risk you may run by traveling during a slow season is that some of the attractions you want to see may not be operating or may have limited hours. This also goes back to the “do your research” section, but it’s worth noting again just because of how common a problem it can be.
Another way you may be able to save some money on your trip is to look for alternate flight routes, including departing from a different airport. In some cases, you may find better prices when starting from larger airports or hubs. Additionally, in terms of international travel, you may find that traveling through certain cities will cost more than others. Because of this, it’s always worth looking into all of your options before booking.
Utilize credit card rewards (or at least the right debit card)
Whether you have a points/miles credit card or a regular cash back one, tapping your rewards for your trip can be a great way to supplement your budget. Depending on the perks of your card, this may mean booking your flights with your accrued miles, purchasing travel gift cards with your cash back, or just taking a statement credit after the fact.
On that note, if you don’t already have a good travel rewards credit card, there may still be benefits to getting one before your trip. For one, cards like the Wells Fargo Propel offer higher cash back rewards for travel-related expenses, while others like Capital One Venture card will earn you miles you can redeem down the road. Furthermore, several cards offer initial spending bonuses that may benefit you if you plan on putting your trip on your new card.
If you’re willing to pay a bit more to save money in the long run, you might also consider travel cards with annual fees. Perhaps the most popular in this category is the Chase Sapphire Reserve that includes a number of travel perks in addition to earning points you can redeem for booking flights and hotel. As attractive as the Sapphire Reserve may be, I personally opted for the American Express Platinum card instead. Although it does carry a hefty $550 annual fee, it’s already helped my wife and I save money thanks to the airline incidentals credits, Uber credits, complimentary hotel status (which can include such benefits as free breakfast, free WiFi, upgrades, late checkout, and more), and airport lounge access the card includes. On top of that, because Amex has transfer partnerships with several airlines, you can often get even more value out of your points.
Of course, one must-have feature for any travel card is a 0% foreign transaction fee. Believe me, those fees can really add up when you’re spending time overseas. Alternatively, if credit cards just aren’t for you, I’d recommend an option such as SoFi Money that will allow you to use your debit card foreign transaction fee-free as well as reimburse you for any ATM fees you incur. I’ve actually already planned out my credit card usage for 2020 with the goal of maximizing my bonuses in large part to fund my travel itch.
Explore passes and pre-purchase attraction ticket options
Whenever you head to a new city, there are certain things you just have to see and do. Instead of getting tickets for all of these different destinations separately, you may be able to save by purchasing a city pass. For domestic locales (and Toronto, Canada), CityPass offers a number of different options that will allow you to explore some of the top attractions in each area. On the international front, cities such as Paris, London, Hong Kong and Macau offer their own attraction packages, including access to certain sites and discounts on others.
One potential downside with these passes is that it may include attractions you have little interest in or put restrictions on when you can visit that don’t vibe with your plans. Therefore, it’s always a good idea to take a close look at all of your options to see if these really will save you money. And if you do decide to book your activities separately, one site I’ve had good experiences with is Klook. This site offers good deals on a number of experiences in Asia, Europe, North America, and beyond. Of course, Klook is far from the only site out there — some other great places to search for single activity tickets and passes include Expedia (another site I’ve had positive experiences with), City Discovery, and more.
Find free activities
While trying to hit up every tourist spot in a given city can get quite expensive, there’s still plenty you can do cheaply or for free. In fact, some of my favorite days of travel are ones where I spend next to nothing and, instead, spend my time wandering, taking photos, and soaking in the atmosphere and culture of a new city. Not only is this economical but often also allows you to stumble into some hidden treasures. Plus, I find this style of travel much more relaxing than the “rush everywhere and see everything” plan of attack.
Some potential frugal activities include strolling through city parks, attending special festivals and celebrations, visiting free museums and displays, and perhaps embarking on a self-guided street food tour. It should also be noted that you may be able to experience some element of a tourist attraction without having to spend the cash to do it all. For example, while some consider climbing to the top of the Eiffel Tower a must, others may be content to lie in the grass across from the iconic structure and bask in its shade — an activity that’s completely free (or you could splurge a couple of Euros on a beverage to complete to mood).
Small Travel Splurges That Could Save You a Lot of Time
Traveling on a budget presents an interesting challenge as you’ll constantly need to be weighing the enjoyment and experiences you could be having with how much you want to be spending. Alas, there won’t always be an easy answer for which you should opt for. That said, when it comes to getting the most out of your trip, saving time can sometimes be more valuable than saving money. With that in mind, here are a few small splurges that may be worth the cost.
TSA Pre✓ and Global Entry
If you’re a frequent traveler or aspire to be, it may be worth investing in TSA Pre✓ and/or Global Entry. Both of these programs are sure to save you time and stress while traveling domestically and abroad.
To give you a brief rundown of both programs, TSA Pre✓ gives you access to a special security queue at many U.S. airports. On top of (often) encountering a shorter line, you’ll also enjoy a simpler screening process that doesn’t require you to remove your shoes, pull laptops or “3-1-1” liquids from your carry-on, or in many cases even pass through a full-body scanner. A five-year membership to TSA Pre✓ costs $85 and does require an online application and in-person interview for approval.
Then there’s Global Entry. This program allows travelers returning to the U.S. to bypass the general customs line at many major airports. Instead, Global Entry members can utilize kiosks to scan their fingers before answering a few basic questions and proceeding onward. Although I have yet to utilize Global Entry for myself, my wife had the chance to try it on her way back from France and said she literally had no wait — saving her at least 30 minutes. Global Entry is also a five-year membership and costs $100, but does include TSA Pre✓ benefits as well. This makes it quite a deal if you were already planning on applying for TSA Pre✓. That said there are fewer interview locations for Global Entry so be sure to check out where your nearest office is.
Take a taxi sometimes
During the times I’ve traveled, I’ve stuck to public transportation about 98% of the time. However, there have been situations where the savings that come with taking a train or bus are just not worth the extra travel time. Therefore, I’d advise you to weigh these options and consider taking a taxi, Uber, or Lyft from time to time. Similarly, as much as I love walking, your trip won’t be nearly as enjoyable if your feet are hurting after day one — so know your limits and call a cab if you need to.
Book a night away from your “home base”
That one might sound like a real waste of money but stay with me for a moment. There have been times on our travels where we were venturing away from our main area to spend consecutive days elsewhere. For example, when we went to the opening of Shanghai Disneyland, we stayed in the city for most of our visit but went to the park only for two days. Although we could have taken the 45-minute train ride each way each day, we decided to book a single night at Disney before returning to our other hotel.
In this particular case, we actually booked two separate stays at the city hotel so we didn’t pay for a room we weren’t sleeping in. Yet, on a recent Paris trip, we actually did book a night’s stay elsewhere, while also having a room at our extended stay location. This not only helped us cut down on travel time but also saved us the hassle of having to bring all of our luggage with us (the Shanghai hotel actually held onto our stuff for us, so that wasn’t so bad either).
Again, this might not make sense nor even apply to everyone, but it once again highlights one of the tough decisions you may need to make regarding money vs. time while traveling.
Sure the year may have just started, but you deserve a vacation. Thankfully, with some planning, budgeting, and a few tricks along the way, your dream trip is within your reach. So where will your travels take you in 2020?
Also published on Medium.