Like any new year, 2018 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 2018 the year you embark on your dream vacation. It all starts with some planning, some budgeting, and some smart savings.
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. Keep in mind that the automation element 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 or sites like Skiplagged that 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
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 to the amenities provided, especially if free WiFi is as essential for you as it is for me.
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 really add up 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 more 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
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, if this sounds like a good deal, 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 you research” section, but it’s worth noting again just because of how common a problem it can be.
Utilize credit card rewards
Whether you have a 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 good travel rewards credit card, there may still be benefits to getting one before your trip. For one, cards like the Uber Visa 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. Of course, if you’re looking for a credit card that will allow you to travel more, you’ll also want to ensure that they don’t charge a foreign transaction fee — believe me, those fees can really add up.
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 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 quite quickly, 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).
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 2018?
Also published on Medium.