By MELANIE LOCKERT
Are you itching for a summer vacation but deterred by the amount of money in your bank account? While summer getaways can get pricey, there are ways you can lower costs and maybe even earn some cash back.
Read on to learn how to maximize your money and plan an affordable vacation.
1. Automate your savings.
One of the best ways to save for your vacation is to automatically transfer funds from your checking account to a separate savings account every time you get paid.
You can open a savings account solely for the purpose of a vacation. I use Capital One 360, which allows you to create numerous savings accounts. The best part? You can name your accounts and set goals.
Get creative and give them names that will inspire you to keep your eyes on the prize. For example, you could name your vacation-specific account "My much-needed break" or "Italian Dream."
Another option is saving with Ally Bank, an online savings account with what they claim is a higher interest rate "than most savings accounts." Looking for something different? You could try the goal-oriented savings platform, SmartyPig, a fee-free FDIC-insured online savings account that's held at BBVA Compass bank.
The key is to automatically transfer a portion every time you get paid so you have the cash on hand to afford the vacation. Vacations may not be worth it if you go into debt for them, so start saving now. Just be sure that you check your accounts frequently to ensure you have enough money to cover all of your bills.
2. Take advantage of credit card rewards.
Want to reduce your overall costs for your trip? If you have any miles or points from credit card rewards, you may be able to redeem them for free or low-cost travel or accommodations.
As I write this, for example, I am in Venice, Italy, for dirt cheap. What was supposed to be a $1,400 flight only cost me $159 and 40,000 American Airlines miles.
Here's how I did it:Once US Airways merged with American Airlines, they offered a rewards credit card with an annual fee of $89. After making one purchase (yes, one), you were granted 50,000 miles.
On American Airlines, you used to be able to get a round-trip flight to Europe off-season (generally November to March) for only 40,000 miles. Recent changes in AA rewards have increased this amount to 45,000 miles.
So with my miles, the $89 annual fee and an additional $70 in fees and taxes, I significantly reduced the cost of my air travel.
While credit card rewards can be a convenient way to significantly lower the cost of travel, it's important to keep in mind that you don't want to spend more or go into debt just to earn miles or points -- that defeats the purpose entirely.
But if you're careful and pay your credit card in full each month, utilizing credit card rewards can be a great way to lower your costs.
3. Go where the deals are.
Another key to an affordable summer vacation is being flexible about the location. If you don't have a particular destination in mind, you can save money by avoiding tourist traps and popular hubs that may cost a lot. Instead, consider going where the deals are.
"One of the best ways to save on summer travel is being open to traveling anywhere," says Nicole Ballantine, travel blogger at Latitude + Avenue. "If you're open-minded when it comes to location, you can book a flight on a deal, and that can save a lot of money since airfare tends to be the most expensive part of a trip."
You can use sites such as Travelzoo.com, Skyscanner.com and Fly.com to look for the cheapest deals in your area.
4. Look for ways to save money on big-ticket items.
From airfare and hotel stays to gas, food and more, going on vacation can get expensive quickly. Instead of focusing on cutting back small luxuries, focus on saving money on big-ticket items and getting cash back for your purchases.
When booking airfare, accommodations and more, use a site like Ebates.com that offers cash-back rebates on certain purchases. Additionally, here are some tips to get the best deals on those big purchases.
Airfare. Consider traveling during off-peak times, such as overnight or early in the morning -- and not on the weekends (if possible).
"Be nontraditional. Don't fly on weekends. Depart on a Tuesday or Wednesday and return on a Tuesday or Wednesday. Shifting days can save you at least 20 percent, and in summer I've seen it up to 50 percent," says Clem Bason, CEO of goSeek.
It also helps to book your tickets a few months in advance to ensure you get the best price. According to an annual airfare study by Cheapair.com, the best time to book a domestic U.S. flight is 54 days in advance.
Their research also found that the best time to buy international flights can range anywhere from 70 days in advance to 320 days, depending on the location.
Additionally, it may also help to check airlines' social media profiles for any additional deals.
Accommodations. Hotels can be expensive, so consider getting a private room in a hostel. You can also consider Airbnb or a home exchange to cut costs.
Before booking, you should read reviews from other users regarding potential hostels and Airbnb lodgings to get a better idea of where you are staying. You can also ask your friends for recommendations on places or certain neighborhoods to stay in or avoid.
Food. Dining out three times a day is a surefire way to increase your expenses. Consider going to the local grocery store to get some food for breakfast and lunch. If you have access to a kitchen, you can even do your own cooking for a few meals. For local dining out deals in the U.S., look on deal-of-the-day websites such as Groupon.com and LivingSocial.com.
You don't have to nix a much-needed summer vacation because you think it's too expensive. You just need to be creative, open about where you go and flexible with accommodations. Using these tips, you can get out of town for some much-needed R&R and enjoy an affordable summer vacation on a budget.
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