Planning a budget vacation

Taking a Break without Breaking the Bank

by Jennifer Beam

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Why is it that summer seems to automatically inspire vacation plans? Possibly the onslaught of warmer weather and sunshiny days inspires us. Summer just means vacation time. A vacation can be a much-needed break from the daily grind but saving for one is not always a monetary priority. Unfortunately, vacations can be financially draining if you have not been able to plan for one. If vacationing was not in the budget this year, it doesn't mean you have to deprive yourself.

What you must not do is cave in to the desire to take a vacation you can't afford. No matter how deserving you feel you are, or how much the kids might pressure you, if you can not afford the airfare to Las Vegas or the admission to Disney World, you don't go. Do not try creative financing either. Putting a vacation on a credit card is the worst thing you could do. If you don't have the cash, do not create it by cash advances against your cards. Keep in mind that your destination is not nearly as important as what you do with the time you spend there.

For a cost-effective vacation, first determine how much money you have available to spend. If airfare is out of the question, consider making your vacation spot closer to home and within a reasonable driving distance. Your State Visitor's Bureau is an excellent resource for locating tourist sites and attractions close to home. It is entirely possible that there is somewhere worth visiting only three or four counties away. Check with neighboring State Visitor's Bureaus as well.

Once you have chosen a destination, the next priority should be lodging. If you are willing, see if you can cut costs by camping instead of staying at a hotel. Campgrounds often have campsites with electricity available, public showers and bathrooms. It may not be as luxurious as a hotel with a jacuzzi, but for as little as $18 a night, it is certainly a cost-efficient alternative. It may also force you to make better use of your vacation time by eliminating the distractions of a comfortable hotel like television, indoor pools and lounges. If you just can not bear the thought of camping, carefully compare the costs of motels near your destination. See if you could save money on nightly rates at an establishment a few miles away rather than the ones in the immediate vicinity.

Whether your choice of lodging is indoors or out, try to get accommodations where meals can be made. If you are camping for instance, ask if there are grills and ice readily available. If you are staying in a lodge, motel or hotel, compare the costs of a room featuring a kitchenette with the cost of eating out three meals a day. Even a room with a microwave and refrigerator would allow for most of your meal preparation. Some hotel chains offer complimentary breakfasts. But since this is not an extremely valuable benefit, be sure you still compare rates. Plan your departure according to your meal plans by taking non-perishables and items that do not need refrigeration with you. Then you will only need to purchase items such as milk, eggs and meat once you arrive. If you can keep your dining out to a limit, you can spend your cash on more exciting things than eating.

Look for just enough events to fill the vacation time you have. Trying to cram three attractions into one day when you have to pay an admission fee to each of them is likely to mean you will not get your money's worth at any of them. Instead, choose the event or attraction of most interest to everyone involved and be sure to get the most out of it. In the event that it does not take all day, have a backup plan that involves use of the area's natural resources such as hiking, swimming or fishing. Admission is probably free.

Budgeting for your vacation should include things like travel, lodging, food and entertainment, but beware of pitfalls such as souvenir stands and gift shops. If, for instance, your vacation plans include visiting the zoo, they should not include visiting the zoo's gift shop. If you want to acquire souvenirs from your trip for sentiment, then remember to pack a camera loaded with film before you leave home and look for mementos along the way. A rock from a hike, a shell from the beach, a printed matchbook or napkin from a dining or lodging experience can all add sentiment to a family vacation scrapbook--especially when accompanied by one treasured photo after another.

Vacations should be rewarding and not a set back. Assuming you have paid vacation days available, reward yourself without overindulging. If your current situation does not allow you to take time off from work, plan a weekend road trip. A vacation is within everyone's reach and it is, like most anything else, what you make of it.

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