We love to travel, but we hate to spend unnecessary money. So we are always looking for the best deals on hotels, rental cars, and dining. We like to travel well, but we also recognize the reality that our vacation budget is limited. Nothing is more budget shattering than encountering unplanned vacation costs after the trip has begun. So as you sketch out your vacation budget, keep the following budget busters in mind.
Vacation Budget Breakers
The primary bane of our vacation budgeting has been the increasingly ubiquitous “resort fees”. Often resort fees go unlisted in the initial pricing of a room. Sometimes they don’t even show up clearly in the online payment, only footnoted or found in the fine print. We’ve had some unwelcome surprises in the past when we arrived at our hotel to discover $30 to $50 a night slapped on top of our “pre-paid” reservation.
Solution: First, make sure you read the fine print before you book. Know if a hotel charges resort fees, and whether they’ve been included, or will be charged once you arrive. Second, examine your other options. In June, we opted for an Airbnb for our annual trip to Las Vegas instead of a Strip hotel. We ended up paying about 40% of what we have paid on our previous “great deals” for Strip hotels. While we missed some aspects of our hotel experience, these were offset by enjoying a whole apartment to ourselves with a bedroom, kitchen, living room, and washer/dryer.
Last year, we had a vacation in Atlantic Beach Florida that completely exceeded our expectations. Great hotel, amazing restaurants, nice beaches, and a completely relaxing experience. Save one aspect: a $29 per day hotel parking fee that we were not aware of (on top of a $30 resort fee that we were). Given the parking shortage in the area, a charge was actually not unreasonable. It was just unexpected and higher than what we would have imagined. But ultimately, we missed the charge and paid the price.
Solution: No matter how you book, research with the hotel itself about parking. If the website isn’t clear – call. Maybe it will not change your plans. However, for us, the parking fee put the hotel portion of our vacation budget into a more expensive category than we had planned.
Hidden Rental Car Fees
We all know this one: “midsize rental car for just $29 per day!” Nothing in a vacation budget is more misleading than the posted car rental cost. Many other fees are ignored: the local/state taxes, “site fees” for airport space rentals, etc. Still others are only revealed on site. Insurance is the classic, and even experienced travelers sometimes are unaware of whether they should take this option.
A recent addition is the EZPass/FastPass device. In case you drive on toll roads without monetary collection, the device will register payment. However, suddenly adding $20 to a rental originally advertised as $30 per day is steep. This is one of the trickiest vacation budget factors we have dealt with. The rules for toll charges without passes vary state-to-state. How the rental car company deals with the situation varies from provider-to-provider. Some charge for every day the device is in the car. Others only charge on the days where it is used.
Solution: Make sure you know what your credit card and/or car policy says about rental car coverage. If you know you have sufficient coverage, you can confidently decline the insurance at the rental counter. Also, research the routes you’ll be traveling and see whether toll roads are likely. Learn how the region handles tolls without devices, and how your car rental agency handles charges without devices.
While you may not want to spend hours seeking alternate routes, if there are easy workarounds or toll roads are rare, you may be able to eschew the device rental. On our recent South Florida trip, we avoided several days of charges by using a smart mapping strategy. Most days this added little or no time to our excursions.
Another option is to take your own device with you. If you already own an EZ-Pass, as we do, you may find that you can use that pass when you go on vacation. Just bring it with you and keep it on the dashboard of your car rental when you go through tolls. Before you go, make sure that the state you are visiting accepts your state’s toll device. Once you arrive, enter the rental car info into your toll pass account to make sure the charges go through.
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If you do track travel costs, take a scan through the restaurant bills at the end of your trip. Eating out three meals a day every day will deal a substantial hit to your vacation budget. Now, part of the fun of travel is getting to eat out. You have to let yourself enjoy it, and sometimes it’s a necessity. But sometimes restaurant meals are lazy convenience for mediocre fare. Spending $100+ dollars on a meal for two, and having the reaction “Eh, that was fine” is horrible.
Solution: If you have a kitchen, buy groceries and eat breakfast and lunch at the rental. Or make sandwiches and take them with you on daytime excursions. Also search for bakeries and bagel shops. A bagel, croissant, or muffin will be a fraction of the cost of a sit down breakfast or lunch.
Most of all, make sure your restaurant dollars provide the value and memorable experience they should. We’ve come to the realization that, for us, expensive steak dinners at upscale French restaurants are often not worth it. We can cook a similar meal at home for a fraction of the cost. When we travel we want to experience interesting dishes that we can’t cook ourselves. If we do a big-budget meal, such as Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, we’re going to make pretty sure it’s worth it.
The most notable up-charge you get hit with when dining out is alcohol. We have largely stopped buying wine with dinner, except on special occasions. Instead, we eat our restaurant meal with water and buy a decent bottle of wine on our way back to our lodging.Smart travel planning can save you hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.Click To Tweet
We fear the mini-bar. From the signs that warn you that you will be charged if any item moves a millimeter, to the “screw it, we’re on vacation, let’s just pay the $15 for a micro-glass of mediocre wine,” the mini-bar is a vacation goblin. We’ve succumbed on occasion and always hate ourselves for it in the morning. Hotel lobby convenience stores are often not much better, with simple beverages being three times what they would cost at a grocery store.
Solution: Use Yelp or other similar services to identify local grocery or convenience stores. At The Palazzo in Las Vegas, there’s a Walgreens right at the base of the hotel. Every time we stay there, we buy a large container of spring water, bags of snacks, and breakfast bars. Stocking up on incidentals at a good price can prevent vacation budget-busting impulse buys.
Most people want to mark their travels with a memento or two. But the shops in highly trafficked tourist areas often feature shocking prices. Does that t-shirt really cost $40?! How about a thimble or miniature spoon for $20? Particularly when you have children, the temptations can be powerful. Ugh, $36 for a shabby dolphin.
Solution: Just don’t buy souvenirs unless absolutely necessary. Picture in your head the many souvenirs you or family members have eventually tossed in the trash. Very few have much long-term play. However, if you do feel a need to remember trips through objects, look for cheaper alternatives. Just off main tourist routes you can often find discount t-shirt shops which basically sell the same t-shirt for a third of the price. Or use one of those “penny cruncher” devices (that imprints a local landmark onto your penny) for a souvenir that costs you a whopping 51 cents. Heather has a box of crushed pennies that she began collecting when she was 12 (in San Francisco!) and can tell you about each and every one.
Even better, find something free to collect to remind you of your vacation. Shells, matchbooks, or even restaurant business cards can serve as a memento of your trip without busting your vacation budget.
If you have children, set expectations. Let them know that they can pick one or two things and give them a budget. This avoids the requests at every vacation stop. It also teaches them to value their purchases and become a better consumer.
Vacation is a time to loosen up the purse strings and enjoy. What do we work for all year, other than to enjoy the fruits of our labor? However, we also don’t want to spend months paying off vacation credit card debt. Smart travel planning can save hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars while not detracting from the vacation experience. And the value of being able to say: “We had an amazing week and kept it under $3,000” is priceless.
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