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How to Budget for a Vacation

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If you are looking for the absolute cheapest trip to take, you won’t find that here. We are not budget travelers. We enjoy a little luxury from time to time. 

However, we do not splurge on every trip either. Our goal is to maximize our experiences and minimize our cost as much as possible...without compromising what we truly want. 

The key is to try and get the MOST BANG FOR YOUR BUCK while maintaining a reasonable vacation budget. Don’t just focus on the price. Look at what you are actually getting for that price. 

We budget for a vacation by establishing priorities, having flexibility, and investing where we believe it’s worth it. 

Family standing with luggage about to leave on a vacation

Vacation Budget Breakdown

Our vacation budget breakdown consists of 5 categories. From highest priority to lowest: accommodations, attractions, airfare, food, and total cost. Our lowest priority categories are the areas where we are willing to have the most flexibility, and our highest priority categories are where we are willing to invest more money.

Accommodations

(30%-50% of vacation budget)

Animal Kingdom Lodge Lobby
Omni hotel in downtown San Diego

There is a lot to consider when choosing accommodations as you budget for a vacation. Hotel, resort, vacation rental, hostel, campsite...the list goes on. 

Where you stay often sets the tone for your experience. For this reason, accommodations are our highest priority and largest investment. 

As we budget accommodations for a vacation, we assess the value of the location, how much time we will spend there, and what perks we will benefit from. These three things help us determine how to maximize our ROI (return on investment). 

Location

Consider the value of the location. Are the accommodations in a centralized location where you will spend the majority of your time? 

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If not, are they close to public transportation to make it easy for you to get there? Staying at a hotel WAY outside of town for WAY cheaper may save you money, but it may also be WAY more inconvenient and not worth it.

Time Spent 

How much time will you spend at your accommodations? If you plan on just sleeping there and spending almost every waking hour exploring your destination, then opt for a basic room to save money. 

On the other hand, if you plan on spending a lot of time at your accommodations, it may be worth it to invest a larger portion of your vacation budget and make it more enjoyable. 

If you’re at a vacation rental, pay for the bigger house with the fun activities (ie pool, swing set, putting green, video game room, etc) close to recreation and entertainment for the whole family to enjoy. 

If you’re at a hotel or resort, pay for a nicer room (don’t go too crazy). You could opt for a room with a view or an extra bedroom for your kids. 

If we decide to invest more of our vacation budget into accommodations, it’s usually for a view. We don’t need a 1 bedroom suite because Bo and I don’t mind Austin sleeping in the same room as us. (We are all used to it now.) We would take a balcony with a breathtaking view over extra space any day!

PRO Tip: If you want the separation between you and your sleeping baby without paying for a suite, put your little one’s travel crib in the bathroom. You will get extra privacy without paying extra. Plus you avoid being forced to hang out in the dark after your little one’s bedtime at 7pm. 

Palm Springs balcony room view

Perks

Now, it’s all about what you are getting for your money. What perks does the accommodation offer you? 

Will you get privacy, luxury amenities, complimentary activities, exclusive access to local tours and restaurants? Weigh the value of perks with their additional cost. It’s up to you to decide if the extra investment is worth it in your vacation budget.  

Pool, lounge chairs, and cabanas at Palm Springs resort

Strategies to Reduce Cost

As you are deciding where you want to invest your money, consider ways you could reduce the cost. While you create a budget for a vacation, determine if any of the following strategies could help you spend less per night. 

  • Book with loyalty program reward points. Using points could get you one free night or even an entire week free!
  • Use free night rewards. Some loyalty programs or credit cards offer you so many free nights each year to redeem at certain hotels.
  • Avoid weekends. It’s common for nightly rates to be higher on Friday and Saturday nights.
  • Stay during their offseason or low season. There can be significant price differences between busy season and low season. Take advantage!
  • Apply AAA or military discounts. Many hotels offer special pricing for AAA members or military.
  • Pay in full when you book. See if you are able to lock in a lower nightly rate if you pay in full up front.
  • Share the accommodation cost. If you are traveling with friends or family, consider getting a bigger room and house and splitting the cost.

Attractions

(10%-20% of vacation budget)

Cinderella's Castle attraction for a family vacation
SeaWorld San Diego orca whales

For some people, attractions are a large portion of their budget for a vacation. While we do not spend an exorbitant amount on them, they are a close second in priority to us. 

We will spend around 10-20% of our vacation budget on attractions for the majority of our trips. Walt Disney World is one of the only exceptions I can think of where the attraction is the main event...and therefore one of the most expensive parts. Outside of Disney, we focus most of our time on exploring our destination without breaking the bank. 

Consider the age of your kids. Is the attraction relevant to them? Is it worth the cost? Is it a once in a lifetime opportunity? Your answers to these questions will help you determine how much to invest for their sake. 

Part of your budget for attractions will be prepaid before you take the trip, while another portion of it will be spent during the trip itself. So it’s important to plan accordingly. 

Prepaid Before Trip

What are the BIG must-see attractions and how much will they cost you? Again, prioritize. You can’t do them all! 

We like to plan and pay for big attractions ahead of time, if possible. Then we know exactly how it fits into our budget and there are no expensive surprises popping up during our trip. 

Prepaid attractions are often in the form of tickets (zoos, museums, Disney, SeaWorld, Universal, etc). The number of days and added perks on the tickets will add to the final price. Determine what matters to you and your family and incorporate it into your vacation budget. 

Reservations for unique experiences are another type of prepaid attraction. Our paragliding in the Swiss Alps and dinner luau in Hawaii were activities we booked before our trip. Those experiences were worth the extra cost to us, so we chose to invest part of our budget in them. 

Paragliding in Switzerland prepaid attraction
Prepaid Luau attraction in Hawaii

During the Trip

With each budget for a vacation, it’s important to reserve funds for attractions that you discover while on your trip. You don’t want every little thing planned out before your trip, so make sure to leave room in your budget for the money you WILL spend. 

Will you want to try out a lot of new activities at your destination? Do a little research before you go, and get a ballpark idea of the costs of activities around your destination. Estimate how much it might cost, and allocate what you’re willing to spend on it. 

Strategies to Reduce Cost

These strategies can be extremely beneficial at reducing the amount of money you spend on attractions. (Pssst..the first one is our absolute favorite strategy!)

  • Ask for trip-related gift cards or money as birthday/Christmas gifts. We do this every year and maximize what attractions we can“afford” to do as a family because of the amount of money we receive as gifts. 

  • Find group activities. Book activities with a flat rate instead of paying per person (ie. group tours, car/boat rental, XXXX, etc). These are especially beneficial for large families.

  • Look into walking tours. Many tours include the cost of admission to certain attractions, so you can see more for your money. You can even find FREE walking tours in some cities!

  • Enjoy FREE activities. Make the most of what free activities your hotel or resort offers. 

  • Learn about cheaper alternatives. For example, you could pay a pretty penny to “swim” with dolphins at SeaWorld. Or you could arrive early and be first in line for a FREE dolphin encounter where you pet the dolphins and interact with them and their trainers. 


Airfare

(15%-30% of vacation budget)

Boy walking down middle aisle of empty plane
View out window on airplane flying to a vacation

Airfare can be a hard cost to swallow on a budget for a vacation. Tickets, seats, baggage, it adds up quickly!

When it comes to airfare, our goal is to get them as cheap as possible without having 40+ hours of travel time with 7 connections. Know what I mean? 

We almost always fly coach. We will gladly sit in a standard plane seat if it means we can invest our money in better accommodations or more attractions because that is what matters most to us--not business class

While we typically spend 15-25% of our vacation budget on tickets, international flights can eat up a larger percentage of our budget. Additionally, if you have multiple children, you may need to increase what percentage of your budget is allocated for airfare. 

While the number of tickets can increase your total airfare budget, add ons tag on even more. Consider both of these factors when assessing what you will spend on plane tickets.

Number of Tickets

The first thing to determine is how many tickets you need. Obviously the more tickets the more expensive. But I’m referring to the ages of your children.

On domestic flights, children under 2 fly for FREE! International flight policies vary by airline, but a ticket for children under 2 is often significantly cheaper than a standard ticket. 

The point being--take advantage of traveling while your little ones are under 2. Enjoy their free existence on your lap, and travel with them before you are forced to pay for their seat on the plane. 

baby on mom's lap on airplane

Add Ons

As you budget for a vacation, don’t set your airfare budget to fit the ticket price that shows up when you search. There are additional costs that the airline adds on top of the fare price itself. 

Do you have to pay to select seats ahead of time? Decide if it is worth the extra cost to have guaranteed seats together. Or--better yet--find an airline or ticket type that includes seat selection. 

PRO Tip: Pre-select seats together as a family, so you don’t get split up. (Don’t leave mom alone with the baby on a 5 hour flight...that’s not cool.) 

Do you want extra legroom or an exit row? Be prepared to pay extra for it. 

What will baggage fees cost you? This depends on how many bags you have and how many you plan on checking. 

It’s just another reason carry-on is better. Less luggage means no baggage fees, which means more money for other parts of your trip.

We rarely pay money for checked bags. We mostly fly carry-on only. If we are checking a bag (one, never more), we try to fly with an airline that offers free checked luggage. 

carry-on bags at airport

Strategies to Reduce Cost

Beyond those basics, there are additional steps you can take to save money on airfare as you budget for a vacation. Consider if any of the following strategies will help reduce your cost.

  • Fly on weekdays. Weekends generally have higher ticket prices.
  • Travel during an offseason. You may find lower ticket prices if you fly when it’s not as popular.
  • Consider value airlines. Assess the priority of your comfort vs cost
  • Try connecting flights instead of direct. While not convenient for time’s sake, sometimes connecting flights offer a cheaper overall price. 
  • Depart from a major airport with lower prices. Certain airports are cheaper to fly out of for certain destinations. Do some research and compare ticket prices out of different airports.
  • Use rewards points for flights. Get round trip or one-way tickets completely free with points. 
  • Utilize companion status. Accrue miles with an airline loyalty program to achieve this status where one person flies free.

PRO Tip: If you have a high status on one airline, consider a ‘status match.” Other airlines will often match your status on their own airline to win your business. So if you can't fly your preferred airline, you can still fly in style. 


Food

(10%-15% of vacation budget)

tacos on vacation
Father and son eating lunch on vacation

All the foodies out there may cringe at the small percentage we spend on food when we budget for a vacation, but this is how we roll. Don’t get me wrong, we like good food...just not extravagant food. 

It’s pretty typical for us to splurge on maybe one meal per week. Other than that, we stick with reasonably priced food that only eats up (see what I did there?) about 10-15% of our vacation budget. 

PRO Tip: While dietary restrictions can make things tricky (I have traveled while being dairy-free, gluten-free, and sugar-free...all at once), you can end up saving a lot of money by providing a lot of your own food. 

Establish a daily amount you are willing to spend per meal (breakfast, lunch, dinner). Let this guide your decisions about where to eat each day. 

We budget for dinner as our most expensive meal of the day. Lunch is around half as much. And we try to pay nothing or as little as possible for breakfast. 

Strategies to Reduce Cost

Since this is our lowest budget category, we cut corners wherever we can. Meals add up, so prepare to be amazed at how much you can save on a budget for a vacation with these easy tips. 

  • SHARE SHARE SHARE! Split entrees between adults. Split entrees between kids. Split entrees between parents and kids. Don’t pay for entrees for everyone and end up with expensive leftover food.

  • Avoid restaurants in touristy areas. These restaurants will always have higher prices than local spots. Plus...local “hole in the wall” restaurants are often 10x more delicious.

  • Buy groceries and cook your own food. Opt for accommodations that include a kitchen where you can cook your own food. Even if you don’t do all meals, it’s easy to do breakfasts and cut out a huge cost right there.

  • Pack your own snacks. Don’t let every delicious snack cart drain your budget dry. Try only eating your packed snacks and see how much you save.

PRO Tip: If you are staying at a hotel where breakfast is included, grab a bagel or piece of fruit to munch on later in the day as a snack. Hello, free food!


Total Budget for a Vacation

Hawaii vacation destination

I know what you’re thinking… "didn’t she say they had 5 categories?” Yes, I did. While those first four are how we divide up expenses as we budget for a vacation, we keep the overall cost in mind at all times. 

What is our overall, total cost, all-in number? For us, this number has the lowest priority. The actual number itself is far less important than what we are getting for that number. 

While we could budget for a vacation that only costs $500, it probably wouldn’t be a trip that we would enjoy. So to us, it’s not about making our vacation budget as small as possible. It’s about getting the most for our money. We decide what we are willing to pay for and try to get those costs as low as we can. 

As you prepare to set your budget for a vacation, consider your priorities, how flexible you are, and where you are willing to invest. Making family memories is priceless...but don’t lose sight of what your bank account can handle. Find the balance. 

If you develop a budget that allows for awesome experiences as a family and creates incredible travel memories together, we think it’s going to be Worth Every Trip! 

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