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Travel Deals: Get the Biggest Bang for Your Buck When Planning Your Vacation

By (view all posts by LorenB)
at 10:58AM Sunday December 19, 2010
under Shop Smarter

As I've said before, I think it is a crime to not see as much of this world as possible. I've taken many great trips and I'm fond of not wasting money…so I want to share a few tips on planning great trips without breaking your bank account.
  1. Get excited about planning the best trip of your life.

    This may sound goofy, but if you're not excited about doing the planning and doing the research you won't enjoy it and you probably will get frustrated and impatient and cut corners. But if you are looking forward to planning a great trip, you will be more in the mindset you need to find the perfect destination and the truly epic deal. It all starts with the planning. If you do your research and you know what you're getting into you minimize the risk of unwanted surprises and you maximize your chances of getting what you want.

  2. Specifically Define What is Important and What is Not Important to You

    Before you start your vacation planning, think about what you want. Write it down and be specific. Are you looking for a relaxing vacation on the beach where you don't have to do anything except yell "Waiter." Or are you looking for an endurance challenge or an epic adventure? Are you looking for exposure to other cultures and belief systems or are you wanting something more comfortable and familiar? Try and avoid specifics like "I want to go to Hawaii" as that will limit you. If you really think about it maybe what you wanted was a beautiful beach with soft sand, warm water and relaxing atmosphere. There are lots of places you could go to get that, not just Hawaii.

  3. Be Flexible

    The more flexible you are on timing, location, type of vacation, time of year, etc., the more options you will have to find great deals and experiences. If your mindset is "I want to run with the bulls in Spain, I want to stay at the nicest hotel there and I only want to eat at 5-star restaurants…," then you are not going to give yourself much of a chance for deals. That's fine if you can afford it or if this is your "once in a lifetime" trip. But if you're on a budget or you want to be able to afford to travel a lot, you need to be more flexible. There are so many wonderful places to see so there is no shortage of options.

  4. Make a Long List of Options

    Next, list out all the places you may want to go. For example, if your ideal vacation is "warm, relaxing beach, with warm, clear water where I can be totally relaxed with my spouse and just watch the time go by with great food, minimal crowds and a low-key environment," then your list may look like:

    • Hawaii
    • Thailand
    • Destin, Florida
    • Bahamas
    • Virgin Islands
    • Costa Rica
    • Mexico
    • Nicaragua
    • Spain

    Don't limit yourself at this point. You may think you couldn't afford a trip to a far off destination like Thailand, but you may be surprised at what kind of deals you can find.

  5. Do Your Research

    Research can come from anywhere. Talk to family and friends and tell them what you're looking for in this vacation. Get online and ask questions on communities such as our Ask, Answer & Save. Visit Trip Advisor and see what other people are saying about places you may want to go. Go to Google and type in things like "best beach vacations" or "best warm water beaches" or whatever you are most interested in. Go to sites like Travel Zoo, Expedia, Orbitz and Savings.com and look at what kind of travel deals they are running. You may see a cheap airline ticket for one of the places on your list. Or, you may see something you hadn't thought of before. Maybe there is a deal for cheap airline ticket and a great beach hotel in Belize.

    See what is available through mileage and points programs. If you fly a lot or if you spend a lot on a points credit card you can earn enough points for free flights and hotels. Some credit cards give you enough points up front for a free ticket and a companion ticket (but make sure you can afford annual fees and that you will be responsible with another credit card). Hunt for the deals.

    Once you have a few strong candidates, do detailed research on those specific places. Let's say you've narrowed it down to Hawaii, Destin Florida or Thailand. Check out specifics on those places. I'm a big fan of the Lonely Planet books / websites but there are many others. I'm also a big fan of community sites like Savings.com or Trip Advisor. See what real people are saying about their trips to these places. What did they think were good deals? What did they like doing the most?

  6. Be Conscious of Seasonality

    Some great places to visit are only great places to visit at certain times. Hawaii can be wonderful, but you may want to avoid Hurricane season. Destin Florida can be a wonderful and relaxing vacation as long as you don't go during spring break. You should be able to figure out the best times to travel to any spot during your research.

    One note though, you can find great deals on off season travel so don't be too scared of initial warnings of "off season." Traveling off season has real advantages including lower costs, less crowds and the ability to meet the locals. Oftentimes the locals go away during peak season to avoid the crowds.

    For example, my wife and I went to Nicaragua to visit a friend. In our research people warned to avoid the rainy season. The peak travel season was during the dry season. However, when I talked to my friend who had lived there for six years he said the rainy season was his favorite time of year. It usually doesn't rain that much (hour or so a day) and the foliage is so lush, green and fresh. We took his advice, got great deals and had a wonderful vacation (with very little rain).

  7. Determine Your Budget and Estimate What Things will Cost

    Figure out how much you can afford to spend. Then, start pulling together estimates of what each trip will cost you. You need to add in everything including:

    • Airfare (including taxes and fees)
    • Hotels (including taxes and fees)
    • Food
    • Travel while at your destination (hotel transfers, rental cars, travel between all the spots you may visit)
    • Entertainment / excursions
    • Baby sitters / dog sitters / house sitters or anything that needs to be taken care of at home while you're gone
    • Parking at airport (better to have someone drop you off..)

    Depending on your budget, your "perfect" vacation may just be a two hour drive away and it may involve camping in tents. If you are flexible and open-minded you can have a wonderful vacation on any budget. If you do your research, you may be surprised what you will find is within your budget when you look at all the costs. For example, the flight to Thailand may be much more than the flight to Hawaii, but the hotels, meals and entertainment expenses in Thailand are much cheaper so overall Thailand could be the cheaper option. I spent three weeks in Thailand and we lived liked kings on $50/day per person for hotel, food, massages on the beach, snorkeling, boat tours, etc.

  8. Only Do Long Distance Travel if You're Staying Long Enough to Make it Worthwhile

    If you live in Chicago and you only have a week you may not want to go to Thailand. You'll eat up at least 3 - four days on travel and time zone adjustment so you probably need a minimum of two weeks vacation time. For a shorter vacation from Chicago, Destin Florida may be the best bet (similar time zone, shorter flight). Or maybe you take a longer flight but try to stay in similar time zones so you don't have to adjust (maybe the Virgin Islands). However, if you have 2 - 3 weeks… the world is open to you and it may be worthwhile to travel greater distances.

  9. Get to know the Places you Visit

    Before your trip, do your research to understand where you are visiting. What are their cultural norms? What makes this place unique? How do the people there feel about life? Before we went to Thailand I read that the greatest insult is to be called "Moi Sanuk" which means "without fun." The first restaurant I went to I say all the waiters cutting up, laughing and having fun. I saw this pretty much everywhere I went in Thailand and it was one of my favorite things about the trip. It was great to see it in action but I may have overlooked it if I didn't know about it beforehand.

    I also learned that it is extremely insulting to point the soles of your feet at anyone. When I got there, I met some wonderful locals and I noticed when they crossed their legs they tucked the soles of their feet under their thighs. Good to know beforehand if you want to get to know the locals.

    Also, if you can learn a phrase or two in their language or some basic pleasantries (hello, thank you, good bye) it will go a long way in showing you respect their culture and them. I love being an American and I am proud of my country, but in my travels I've learned that many countries think we are overly proud and that we don't care to learn anything about other countries and other cultures. By doing a little research and showing some respect for and interest in their cultures you will open many doors and experiences. I have had many locals invite me into their homes or take it upon themselves to host me in their countries and these experiences rank amongst my favorite and most memorable.

    Also, you need to be aware of any safety and health concerns. The USA is one of the more dangerous places in the world in terms of violent crime so most countries are safer than you think. However, it is important to know the specifics of where to go, what to do and what not to do. For example, in Thailand Malaria is a risk so you need to wear mosquito repellent with DEET at all times. This is easy to do and there is very little risk when you do, but this is good to know beforehand. A good resource for health and safety information is www.travel.state.gov but Lonely Planet and other travel books are also good to read.

  10. While on Your Trip, Be Open-Minded and Easy-Going

    You spent a lot of time and money on this trip. Don't sweat the little things, and in the grand scheme of things most things are little things. Also, just because something is different doesn't mean it is bad. I had a friend that went to Paris with her boyfriend and they both hated it. They complained that the people were rude, the food was bad, it was crowded and it was dirty. How can you not love Paris when you are there with your lover? It is the most romantic city in the world. If you can look past the rude waiter and the cultural differences and if you do your research on great restaurants you'll have a tremendous time.

    Also, some of my worst travel experiences have become my best stories. My wife and I still laugh about the time we ran out of gas in Mexico. The ridiculously chaotic baggage claim in Italy was priceless in terms of laughs and stories. So when you're having a bad experience while traveling, and if you're taking any risks at all you will have bad experiences, laugh and enjoy the moment. It is all part of the adventure and if you look at things that way you can't have a bad experience.