What’s stopping you from taking a vacation? Time? Work? Family obligations? Maybe money?
Although the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics called paid leave “the most prevalent employee benefit” with 92 percent of full-time workers receiving access to paid vacation time, a recent study found 52 percent of Americans end their work year with unused time off. 1,2
Personal finance could have something to do with it. More than half of people who don’t go on vacation simply can’t afford one, according to a Bankrate survey.3 What could be worse than returning home from your vacation, newly bronzed and sufficiently rejuvenated, to financial troubles because you and your family overspent?
Let’s break down America’s favorite ways to unwind and see what a little financial planning can do to keep costs low and vacation time rolling.
When people try to cram a vacation’s worth of fun into a 48- or 72-hour window, even a brief escape can easily turn into a no-holds-barred spending spree. Before ducking out of town, create an itinerary that doubles as a budget. (Related: How to make a budget)
Divide each full day into three sections: morning, afternoon, and nighttime. Then, as you plan, cross off at least one of these sections for each day. That way, you’re not only investing in activities, but also in downtime. You can’t spend if you’re too busy napping on the beach.
Long-distance road trips
By taking your adventure on the open road, you’ve already made a pretty cost-effective choice. Depending on how many miles you log, driving can be far cheaper than paying for a family of four to fly. Keep in mind, however, that what you save in airfare you may lose in hotel costs. To keep expenses under control, consider a destination that you can drive to in a single day. Or, arrange to pit-stop at a friend or family members' house en route to your destination. Depending on the length of your road trip, renting an RV may actually be the best way to cover two vacation expenditures in one investment.
Air travel might be a modern marvel, but even domestic flights may seem too expensive for the cost-conscious consumer to consider when vacationing.
If you do choose to fly, make sure you get the best deal by planning your vacation at a time when airfare is cheapest. Travel to tourist hotspots during the shoulder season (the spring or fall) can result in significantly lower airfare and hotel prices, as well as fewer crowds. Similarly, the price of flights to most Caribbean islands during hurricane season -- the late summer and early fall -- are often slashed. And, trips to Europe can be had for far less during the colder months, for those who don't mind sporting a few extra layers.
You can also try bundling flights and hotels through a third-party app or service if the two would be more expensive separately.
Here’s another tip: Pick a hotel with continental breakfasts. That way, at least one meal every day is on the house.
Travel isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. For those people, “staycations” — or taking time off to relax at home — offer an even greater respite, one without TSA checkpoints, overpriced amenities, and droves of other vacationers crowding your good time.
By far, staycations will forever be the wisest financial decision, but almost by necessity, they will also be the blandest. Spice things up by making yours a staycation to remember. Treat your hometown like an exotic destination and spend conservatively on a night of fine dining or theatre tickets, preferably to places and experiences you’ve never taken part in before.
Don’t let your bank account get between you and your family’s well-deserved vacation time. Let financial planning be the tiny paper umbrella in your poolside cocktail.
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This article was first published in September, 2016. It has been updated.
1 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Who receives paid vacations?,” August 3, 2020.
2 U.S. Travel Association, “Project Time-Off,” 2017.
3 Bankrate, Half of Americans are taking vacation,” May 23, 2018.