How to make travel an affordable part of your life

April 2, 2012, 2:09 PM · Want to get the most out of your family vacation this year? The decisions you make during those other 51 weeks of the year will go a long way toward influencing what kind of vacation you can enjoy during that 52nd week.

So if you want to travel, and travel well, during your vacations, you should think about the decisions you make during the rest of the year. Make the right choices, and you make travel more attainable and affordable.

At the Magic Kingdom

Here are a few of my tips:

Buy a car with best gas mileage you can afford

Bad gas mileage not only costs you money throughout the year, it kills your desire to get in the car and travel, even when you do have the chance. Roadtrips can be the easiest way to travel - just hop in the car and go. No need to worry about flight schedules, TSA searches, or whether you can get a seat. Your only expenses are gas and time.

A high-mileage car can help you save big money on the gas. We have a Prius, and gas prices are never a concern for us when we think about taking a trip. By getting 45 miles per gallon, we can easily cut corners elsewhere if gas prices go up so much that they squeeze our budget.

Prius

Then do the scheduled maintenance on your car

Trust me, you'll save money in the long run. You have two options: Pay the maintenance bill now, or pay a significantly larger repair bill later. There is no third option. You especially do not want to be paying that big repair bill to a shop you don't know in strange town on the road. Get an oil change (and whatever service you'll need in the next month or two) before you hit the road. Few things kill vacation plans like unexpected repair bills. Avoid them by keeping your car in shape. Save money elsewhere if you need to cut corners.

Learn to live lightly

It's a lot easier to live with a high-mileage car if each person in your family can learn to live out of a small backpack or duffel when you're on the road. Learning how to pack lightly is an essential skill for air travel, too, as it saves you on ridiculous bag-check fees. Pack lightly enough, and you won't even have to worry about getting scarce overhead bin space, either.

Last year, I took a week-long trip to Asia packing nothing more than this backpack.

Backpack

I took clothes for two climates, toiletries, my SLR camera, and MacBook Air and fit it all under the seat in front of me. Pick one pair of shoes (which you'll wear), then select thin but warm clothes that you can mix, match and layer as needed during your trip. If you buy this type of clothes throughout the year, you won't need to buy a special travel wardrobe for your vacation, and you'll be in the habit of dressing for travel already.

Get a miles/reward credit card and use it for everything you can… provided you pay it off in full. Every month

Travel rewards programs can help you save big money on vacation, but the Catch-22 always has been that you have to travel frequently in order to get those rewards.

The solution is to get and use a credit card that pays you points or miles every time you use it, from the grocery to the mall. Which one to pick? That's up to you. I'd start by looking into the card from the airline that has the most flights where you want to go from the airport nearest you. But don't forget to consider annual fees when deciding which card offers you the best deal.

And whatever you do, do not fail to pay off your card each month. Interest charges will cancel out whatever savings you get from those rewards. Avoid them by paying your bill in full each month.

Make choices to save cash

Do you really need cable TV? A landline telephone? Newspaper? Magazines? If you can make due without these extras, cancel them and set aside the money you save for your next vacation.

If you do really need these services, when was the last time you called and threatened to cancel? If it's been 12 months since you've started your service or since you called you get a better deal, make a note today to make that call. Many TV, phone companies and publishers will give their long-time customers a discount "introductory" rate to keep you from walking away. Why pay money you don't need to be paying? Call and get a better deal.

Now, what else can you cut back on to save money for your dream destination? Tickets to sports events? Going out to the movies? "Retail therapy"? Try it and see if it sticks. If it doesn't, no sweat. You gave it a go. But if it does? Well, you've just saved some money for your next trip!

Learn to split meals when dining out

Many restaurants serve you way more calories than you need in a single meal. Start splitting your meals when you dine out, both to save money and save calories. That'll get you in the habit of splitting meals when you're on the road, when you're watching expenses and taking home leftovers isn't an option.

Use social media to renew or develop your long-distance relationships

Having friends around the country and around the world inspires you to hit the road to go see them. Having access to a local's insight also helps you get the most from a vacation, by helping you find the best places to eat and visit. Not only that, but having allies to help you plan your vacation makes trip-planning more enjoyable and efficient. So get active on sites such as ThemeParkInsider.com and start building the connections that can help you make travel a regular part of your life.

Additional tips and advice, as always, are welcome in the comments.

Replies (16)

April 2, 2012 at 2:15 PM · It is articles like this that make this site more than a place to gossip and complain, but a legit travel site.
April 2, 2012 at 2:21 PM · Robert, you always find a way to show off your lovely family in your articles! Great article and I agree with Adam.
April 2, 2012 at 4:44 PM · I'm glad I'm not the only one who noticed Robert has a great looking family. Thanks for the travel tips. Your site is a daily visit for me.

- Brian

April 2, 2012 at 5:01 PM · Robert,
Do you use the space bags when you travel with just a backpack? That to me seems like the only logical way to pack clothing for a week long trip, or do you use the laundry service?
April 2, 2012 at 7:40 PM · Huh? This advice suggests any money you save get dumped into a vacation. Actually, live below your means and don't use all your savings. Save your bucks for your children's education for example.

Your advice is useful if you take it to your vacation like spliting meals. Visiting friends is nice, but if they are not in the tourist site, why are you making an out of your way trip to see them? Vacations are short. Sometimes you don't have time for them. I have a friend on Oahu. I never had a chance to see them when I was there a year ago. They do work and your plans might clash with their daily lives.

You do need some basic leisure activities at home. To me, basic cable is necessary. Actually I save money by seeing movies at home and not visiting the theater. Consider trading one activity for a cheaper alternative.

Travel programs are useful if you know how to take advantage, but I couldn't make it work. I don't travel enough to take advantage of frequently flier miles or hotel rewards. Sometimes, it is cheaper to get the lowest prices that don't have such programs.

Good gas mileage is great, but also consider convenience. I have a SUV because I need the space for taking my family around. Using a suitable car for a local vacation is cheaper than renting a car. On the other hand, while traveling, don't skimp on taking collision damage waiver. You might spend more, but you'll have no headaches if you have an accident far away. Just walk away.

I have vacations every year, but I do a big vacation every other year. Perhaps this approach might work best for others as well. In another year, I will visit Hawaii again. This year, I will drive to Vegas.

April 2, 2012 at 8:54 PM · Rob,

Your comment reminds me that I've been meaning to do a video on packing. I'll put that on the to-do list. (No, I don't use vacuum bags.)

April 2, 2012 at 11:19 PM · Good tips. Financially speaking, I plan, scrimp and save all year long because I know that, if I don't, I can never afford theme park vacations. For many (most?) people, living below your means is the only way you can afford to go on vacation. So if a trip is a priority for you, make it happen by saving, not by loading up a credit card you can't afford to pay off.
April 3, 2012 at 7:20 AM · Another thing I do to help with gas is all year I put my extra change into a piggy bank. It really adds up in a year and a few cents here and there doesn't hurt. Sometimes I have two piggy banks going, one for gas, one for park tickets. Last year I saved over a hundred dollars for gas and about hundred and fifty for park tickets. The second we get home I start re-saving our change. Every little bit helps.

I also use a Visa that gives us 1 point per dollar. I just traded my yearly points in for a $100 gas card. I also us the MyPoints website and just traded those points earned all year in for a $50 gas card. So I already have $150 for gas for this years vacation. And Yes I pay my card off every month. I haven't paid a penny in interest. And MyPoints just takes a little time and effort.

April 3, 2012 at 7:23 AM · Nice write up Robert.. But how many times are you going to push that damn Toyota Prius on us…. How many shares of stock in Toyota do you have? hahhaha Just kidding..

I recently signed up for the Southwest rewards card. They gave me 50,000 points for signing up.. They were offering 25,000 points but I insisted I would not sign up unless I received 50,000 points because I have seen that offer in the past… They caved and gave me the 50,000 points..

On average 25,000 points gets you a free flight on Southwest.. And I do not directly hold any stock in this airline…

April 3, 2012 at 7:42 AM · Ahhh, how times have changed. When I was growing up, vacation was TWO weeks a year. We never thought of flying - that was only for rich people or business execs. *sigh*

And nobody got excited about trains except me. So we didn't take any, except on a few occasions at the Detroit Zoo. Cars all the way, on little two lane roads - or three lane *shudder*. Although once we did take a bus from San Diego to Detroit, coming back in a driveaway.

April 3, 2012 at 9:24 AM · I would also submit that if you are used to flying, traveling by car on its own saves you hundreds of dollars. My partner and I drive to Orlando twice a year. We have a non stop flight available in Richmond for under $100 each way before taxes. Even on just the tickets alone we would spend almost $400 dollars roundtrip. Once you add taxes and fees, baggage fees, parking at the airport, and renting a car in Orlando you are climding well over $600 dollars. We are able to drive for around $200 in gas.

I know often people will look to the speed of air travel as a reason to use it, but if you add up the time spent traveling to the airport, checking in, going through security, claiming your bags, and picking up a rental car it really doesn't come out to be an incredibly fast way to travel. I know many people take one day just for the travel.

The rule of thumb I use is if I'm going to a major tourist area(with a major airport), if I can make it in no more than 15 hours it's generally much cheaper to drive. If I'm going somewhere less metropolitan that woudl require more lay overs and obscure (costly) flights it is generally cheaper to drive if its within 24 driving hours (even with a hotel stay.

April 3, 2012 at 9:46 AM · "if I can make it in no more than 15 hours"

That's too long. My cutoff is 8 hours, which is one full day of driving. 15 hours is 2 full days of driving. This takes 4 days out of your vacation, which is more than half of a typical 7 day vacation. An overnight stay on the road is another $50 to &75 a night. And don't forget the food unless you bring your own for the first day.

15 hours is 900 miles (60 mph x 15 hours). That's like a trip from Portland Oregon to Anaheim CA. It is more doable for a trip from San Francisco to Anaheim (400 miles).

I would add that there are exceptions to be made. For a trip to a national park, driving is the best option since you have to be in your car to see the sites. I might drive 2 days to visit the Grand Canyon in Arizona with a detour to Las Vegas.

April 3, 2012 at 10:45 AM · We always drive to Orlando from Pennsylvania and do it in a day. And we enjoy the scenery on the drive, especially the Appalachian mountain range. We take long vacations so we use a lot of baggage. Airports are a pain & customer unfriendly since 911 with all the delays & non sensical intrusive security, not counting the now endemic delayed and cancelled flights, I can be far along on my destination by the time I get to and out of the airport. Plus I have the peace of mind that my trip won't be ruined due to cancellatons and flight delays. And it is much more economical since you don't have to rent a car, buy airline tickets and pay those new outrageous baggage fees. I'd rather upgrade to a better hotel than give my money to the airlines. And I have the freedom to do it all on my time schedule.
April 3, 2012 at 10:43 AM · As an aside...Orlando Informer is reporting that Universal has announced that the new night lagoon show & day time parade will debut on May 8th....Great news. That's the day we are arriving at Universal Portofino.
April 3, 2012 at 5:10 PM · I was gonna say, we drive from The western part at Virginia and it takes us just shy of 13 hours with stops and we always make it in a day.

And besides, if I didn't drive I'd never get the chance to grab some fireworks at South of the Border...lol

April 5, 2012 at 7:24 AM · What kind of backpack do you have pictured? It looks sturdy and comfortable.

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