In 2009, it was all about the "staycation" -- foregoing expensive travel and enjoying vacation time at home. Just a year later, travelers are back in the game, willing to spend some cash to get the heck outta town. Economic situations seem to be better.
Few of us, however, are rolling in it. For most of the regular people out there, all-out, splurging vacations are still beyond reach. Going away means making some choices. But it doesn't have to mean giving up all good things. It's simply a matter of knowing what's worth the money.
Here, 10 ways to get the most out of your vacation budget without missing out on the good stuff.
Up first, an indication of the changing times: Save by going it alone.
Save: Travel Agent
What once was a struggle is now as easy as some online research and giving your credit card number to a secure server: Unless you're going to an exotic locale, there's little reason to splurge on travel agent fees.
Some travel agents, of course, don't charge a service fee, although even without that expense, you may be able to get a better price online, since you'll have access to special rates. So if you're staying in the country or going to a popular international destination where lots of people will speak your language, get online and search yourself.
You can use travel Web sites like Travelocity or Orbitz; check out discount-compilation Web sites like Travel Zoo, which searches the Web for travel deals and collects them in one place; or go directly through a travel company that offers discounted trips. (It's especially easy to find cruise and ski-vacation discounts that way.)
Up next: Splurge on speed.
Splurge: Non-stop Flights
It's tempting to spend as little as possible on airfare: Even the lowest fare available is often a relative fortune. But if you have some leeway in your budget, airfare is worth the splurge.
That doesn't mean cashing out your IRA to fly first class. It mostly means going for the slightly more expensive, nonstop route. It saves both time and stress, the former of which is in short supply and the latter of which has no place on a vacation.
If you've got a super-long flight, some extra legroom in the form of an upgrade can make a big difference, too, in terms of comfort. It's probably not worth the splurge if you'll only be flying for a couple of hours, though.
Up next: Save on "what ifs."
Save: Domestic Trip Insurance
It's big business these days, trip insurance. With nonrefundable airfare, tours, cruises and other travel expenses, it can, at times, be worth the extra dough to prepare for the unexpected. In case your vacation gets cancelled, you'll get most of your money back.
But trip insurance isn't cheap -- peace of mind can run anywhere from 4 percent to 8 percent of your total trip cost. If your trip is domestic, moderately priced, the only nonrefundable component is airfare, and you can't foresee anything likely to get in the way, trip insurance is probably not worth the spend.
Up next: When the "what if" splurge is worth it…
Splurge: International Trip Insurance
As countless travelers learned when an Iceland volcano erupted in 2010, sometimes you can't foresee the event that will disrupt your trip. Many thousands, perhaps millions, of people ended up stuck on their vacations (or business trips) when air travel was completely crippled by volcanic ash for weeks.
And when you're stranded in a foreign country for weeks, with only hotels, restaurants and paid transport to rely on, being stuck on your vacation can cripple the bank account.
In the case of international travel, which is typically expensive and leaves the door open to some additional uncertainties, trip insurance can be a good splurge. It also can be worth it when having to cancel is somewhat likely, or when every expensive thing you've booked is nonrefundable.
Up next: Save your money for the good eats…
Save: Tourist Food
You know all those vendors around tourist attractions selling not-so-great-tasting, not-so-great-for-you food? Big waste of money. They sell the same (or lower-grade) stuff you'll find farther from the sites but sold at a mark-up.
You're paying more for convenience, but it can ultimately be a lot more convenient (and yummier and healthier) to bring along your own, normally priced food, since that way you won't be limited to what's available in the immediate vicinity of an attraction. Carry some favorite, nonperishable snacks from home, or go shopping at a local market at your destination.
Also, get up a little early if your hotel offers a complimentary breakfast. No reason to pass up a free meal.
That leaves you open for a different kind of food splurge. Up next: When to eat your cash…
Splurge: Local Food
Don't bother with overpriced Paris hot dogs geared toward American tourists; do definitely bother with the fine French café your friend recommended if you ever made it to the City of Lights.
Great, authentic local food, especially if you're going abroad, without kids, can be one of the best splurges of your trip. It can be critical to experiencing the culture of the place, and fine dining in an exotic locale is seldom a waste of money.
If fine dining isn't your thing, go for lower priced, authentic local fare. It's a shame to leave without eating what the locals love, if only once.
Up next: Save on what you take back…
Save: High-end Souvenirs
It can be so tempting to return with some fabulous souvenir to remind you of your incredible time away from home, especially since most of us experience "travel brain" and buy everything that catches our eyes when we're on vacation.
Resist the urge to spend a fortune on souvenirs that won't serve any purpose aside from memory triggering. In most cases, the high-end rug from Italy is going to seem a lot less fabulous when it's sitting in the attic because you really didn't need another rug. (It was just so pretty!)
Another reason to avoid high-priced souvenirs: They're seldom worth their travel-brain-aimed price tags.
Up next: Splurge when you truly can't do it yourself…
Splurge: Specialized Group Tours
Some destinations have very unique, in-depth special attractions: ancient history, extraordinary architecture, hidden outdoor wonderlands. Except for the most seasoned, adventurous, research-loving traveler, specialized, thematic tours can be totally worth the money. In many cases, you simply won't have the full experience on your own.
If you're not into group things, you can always book a private guide. It'll usually cost more, but in addition to avoiding a crowd of fellow tourists, it can be personalized in a way a group tour can't.
The cost will depend a lot on the destination, the length of the tour and the mode of transport involved. Sometimes, they include meals, too. Again, you can probably find some special-pricing offers online.
If you're just going to see the sights and aren't looking for an in-depth experience, don't bother with the group tour. It's easy enough and much less expensive to get around to the more popular sites on your own.
Up next: Save on spending money to spend your money…
Save: Credit Card/ATM Fees
Vacations cost enough without tacking on 3, 4 or 10 percent to every payment you make. ATMs can charge a few bucks per transaction, and typically more (in the form of a percentage) for withdrawals overseas; credit cards can charge up to a 10 percent fee for every dollar you spend in a foreign country.
Not all ATMs charge fees, and not all credit cards tack on a percentage. But enough do to make it very smart to look into your bank and credit-card details. The fees can really add up.
If your credit card charges no fees for use abroad, that can be a good, safe way to pay. Travelers' checks are a great choice as well. Try to avoid carrying a lot of cash -- if you get robbed, you're up a creek.
Up next: Splurge on location.
Splurge: Central Location
What applies to residential real estate applies to hotel real estate: Location, location, location. You pay extra to be in the middle of things. All those amazing deals for hotels with main attractions "nearby" can be tantalizing; but in the end, it pays to splurge on a hotel in a central location.
Just ask people who've stayed in Vegas "near the Strip." Proximity can be very important.
In the end, you may not even be spending more, since cabs and rental cars can be expensive. The ability to walk everywhere (or almost everywhere) is a huge bonus. Your overall expenses may balance out.
What you'll definitely come out ahead on is precious, relaxing, fun, exciting, "I'm on vacation" hours. Staying in the middle of the action means zero travel time.
And if there's one thing worse than wasting vacation money, it's wasting vacation time.
For more on travel, money-saving tips, and family vacations, look over the links on the next page.
How can you plan a fun 'stay-cation'? Learn how to give yourself a much-needed break without breaking the bank by planning a fun 'stay-cation.'
More Great Links
- Adams, Marilyn. "Travel industry scrambles to cope as Americans spend less." USA Today. Feb. 22, 2009.http://www.usatoday.com/money/industries/travel/2009-02-22-americans-spending-travel_N.htm
- Grant, Kelli B. "Home Swamps: Stay Free on Your Next Vacation." Smart Money. June 3, 2009.http://www.smartmoney.com/spending/deals/stay-for-free-on-your-next-vacation/
- Larson, Heather. "Vacations With Grandkids: When to Save, When to Splurge." Grandparents.com.http://www.grandparents.com/gp/content/travel/travel-tips/article/vacations-with-grandkids-save-or-splurge.html
- Martin, Hugo. "Americans feeling better about spending on summer vacations." Los Angeles Times. May 18, 2010.http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-0518-vacation-survey-20100518,0,4807155.story
- McQueen, MP. "Is Travel Insurance Worth the Cost?" Wall Street Journal. April 24, 2010.http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704830404575200164221288080.html
- Romans, Mary Ann. "When to Splurge on Vacation." Families.com. June 8, 2009.http://frugal.families.com/blog/when-to-splurge-on-vacation