With inflation high and gas prices on the rise once again, you may be wondering exactly how you’re going to afford your next vacation. But if you’re like me, then you’re probably also thinking about how you want to escape somewhere sunny during the cold winter months.
What’s the best way to plan a winter vacation on a dime? Is it even possible?
The cheapest option is always going to be staying home, but let’s be honest – long-term, that might be the most expensive option for your mental health. If you quit your job in a rage because you refuse to take a vacation that you desperately need, that’s probably going to put you in a much more financially stressful situation.
That doesn’t mean you have to charge it all to a credit card, cross your fingers, and hope for the best. Instead, follow these tips for planning an affordable winter vacation.
Count All Your Rewards
It’s easy to sign up for loyalty programs and then forget about them. While you might keep a close eye on your credit card rewards (I know I do), it’s easier to forget about your hotel rewards and airline rewards points if you don’t travel that often.
To plan an affordable winter vacation, you need to sit down and take a look at all of your rewards. Dig through your inbox for point statements from airlines, Amtrak, hotel chains, and your credit card company.
Tally up all your rewards. If you have enough to score a free night at a hotel, then that could make the decision for you: this time, you can only vacation somewhere where you’ll be able to use that free night.
But just because you have the reward points that doesn’t always mean using them is the best deal. Compare what you can get with your rewards in one location to what you’d spend if you paid cash somewhere more affordable. In some locations, those rewards might not actually save you enough, and it could be more affordable to just pay cash.
Read More: Will an Airline Credit Card Actually Save You Money?
Set Your Budget
Speaking of cash, it’s time to set your budget. In an ideal world, you will already have some savings set aside for your next vacation. If not, then it’s time to start saving now. Even putting aside $10 a month is better than nothing. It’s possible that the $10 a month combined with your tax return or a bonus at work will net a significant amount. That means if you can’t take a winter vacation this year, you’ll be able to swing one next winter.
But if you need to take a winter vacation in the next couple of months, it’s time to get serious about saving. Look at your spending, cut back where you can, and put those savings in a safe place to serve as your travel fund.
Then, find out how much time you can take off from work. If you have a week’s worth of paid vacation time waiting for you, you may be able to spend six nights out of town – but can you afford six nights at a hotel, with or without rewards?
Setting your budget early on is so important. It determines where you go, how you get there, and how much time you can spend out of town.
So, where can you go that’s affordable?
Think Outside the Box for Destinations
I know people who study the map to find the closest beach to their home city and then drive or fly there every year. After all, it’s the closest beach to home, so it must be the cheapest vacation, right?
Not necessarily. While there’s something to be said for proximity, keep in mind that just because it takes less time to drive there, it doesn’t mean that the prices once you’ve arrived will be low.
Think outside the box instead. Is there a beach that’s a couple more hours away, but the hotel rooms cost half the price? Choosing an affordable destination is key.
Affordable sometimes means you’ve never heard of the destination before. You don’t have to vacation somewhere with a big name, and you can always stay near the main attraction and visit it one day of your vacation.
For example, do you have to stay in Miami? According to Money.com, “Already pricey Miami is in peak season around December and January, so do yourself a favor and flee the Ocean Drive hotspots of South Beach for the Florida Keys just south of the city.” Check out their list of 10 affordable beach getaways for curing the winter blues.
Key West is one great option, or you could stay in nearby Pompano Beach instead. The savings might mean you can stay an extra night! On the west coast, do you need to go to Santa Monica, or could you stay in the more affordable Hermosa Beach instead?
If your heart’s not set on Florida or California, check out South Padre Island, Texas, and Gulf Shores, Alabama. The drive may be shorter and the prices may be cheaper than what you find in Florida and California, and you’ll still be able to relax on the beach!
But remember, you don’t have to go to the beach at all to catch some sun in the winter months. If the beach isn’t a must for you, think about exploring a city in the south instead.
- New Orleans
- San Antonio
- Santa Fe
Each of these cities in the south is a fantastic destination. And the price might be right for your budget. But that’ll depend on how you get there, so you’ve got a big choice to make…
Decide If You’ll Fly or Drive
Flying is expensive, but if you’re short on time, flying will allow you to maximize your time actually spent relaxing. However, if you can save up your vacation days and drive instead, you’ll probably save big. You won’t have to pay for an expensive airline ticket or for a rental vehicle. You’ll have the flexibility of leaving when you want, too. Flying is stressful and expensive, but the convenience might be worth it.
Choose your top three destinations. Then, research how much it would cost to either fly or drive to each.
Start Shopping Early
If you’re going to fly, you need to buy those plane tickets sooner rather than later. The same is true for your accommodations. Whether you choose an Airbnb, a hotel room, or another type of lodging, planning ahead will save you money.
December and January are extremely popular months for travel, so if you can plan your winter vacation for November or February instead, you’re probably going to find better prices on both flights and accommodations.
For those who can’t start shopping early, think about HotelTonight. This website and app provides great last-minute deals on hotel rooms – but you have to be flexible and willing to wait until the last minute to make this work.
Think About Camping
Keep in mind that camping is a great option to keep your next vacation affordable. And you can even camp right on the beach! According to Reader’s Digest, “Beach camping can take your outdoor adventure up a notch—as you watch a sunset or sunrise over the water, fall asleep to the sound of waves, and have splashy good times during the day.” Check out their list of the 25 best spots where you can camp on the beach.
Agree on a Daily Budget
Whether you’re planning on traveling solo, vacationing with your partner, or going with a group, you’ll need to agree on a daily budget. It’s tempting to go wild with spending – you’re on vacation, after all!
But if you’re thinking about putting a bunch of charges on a credit card that you’re not sure you’ll be able to pay off, you could end up in serious financial trouble. More importantly, paying off that credit card interest is going to set you back from saving for your next vacation.
Instead, set a daily budget ahead of time – and stick to it. Remember, your budget should support your priorities. If you like going out to eat for every meal while you’re on vacation, then you should set aside most of your budget for meals. But if you’d rather spend your money on experiences like parasailing or surfing, find out how much that will cost and then determine how many meals you can afford to eat out.
Don’t forget to budget for gas, too, especially if you plan on taking any day trips or driving a lot while you’re at your destination!
Plan for Emergencies
It’s also important to set aside some money for unexpected expenses and emergencies. You might blow a tire on the drive down to the beach, or you may find out that the hotel charges extra if you bring a pet. In the worst-case scenario, you may injure yourself while you’re on vacation, and then you’re looking at urgent care fees. Build in an extra cushion for the unexpected.
Read More: How to Rebuild Your Budget After a Pricey Vacation