Saving Money for Travel: 6 Practical Tips We Follow

Before we continue with Road Trip 2013, I want to get serious for a moment about a touchy subject: money.

Growing up, my family didn’t have a ton of money. I had the best childhood, absolutely, but making ends meet was always a struggle. Free bus program, reduced lunch fare, and hand-me-downs were part of the norm; dinners out and interisland vacations to Honolulu were a huge treat. Like a lot of kids in the state, flying to the Mainland wasn’t something we could afford. My first trip to the Mainland didn’t happen until I graduated from high school–and only because we’d won a free family trip to Disneyland.

To be honest, our financial situation isn’t very different today, albeit for different reasons–tuition, mainly. To be clear: this is our own doing; we’ve chosen the school situation our children are in, and we’re equally aware that riding the tuition carousel is also a choice. And while we’re fortunate not to carry credit card debt, the monthly budget struggle? Very real.

Why do I mention this? Well, mostly because it’s true, I guess. And also because I don’t believe we’re the only family in this situation. Browsing through blogs and social media, it’s easy to assume others’ situations. I know I’m guilty of this. The thing is, online presences are filtered; they provide rosy glimpses into small facets of people’s lives. The same is often true of real life–I have friends who believe we have endless discretionary income given our summer trips.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Everything we do is done on a strict budget; we simply don’t have the means to afford travel on a whim. With little to no discretionary income, we make everyday frugal choices in order to be able to pay for travel out-of-pocket. Some might equate frugality with sacrifice, but frugal living is a lifestyle that affords us travel opportunities–opportunities which enrich us in ways that material items cannot. There are two general areas where we try to save–pre-travel and during-travel–and while most of these tips are common-sense, I hope that being honest here might be helpful to you, wherever you may be in your journey.

Make travel a priority

This isn’t a tip so much as a mindset. When you make travel a priority, you’re more inclined to make in-the-present sacrifices for delayed travel gratification. You learn to value experiences, not “stuff.” You’re also less likely to view sacrifices as deprivation; rather, they’re a way to fund those travel experiences you just can’t put a price tag on. Make travel non-negotiable, and you’re well on your way to finding the means and gumption to making it happen.

Make your credit card work for you

Financial advisors espouse a cash-only approach to purchases, but as a travel proponent, I’d argue just the opposite: get a credit card, and make it work for you. (The following is not sponsored in any way; it’s simply my humble opinion.) Alaska Airlines Visa Signature has been a game changer for us. For one, Alaska is a budget airline, making it the cheapest option (next to Allegiant) for travel to and from Honolulu and thus our airline choice, regardless. The fact that Alaska Visa Signature offers an annual $99 RT companion fare is icing on the cake. Spouses can apply for individual cards, meaning your family, like ours, could be eligible for two $99 round trip companion fares a year. That’s $200 for two round-trips to/from Hawaii! Alaska Visa Signature also offers a huge 30,000 miles bonus for spending $1,000 in 3 months. If you’re a family charging all of your expenses, this isn’t difficult to achieve. We charge everything–food, gas, utilities–and pay off the balance monthly with the end goal of annual travel. And 30,000 bonus miles may not sound like much, but for us, it translated to one free round trip from Hawaii to the Mainland this year, a $600 value. Factor in those two $99 companion fares, and you’re looking at paying only $200 for THREE round trips to/from Hawaii. Switching to Alaska Visa Signature has helped our family realize thousands of dollars in savings. Delta offers a similar program, and for those who travel internationally, Chase Sapphire Reserve also has an excellent rewards program. Another great perk of Alaska Visa Signature is free check-in baggage for 6 travelers. Though we’re all about limiting check-in bags, this perk alone easily translates to $100 savings for us annually.

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Breakfast at Old Faithful Inn, Yellowstone NP–a budgeted treat
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Dinner at Roosevelt Lodge, Yellowstone NP–budgeted treat

Plan a monthly and annual budget

For those of us in denial about spending, getting nitty gritty with expenditures can be harrowing. Still, you can’t know where you’re headed until you know where you’ve been. Track spending for several months; track spending across an entire year. Break your spending down across categories and calculate monthly and annual expenditures for individual categories. Spreadsheets work well, but pen and paper work just as well (I’m old school when it comes to stuff like this). For categories, think mortgage; groceries; sundries; gas; home, health, and car insurance, taxes, and registration; birthday gifts for friends/family; “fun” money for eating out or leisure activities; and tuition. Now evaluate these expenses against your monthly income. The goal is to ensure your income is greater than your expenditures–in other words: to live within your means. If you’re spending more than you’re making, it’s time to take a hard look at expenditures to determine what can be reined in. If you’ve already determined that travel is a priority, your choices become clearer. Depending on your lifestyle, it might also be important to allot extra for holiday food and gifts (we do this), retirement, college, rainy day fund, and other expenditures that are seasonal in nature, thus requiring less frequent (but necessary) contributions. Find categories you can scale back on (see next tip), and funnel any savings into your travel fund. Set monthly and annual expenditure goals, and–this is key!–stick to them.

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Cooking dinner at camp; Rocky Mountain NP
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Camping and cooking are affordable travel options for our family

Rein expenses in

Easier said than done, I know. But also? Very doable. We try to keep our grocery expenses under $500 a month. Hawaii’s cost of living is among the highest in the nation, and as a family of five with two teens, we cook and eat a LOT. Still, groceries are infinitely cheaper than eating out. At our kids’ school, school lunch runs $5 a kid. That’s $15 per day, $75 per week, or $300 per month in school lunch alone! Instead, we pack a mostly organic lunch daily for under $100 a month. We save $200 a month–a savings of $1,800 a year–and we’re also able to ensure the kids get a good dose of fiber, veggies, and fruit daily. We also rarely eat out–three times or less per month. For our family, eating out often means a tab of $50 or more for one meal–$50 that could feed us three meals a day for the better part of a week. That’s not to say that we deprive ourselves or don’t have fun. We just try to choose wisely. Dinner out can be as inexpensive as $10 for a gigantic Costco pizza; breakfast and lunch are cheaper dining-out options than dinner. We stock our freezer with items like Kirkland lasagna and Aidells chicken meatballs for nights when busy schedules or laziness tempt us to order out. While more expensive than cooking, they’re a cheaper option than takeout. To keep our budget livable, we roll over savings from month to month. For example, if our dining out expenses come in under $150 in January, we roll over any savings to February. In this way, we are able to occasionally afford more expensive “treat” dinners several times a year. (Korean yakiniku BBQ is the kids’ favorite!) Only in December do we transfer any rollover to our travel account. The goal is a livable budget–not torture!

Other ways we save? Limit Starbucks runs by brewing coffee at home for pennies per cup; watch Netflix and save yourself $15 per movie ticket. For the most part, we’ve stopped exchanging holiday gifts with friends and family. Instead, we plan holiday dates–beach days, evening drives to see holiday lights, and intimate dinners with those we love. These experiences have brought us more joy than material gifts. For what it’s worth, we also don’t spend on shoes, clothes, etc. beyond the bare essentials; we’re lucky to have cousins and friends who keep our hand-me-down supply well-equipped. If clothes and dining out are your thing, however, by all means, go for it! No judgment here. The point is to find target numbers and ways to scale back that work for your income and priorities.

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Holiday beach dates with family make a great alternative to gift exchanges
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Holiday appetizer party with family, local style
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Decorating cookies with friends and family is a fun and free alternative to gift exchanges
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Cookies and hot chocolate make for a memorable and inexpensive afternoon

Separate accounts for separate funds

As a family that used to keep savings and checking bundled together in one account, I know how impossible it can seem to realize any savings for travel. Any money we earmarked for travel always got absorbed by incidentals–tires blowing out, washing machine on the fritz, trips to the ER. You can’t predict the future, but you can and should plan on annual incidental expenses. Life happens–often inconveniently. Finances improved for us once we created separate accounts for separate expenses. In our new system, tuition, rainy day incidentals, and travel each get separate accounts. Once a month, we transfer a pre-budgeted amount from checking into our travel savings account. The act of funneling money into individual accounts is empowering, and separate funds means travel money doesn’t get inadvertently blown on towing or impulse purchases from REI (not that I’ve ever been guilty of this!) 😉 In creating your monthly/annual budget, decide how much you can/want to funnel toward travel. To determine this, ask yourself how much a prospective trip might cost. Research baseline prices for airfare, car rental, and lodging, and ask yourself: how important is luxury to you when you travel? For example, given the same dollar travel allowance of $3,000 per year, I would rather take a no-frills, bare bones trip annually than save for a luxury trip 3 years from now. Your family may feel differently, and that’s okay! The point is to be honest about your travel goals so you can stay within your means.

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Some years, vacations turn into staycations–Malaekahana Beach
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For $12 a night, you can’t beat fishing here at sunset
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Crabbing is our favorite night activity at Malaekahana
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$12 sunrise view from our tent, Malaekhana Beach

Planning affordable travel=recognizing your choices

An annual trip to Hawaii is something most would consider a splurge, and that’s exactly what we’re doing every time we embark on a Mainland road trip, flying to and from Hawaii. Since paying for airfare is non-negotiable for us, we minimize other travel expenses so we don’t incur debt. Aside from two or three dining-out experiences we budget for, we shop for groceries and cook 90% of our meals on vacation. We pack lunches on dayhikes and make Costco runs to keep our snack expenditures in-check. And while an SUV or minivan might be more comfortable than a compact car, they’re also more expensive–renting a minivan for a week costs the same as renting a compact car for a month. You might prefer a shorter trip in greater comfort, and that’s okay; recognizing the choice, though, is key. For example, we love amusement parks, but we also know it’d take us 3 years of no-travel to afford an amusement park trip out-of pocket. Similarly, we love nice hotels just as much as the next family, but for the price of a one night stay, we could also book two weeks worth of campgrounds. Neither option is inherently better than the other; the key is to see your choices for what they are instead of limiting yourself to some preconceived notion of travel. There are multiple options to suit different comfort levels for any given dollar amount. A 2-3 week trip can fit within your budget if you’re willing to forego creature comforts; a luxury trip can also fit within your budget if you’re willing to shorten your length of stay. Whatever you choose, finding ways to be able to pay for your dream trip out-of-pocket makes all the sacrifice worthwhile.

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22 thoughts on “Saving Money for Travel: 6 Practical Tips We Follow”

  1. Great tips. Generally, we almost have the same saving mantras. One of the ‘saving’ tips I have been working on lately is working with hotels for complimentary stays. For example, I have been to Hong Kong for 5 days and didn’t spend a cent on my accommodation with some meals included. So, if I may, travel blogging can be a great way to save (maybe even earn) money for your future travels.

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    1. Thank you, Sarah–fantastic tip! Complimentary hotel stays would definitely represent a huge savings, especially for international travel. I love that your travel blogging led to free accommodations and meals in Hong Kong. I never realized that these kinds of opportunities existed, so thank you for sharing.

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  2. Great tips! I do most of those things already, but I’m awful at reigning expenses in. I’ve had and Alaska Air credit card for several years and it has really opened me and my husband up to travel. It has saved us thousands in airfare and we don’t even travel all that much. I love that your family camps instead of staying in hotels. That’s what we do too and when we visited Hawaii last summer we camped on the beach. We loved it so much, I couldn’t even imagine staying in a hotel there.

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    1. I’m 100% with you–reining in spending is hard! I’m so glad to hear that you’ve had similar great experiences with Alaska Air; we’re really happy with their rewards program, too. I love that you camped on the beach when you visited. You’re a girl after my own heart; I’d choose camping over a hotel stay, too!

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  3. These are great tips! I agree with you about making your credit card work for you, so worth it and there really isn’t much effort. I hadn’t thought about having separate accounts for separate funds, that’s an interesting idea! Meal planning and shopping for only what’s on the grocery list has helped our food budget tremendously. Now that my daughter is older, cooking meals has become family bonding time, and we look forward to trying out new recipes. We have no desire to go out for dinner anymore (except In ‘n Out!) when we can make something tasty, talk as loud as we want, all in our sweatpants and for a fraction of the price to eat out! There is always something we can save money for and travel is definitely a priority with us also. Anyway, good advice! 🙂

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    1. Great tip about meal planning and sticking to the grocery list! We’re so bad at sticking to the list, especially at Costco. We always get suckered into making “but it was such a good deal!” purchases (20 lb bag of potatoes, I’m looking at you!). I love that cooking at home is such a bonding experience for you guys. Thanks for the inspiration; the kids love to cook, and I bet if we did it more as a family (especially trying new recipes!), they’d enjoy it as much as eating out. Also, I so hear you on In N Out! We scheduled 3 In N Out stops this summer, which is probably excessive, but…animal style fries!! 😀

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  4. Such good and practical advice. I can relate to “making travel a priority”. We’ve had a bathroom renovation in the plans forever, but every year it ends up taking a back seat to travel. Funny, I’ve become so used to the old, ugly room I’m thinking we’ll just live with it…let the next owners deal with it while we enjoy another trip! We put almost all our expenses on our TD Visa travel credit card (Canada) and have been able to get a “free” flight on most of our trips. Your “recognizing choices” also resonates with me particularly when planning lengthier trips. OMG, yes, limiting Starbucks alone can quickly finance a nice weekend away! Great read!

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    1. I love that you’ve been earning free flights with your card! Researching mileage/reward plans has become an addiction of sorts; I’m obsessed with learning how people maximize their rewards. Good call on the bathroom reno situation, too, especially if “old and ugly” (though I’m sure your bathroom is neither) translates to a trip to Cambodia and SE Asia! Custom-fitted vanities are probably overrated anyway. 😀 You’re so right about how quickly those SB lattes can add up to a B&B stay or more–great incentive to limit those morning runs.

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  5. I couldn’t agree with you more. We are living much the same way, paying cash for our vacation.s We place money in an envelope and put it in our safe all year just for vacations. There is no way to put a price tag on the vacations we have been able to take from an experiential standpoint. I am caring so much less about material things and am willing to spend on experiences. I love it!

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    1. I’m completely with you on spending for experiences instead of material items. I love your envelope in the safe idea, too–we did the same thing (minus the safe, which wasn’t so smart!) for a while, and it was gratifying to watch it grow. You’re so right, these trips have changed and shaped who we are; I wouldn’t trade them for the world!

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  6. Lots of good advice here. We do the same with our Delta AMEX card, charge everything and pay it off every month – so important to avoid debt and interest payments, which are such a waste of money. We also have an affinity membership with one hotel chain, which pays off in a few free stays every now and then.

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    1. Our friends love the Delta card, too. So great to hear you’ve had good experiences with it as well. Absolutely agree about avoiding interest payments! Great tip about affinity membership; that’s something I’ve not looked into but should…thank you for recommending! I should also look into hotel chain rewards and points.

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  7. Great, great post Christine. My neck kinda hurts from nodding in agreement with what you said in every sections. 😅 It’s all about priorities indeed when it comes to spending and saving. When I still lived and worked in Virginia, we wanted to travel back to the west once or twice a year and to visit my family and friends in Thailand every two years. All while saving for retirement. So, as you pointed out, choosing what kind of places to stay or activities to do became important. There are certainly many ways to go on vacation without spending a lot of money. You just cannot have it all.

    We love Alaska Airlines. They had gotten us to Kalispell, MT (for Glacier NP) and Honolulu from the east coast for free. These are not a cheap place to fly to. Our flights to Bangkok this fall is also free through Cathay Pacific Airways, Alaska Airlines’ partner. We recently signed up for their credit card too. Where should we travel next with their miles? 😄

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    1. Thanks so much, Keng! I completely agree with what you said: “you just can’t have it all.” So true. You might have to pick and choose what’s most important to you and scrimp on the rest, but it’s better than no trip at all! I give you so much credit for having the discipline to save for Thailand, trips out west, and retirement all at once. Love that you’re doing the Alaska Airlines card, too; we couldn’t be happier. And I hear you about how expensive it is to fly to Kalispell and HI. We’ve priced out trips to Kalispell and the east coast from HI, and it’s easily $1,000 or more. Wow, a free trip to Bangkok–so fantastic! So many great places to spend those miles–Iceland, anybody? 😀

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