__By Lacey Langford, AFC® __
Vacations aren’t cheap, or we’d take them all the time. There are travel expenses, food, lodging, booking fees, outings, souvenirs, the list goes on and on. Even if you forgo typical vacations and instead go home for leave or vacation days, it still costs money.
No matter the type of holiday, the costs can add up – especially if you’re taking more than one vacay per year. So you want to be smart about it and take advantage of travel deals offered to active duty Servicemembers, veterans and their families.
Taking military vacations the financially smart way comes down to four things:
Those four actions are what it takes to enjoy your vacation time while not going into debt or financial stress. Here’s what goes into booking your next family vacation on a budget.
The who, what, when, where, why and how of your vacation is important. You don't have to plan it like a military operation, but prep work will ensure you have the experience you want at a price you can afford. First, keep a few ideas in mind of where you want to go, but be sure to stay flexible, so you can choose a location with the best experience vs. cost value.
Once you have those locations in mind, you can reverse engineer how to make your dream vacation happen at the lowest cost.
Here are a few practical tips to help you put your vacation plan in place:
Being flexible and picking the right location can help reduce costs. For example, if you want to go skiing, there are plenty of places to do so. If you aren’t married to a particular ski resort, you have more options to find the lowest cost ski trip.
Timing is everything, especially when picking the best time to take an excursion. Off-season trips usually reduce money spent at resorts, restaurants, hotels and on travel. What counts as off-season varies from location-to-location, but in general, peak travel times often include the summer months (June, July and August) when kids are out of school and around major holidays, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas.
If you’re able to get away, try to maximize your travel budget by traveling during off-season times.
Planes, trains and automobiles can all get you to your destination. But finding one or a combination of them that works best with your plan and price is an important part of planning your vacation in a financially smart way.
Generally speaking, when you travel you pay premiums to save time and increase convenience. So if you want to travel for less money, try traveling slower if possible and consider compromising some of the more extravagant luxuries. For example, direct flights without layovers, first class, rideshares, rental upgrades, etc., can really add up over the course of your vacation.
Instead, consider taking lower cost public transportation options, adding a layover or two, and sticking to basic economy car rentals whenever possible.
Vacation planning begins with knowing how much money you have or will have saved by the day you’d like to go. Writing a blank check for your holiday is usually a bad idea, unless you have tons of money to spare. For many of us though, vacation budgets need to be carefully planned in advance.
Use your planning to estimate costs for the trip. Estimate the cost of travel, lodging, food, expenses and shopping to pull together an accurate idea of how much money you need to make your vacation happen.
After you create a budget, figure out when you want to go and how much time you have to save money, then strategize your savings accordingly. Starting to save money earlier and having a plan in place helps keep your finances on track while vacationing.
But it’s not all serious and strict. Don’t forget to budget a little “mad money” for your trip! You’re bound to come across an opportunity you didn’t know was there. A little extra money set aside will allow you to take advantage of some extra fun without causing a financial problem later.
Remember – your vacation isn’t going to pay for itself. The money has to come from somewhere, either from your existing savings or from a savings account you have yet to start. Once you have your budget in place, here are a couple ways to make saving for a getaway more carefree.
One way military families can save for vacation is by setting up an allotment from your pay to go straight to a savings account. Or start an automatic transfer to move money from checking to savings each payday. Making savings automatic will help build up your trip fund without thinking about it.
A quick and easy way to build up your vacay fund is to sell items you no longer need or want. You’ll not only free up some space, but you’ll also get to your vacation savings goal that much faster.
Once you pick the vacation you want, find a picture of the destination and keep it close for inspiration. Save it as the background to your phone or computer, or print the image and put it on your desk. Keeping it close by will help keep you focused on your goal when you feel tempted to break your savings goals. Or even worse, use some of your getaway savings for more immediate gratification.
For more tips on saving money as a Servicemember, be sure to check out the blog post “7 Hidden Ways to Military Members can Save Money.”
Finding the lowest costs possible is a crucial part of vacation planning. Saving money on trips means you have less money coming out of your savings or more money for other things you want. What better way to lower your expenses than to use your military benefits and perks to get travel discounts?
Here are just a few you could take advantage of...
If you’re a Servicemember and want to save money on vacation, the AFVC is the place to start. The AFVC offers membership to active-duty, National Guard, Reserve and retired military personnel. This membership gives you access to over 200,000 resorts in 100 countries on a space-available basis. They sometimes offer week-long vacations for around $349!
AFVC also has a sister club, Veterans Holidays available to military Veterans, with similar discounted opportunities.
Most military installations have an ITT office where you can find information about local attractions, theme parks and tours. ITT offers discount tickets to many attractions as well as trip planning. Often, ITT has the inside scoop on local events but they can also assist with worldwide travel.
Across the U.S. and the world, there are military installations with lodging or hotels. By using this lodging, you could save significantly. Servicemembers, retirees and their dependents can stay at these hotels for less money than civilian hotels.
Some installations even have fully furnished homes available. Of course, reservations for people on military orders have priority on availability. To find convenient locations and dates visit the Department of Defense (DoD) lodging website.
Military OneSource also has a guide with available DoD campgrounds and recreation areas.
A major perk of military service is Space Available (Space-A) Travel. Space-A allows you to catch a ride on a military plane – if they have room – all at a low cost. This benefit is available to active-duty Servicemembers, dependents and retirees with some restrictions.
If it’s not already, “Do you offer a military discount” is a question you should ask before paying for anything. Many restaurants, hotels, car rental, resorts and excursions offer military discounts to Servicemembers.
For example, the National Park Service provides a free annual pass to military ID card holders. Blue Star Families is a partner with the National Endowment for the Arts and is offering Blue Star Museums, free museum admissions for active-duty armed forces.
Be sure to take advantage of these discounts to be financially smart when you travel.
What better way to save money on a trip than to have Uncle Sam help pay for it? Coordinating a family vacation to go along with a Permanent Change of Station (PCS) is another way to reduce travel expenses.
For example, on a move from North Carolina to Washington, why not travel through somewhere else on the way? The government’s not going to pay for your whole trip, but they'll pay for the costs of getting you from North Carolina to Washington. You kill two birds with one stone, moving plus a vacation.
The whole point of a vacation is to rest and relax, but that doesn't mean losing yourself completely. Have a great time while vacationing but don’t forget the plan and why you created it. Vacation should be fun, but if you ruin yourself financially along the way, that can definitely ruin the party.
There’s a reason you created a budget, so you know what you can spend. If you spend more than you plan, it has to come from somewhere. For some, that “somewhere” could involve pulling from money you don’t have to spend, or from running up debt on a credit card with interest.
Be sure to review your budget while you’re vacationing to make sure you stay on course too.
You took the time to create a plan for a reason, to do the things you want at a price you can afford. If you start deviating from the plan, it could end up costing you more money.
For example, adding extras onto your trip can add up. Remember, you added fun money into your budget, so once that’s gone, you’ll be cutting into other parts of your vacation fund, which could even include your food money! If you want to do more on your vacation, try checking out some free local events or recreation areas.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to use your hard earned money for downtime, but you want to be financially smart about it. Take time to plan properly to find the best deals but also to reduce costly mistakes. Set up a savings plan to take your dream trip. And don’t forget to take advantage of your military discounts to minimize expenses.
Lacey Langford is an Accredited Financial Counselor® and a candidate for CFP® certification with over ten years experience in financial counseling and coaching. She served four years in the U.S. Air Force and holds a B.S. in Business Administration with a concentration in finance as well as an Executive Certificate in Financial Planning from Duke University.