How to Vacation on the Unforgiving College Budget

Don't worry. You can still travel even if you're committed to your coursework.
October 1, 2019
6 mins read

As excited as you were to get back into the swing of things at the start of the semester, you’re probably already tired of school. Roommates are exhausting, the homework is piling up and you want a meal that isn’t slopped onto a cafeteria lunch tray: It is time for a vacation.

It’s the perfect time to start planning too; fall break is around the corner and the holidays are steadily approaching.

The only problem? Your wallet feels a bit thin. There are countless expenditures on your plate that are more important than leisure, so why bother if you can’t even afford it?

Well, now you can. While taking a vacation can quickly get expensive, the right approach can be a godsend to your savings. To help you out, here are some foolproof strategies to help you have a blast on a budget.

Stick to the Budget

Okay, this one seems obvious, but it’s so easy to fail at. When you’re on vacation, no one is counting pennies. You’ll be inclined to spend more on dinner and drinks, and after a few days, it adds up fast.

Before you reach your destination, create a plan of how much you’ll spend on the trip. Use categories to help figure out the total cost (i.e. food, gas, hotel, flight). Each category should contain an amount you’re comfortable spending, while also being reasonable — don’t allot $20 toward food for the week. The overall amount will affect the type of travel you’ll be able to do.

Trying to take a weekend trip out of state? Expect to fork over a few hundred. Want to travel to an exotic overseas location? Now you’re talking $1,000 at a minimum.

Using cash is a great way to keep yourself honest. You can even go so far as to put each respective amount in its own envelope to prevent overspending.

Use the Buddy System

It pays to have friends. Most accommodations charge per room, so if you’re willing to share with a pal, you can save a significant amount of money. Other costs like gas, rideshares or car rentals can be split several ways, keeping even more cash in your pocket.

That said, be careful with this one, because splitting costs can backfire. Paying half for a hotel room is one thing, but it’s another ordeal at the dinner table if your friend is racking up a tab at the bar. Moral of the story? Choose your travel buddies wisely.

Timing Is Everything

If you manage to plan ahead, you might save hundreds in expenses. Hotel and flight prices vary over the year and typically reflect seasons of high and low demand. The prices depend on when you book and what date you’re booking. For example, booking a flight during winter to travel in the spring will cost an arm and a leg because everyone is making travel plans to escape the cold.

Subsequently, holidays like Christmas or vacation periods like spring break or Labor Day weekend rank among the most expensive times of year to travel. When possible, vacation off-season.

Look for Deals

What’s the online equivalent of a coupon clipper? Whatever it is, become one. There are always deals to be had when it comes to taking a vacation. Airlines share exclusive offers, such as reduced fares to select locations, constantly throughout the year.

On the other hand, hotels don’t offer as many deals. However, they do occasionally benefit last-minute travelers. When hotels have vacancies, they want to fill them and drop the room rate drastically as a result; services like Last Minute will help sort these deals for you.

Likewise, if you’re a member of Costco and Sam’s Club, be sure to check their listings for member-only deals. Not only can you score cheap flights and accommodations, but they also offer discounts on entertainment like movie or theme park tickets during your stay.

And, whenever possible, bundle. Third-party travel sites, in addition to Costco or Sam’s Club, list packages for booking air, hotel and rental car (or any combination of the two).

Join the Club

Many chain hotels have member programs that are free to sign up for. One of the best perks is reduced pricing. Not only that, but there’s usually a reward system involved, so you get points for every stay. Eventually, that could lead to a free room. That has to be worth the slew of spam emails they send, right?

Which hotel chain should you focus on? According to Forbes, Marriott has the best-ranked rewards program and is also the most prevalent in terms of the number of brands in its network. Hilton is another great one to look at. Though second-best to Marriott in terms of benefits, Hilton features a bit more variety when it comes to luxury versus affordability — ranging from the Waldorf to Hampton Inn — so it’s more apt to locate a property that fits your budget. Of course, there’s always a motel, but you’d be forgiven if you are trying to avoid that option.

Compare Prices

Checking more than one source is a key component to finding a great price. In general, third-party travel sites (think Expedia or Travelocity) will include lower rates than hotel websites. Granted, the downside is that you forfeit whatever member rate you have with the hotel, but you’ll often discover that third-party sites offer the best deals.

Similarly, sites like Kayak might also help you in that regard; the site will automatically compare rates (hotel or flight) and show you which company offers the lowest price.

Consult a Travel Agent

Yes, they still exist. To be fair, this tip is optional, because it’s not guaranteed to save you money. While technically free to use, travel agents make a commission off your bookings, so they might not feel inclined to dig too deeply for the best prices.

Nevertheless, this option is worth exploring in addition to your own research. Sometimes, travel agencies get special discounts that the average vacationer would not ordinarily see. It can never hurt to ask.

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