Your vacation is, at the very least, supposed to be fun. But nothing takes the fun out of a vacation like going broke taking it. Here are simple ways for you to save money and make your well-earned vacation more enjoyable this summer.
Thinking about what you really want out of a vacation can make the trip a joy instead of a chore, the AAA travel organization says. Do you want to see a lot of historic sights in a short time, or plan the trip around kids' fun, or just relax at the beach? Your answers will shape how your vacation turns out.
"The key is just smart planning in advance," said Richard Lewis with the Virginia Tourism Corp., the state's travel and tourism agency.
Check it out
To help you get going, every U.S. state and territory has its own tourism website, like Virginia's www.virginia.org, and regions and localities have theirs, such as the Richmond Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau's website, www.visitrichmondva.com.
"The local and state convention and visitors bureaus are awesome places to start looking," said Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, family travel expert and editor of wejustgotback.com.
The websites are loaded with things to do, places to stay, hot offers and packages, Kelleher said. Many of the sites even feature suggested itineraries and trip planners to help you map out your vacation.
Budget for it
Decide how much you are willing to spend on your vacation, including transportation, accommodations, food and entertainment, AAA says.
Then start saving and planning your vacation, just as you would for holiday gifts by putting a little money aside each week, while watching out for special discounts and promotions.
Sign up electronically
The best way to find out about money-saving travel discounts is to receive email updates from destinations and travel providers, such as airlines, Amtrak and bus companies.
Email alerts feature special offers and promotion codes that are not offered publicly, giving subscribers the ability to book deals at the best available rates.
Book early … or late
The best bargains, options and availabilities usually go to folks who book their trips in advance.
However, the sluggish economy has shrunk the "in advance" window down from months to weeks, said Tamra Talmadge-Anderson with the Virginia Tourism Corp.
"Our research is showing us that people are not booking a great deal in advance," Talmadge-Anderson said. "Don't think that everything's booked. There are still great vacations to be had, deals to be had throughout the summer.
"Now we're talking two to four weeks out instead of three months in advance."
Value for price
"Everybody's sensitive to price," said Kelleher, who lives in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., "but I'm saying that they should be looking at what they get for the price: It's about value."
Getting out the calculator and seeing what you get for your money at one place versus what you'd pay at a competitor will easily tell the tale of value, the mother of three said.
Families should compare the cost of staying at a resort where they get everything — including meals and other amenities — under one roof, Kelleher said, compared with staying in an inexpensive hotel and paying separately for meals and attractions they visit.
To help you maximize your vacation dollars, AAA rates more than 31,000 hotels, and more than a third of these are at the budget-oriented One and Two Diamond Rating levels, but offer acceptable cleanliness, comfort and hospitality.
The costs of visiting a destination can vary greatly based on when you travel, AAA points out.
To increase savings, select two or three possible travel dates and check prices before booking.
And, Kelleher said, you don't have to take off an entire workweek to have a great getaway.
Usually resorts are less expensive during the middle of the week, she said, while cities tend to be more expensive on the weekends. As an added bonus for going off-peak, resorts are often less-crowded.
"Be really flexible, as flexible as you can be, about dates," she said. "If the goal is to get the biggest bang for your buck, then being flexible is a key tip."
Time of day also can make a significant difference in the cost of airfares and rail travel.
For instance, notes George E. Hoffer, a transportation economist at the University of Richmond, "You really need to play around with the time of day with Amtrak trains. You've got trains within an hour of each other that are priced wildly differently."
On the road
For family travel, "particularly this summer airfares are just crazy," Kelleher said. "So the big tip is, pick a destination close to home and just drive. A road trip is going to be cheaper than flying.
"Even if you're able to find a good airfare multiplied by the members of the family, it gets pretty costly."
And if you're driving, have your vehicle inspected for safety and fuel economy before you set out.
"There are few things worse and potentially more expensive than experiencing a roadside breakdown during a trip," AAA said, and "a fully maintained vehicle will save on fuel expenses."
Websites and apps, such as GasBuddy and AAA's Trip Tik travel planner, can provide you with information on gas prices along your route. They also can help you budget for your trip by estimating how much you'll spend in gas.
If you're renting a vehicle, decline the insurance coverage from the rental-car company. The insurance on your personal vehicle often carries to rental cars. Most major credit-card companies also provide coverage when the rental is charged on their card.
"Don't buy insurance you don't need," AAA Mid-Atlantic's Martha Mitchell Meade recommended. "Know what your automobile insurance and your credit card will cover."
If available, public transportation is one of the most inexpensive ways to get around, the travel group says. Remember to research the local transit system at your destination before you get there.
Virginia is for lovers
Take a "near-cation," suggests Kelleher, choosing a destination within driving distance of your home. "Usually, there's quite a few awesome places near where you live."
And that's especially true of the Old Dominion. "Look around you, and don't take your own state for granted," the Virginia Tourism Corp.'s Talmadge-Anderson said. "In two hours, you can be in an entirely different environment" — from beach resorts to parks, caverns, rivers and mansions, from historic sites and unique shops to great amusement parks.
And, Hoffer points out, as a bonus, Virginia's gas prices are lower than surrounding states, largely because of tax differences. "It really pays to fill up (before) leaving Virginia and come back in relatively empty."
Packing a cooler with food and beverages bought from your local grocery store is cheaper than buying from convenience stores and fast-food restaurants en route, Kelleher says. And you can reduce meal costs by eating your main meal at midday to take advantage of lower lunch prices at restaurants, AAA suggests, noting that many restaurants also offer children's menus and "early bird" dinner specials at reduced prices.
Another way to cut food costs while traveling is to stay at hotels offering free breakfast, Hoffer says: That will save precious vacation time as well as money.