How To

How to Start Saving for Summer Vacation Now

Do the dull days of winter have you dreaming of summer vacation? Here are smart ways to start saving for your summer vacation now and tips on how to find deals that will make the most of your money.

What’s Your Motive?

Realtors often ask homebuyers to make a list separating the “must-haves” from the “nice to haves” to identify where negotiations can be made. The same approach can be invaluable when planning your summer vacation. Options are abundant when it comes to finding travel deals and the more flexible you are, the better your chances of scoring a major discount. But there is a difference between a cheap price and value. If your heart is set on a spa or putting your way through a top-notch golf course, commit to finding the best price on the trip that will deliver what you seek. Much like buying a house, this list will serve as the guide for where you can make trade offs and find deals, while still delivering the experience that you want.

Establish Your Fixed Costs

The key to vacationing within your budget is determining what you can afford to spend and what your “fixed” expenses are, just as in any budget planning. Many vacation budgets are blown because people fail to account for all the costs, including getting to and from the airport, taxes and fees associated with car rental and resorts and tips for services.

Conduct initial research on basic flight and car rental prices using comparison tools, like Kayak, to review offers from various carriers and vendors, and experiment with the impact on different dates, models and pick-up and drop-off locations. Kayak even offers a handy table of all the potential fees you’ll face if you check a bag and allows you to include those costs into your quote for a true look at what you’ll spend to fly.

Determine Your Bottom Line

Once you have a basic understanding of the “going rate” for your destination, commit to that amount in your budget. That’s not to suggest that you shouldn’t find deals, but be realistic about what the vacation you want will potentially cost. Now, make it your mission to stay on top of fare wares and consider all the savings you can find as “icing on the cake.”

Sign up for customized alerts from your home airport at online travel sites and from airline websites. If you’re really flexible on your destination, check out the “cheap flights map” on Skyscanner , which will show flight prices to a variety of locations on your preferred travel dates. “Like” Facebook pages of your favorite travel sites, properties and airlines, and follow them on Twitter, too. Often, “flash sales” are announced via social media and can result in significant savings.

If the ballpark price for airfares is simply out of reach right, consider other options, like driving, or taking a bus or train for a portion of the trip. (For more on this, read “Is Driving Still Cheaper Than Flying?”).

Get Connected—and Creative

Once you’ve established how you’ll get where your going and what it will likely cost, move onto lodging options. Nancy Schretter, managing editor of Family Travel Network says that while sites like Priceline and Hotwire are a great way to find  bargain hotels, you have to know what to bid to uncover the true deals. She recommends The Bidding Traveler and Better Bidding to compare the hotel’s retail price to its “auction price,” to see which hotels are most likely to offer savings.

While technology has taken some of the legwork out of travel planning, don’t underestimate the power of dealing with a live person. Catherine Ross, executive director of the Winter Park-Fraser Valley Chamber of Commerce suggests connecting with the local chamber of commerce at your destination in the early planning phases to understand peak travel times, which are not always intuitive. For example, early summer can bring surprisingly low prices to mountain areas and dude ranches and the weekend is not always the most expensive time to visit a place. She also recommends reaching out to individual travel properties to inquire about special deals. If you’re a returning visitor, let them know; it can earn you perks on your rate and additional discounts at local restaurants.

Using Time to Your Advantage

If you’re booking well in advance, Christina Ernst, president of VIP Alpine Tours, recommends that travelers not lock into the cheapest rate but instead, pay a little more for flexibility in case a better deal is offered closer to travel time. For example, she notes that the Marriott often offers a promotion for the “4th night free.” A traveler who has booked with the flexible rate can “switch” into it, ultimately saving about $200. “This is the best trick and the same goes for cruises,” says Ernst.

Unless a resort was specifically on your list of “must-haves,” renting direct often presents a host of lodging options at less than half the price than you’d pay at a resort. If you’re traveling with family, a group or small children, many properties offer multiple bed and bathrooms and come fully furnished so that not all meals have to be eaten out.

Vacation Rentals By Owner (VRBO) offers an extensive list of options, including property picturesand reviews by past guests. If you’re taking a summer vacation of a month or more, consider Corporate Housing By Owner. Remember that in both of these situations, you are dealing with a person who has a vested interest in the property. Some owners are willing to negotiate fees or rates, particularly during a “last-minute” scenario where the property would otherwise be empty, or during the low season. Be respectful of the value of the property when inquiring about a potential discount but don’t be afraid to ask, especially if you can offer them something in return, like referrals to friends or co-workers also planning a summer trip.

Stephanie Taylor Christensen is a former financial services marketer based in Columbus, OH. The founder of Wellness On Less, she also writes on small business, consumer interest, wellness, career and personal finance topics.