How to Plan a Vacation Without Going Into Debt

Budgeting for your next trip? Consider this 11-point checklist for ways to save.

Overhead shot of a camera, straw hat and a man's hand marking dates in a calendar on a wooden table

by NEA Member Benefits


Do you shy away from vacation planning because you’re afraid of how much it will cost? There’s good news: It is possible, with some advance planning, flexibility and realistic expectations, to plan an awesome vacation on a tight budget. Strategic small savings can really add up and compound into a big payoff. And, by using money-saving tips throughout your vacation, you can avoid receiving scary bills after returning home.

The following 11 travel tips can help you manage your money whenever and wherever you travel so you can stay debt-free. 

1. Start saving now

It’s never too early to start squirreling money away for a future trip. Create a savings plan long before you begin planning an actual vacation. Your savings blueprint can involve the whole family and encourage everyone to save a bit each week—from your teenager contributing a few dollars from a babysitting gig to Mom and Dad putting a certain percentage of their paychecks into the account.

To make saving easier, open an NEA Smart Money Account, where your checking and savings accounts will be connected for easy access, and your funds can potentially earn greater returns than in a typical savings account. You can contribute a set amount to the account each week or pay period to reach your savings goal.

2. Set your budget

This goes hand in hand with your savings plan. You want to remain debt-free after your trip, so some advance planning will help you achieve that goal. Take an honest look at your finances and set a realistic budget. If you’ve already saved for your getaway, decide if you’ll use the entire vacation fund or just use part of it and save the rest for another trip. If you haven’t started saving yet, take a look at what you can truthfully put away each month, along with the time you have left before you want to travel, and set a spending limit that matches what you can save. Once you know how much money you have to play with, figure out where those dollars will take you. For example, if you know you can save $100 a month, and you want to travel a year from now, you’ll need to plan a trip that costs around $1,200. To learn more about how to create a realistic budget, see “6 Simple Steps to Build a Stress-Free Budget .”

3. Find a travel agent

You probably guessed that step 3 to planning a debt-free vacation would be selecting a destination, and although your instincts are good, savvy travelers will first make a call to a travel agent. Some luxury travel planners do charge for their services, but most agents are paid via commissions from the cruises, hotels and flights they book on your behalf. Not only is their expert help free to you, you’ll save money and time on your trip, thanks to their experience, knowledge and connections. Give your travel agent your budget and a list of the types of activities your family enjoys, and he or she will come back to you with options that might never have crossed your mind.

Oftentimes, agents are also privy to special resort and travel package promotions. Sure, you might be able to do all the research yourself, but it would certainly take longer, and there’s no guarantee you’d come up with the best options. Even if a travel agent can’t do better on pricing the nightly rate for a particular trip, many can secure perks—such as room upgrades, free valet parking and complimentary breakfasts—that you can’t get on your own.

4. Determine your destination

If you don’t have the help of a travel agent, think about locations that won’t require expensive airline tickets. If you do want to travel a bit further afield via air, start your research with the airlines that serve your local airport. Go to their websites and click their “where we fly” links or download their complete flight schedules. It’s a great method for generating affordable destination ideas.

Keep in mind that finding affordable accommodations in big cities like New York or San Francisco can be really difficult. If you have your heart set on a pricey destination, look for home-stay lodgings through sites like Airbnb or HomeAway, or stay in a nearby—and less expensive—suburb. For example, if hotels in Orlando are too expensive, stay in Kissimmee instead.

5. Travel during low season

Travel agents know the best times of the year to travel to any destination in order to snag the lowest rates. If you’re making your own arrangements, visit your destination when crowds are lightest. Search the region’s visitors bureau website and look for the calendar that tells you when to expect high and low season.

“Consider locations during their ‘off’ or ‘shoulder’ season,” suggests Lillie Marshall, a teacher and publisher of “Our family traveled to Ireland in February, and though it was slightly chilly, it was still warmer than Boston. We had a fantastic time and enjoyed much lower prices and fewer crowds!”

6. Fly midweek or Saturday morning

It’s generally less expensive to fly midweek and on Saturday mornings.

7. Use a rewards or cash back credit card

With the NEA® Customized Cash Rewards Visa Signature® credit card, you’ll earn 3% cash back in the CATEGORY OF YOUR CHOICE: gas, online shopping, dining, travel, drug stores, or home improvement/furnishings. You’ll automatically earn 2% cash back at grocery stores and wholesale clubs, and 1% cash back on all other purchases. Earn 3% and 2% cash back on the first $2,500 in combined choice category/grocery store/wholesale club purchases each quarter, then earn 1%.

And there’s a special incentive offer for new account holders. Click the link above to learn more about this offer.

Before your trip, use your card for everyday purchases and then stash your cash-back rewards into your savings account. Then during your trip, charge your vacation expenses to the card and be rewarded for the dollars spent. To avoid going into debt, only spend what you can afford and pay your balance off in full every month.

8. Check membership discounts and benefits

If you belong to certain organizations, you may be entitled to specific discounts when it comes to travel. For example, as an NEA member you can take advantage of several travel discounts through the NEA Travel program, including car rentals, group tours, cruises, airfare, resorts and hotels. You'll earn NEA Travel Dollars as an added bonus; you can use it to partially pay for vacation packages, resorts, hotels and cruises. You can also book discounted vacation packages through wholesale clubs such as Costco.

Travel loyalty programs such as Hilton Honors offer free flights and hotel stays.

Sign up for Groupon to find discounts on hotels, attractions and restaurants at your travel destination (and at home).

Military and government employees may also be eligible for discount rates at hotels, attractions and restaurants across the country.

Finally, if you work for a local, county, federal or state government—such as a state university—ask for discount details.

9. Go with a group 

When you travel with friends or extended family, ask for a group discount when booking multiple hotel rooms or cruise cabins. Start by asking for the group or reunion department. Walt Disney World, for example, will assign a representative that will facilitate group discounts at Disney properties. Some discounts are granted for as few as 10 people, but if your group is large, you may even qualify for a free room. 

10. Compare a la carte with all-inclusive options 

It’s not easy to budget for the cost of meals and activities. Unexpected expenses pop up on every vacation. An all-inclusive resort charges you one price and includes all your meals and on-site entertainment and activities. All-inclusive packages are popular in destinations such as the Caribbean, but you may find one within driving distance, such as the Tyler Place Family Resort in Highgate Springs, Vermont; Woodloch Pines Resort in the Poconos region of Pennsylvania; or the Club Med Sandpiper Bay in Port Saint Lucie, Florida.

At the very least, look for a hotel that offers all guests a free hot breakfast daily. The savings can be huge for larger families staying at brands such as select Red Roof Inns, Country Inns & Suites, Embassy Suites and Hampton Inn—all of which offer a free breakfast perk.

11. Get travel insurance

A vacation is an investment, so protect it. Travel insurance is a relatively low, upfront cost that could ultimately save you thousands of dollars if you have to change or cancel your trip because your son breaks his leg a week before departure or a hurricane threatens to veer toward your vacation destination.

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