How to Plan a Vacation Without Going Into Debt

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

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by NEA Member Benefits

Dec 08, 2021

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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.

Winter and spring breaks, long weekends and summer vacations for teachers are vital for recharging and relaxing during and after the school year. The following 11 travel tips on how to plan a vacation on a budget can help you stretch your money whenever and wherever you travel so you can get away while staying 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 of money 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 travel budget

Budgeting 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 vacation 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 reasonably put away each month, along with the time you have left before you want to travel. 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, 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 family vacation, couples trip or solo excursion would be selecting a destination. But not so fast! Savvy travelers will first make a call to a travel agent.

Some luxury vacation 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. Find out more about how travel agents can help you save money.

They can help you have more fun, too: Give your travel agent your anticipated vacation budget and a list of the types of activities your family enjoys, and they’ll come back to you with options that might never have crossed your mind.

Oftentimes, agents are 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 get better pricing on 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 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. Be sure to check the NEA Travel: Hotels booking engine to see what member pricing you can find on hotels in the area.

5. Travel during low season

Low-season vacations are more affordable because travel providers want to book as many plane tickets, rental cars, hotel rooms and more as they possibly can then.

However, scheduling a vacation can be challenging for teachers because there are only certain times of the school year when you can be away from the classroom. And summer break is when everyone else goes on vacation, too. A little research can help you match up your available travel windows with destinations that aren’t packed with tourists. 

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, 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 TeachingTraveling.com. “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, so set your booking engine’s filters to start with those days and times. Be sure you look for member pricing on airfare through the NEA Travel Program.

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. As a bonus, you’ll earn NEA Travel Dollars, which you can use 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.

Use the NEA Discount Marketplace to browse Groupon to find discounts on hotels, attractions and restaurants at your travel destination (and at home). Also check the NEA Discount Tickets Program for special rates on admissions to sporting events, theme parks (including Walt Disney World!), theater performances, ski lift tickets and more. 

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. Travel 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.

Check the NEA Travel: Resorts booking engine to see what educator discounts you can get on a range of all-inclusive vacations, such as lively excursions in Las Vegas and relaxing getaways in Cancun.

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 child breaks their leg a week before departure or a hurricane threatens to veer toward your vacation destination.

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