Easy Ways to Stretch Your Vacation Dollar

One perennial favorite for international travel at a value is escorted tour packages. According to the Travel Industry Association of America (TIA), one-quarter (23 percent) of past-year travelers (33.3 million adults) say they have bought a travel package within the past three years. Not surprisingly, travelers enjoy leaving the planning up to the professionals and the pennies in their pockets. Moreover, tour operators are able to negotiate lower group rates with hotels and attractions, and travelers pay for their vacation up front—eliminating some of the "sticker shock" that can occur while on the ground in a foreign country.

An affordable vacation is only one of many steps you can take to ensure your next vacation fits your financial circumstances. Take a look below for some helpful money-saving tips, both before you travel and after you arrive.

Before You Go

Planning Your Vacation
Quite a few considerations go into picking the right vacation on a budget. And we know where to start:

  • Travel during the low season (October–March), as prices are lower and the experience offered is still extraordinary.
  • Be flexible with travel plans. Consider vacationing in a different country—an area with a favorable dollar exchange rate.
  • Take advantage of promotions. Cosmos regularly offers great savings and deals, so be sure to call or ask your travel agent about the latest discounts available.
  • Take an escorted tour vacation. You'll be privy to more sights, more insight, and more fun at a pre-set price. Transportation within each destination is usually factored into the price, saving travelers big money. Cosmos offers great options, as well as insight into the benefits of escorted tours.
  • Take your whole family (extended family) on vacation. Cosmos offers a standing group discount. Groups start at eight people.
  • If you're traveling alone, consider an escorted tour vacation. You'll be privy to group travel rates.

Look Ahead
There are some simple steps in your everyday life you may want to think about well before your departure date to help get more from your vacation:

  • Trade your everyday indulgences for the real thing on vacation. For instance, skip your daily Starbucks routine to save money, knowing you'll enjoy an authentic cup of coffee at a café in Italy. Or drink less wine during dinner to save big bucks, while looking forward to a winery tour in the South of France.
  • Are you a member of a museum or arts organization? Sometimes your membership rewards will translate to other city/country museums.
  • If you're planning to call home while traveling (always a good idea), either buy a calling card or contact your cell phone company beforehand to set up international calling.
  • Don't wait to get (or renew) your passport. You don't want to have to pay "rush"-related charges.
  • Take a snack and drink on the plane so you can eat without paying for airline food.

Pack Appropriately
Remember, items you buy while on vacation almost always cost more. Pack carefully, and keep airport security restrictions in mind:

  • Don't over-pack.  Most airlines have restrictions on baggage and suitcases weighing more than 50 pounds. If your bag is overweight, you'll pay extra.
  • Check the weather before you go so you don't have to purchase weather-appropriate clothes and accessories on your trip.
  • Bring a camera and extra batteries. Don't wait to buy a camera, film, and batteries on your trip—it will be more expensive.
  • Bring your own over-the-counter drugs for colds, headaches, and more, ensuring that you're not paying over-the-top prices for medicine you're unfamiliar with.
  • Follow airline rules. Make sure you're adhering to the three-ounce restrictions on liquids so you're not wasting money by having to buy toiletry necessities in your vacation destination or at the airport, post-security check.
  • Pack a map. If you're going somewhere new, you'll need it to figure out the best places to go, for less.
  • Be smart about your wallet and/or purse and take the necessary precautions to safeguard your vacation funds from pickpockets.
  • Consider folding and packing a duffle bag in your suitcase. If you get to the airport and your luggage is overweight, move some belongings to the duffle bag and carry it on your flight with you, avoiding extra baggage charges.

Financial Tips
When money is a concern, try these easy-to-follow tips:

  • Pay with a credit card, but keep track of your expenses. Then, pay off your card when you return from your vacation, ensuring you aren't paying interest for your memories.
  • Be wary of "freebies"—they aren't always complimentary.
  • Plan your daily budget. Determine, in advance of your trip, how much you're willing to spend each day and stick to it.
  • Before you go, get familiar with both exchange rates and tipping standards.  Many countries do not abide by the same rules and there's no good reason to over-tip.

Now That You're Here

Dine Wisely
Plan your meals wisely, and you'll find yourself with extra money for other experiences in your destination:

  • Don't eat at tourist landmarks. Instead, push aside your cravings and eat outside tourist traps.
  • Eat where the locals eat—the food will be higher quality at a lower cost. 
  • If you're craving fabulous food, splurge at lunch vs. dinner—menu items are often offered in smaller portions and/or at significantly reduced costs.
  • Drink water during meals.
  • Have picnics. Buy cheese, bread, and produce at a local market and enjoy an impromptu day in the park, at a fountain, or on the steps of a museum.
  • Snack often versus indulging in large meals.
  • If you find a restaurant that offers great food at a reasonable price, ask the hostess about other restaurants she recommends that fit the ambiance of your current "find."
  • NEVER indulge in the food from your hotel mini bar!

Getting Around
Here are some easy ways to avoid sinking unnecessary money into on-site transportation:

  • Walk, walk, walk. Walking is free, and the sights and sounds you'll encounter will make your vacation even more special (that is, if you wear good shoes).
  • Use public transportation (buses, train/subway systems); not only will you get a feel for how it is to live as a local in a city, you'll save money along the way.
  • Consider sharing cabs from place to place. Ask those who are waiting for taxis where they're going; if you're going the same way, make a friend and share a ride.

Affordable Experiences
Not every fun activity during your vacation requires a steep fee. Consider the following:

  • Ask your Tour Director what the locals do for fun for non-traditional, inexpensive activity suggestions.
  • Many destinations hold art fairs in the summer months. Look through the local paper or go online (browse your destination's tourist board Web site) to find one.  Fairs offer a great way to enjoy arts and culture without paying museum entrance fees.
  • Get romantic outside. A great romantic evening doesn't have to cost money. Consider a moonlit walk through the streets of Paris at twilight. Share a crepe on the steps of the Louvre at sunrise. Who doesn't love a walk on the beach at sunset? Just put a little pre-planning thought into your adventure—think about atmosphere and lighting.
  • Follow the crowd. They may lead you to parades, festivals, and farmers markets. Holidays taking place in destinations present a great way to enjoy a city and its culture for little to no money.
  • When walking through various destinations, ask the locals about the history of the neighborhood. You'll learn about the area and gather insight that will make your vacation more memorable.
  • Stop and take in street entertainment—it's free and gives you a sense of the culture.
  • People-watch in parks, piazzas, and on beaches. It's fun, intriguing, and free.
  • Many parks feature free concerts and/or music festivals. Look at a map or go online and visit the official tourist board site of your destination to find parks in your destination and enjoy the scenery and fun they afford.

Practical Decisions on Vacation
It's easy to get excited about something new and different, but if you keep these tips in mind, you're less likely to get carried away:

  • Carry snacks and water as you go from place to place. This will help you avoid impulse purchases.
  • Purchase a bottle of wine from a wine shop or market (ask the clerk for a recommendation) instead of indulging in wine during dinner at a restaurant. Have a drink before you leave and/or when you return.
  • Get the best exchange rate possible. Use ATMs like you would at home; they are exchanged based on the wholesale exchange rate, something usually reserved only for very large interbank exchanges.
  • Carry your own bags, coats, etc. Tips can rack up the cost of your vacation.
  • If you're someone who likes to work out while traveling, consider running outside vs. working out in your hotel gym, specifically if the hotel charges a fee. 
  • Use Internet cafés to help you along your way. These cafés provide a cheap way to do your homework (i.e. looking for great sights for less) while on the road.
  • Avoid ordering room service; it can be more expensive (especially when factoring in delivery charges/tips) and will take away an opportunity to get to know your destination.
  • Buy theatre tickets the day of the performance and be flexible when choosing a show or performance date/time. Many theatres offer last-minute house seats at reduced rates.

Get Creative
Don't just pay to play; there's generally a more affordable solution to situations every traveler encounters:

  • Take your leftovers back to your hotel, if you have a microwave and/or a refrigerator in your room.
  • Inquire about deals/specials at local museums. Many feature one day/week or several hours of free admission.
  • Email is an effective and inexpensive way to stay connected to loved ones. Consider sending E-postcards for a more creative way to stay in touch.
  • Are you honeymooning or celebrating an anniversary? Tell people when you're on your trip! Sometimes by letting people in on the fun, you'll enjoy upgrades, discounts and/or special treats during your vacation.
  • Consider renting a bike or rollerblades for a day in your destination. You'll see more for less.

Souvenirs and Such
Bringing back a souvenir for a friend or family member is an easy way to spend a lot—unless you take our advice:

  • Ask the price of something and request an alternative for less. It's okay to inquire about price and request a suggestion that will save you money.
  • Practice your "haggling" skills when purchasing goods from a destination or region. As long as you're not buying at a chain store, negotiation is always a possibility.
  • Consider splurging for luxury goods when in particular markets. If you're dreaming of a designer bag or shoes, purchase them abroad, in the designer's home market, for a better deal.
  • Browse both tourist-focused souvenir shops and those found in non-touristy neighborhoods. You'll enjoy a wide variety of goods and prices. And, comparison shop for the best souvenir deals.
  • Try to ignore the romantic impulse of purchasing flowers from street vendors; enjoy the smell and the beauty they symbolize and then move on.
  • Send postcards instead of buying souvenirs—good ole' snail mail is such a rarity that you'll be sure to delight friends and family with your memories while on your vacation.