More than half of Americans have cut back on vacations during the economic downturn, according to a Harris Interactive survey. Although it makes sense to do without luxuries like travel when money's tight, many Americans can still afford to get "out and about" by finding ways to stretch their vacation dollars.
1. Get the Right Credit Card
A report by the Pew Charitable Trust found most credit cards charge extra fees for transactions made overseas — 91 percent of bank-issued cards and 57 percent of those issued by credit unions. These fees average 2 percent to 3 percent of the overall purchase amount. Using a card that doesn't carry these fees can generate meaningful savings from hotel and car rentals alone. Also take a look at credit cards offered by airlines. The best ones can save you on airfare.
Cash is another way to avoid those overseas usage charges on your credit cards, which cost you up to 3 percent at the register with every purchase. More importantly, a Dunn & Bradstreet study found that you'll spend between 12 percent and 18 percent more using plastic than you would with cash money. This can keep all your expenses within your budget for the trip.
2. Minimize and Mail
Baggage fees have become another annoyance of air travel, on the same list as weather delays and removing your shoes for security. For the "Big 6" major U.S. airlines, the average fee is $25 for one checked bag, with fees as high as $150 for a third or fourth.
The easiest way to avoid these charges is to choose flights that don't have them. Neither Jet Blue nor Southwest charge fees for your first bag, and few airlines charge for international travel. If that's not an option, minimize the cost by packing as light as possible, using an e-reader instead of a suitcase full of books, and buying bulky toiletries upon arrival. You can also mail one-way luggage like gifts or supplies.
Meals are a common hidden or forgotten cost in a vacation budget. Though it's true you would spend some of that money on meals at home, consider these typical meal costs for common vacations:
$200/day for a family of four
$1,400 per week
$150/day for a couple
$1,050 per week
$140/day for a family of four
$980 per week
A room with a kitchen lets you cook your own breakfast and dinner for prices comparable to what you'd spend at home. You can also pack your lunches, or budget to eat that meal out while on your adventures.
4. Find Alternative Lodging
Average hotel prices are up between 5 percent and 10 percent since last year, according to an annual report by Travel and Leisure, to about $100 to $200 a night for a simple room. Alternative lodging arrangements include house swapping, vacation rentals or renting a room in a local's home via networks like Airbnb, VRBO or Couchsurfing.org. These nontraditional sources of lodging can cut the cost of your stay by 50 percent or more.
5. Get Social
You're already going to use social media to tell your friends and family about the trip. According to a 2011 report by Eezer and Simpliflying, airlines are using it too — at a rate of 25,000 to 75,000 followers per airline. Simply following the Twitter presence of an airline that flies where you want to go, or by subscribing to a fare-watching feed will keep you up to date on the best possible deals. Some examples from @airfare watchdog for April 2013 include:
*Minneapolis to Taipei at $752, a savings of 55 percent over a $1,661 standard fare.
*Los Angeles to Chicago at $198, 63 percent of the $312 regular cost.
* Miami to Amsterdam at $592, cutting 45 percent off the regular $1,069 price.
Hotels and rental car agencies also engage in social media, but according to Social Travel they're better for loyalty rewards via Facebook than the deep, real-time discounts found on airfare.
6. Maintain Your Vehicle
The road trip remains the most common means of vacation transportation in America, accounting for 76% of leisure travel, according to the U.S. Travel Association. Research reported at FuelEconomy.gov indicates a simple tune-up can increase mileage by 4 percent, and filling tires to the proper pressure can increase mileage by 3.3 percent. The total savings for these two inexpensive fixes adds up to the equivalent of 25 cents per gallon.
Not all of these tricks can be applied to every possible vacation, but those who use what they can when they can may be surprised by how often and well they're able to see the world -- even though they're trimming costs.