I have found myself asking, How do I plan a vacation? After doing it multiple times, I have some tips, and tricks to planning a stress free budgeted vacation.
I recently had the opportunity to wake up on the beach in Key West. Something everyone should have on their bucket list. I remember looking over and seeing my grandma’s eyes closed and realizing how relaxed she was. Everything that it took to plan that trip in the 6 months previous had been worth it at that moment. Every penny set aside, every second of doubt I had that it would really happen,the hundreds of websites I went to researching my trip.
I realize that extended road trips like I took might not seem possible but I want you to know, IT IS! No matter what your financial situation is, you can make it happen. I will tell you how.
Last August I went on a 10 day road trip with my Grandma. It started with booking a wedding in Alabama. I did the wedding pro bono. The couple paid for 2 nights of hotels for us. That turned into the best trip of my life.
Our Pandora’s box trip included staying in one of the prettiest coastal cities in the country, Fairhope, Al where I shot my first LGBTQ wedding. A fun experience in itself. We hit Gulf Shores,Al where we were mermaids but also got stung by jellyfish and bit by sand crabs. We got to see The Hangout where they host epic music festivals.
After Alabama we spent a day in New Orleans, the smelliest and coolest city in the Bayou where we saw first hand the repercussions of Katrina, historic cemeteries, ate pot brownies on Bourbon St and took a fun alligator swamp tour hosted by the man who inspired the lightning bug on Disney’s The Princess and the Frog. An amazing city experience. Quick.
Make it a Family Trip
Then we visited one of my bestest friends in Biloxi, Mississippi where we ate at her favorite brunch spot and chatted about life. I miss her. We hit up the mall and getting to see where she lives was so great to my heart.
After Biloxi we hit the highway to Jacksonville, FL where we stayed with my Gma’s sister. My grandma and her sister hadn’t seen each other in 30 ish years! I surprised her with this visit because I knew what it would mean to her. My cousin lives there and we spent time with him and his wife as we ate at a tiny Italian restaurant in a gentrified part of the city.
After a day of visiting we rocked down the coast of Florida where we stayed at one of my cousins’ house in Boca Raton. We dined on Sushi and had some laughs with her and her daughter whom I had never had the chance to meet before. It was a great family meal and fun to catch up.
KEY WEST. MY HEART.
We rode all the way down to Key West. This was my favorite stop on the ride. We were tired. After 16 hours of driving in the car we got to our residence at the Ibis Bay resort. We checked in and carried up our bags. Then we hit the beach.Our resort had a private beach where we spent the night. There was no light pollution so we could see every star for the beauty it was.
For an hour we did nothing but walked around the shore and stalked crabs who were as curious about us as we were of them. We laid out on lounge chairs and fell asleep to the warm breeze and the smell of the ocean. The look of content on my grandma’s tanned cheeks and closed eyes while she slept was something I’ll cherish for my whole life. That’s how I’ll always see her now.
At some early hour of the morning we lazily walked to our hotel room and became tourists. We ate fresh Florida oranges and drank coffee on a dock at our resort and watched tropical birds fishing for their own meals. That day we ate Key Lime Pie at The Blue Macaw, which was recommended as having the best by a local, and damn, they weren’t wrong. Only it was so huge that both of us couldn’t eat it all.
Get Culture Shook!
We checked out all the stores where we marveled at the gay christmas ornaments where fabulous blown glass men were in all their glory as mermen, fairies, santas, etc. On the beach there we got to witness a beautifully fit man in a black fairy winged suit and fedora riding a bike and I got to see the awe struck culture shock on my grannys face.
I got to be witness to my grandma getting hit on by the most metrosexual man I’ve ever talked to. He wanted my grandma to spend a week on the island with him where he promised to give her the time of my life. I stretched it out as long as possible while my grandma begged me to save her with her eyes.
We window shopped and snacked. I drank from a coconut and got a tattoo there to memorialize my experience there. We visited the Southernmost point as one should and got the appropriate photos. Then we spent the rest of our time at the Hemingway house and played with all the feline descendants of Hemingway’s own cats. ALL of them are six toed and legendary. I leaned on the brick wall that drunk Hemingway built. “Wait for it… Legendary.”
I can’t say enough how that one day on an island with my grandma changed my life and how I think everyone should take an older family member on vacation with them.
On our way home we hit Miami, Daytona Beach and more. The most exciting beach being Miami where we stood talking to a French woman and her German boyfriend while puffer and needle fish swam around our legs. Both me and the french woman were topless. I can’t say enough that being topless and feeling the warm ocean waves rolling over my body was one of the best feelings I have ever physically felt. It felt so natural and I was comfortable. We stood and talked as 3 six and eight foot sharks swam as close as 15 feet from us. The lifeguards didn’t seem too worried about it and the locals said they were there often so we just went with it.
These are some of the best moments in my existence, mostly because I spent them with my grandma who had never seen or thought they would be possible for her in her lifetime.
The week we got home from our 10 day escape my grandma started her 3rd cancer treatment in 3 years, the second of breast cancers, and the removal of her breast tissue. What the trip meant to her I can’t say for sure, but in every photo of her all tanned and careless on the beach as she watches the horizon are priceless and I’m glad that I was the one to have those with her.
I believe it is important to travel. We learn so much more about the world by seeing it. Culture, art, and people are such a huge part in my education of the world that I treasure it as an essential. I am going to walk you through how to choose a location, plan it, budget for it and then save money for it.
SO…How do I plan a vacation? LOCATION IS EVERYTHING!
Well to be less dramatic, you should choose your location carefully. Consider cost, safety, and whether it’s also a place your traveling companions might also want to visit. If you are tight on budget but also have a bucket list of travel spots, choose one that is either close by that you can drive to or somewhere with cheap flights to. When shopping for different locations and researching pricing for stays, Google will have an option to track price changes for you.
Is there a spot that has a lot of meaning for you? Most vacations that you are emotionally attached to will be remembered with more care and held at a higher regard. Consider these two ideas, if you choose cancun because it’s a great place to party, or if you go to San Diego because it’s where your mom was born and you’ve always wondered what it would be like, which are you going to remember the most? The truth is, they might both be a shit show, but getting to check something off your life to-do list is going to resonate more with you and make you feel like you’ve done something important.
I suggest choosing a location first. Then you’ll know how much to save, and you’ll then know how far out you’ll have to plan it, and you can then look for the best deals for the location you truly want to visit.
Traveling costs money. Sometimes a lot of money. It helps to know how much you’ll need so you’ll know how much time you need to save it. Once you have your city chosen, hop onto google and just type in, how much does it cost to stay in, for example, Punta Cana? Google will begin by asking for a date that you plan to visit? If you have a general month in mind, choose a wednesday to wednesday in the middle of the month you think may be good. I choose Wednesday to Wednesday because I think a week is a perfect amount of time and I would never want to travel on a friday or saturday. It’s more expensive and there are too many people traveling on those days for me.
Once you have chosen a date range on google, it will then start to show you prices of different hotels and resorts, giving you photos of each you can look at. I flip through these and find the one that seems within a daily budget I can manage. Keep in mind that prices shown for each location are usually a per night, per adult price.
Plan yourself or All inclusive?
If you are traveling out of the country you’ll also have to decide whether to go with all inclusive, which includes all your dinner and or alcoholic beverages, or a regular hotel/resort that does not. If you are not a huge dinner person or a drinker, you may not need the all inclusive because they can be significantly more expensive. Want to be able to go to any restaurant or bar on the resort and eat for free and not worry about those expenses in your budget later, just go all inclusive.
You don’t want to spend more than, say, $450 a night for 2 people? Change the price ranges and values in your search options. Then you can target the places within your ideal budget. This is what I do for each option that pops up in my chosen city on google. I check out the google reviews, photos left by actual visitors, and the ones posted by the actual hotels. Sometimes the ones people post show a less-than version of the ones posted by the hotel. When this happens, I usually rule it out . If they are pretty close and only vary by brightness and coloring, it’s fine with me. Obviously professional photos are going to be better than regular phone photos. If people are showing the rooms to be completely different than advertised, that is a red flag.
Don’t get bamboozled!
Read all the reviews you can , but remember that each review is an isolated case and not necessarily both sides of a complete story. Maybe someone was having a bad day and took it out on the resort. BUT…if there are many similar complaints about the same topic, another red flag.
Choose a place because of its location, price, activities to do nearby, reviews, and recommendations. I am currently planning a trip to mexico with my husband and a perk of one of the resorts is that there is a frida kahlo museum nearby, and it’s right on the beach. I don’t even have to cross a street to be in the ocean. That is a huge bonus for me.
After choosing the hotel your heart and wallet agree on, price shop the month and your available travel dates to see if there’s a date range that’s cheaper than others. Weekends are going to be more expensive and every area has an off season. If you want to go anywhere in July it will more than likely cost more than april or late may.
Go right to the source!
It helps to call the hotel you want to stay at and ask them questions. Ask about their travel seasons and whether it’s cheaper to book directly through them or with a third party travel site (booking.com or travelocity,etc). It is generally easier to get a refund from the hotel directly than with a third party seller. What is more important to you?
Having a week worth of average night’s stay at the hotel you choose will help in your next step, budgeting.
Add together the week ( or number of days you are staying) together. Lets say its $250 a night. That’s $1750 for the week. If it’s not all inclusive, I recommend budgeting $75 a day for drinks and food per person. If you have 2 people traveling, that’s another $1050 for the week. Are you going to shop? I recommend setting an overall shopping budget for your trip. If you want to get souvenirs from gift shops, they can either be way cheap or very expensive depending on where you are and the time of year. Another perk of off season travel is that all the shops go super cheap.
If you plan to spend $600 for the week on shopping you are at $3400 just for sleeping somewhere, eating, and souvenirs. Remember to keep your shopping at a minimum. If you are flying you can’t fit much, unless you plan to check bags at the airport. Carry ons are teeny.
You’ll need to research flights from different airports near you and fly in as close as you can to where you are staying. Third party flight companies are handy because you can set alerts to changing prices on your chosen dates or give you rates for flexible travel days. Find an average price for the way there and always do round trips. Do not wait until you are ready to go home and expect a plane in your budget to be available.
Renting a car can be pricey because you have to have the deposit and pay for each day you have it, but it can be really convenient because they have the cars right at the airport. Ubers and taxis will drive you from the airport to your hotels but they add up very quickly. From experience I find Ubers and Lyft to be more affordable than taxis, and that every taxi or driver you’ll have will be a bad one. I think part of their training requires them to just suck in general.
Uber vs. Taxi
You can budget your uber cost loosely by getting the app and pretending you are looking for a ride from where you land to where you are going and it will give you price options based on your vehicle need. If you need a van or something with pets it will be more than a one or two person vehicle. Whatever the price of that is double it for the way back and add it to your travel costs. Budget $50-60 travel costs if just going back and forth in the city you choose to stay in per day. If you never leave the hotel, you can ignore this cost or budget for it in case your plans change while you’re there.
Assume the worst gas mileage for your vehicle. Think it gets 34 mpg? Budget for it to get 20 mpg. Think you’re going to drive 1200 miles? Budget for 1700 miles.
Use google maps to route your trip and all all the known stops into your trip. Don’t forget to add the return home trip as well as any places you want to go or stop on the way. Google is a genius and will tell you how many miles total that will be as well as how many hours it will take to do it all. This will give you a general mileage to budget for gas money.
Gas prices vary so much that I just plan for the worst and expect the best. If gas is $2.50/gal now, I plan for $3.80. Multiply $3.80 by the amount of miles google says you’ll be making and save another $300-500 on top of it. You will make side trips and prices will fluctuate. If you don’t end up spending it all on gas, you will have some left over when you get home. BONUS!
If you plan to take tours, visit museums, get your caricature painted by a dude with an easel sittin on a dock, plan to save for that. Find out how much all your excursions are ahead of time, if you don’t have a definite amount, guess what it is. Either buy the tickets ahead of time or save for them and pay for them on the day of.
Saving for your trip
DO NOT TAKE A LOAN FOR YOUR VACATION! If you’re already tight on money, putting the whole thing on a credit card or borrowing from a bank is not going to make your return trip feel good. Just knowing you have to pay it all back soon may cause you anxiety.
Plan your vacation for far enough in the future that you can save up for it. I have taken on more work when I know I have a big vacay to save for. It makes mindless spending less of a thing when you know you have something awesome to save for. Banks will let you open a savings account without online access so you have to face the teller to get your money.
I have even used books to save money. If I am saving for new equipment, I’ll put it in THE HELP, vacation, INTO THE WILD. Literally when I planned for my wedding, it was THE WEDDING. I’m such a literal person that it helped me to visualize why I was saving it. Like I literally stuffed money into books until they were bursting. Write down everything you spend and see if there’s a recurring habit you can cut until after your vacation. It is amazing to see how much we spend on stuff like fancy coffee or fast food until you tally it all up over a few months.
Ask friends and family to keep you accountable on spending money and let them know that you are trying to save money and maybe you can do more things together that don’t cost as much as say, going to dinner or movies, etc. Save for a month and see what you have. This will give you an idea on how long it will take to save as much as your budget told you your vacation will cost you and you can lock down a date and start planning and ticket buying!
Over budget and worry less about money when you’re on vacation making memories. The more you plan ahead of time for money, the less stressed you’ll be. Don’t go away from home expecting to have fun and run out of money. That’s not going to be fun for anyone.
My ULTIMATE Road Trip and Vacation Rules!
Only travel long distances with those that you wouldn’t want to throw out the window.
(Your kids don’t count. They are going to be annoying, it’s inevitable.) If someone annoys you, then they will definitely annoy you when trapped in confined spaces. But who knows, They might surprise you (they won’t. lol).
Take tons of photos but also be in the moment.
Don’t spend the whole time behind your phone.
Actually take time to feel the sand squish between your toes.
Don’t let your schedule rule your time. Use it as a guide, but allow for change in the plans.
Use Cash in stores, at street vendors, and at restaurants.
It’s hard to dispute charges at places like this and unfortunately tourists sometimes get screwed.
Always use your card at gas stations, and any place that will track your travel with a paper trail.
I’ve watched enough Criminal minds and murder shows to know that it’s important if you dissappear. #sorrynotsorry
Always have water.
Water. The water in coffee doesn’t count.
Sometimes hotels can be too cheap, if you get a creepy vibe from the lobby, just leave.
I walked into a Miami Beach hotel where the valet guy was passed out on a couch in the lobby, the wall paper was peeling, a cockroach tried to hold my hand, and they guy went from cool dude to not speaking english when I asked to cancel my room and get a refund. Luckily my grandma speaks cuban/spanish and told him off for me.
Use your time with your friends or family to really get to know them. Don’t talk about the weather.
Unless you get stuck in a hurricane, like we did. We have a good idea of what the zombie apocalyple will look like. It was chaos. Ask about where they grew up, what they wanted to be when they grew up, all that fun stuff.
Let photos be taken of you. Don’t worry about what you look like. Just Stop. They are your memories, you’ll cherish them when you’re older, and so will your children.