Inside Money: How to save $$ on your next vacation

vacations

With a rough winter behind us, many Jersey families are looking forward to their summer vacations.

But not the vacation bills.

Here are six strategies to help you spend less and to plan ahead for the future:

1. Search for online deals.

Some of the lowest hotel and air fares can be found online, but many come with restrictions. When you know your itinerary, start surfing but with caution. Make sure you read the fine print before you click. Some bookings may not allow you to specify exactly which room you want, for example, while other reservations may be nonrefundable. “You can often save significantly by prepaying for your hotel room. However, you must be aware that these prepayments are rarely refundable under any circumstances,” says Douglas Stallings, a senior editor with Fodor’s Travel. “Don’t do this if there’s any chance your vacation might not happen on schedule.” Don’t limit yourself to checking aggregation travel sites such as expedia.com, priceline.com, travelocity.com, kayak.com, orbitz.com and airfarewatchdog.com. You may find great deals directly on the websites of hotels, resorts and airlines. If your dates are flexible, also try groupon.com, livingsocial.com and dealchicken.com.

2. Work with a travel agent.

There’s an assumption that in this age of do-it-yourself planning, working with a travel agent will ultimately cost you more. It’s not true. While you should compare an agent’s rates with what you can find on your own, travel agents often have access to deals that the general public doesn’t. “Cruise travel agents typically have access to prices you can’t get directly from the cruise line itself, and sites like cruisecompete.com allow you to indicate the kind of cruise you want and wait while travel agents come back to you with their best offers,” Stallings says. “How good is that?”

3. All-inclusives vs. going it alone

Visiting an all-inclusive resort can be a money-saver. (Anyone who has gone on a cruise and was faced with a bar bill at the end of the trip knows what we’re talking about.) All-inclusives can be good choices for families, Stallings says. “Parents don’t have to reach into their pocket every time the kids want a soda, ice cream or snack, nor do they have to worry about or keep an eye on the kids nonstop, which can provide psychological, if not monetary, savings,” he says. But that doesn’t mean the all- inclusive will be cheaper. Some will, but Stallings says you can usually do better by staying at a more modestly priced property and sticking to a budget for dining, drinking and activities. Also, consider renting a condo or house with a kitchen so you’re not at the mercy of local restaurant prices.

4. Rewards programs

Just about every credit card, hotel  chain, cruise line and airline has a rewards program. Sign up for them all so you’re eligible for discounts. Stallings says some credit card programs allow you to use “miles” for non-flight items, such as hotel stays, restaurant vouchers and rental cars. Shop around for the card with the best program for your needs.

5. House-trading

Learn about house swapping, or house exchanges, in which you list your home online, and you trade it to another homeowner who has a property in an area you want to visit. Most home swap services charge a membership or per-trade fee, but you could find big overall savings. Check out popular services including homeexchange.com, homelink.org and exchangehomes.com. “It’s a fairly safe thing to do if you work through a reputable company,” Stallings says. “I would never ever, under any circumstances, use Craigslist for an ‘unofficial’ trade. There are simply too many risks.”

6. Budget ahead of time

The best money travel advice is to save ahead of time and try not to charge an entire vacation on a credit card if you don’t have the money. A vacation could end up costing you twice as much if you add credit card interest charges. Determine how much you want to spend, then set money aside on a regular basis — out of each paycheck, or each month — to a special savings account that’s earmarked for vacations. “Savers tend to ‘live without the money’ just as they do without the 401(k) contributions,” says Marnie Aznar, a certified financial planner with Aznar Financial Advisors in Morris Plains. Aznar says paying in full can give travelers an even better vacation experience. “A vacationer can certainly feel much more tranquil sitting on a beach when the trip has already been paid for,” she says.