How to save money on vacation

Changing your mindset is the key to maximizing your vacation savings

how to save money on vacation

How to save money on vacation — change your mindset!

One of the hardest things about living in Seattle is that the winters can be long. The weeks between the day we win the Superbowl to when the tree pollen traps us indoors can be the longest, most depressing weeks of the year. Rainy season here (really more of a nonstop, grey drippiness than real rain) lasts from around late October until July 5 in a typical year.That’s why we usually plan a vacation to somewhere warm and sunny in late February or March. When we return, we’re usually safely into springtime and ready for a glorious Seattle summer.

We were particularly nervous this year because it was going to be our first trip traveling with a toddler. Would we be the embarrassed parents trying to quiet a screaming child? What if there was a major poop explosion? We packed SO many toys, loaded our iPads with movies and brought along enough food to keep the entire plane fed for a month. We were ready. We thought.

It started off well enough, Pretired Baby had a blast running around in the airport and was already looking tired by the time he got on the plane. He was fascinated by the magazines, the windows, the tray table and all the other people. About two hours in, though, he drank a bunch of milk and laid down on our laps and fell asleep. He slept for a blissful 40 minutes or so and we even took his picture because he was sleeping so sweetly. We couldn’t believe our luck.

Suddenly he awoke with a kind of coughing noise, tried to sit up and started puking ALL OVER Pretired Mama.

“Lean him forward!” I shouted and he puked some more. He’s only thrown up one other time in his whole life and that was such a small amount it barely counted. He was scared and obviously didn’t feel well. He began crying loudly. I called the flight attendant who brought bags and paper towels but there wasn’t much else we could do. We managed to clean him up and calm him as best we could. He was finally quiet and cuddly but still feeling sick. Time remaining: about three hours of hell. Uh oh.

Over the next three hours, he puked.

And puked.

And puked.

The faces of the most annoyed and angry people, frustrated at having a screaming baby on their flight, eventually softened to sympathy and finally open pity or even horror. It may have been the worst flight of their lives, but, hey, were THEY the ones covered in puke?

We let everyone else get off the plane and finally shuffled off the plane, carrying our luggage, a toddler and two large garbage bags full of puke-covered clothes and other items. Did I mention there was a lot of puke? OK, good.

We decided to stop by the urgent care on the way to our condo just in case and almost died on the way. Pretired Baby started puking while we were driving but since he was slightly leaned back in the car seat he was having trouble getting it out. I was sitting in the back seat with him and told my wife to quickly pull over so I could loosen his seat and lean him forward a little bit. She pulled over and I unbuckled the top clip and leaned him forward a little bit and caught the puke in my already covered shirt I’d removed at the airport — the last thing I had with me for collecting puke. My wife suddenly gasped and I turned my head to look out the back window. A car was coming toward us fast — in the shoulder and obviously not seeing us. It fortunately swerved back into the traffic lane at the last second. If it had hit us, at least two of us would have been killed and one of them would definitely have been Pretired Baby, in his car seat with the car seat clip unbuckled.

Anyway, crisis averted, we made it to the doctor (who had no idea what was wrong and just gave us advice for treating nausea and thought it might be altitude sickness) and finally to our condo. Pretired Baby had a rough evening, but he eventually fell asleep on me and slept all night. The next day took him awhile to bounce back, but the day after that he was fine — which is when I came down with the same bug. It took me down for a night and the better part of a day, after which vacation finally started. At least we knew it wasn’t altitude sickness then, which meant the flight home should be better.

Why it’s worth trying to save money on vacation

A plane trip like that is a good reminder that plane travel — even when everything goes great — is a horrible experience. Even the best trips are an endurance test while the worst trips leave you wondering why you spent good money on such misery.

Fortunately our trip was very inexpensive. We had plenty of miles for our plane tickets and Pretired Baby traveled free as a puking lap baby. The suckage that is airplane travel is actually lessened quite a bit by knowing it was free or close to it.

The other reason to try to save money on vacation is that it can be quite expensive. You already have lodging — although that can also be free or close to it as well — you have food costs, which can be quite a bit if you eat out throughout the trip, you might need a rental car and you’ll likely spend some money on some sort of activities once you get there as well. It all adds up. A small family taking just two trips a year could easily drop $10,000 or more just on travel — that’s almost half of our core operating costs for the year! If you want to keep that up while paying out of pocket for everything, you might need twice the pretirement fund you were aiming for.

How to save money on vacation: shift your mindset

Since I already mentioned that we traveled to Maui with miles, you’re probably assuming that I’m going to start talking about travel rewards cards, card churning and other strategies that others have written about much more eloquently than me.

And while I AM advocating using rewards credit cards, what I really want to explain is an important mindset shift that my family has recently undergone.

You see, we’ve traveled ALL OVER this lovely planet, generally paying very little for the tickets that got us there, thanks to having accumulated many airline points. But we could have spent even less.

Most people, I think, are like us. Yes, they have rewards cards and yes, they build up over time with normal usage. So when we think about taking a trip, we get most of the trip planned and then finally we’ll say “Hey, do we have enough miles to pay for that?” Sometimes the answer is no and we’ll pay out of pocket. More likely, though, we’ll be just a little short and we’ll buy a few miles to get us over the top.

So we’ve shifted our thinking completely. Instead of planning a trip and then seeing if we have any miles we can use, we are planning our trips first and STRATEGICALLY building up miles toward each trip. And the biggest key to that, beyond planning farther ahead than we normally would, is to focus on sign-up bonuses vs. earning points over time. The sign-up bonuses require a certain amount of spending in the first few months so it’s critical to pay attention to the details.

It’s worth getting help

Getting organized on strategic rewards credit card usage can help you save money on vacation, but it’s an overwhelming world of intentionally confusing marketing. That’s why I enlisted the help of my friend Brad from Richmond Savers to help me sort through this mess. Brad offers free travel rewards coaching. All he asks in return is you sign up through his affiliate links and he then gets a small commission from the credit card companies.

We started by doing some thinking about the trips we wanted to take over the next few years. Here’s what we’re thinking right now:

  • 2015: Hawaii again, but probably Kauai this time. I think we like it better. Its laid-back vibe fits our personalities better than Maui.
  • 2016: Disneyland. We’re planning a joint trip with my brother’s family. I guess it’s one of those trips that’s unavoidable when you have kids.
  • 2017: Scandinavia: I’ll be turning 50 (really?) so we want to go visit the motherland to celebrate.
  • 2018: Italy: My wife wants to go to Tuscany when she turns 40. If all goes well, we may also be celebrating her pretirement!

It is generally a good idea to start with the trip coming up the soonest so we’re focused on building up enough miles for next year’s trip to Kauai. The way we’re doing this is via the British Airways rewards card, which gives us 50,000 miles. My wife signed up first and I think we’ve already got enough spending on the card to receive our points. Next, I’ll be signing up for the same card and getting the same points.

Once we have those banked, we’ll move on to the next card in our plan and keep going until all our trips are covered. It actually looks like we can pretty much get ALL of our needed plane tickets for nearly free with just our normal spending. We also have some spending we need to do on the house this summer so we’re going to try to time that work with the new card signups to maximize our signup rewards.

On top of that, we should be able to leverage rewards to gain big discounts with Disneyland and we’re even looking at some strategies for getting free hotel stays in Europe when the time comes. While we would have probably gotten most of our plane travel free or greatly reduced with our other points programs, by planning ahead and targeting the card usage at specific trips is the key to maximizing our vacation savings.

Other ways to save money on vacation

So now that you’ve hopefully joined me on my mindset shift and are now targeting rewards credit card spending toward specific trips, I’ll also share some of my other favorite tips for saving money on vacation.

  • Consider VRBO rentals instead of traditional hotels. Obviously you can’t apply rewards points toward private vacation rentals, but if you’re not using points anyway, choose a vacation rental. We use VRBO for at least 80 percent of our trips these days. Mainly because these private homes are usually better set up for traveling with a child. There are usually separate rooms and full kitchens, etc. Even if you only eat in for breakfast and go out for all your other meals can add up to a lot of savings.
  • Book your hotel first. For some reason travelers OBSESS over airline costs. There must be some weird psychology going on where people just cannot handle paying $10 more than the person sitting next to them because people will go through all kinds of maneuvers to save a little bit on plane tickets. Meanwhile they’ll often overpay for hotels on the same trip and not give it a second thought. What you need to know is that there is NO cancellation fee for most hotel bookings but there almost always is for airline travel. You can reserve your hotel stay first and then start looking for airline deals. If you find you need to adjust your stay a little bit, go ahead and make the changes then call the hotel and change your reservation. Hotel prices also fluctuate quite a bit just like airline prices. But if you see a better deal on a hotel than the one you already have, you can simple call and get the same deal. (We have had to cancel and rebook before, but it’s never been a problem.)
  • And just for fun, one of the ways we saved a little bit on this trip was to utilize the local library. In Maui you can get a temporary library card for $10 so we were able to load up on books (they also rent DVDs) and keep Pretired Baby entertained without packing a bunch of heavy books or buying a bunch when we got there. They also had a free storytime for toddlers so he was able to go to that also for free. I do love libraries!

I’ll share some other tips for saving money on travel in the coming days, but in the meantime, what are some of your favorite tips for saving money on vacation? 

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26 Thoughts on “How to save money on vacation

  1. Wow Nick. All I can say is WOW. Just how you wanted to spend a vacation. I’m glad you guys are alright now. Our little guy is nearly a month now, and that report really makes me want to fly with him. Haha. I feel really bad for you guys, but I’m glad you salvaged some fun and saved some money along the way
    -Bryan
    ps. did the Seattle chamber of commerce get you to write about the dreary weather :o)
    Income Surfer recently posted…If You’re A Dividend Growth Investor……My Profile

    • Pretired Nick on April 15, 2014 at 11:55 am said:

      Heh, thanks, Bryan! It all was fine once we settled down, but it was rough for awhile. Oh man, a month already? Believe it or not, that’s probably about the easiest time to travel with him.
      We have an understanding in Seattle that we should try to keep people from moving here as much as possible. (:

  2. Sorry to hear that pretired Baby and you guys had such a rough time on the flight. I have friends who travel all over the place with a baby but I don’t know if I could handle that stress. We’ll probably start off with some road trips or maybe very short flights. We’ll see… Brad definitely has some great free travel ideas, and I’ll probably seek his advice when I start churning some cards in the future. But after reading your story, I might have to wait until Baby LRC graduates high school =) j/k
    Andrew@LivingRichCheaply recently posted…Is it REALLY Okay to Take Paternity Leave?My Profile

    • Pretired Nick on April 15, 2014 at 11:54 am said:

      Thanks, Andrew. Ironically we put off traveling for awhile because we were afraid of how bad it would be. Nothing could have been worse than what we went through. One of the hardest things about traveling with a very young kid is all the crap you have to bring along. That alone makes traveling with a baby pretty tough. And the TSA is ridiculous. But at least we got some sun and relaxation once we all recovered!

  3. Traveling costs money! We are going to Peru this summer (first trip of the year) and I am currently looking for deals. I’m not credit card churning, I really should sign up for a credit card with a sign up bonus, but I feel like we don’t have high enough credit scores yet.
    SavvyFinancialLatina recently posted…I’m Automating Some of My Finances In My LifeMy Profile

  4. Oh man, that flight did not sound like a good time at all! At least it was just a stomach bug and not altitude sickness that would occur every time you flew, but talk about terrible timing there.

    For now I personally save by going camping, much cheaper than any hotel and we really enjoy it! I would like to eventually go out of the country so I think travel rewards cards may need to be researched then. Next summer I was checking out a few places on airbnb and vrbo like you suggested, glad to hear others do the same.
    Debt Hater recently posted…Fairy Stone State Park ReviewMy Profile

    • Pretired Nick on April 15, 2014 at 12:00 pm said:

      Oh yeah, it sucked big time. You’re so right about it being good that it was a stomach bug. I’ve never been so happy to be puking my guts out!
      We really want to get back to camping, but I think we need to wait until the kid is a little bit older first. That’s probably the best way to save money on vacation by far.

  5. Oh man, that’s tough. I saw your status on FB and I was hoping the little guy would get better. Sorry you guys got sick. Hope you’re all better now.
    We’ll be heading to the Big Island in about 10 days. Hopefully, we won’t pick up any new sickness. There will be 8 of us and we got a house. It should be fun time. Long flight though. I’ll have to keep your friend in mind for the reward card. We’re not very good at that.
    Joe recently posted…Selling a rental can have big impact on your tax liabilityMy Profile

    • Pretired Nick on April 16, 2014 at 12:17 pm said:

      I’m sure you guys will be fine and will have a great time. It was just a fluke for us. I can’t imagine worse timing, but at least it was a short-lived thing. I’ve never been to the Big Island. Can’t wait to hear how you like it!

  6. Thank the Lord for Brad and his help. Dude is a flipping travel rewards ninja. I’m completely with you on the strategic accumulation of points. Working backwards from a trip and churning for a specific purpose is the way to go. So much more efficient.

    Sorry for the puking and the close calls. Maybe this is your penance for a Seattle team defying all logic and morality, and daring to win a championship?

    • Pretired Nick on April 16, 2014 at 12:19 pm said:

      Oh man, he is the master! It really helped us in getting organized.
      Thanks for the kind words. Just for being a Smart Alec, though, we’re going to have to take it again this year just to show you!

  7. Wow do I feel bad for you guys. I know I get annoyed when I hear a kid’s incessant crying on a plane, that annoyance usually lasts all of 15 seconds before I realize its more awkward for the parents. The only time I get really annoyed is when the kid starts kicking your seat or grabbing regions of your body that should not be touched by strangers (yes that actually happen and man was I caught off guard).

    But hours of puking to endure for you guys? Thats just terrible.

    I actually just signed up for the Barclays cards myself as we want to take a trip to nashville later this year for a music festival. We’re not big on card churning, but eventually we might sign up for cards more frequently down the road once our student loans are paid off.

    • Pretired Nick on April 16, 2014 at 1:35 pm said:

      Thanks, Tom. I think it was my punishment for all the complaining I did about crying babies before I had a kid! We’re not big churners, either, but I think we can handle rotating one at a time. That shouldn’t be too bad for us to keep track of.

  8. Wow Nick, that sounds like an absolutely awful experience at the outset of the trip — I’m really sorry to hear that! We never had something quite that bad with our girls, but there was definitely some horrible vomiting 20 miles into a 400 mile drive from Richmond back home to Long Island. Not fun, but certainly nothing like hours on a plane with all those people around…

    Thanks so much for mentioning my travel coaching — I’m glad it is working out so well for you and of course I hope to help you for many years to come! And I hope to take you up on that Seattle tour come summer 2015 :)

    Your thoughts about strategically building up rewards points and changing your mindset with travel are spot-on. With these credit card bonuses, it is so important to start planning and collecting the miles that will work for your particular trip or trips and to start as early as possible. Planning, patience and flexibility are so important with this strategy!
    Brad @ RichmondSavers.com recently posted…AMEX Waives Annual Fees for All Active Duty Military MembersMy Profile

    • Pretired Nick on April 17, 2014 at 3:04 pm said:

      Thanks, buddy! Yeah, it was a good trip once we were past that rough start! Glad we got that out of the way early, at least!
      Thanks again for all the help. We are well on our way now and would have been really fumbling around for awhile without the help!

  9. Yeah, I just skimmed the article, and read the last half in detail. Sounds like an uneventful trip! ;)

    Good tips to keep costs down. We are doing a 5 week trip up the east coast, into Canada, and then back home to NC this summer. By car. It will save a ton versus trains or planes. And we’ll be spending a week or more in 3 Canadian cities, so AirBnb (like VRBO) has some great weekly deals for those stays.

    For the shorter stays in Toronto, Niagara Falls, and Philadelphia, we are booking free Sheraton hotels using our Starwood points. We found some sweet Category 2 hotels that go light on the points.

    NYC was tricky and we opted to pay for a Super 8 in Jersey 10 minutes from Times Square (so Google maps claims). Yeah, Super 8, but it’s a really nice Super 8. And they have free waffles. Not ideal, but way cheaper than the city hotels with $$$ parking. Maybe the hotel will be a little grungy and it’ll give us the true NYC/NJ experience!
    Justin @ Root of Good recently posted…March 2014 Financial UpdateMy Profile

    • Pretired Nick on April 19, 2014 at 6:21 pm said:

      Heh! Good job on the trip planning. You’re sure right about NYC being silly, though. The first time I went there with some friends, we stayed in New Jersey to save money and took the bus into the city. Funny thing was we checked into our hotel, plopped our stuff down, used the bathroom and were chilling on the couch — when some other people walked in! Turns out it was THEIR room and we’d blundered into the wrong room. Apparently just any old card key will open any door there. So sleep tight! (:

  10. I try to avoid all kinds of trinkets and souvenirs. They were fun as a child but nowadays I try to take something memorable back, which can often be a new friendship, a great memory, an awesome story, etc. When I do bring physical things back they are often small and worthwhile like a book or two or something to incorporate to the house like art. It’s a little more personal that way too.
    Scott @ Youthfulinvestor recently posted…Is a Battlebot in the Budget and Other Expensive HobbiesMy Profile

    • Pretired Nick on April 19, 2014 at 6:23 pm said:

      I’ll sometimes buy T-shirts to replenish my supply and because I don’t have to pack as many things from home, but that’s about all the tourist crap I buy. Although I have bought quite a bit of street art over the years. It’s cheap, easy to pack and lightweight. And a great memory of the trip. We got some really nice stuff in Barcelona a couple years ago. No regrets about any of that.

  11. On one trip to Hawaii, I went to a timeshare presentation every AM at 8:00. It forced me to get up early, and I got tickets to shows and dinners every night. I was forced to get up and start the day, and saw some pretty nice places.

    There is no sense sleeping in when you are at a new destination, you could have slept in at home…
    No Nonsense Landlord recently posted…Long Distance Property ManagementMy Profile

    • Pretired Nick on April 23, 2014 at 7:35 pm said:

      Repeat after me, “I have a little place in Maui.” Heh!
      I’ve considered it many times, but I don’t like being cornered by the sales pitch like that. Good for you for not buying into a timeshare. You didn’t, right?

  12. It seems like all parents have a story when it comes to traveling with a toddler and unfortunately we may be adding ours to the collection soon. We will be loading up Baby Grump for a transatlantic flight home to the states in just under 2 months. At the ripe old age of 17 months old. Although he is no rookie to the flight this will be the first time we have done it when he has been mobile and that has me nervous. I didn’t even consider puke as a possible challenge…thanks for the heads up…..I think….
    Mr. Grump recently posted…48 Hours in ParisMy Profile

  13. Pingback: Five Things I’ve Learned Traveling With Our Infant | Income Surfer

  14. Pingback: Harleys are dumb | Pretired.org

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