Hack The Trip: Maximizing Your Travel Budget

One of retirement’s best perks is having the time and freedom to travel to bucket-list destinations.

According to a 2018 Travel Trends survey conducted by AARP, Baby Boomers are taking full advantage of their unlimited vacation days with adult travelers planning to take four to five leisure trips in the next year at a cost of about $6,400.

After factoring in related expenses like apparel, luggage, pet sitting, parking and other incidentals, that figure is likely even higher.

With dream trips and money at stake, it’s important to budget wisely to avoid overspending on airfares, hotel rooms and unnecessary expenses.

By keeping these tips in mind when planning your next vacation, you’ll save a few bucks ― and there just might be enough left in your wallet for the next getaway.

Pick A Card, Any Card

Earning travel points on a credit card is old news, but worth repeating.

If you’re a frequent traveler, or hope to become one, consider applying for a credit card that offers points for every dollar you spend, which can be used toward travel.

According to a recent Experian survey, 45 percent of Americans who plan to apply for a credit card, want to apply for a rewards card, and with good reason.

If you have an acceptable credit score and are able to pay off the balance each month, they are a great way to earn points toward airfare, hotels, rental cars, cruises, tours and other vacation-related activities.

Choosing the right one depends on the kind of travel you plan on doing.

If you’re a road trip sort of person, then an airfare rewards card probably doesn’t make much sense.

travel budget III

Instead you might want to consider a hotel rewards card for any of the larger chains including Marriott, Starwood, Choice, IHG, Ritz-Carlton or Hilton.

While many people redeem their points for free nights, the cards also offer other perks like room upgrades, merchandise, cash back and in many cases, the ability to transfer the points to other affiliated loyalty programs like airlines and cruises.

The drawback is that room rewards often require thousands of points and depending on season, demand, location and other factors, “free” stays can be difficult to attain.

Frequent fliers typically prefer to use airline cards to accrue points toward future flights.

Among the most popular are the United MileagePlus Explorer Card, Citi/AAdvantage Platinum Select (American Airlines) and the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card.

Not only do these earn points toward free airfare, but also additional perks like free checked bags, access to airport lounges (a lifesaver during long layovers) and discounts on in-flight food and beverage purchases.

For the frequent traveler with excellent credit, there’s the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, which offers rewards toward flights, hotels, activities and a host of other travel-related expenses.

The annual fee is a hefty (gulp) $450 plus $75 per additional card user.

Yep, that’s a lot.

In return, however, Chase offers a $300 annual reimbursement for travel purchases charged to the account, 3X points on travel and dining charges, travel insurance, access to more than 1,000 airport lounges worldwide, no foreign transaction fees and up to $100 application fee credit for Global Entry or TSA Precheck among other benefits, which help offset the annual fee and make it a standout.

And you get more bang for your buck when you redeem your points through Chase Ultimate Rewards program with 50,000 points equating to about $750 toward travel.

Flying The Friendly Skies

When it comes to booking airline tickets, make no mistake, it’s a game and knowing how to play it can save you big money.

The cost of your ticket depends on any number of factors, starting with the time of year you’re traveling.

Thanksgiving, the week after Christmas, April and the summer months are almost always the most expensive, not to mention the busiest.

For educators, families and other travelers limited to school breaks and summer travel, there’s no getting around traveling during peak times.

But for everyone else, the “shoulder” seasons of fall and late spring are almost always the cheapest times to fly, as well as the month of January when everyone has returned to work after the holidays.

travel plane budget

And they are typically the best times to use your accrued airline or other travel reward points.

The day of the week you book tickets also matters (Tuesday and Wednesday are often the best days for airfare sales and usually the cheapest days to fly), as does how far out you book.

Though hotly debated by travel experts, many agree that the best time to purchase a domestic airline ticket is roughly 54 days prior to your trip and about 120 days if international.

That said, it’s never too soon to start looking. Should you find a great deal, don’t hesitate to book it. Otherwise, you risk losing out while waiting for something better to come along.

If you’re flying domestic and don’t mind the uncertainty of not having a seat assignment, Southwest is easily the best choice for flexibility and low fares.

With fare calendars posted on its website showing ticket prices for any given day of the month, allows Southwest passengers with flexible travel dates to suss out the best days to fly for the least amount of money.

Southwest also allows ticket changes right up to 24 hours before a booked flight without any punitive change fees. Consumers pay only the difference if the new fare is higher.

And, if fares drop after booking, passengers can rebook their tickets at the lower price and receive a Southwest credit for the difference which can be used for up to a year.

So it’s worth it to continue checking fares even after you’ve booked a flight.

Even better? Southwest allows two (yes, two) checked bags for free, a premium perk not found on most other carriers.

Hotel, Motel, Holiday Inn

Though it’s tempting to use an online travel aggregator like Expedia or Travelocity to score a discounted hotel room, consider booking directly through the hotel website instead.

It might be a few extra bucks up front, but in many cases the benefits outweigh the cost starting with flexibility.

Most big chain hotels offer flexible cancellation policies, sometimes right up until the day of arrival, giving you leeway should your plans change along with the latitude to keep searching for a better deal right up until you leave for your trip.

hotel room

When booking through an aggregator, full payment is usually required up front for the least expensive rooms, are is almost always non-refundable.

While some offer “reserve now, pay later” options, they typically cost more (sometimes equivalent to what you’d pay booking direct), and though they may offer the ability to cancel the reservation, the cut-off date is often several days prior to your stay, instead of the day of or day before.

Regardless, always check the cancellation policy before booking any hotel room.

High-demand hotels may have more restrictive policies, and, depending on the time of year and location, sometimes charge a one-night penalty, if not more, when cancelled.

Another reason to book direct is that guests who make reservations through third-party aggregators often end up in the less desirable rooms (think next to the elevator or above the bar), with the better rooms and upgrades going to the hotel’s frequent guests and patrons enrolled in their rewards program.

To that end, whether you’re a frequent traveler or not, it makes sense to choose a hotel chain whose quality and locations meet your travel needs, sign up for their program and stay with them whenever possible.

Not only will you earn points toward future stays (sometimes more quickly than through rewards credit cards), brand loyalty also pays dividends in things like free Wi-Fi, water bottles, room upgrades and other spiffs, ultimately saving you money in the long run.

Finally, it doesn’t hurt to enroll with multiple hotel chains (or anyplace you plan to book a room), simply because as a rewards member you’re more likely to receive better service and amenities than someone who isn’t.

The only downside is a barrage of emails arriving in your inbox, which isn’t all bad considering they often alert recipients to room sales, discounted destinations and other useful information.

And you can always unsubscribe.