This summer, it's easy to feel like images of unattainable luxury vacations are flooding our social media feeds. For many people, the idea of summer travel involves peak-season flights, expensive hotels, and three meals a day at restaurants in the most touristy parts of town. From this lens, it can be hard to justify travel when you're paying off student debt or saving for a big purchase.
When we talk with CommonBond members who are paying off their loans, one of the most common ways they use the savings from refinancing is taking a vacation. And they have the right idea—the benefits of travel can go beyond expanding your personal horizons, and even improve your health. The good news is, it's easier than you think to juggle that much-needed vacation along with achieving your financial goals. Even if you're still paying off your student loans, here are a few tips for taking a vacation—prudently—this summer.
Turn a trip you're already taking into a vacation
One of the easiest ways to save money on travel costs is to extend a trip you're already planning to take — whether it's a work or personal trip — into a vacation.
If you're traveling for work, ask to book one leg of your flight a few days before or after your professional obligations. Then, use the extra days to explore your destination on your own, or meet up with a friend who lives nearby. This is particularly useful if your work travel coincides with a weekend — for example, if you're working from another location Wednesday through Friday, stay the weekend instead of flying home Friday evening.
Alternatively, it's wedding season, and many of us already have weekends booked with flights or long car trips: the average cost of transportation to a wedding in 2017 was $321. You're already spending the money, so if you're attending a destination wedding, add a couple of days before or after your trip to enjoy the locale.
Track your flights
I use Google Flights or Kayak for tracking flights; these sites use the ITA Software Matrix to find the best deals. As soon as you know your itinerary, set up price tracking on flights to get a sense of what you'll have to spend. To avoid scams, make sure to book flights directly from the airline's website.
Don't forget to factor the cost of travel to and from the airport into your overall budget. For example, I recently moved to an apartment that's closer to JFK Airport than the other airports in New York City. Even if I see that flights from other airports are more affordable, I know I'll spend more than the difference on taxi fare. Consider whether you can access an airport via public transit, too, to save even more.
Location, location, location
Now you know when and how you're arriving at your destination, but it's not quite time to research where you'll stay. Instead, focus next on what you want to do on your trip.
Here's why: the costs of transportation to and from your lodging can quickly add up. You may find a reasonable price for a hotel or Airbnb farther from the center of town, but if it's going to be a hefty taxi fare to get to the attractions on your trip, you're better off paying a little more and staying in a central location.
By considering what you'd like to do on your trip before booking your accommodation, you're more likely to find a place that's closer to the areas where you'll spend the majority of your time. You can even save specific places you want to visit on Google Maps, to see what patterns emerge.
Finally, if you're staying in a city, prioritize staying at a location convenient to bus or train lines, and take public transit as necessary. This can make a big difference in your budget.
Dining on the Cheap
No one's idea of a great vacation involves wandering around an unfamiliar place with low blood sugar. Plus, not planning ahead can prompt an unforeseen food splurge. Research dining options before you leave for your trip — your wallet, and stomach, will thank you.
It's easy to fall into the trap of dining out for all three of your meals each day. Instead, consider staying at an apartment or Airbnb so you can prepare your own meals, and commit to dining out for only one meal a day. Or, if you'd prefer to stay in a hotel, look for one that includes breakfast in your room reservation — one less meal to think about, and potentially have to splurge for!
When you do decide to eat at a restaurant, head to where the locals eat. If you're traveling to a country that doesn't normally speak English, stay away from restaurants that have English language menus. There's usually a markup.
Finally, familiarize yourself with tipping customs before you travel. This will avoid overtipping, or an awkward situation at the end of your meal.
If I'm travelling internationally, the first thing I usually do when I land is hit the ATM. As ATMs have become ubiquitous there's hardly any need for travelers' checks anymore, and currency exchanges at the airport can incur high fees. If you think you'll be traveling internationally regularly, consider opening a checking account that offers no ATM withdrawal fees. Then, simply take out cash from a local ATM when you arrive at your destination. You may also want to check that your credit card has no foreign transaction fees.
Whether you're at an ATM or paying with a credit card, always make sure to select a payment in the local currency. Otherwise, you'll end up paying a fee for the currency exchange!
Traveling can be expensive, but it doesn't have to be. Paying off your student loans is an important step toward financial well-being and it doesn't need to get in the way of exploring new cultures and places. There are several ways to save money with a little travel savvy.
And while you're researching your next summer vacation spot, consider looking into saving even more money. Refinancing your student loans can give you more cash for that dream vacation. Click here to get started.