Travel Expenses to Budget for Now
Budget for these costs to meet your travel goals and avoid overspending.
Airline baggage fees are a common hidden cost travelers encounter, so make sure you pack light.(Getty Images)
With just a few weeks until 2016, now is the time to set travel goals and put your plans into motion. It's also an ideal time to make smart money-saving moves. Whether you want to a plan a family trip, a romantic getaway or a bucket list journey to a far-flung frontier with friends or on your own, there are simple steps you can take to travel affordably and account for often unexpected budget-busters. With some guidance from travel experts, U.S. News came up with expenses to factor into your travel budget and savvy steps to take now to help keep you and your bank account happy in the new year.
When it comes to planning a trip – no matter your budget or where you're headed – the key is starting the research and budgeting process early, typically six to 12 months ahead of your vacation. The reason behind that lead time: to ensure availability and trim lodging costs. Just last year the typical domestic and international leisure guest spent $131 per night on a hotel stay, according to findings from the American Hotel & Lodging Association's 2015 Lodging Industry Trends report.
Let's say you have your heart set on visiting a popular spot during peak travel times such as the winter holidays. Book nine to 12 months in advance, says Jeanenne Tornatore, senior travel editor at Orbitz.com. And if you want to stay at a popular destination such as the Grand Canyon, which can welcome more than 10,000 visitors a day, you need to do your homework, says Dan Mahar CEO of Tauck, a tour operator offering guided tours and cruises across the globe. People are booking earlier than ever, and with a limited inventory of historic national lodges, it's important to book with a reputable, all-inclusive outfitter that can secure expert-led tours with a national park ranger and offer access to popular campsites, thanks to solid industry relationships. "We can choreograph it in a way that makes it very simple for you," he says. "It can make your time more efficient and a lot more stress-free."
And if you're itching to attend a major event such as the Rio 2016 Olympic Games or the Super Bowl, book several months in advance, Tornatore says, adding that major events fill up quickly and become increasingly expensive to attend the longer you wait.
"The old adage that the early bird gets the worm is very much true," says Josh Belkin, Hotels.com's vice president and general manager, North America. To get a sense of pricing in your desired destination, head online and compare the dollars. And if you're interested in an in-demand destination during a busy convention weekend or peak travel period, he suggests looking at all options. "Sometimes, there's some great hidden gem hotels off the beaten path," he says, pointing out that in popular destinations like New York, Orlando and Las Vegas, the key is staying flexible in your room location.
Activities and Dining Costs
"If there's attractions, or things you know that you want to see and do, book those first," Tornatore says. If you want to handle the arrangements on your own, do it online in advance, she adds. Third-party booking sites such as Orbitz allow you to book your activities in advance, plus you can score discounts by bundling admission fees with other expenses (think: hotels, flights and car rentals). And if there's a restaurant you're eager to try or show you're clamoring to see, Tornatore also recommends working with your hotel concierge to snag reservations.
"One of my favorite tips is booking online in advance," Belkin says. By booking attractions online, you can mitigate the risk of unavailability and dodge waiting in hourslong lines at popular tourist attractions, he adds.
The two biggest travel expenses are going to be your hotel and your airfare, according to Belkin, making it critically important to book these two components of your trip early to snap up the best rates. While the best way to find flight deals is through flight-booking tools that allow you to search for the lowest fares based on your desired travel dates and times, when it comes to booking hotels, you have a little more wiggle room. For example, some Hotels.com properties offer rooms that can be reserved with a deposit at the time of booking and paid in full upon check-in or checkout, offering extra cushioning if you're on a strict budget and want to spread out your travel expenses.
Apart from factoring in how you're going to reach your destination, it's also important to account for transit costs once you arrive. It's also advantageous to look at packages, Tornatore says, to consider the pros and cons of bundling hotel and transportation expenses to slash costs. Travelers tend to overlook car rentals, she explains, noting that long-term rentals can cost you thousands, especially if you procrastinate on booking, making them important to book early on and roll into a package deal. It's also advantageous to take the time before you book to look for sales and promotional codes, which can help you save. Promotion codes are " one of the biggest things people leave out of the equation," she adds. Rely on sites like GasBuddy.com to compare pricing at local stations to find the lowest gas rates on your desired route. Another handy tool is AAA Travel's Fuel Cost Calculator to gauge the cost of your trip, and factor the price into your budget.
Mahar advises carefully choosing the types of immersive experiences you want to have to maximize enrichment and enjoyment during your limited days off. For example, if you want to spend most of your time in America's national parks, he points to unique expeditions, such as flightseeing, rafting and hiking with a knowledgeable guide through a trusted company, so you can benefit from traveling with a reliable park ranger who can grant you access to coveted spots. Working with a reputable tour company also saves you from a post-trip financial headache, since the vacation price is outlined in one all-inclusive rate.
"Generally speaking, the travel industry is unbundling a lot of extra fees," Belkin says. If you're looking to avoid unexpected expenses while booking your stay on websites like Hotels.com, remember to apply filters to ensure you book a property that provides amenities like complimentary breakfast and Wi-Fi, and free parking, he says. It's also beneficial to factor in resort fees, particularly at all-inclusive spots in the Caribbean and Mexico, where there are often daily fees, Tornatore says. "Make sure that you look for those when booking," she adds, pointing out that they can add an extra $20 to $50 dollars a day. Oftentimes, travelers glaze over that information, she cautions. She advises reading the fine print and reviewing property details before booking to factor in extra resort fees.
Airline baggage fees are another hidden cost to account for. "People don't realize on some of the low-cost carriers, you have to pay a fee just to take a carry-on bag," she explains, pointing to Spirit Airlines' baggage policy. Apart from carriers that charge for carry-on and checked bags, many airlines require a minimum $25 fee for the first checked bag, which can translate to a steep final ticket cost. Stay prepared by reading the fine print and knowing which benefits and add-ons are included in the price of your ticket.
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