How To Plan (And Afford!) Your Dream Vacation

A woman folds clothes to pack into a suitcase in a bright living room

You don’t need to be ultra rich to travel to idyllic destinations.

Do you dream of sandy beaches and crystal blue water? Or maybe an action-packed week in the city? Whether your dream vacation is full of thrills or all about relaxation, planning for it can be the most difficult and stressful part. 

There are a lot of decisions to consider, reservations to make and costs can easily pile up, making the whole experience a little less dreamy. But travel and financial experts say there are ways you can prepare ahead of your trip so that your getaway is well within your means and super Instagram-worthy too. 

Make a vacation draft document

Just as you might write a proposal, pitch, or paper, start with a draft or outline of your dream vacation.

Include details like: what you want your vacation to feel like, what experiences do you want to have, how long do you want to stay, where are you willing to make sacrifices. For the most part, this draft is about feelings. Since we’re dreaming at this point, don’t worry about the cost – that’ll come later on.

Before you even start looking into flights, hotels and activities, drafting your dream vacation will hopefully give you a bit of a road map and help you more easily make decisions later on in the planning process. After all, the details can become overwhelming and when the choice paralysis eventually takes hold, you’ll have something to reference that’ll help.

Strategically set your budget

It’s entirely possible to have a dream vacation within a set budget. First, decide what you’re willing to spend for the entire trip – this includes travel, hotels, meals, shopping and any extra costs (like event tickets or experiences). Keep in mind that some places are more expensive than others, and that may dictate that kind of experience you have. Regardless, you don’t have to break the bank to travel and travel well.

Once you have an overall number, you can start to work within that budget to achieve the dream vacation you drafted earlier. If your traveling costs (airline tickets, car rentals, gas, etc.) are high, then you will want to make sacrifices elsewhere in your budget. Perhaps you opt for a less expensive hotel or cut down your shopping budget (remember that whatever you buy you’ll have to bring back with you, so you might need to keep this low to begin with). 

This budget should also include all of the things you wouldn’t pay for normally that might not be a part of your vacation, per say. If you need a pet sitter, visa or passport, factor those in too. 

Leaving a little wiggle room within your budget is important in case you run into snags along the way, such as lost luggage or a mistake in a reservation. How much money you want to reserve may depend on your vacation and how expensive the destination is. 

Be intentional about where you'll splurge or save

Once you’ve set your budget, the rest is kind of like a puzzle. It’s not as simple as booking a hotel and flight and winging the rest. If your vacation has multiple stops, research the most cost-effective transportation.

For example, in Europe, flying can actually be quite less expensive than other means of transportation – though the opposite may be true for domestic trips. And if you’re planning on staying in a big city, look into public transportation and how much you’ll be able to rely on it throughout your trip. It may save you money on a rental car. 

Flying can host a whole bevy of charges too. Think about how much luggage you’ll have and what traveling costs will be associated with your travel.

Hotels and rental properties can also vary in cost, especially with cleaning fees and lodging taxes. Make sure to research beyond the sticker price, as those extra costs will drive-up the price you pay in the end.

This research may force you to rearrange your budget a little bit, but at least you won’t hit any major financial surprises along the way. Being prepared is the easiest way to relieve stress throughout your planning process and the vacation itself! 

Create a travel timeline

Writing a draft and setting a budget are big steps in creating your dream vacation – and they’re very exciting ones! The more daunting task is saving up for it all. 

If you've decided to go all out on your vacation, expect to make sacrifices in saving up for it. One of the easiest ways to ensure that you’re saving enough money for your budget, is to make a timeline. Say you want to spend $2,000 total and you plan to travel in six months. That gives you a goal of saving about $330 per month. You can make that even more manageable by thinking in terms of paychecks or weeks ($83). 

The hardest part will be starting, but once you get in a groove, it’s a lot easier. Every meal you opt for eating at home instead of out feels like one meal closer to your dream vacation. Every impulse purchase you don’t make is one that you can while you’re traveling. 

Setting reminders, writing in your planner and making micro goals can help keep you on track. Check-in with yourself every week or so to make sure you’re saving enough. Without accountability, it’s easy to derail. 

Plan just a little more before you go

In the final days or weeks leading up to your dream getaway, make sure to scope the weather, revisit your reservations, and double check your itinerary. 

You’ll also want to make sure you have the miscellaneous items taken care of: Notify your bank, receive any necessary medical care (like required vaccinations), put a hold on your mail, pre-pay bills that are expected to be due during your trip.

These little actions will help you fully enjoy the trip you’ve worked so hard to make possible.

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