This winter, phrases like "polar vortex" and "snowmageddon" became part of the American vernacular, and with good reason: The Free Press reports that many regions experienced record-breaking cold and snowfall, especially in the Eastern and Southern United States. Now that temperatures are finally starting to climb, one might expect Americans to stage a mass migration to sunny beaches or island resorts. There's just one problem: Vacations are expensive and funds are in short supply.
A Harris Interactive survey conducted last year found that one-third of Americans were shelving their summer travel plans for economic reasons. The Associated Press notes that though the economy is generally better this year, travel costs are increasing, making it a bit of a wash. What is a weary, winter-stricken summerphile to do? With some creative budgeting -- and a hefty dose of research -- you may be able to swing that dream vacation without completely breaking the bank. Here are seven excellent ways to start.
1. Earmark your tax return
Americans fortunate enough to get a tax refund this year might consider putting those funds towards their summer travel plans. We suggest waiting until closer to your trip to deposit your refund so that you are less likely to dip into it. If your refund is deposited into your bank account electronically, consider sheltering it in a separate savings or money market account. MSN Money reports that vacationers heading overseas -- Europe especially -- can actually make the tax code work for them by saving their receipts and filing for a value-added tax (VAT) refund.
2. Mix business and pleasure
All work and no play may make some people dull, but doing a little of both while on vacation can pay off long term. The benefit is two-fold: First, workers can minimize the number of vacation days they take, rolling more days over to next year's vacation stash, or getting a heftier end-of-year check if their employers reimburse unused time off. (Note: Company policies vary, so check with HR to find out how your employer handles unused vacation days.) Second, turning necessary business travel (think: that three-day conference in Orlando) into a side-vacation can make some travel expenses tax-deductible. Forbes notes that this benefit is especially applicable to self-employed workers and small business owners.
3. Let your credit card points accumulate
Many credit cards offer cash-back rewards on certain purchases, say one percent for shopping at certain stores or three percent on gas. Often one has to actually claim those rewards to access them, either online or by phoning customer service, so they are truly out of sight, out of mind. Make that inconvenience work for you by simply accruing these perks and cashing them out a couple of weeks before your trip. Note that some credit card companies offer frequent flier miles or other travel-related perks, like free travel or rental car insurance. Contact your credit card directly to learn more about any special programs that could whittle down your travel costs.
4. Use budgeting apps
It can be tricky enough tracking your expenses without having to budget for an upcoming vacation. U.S. News & World Report recommends using a financial planning app, like Mint, to make this simpler. There are also a number of money-saving apps, such as Cartwheel by Target or Food On The Table, which matches local grocery deals with recipes, that can help you save on the go, cushioning your travel budget.
5. Think outside the (cable) box
It is no secret that cable can be a budget drain, especially if you pay for hundreds of channels you never watch. Mint recommends cutting the cable and directing those savings into your vacation fund. Canceling cable or satellite does not necessarily mean you have to miss your favorite shows: Several services, like Hulu and Netflix, let you stream movies and television shows online for a fraction of the cost you pay your cable provider each month. Many game consoles and neat streaming gadgets, such as Roku or Apple TV, allow viewers to stream these services directly to their TVs. Digital antennas are another budget-friendly way to watch local networks and public broadcasting.
6. Buy out of season
Buying in season may pay off at the produce aisle, but not on flights and hotel rooms. According to Business Insider, the peak U.S. travel season is the second and third week of August, so hotel and other travel costs tend to be higher around then. By delaying your trip a few weeks, you can shave hundreds of dollars off your vacation tab.
7. Research, research, research
When it comes to budgeting for (and saving on) summer vacations, there is no substitute for good old-fashioned research. Look to online travel cost-comparison or deal-tracking websites to save on travel, lodging and even meals. You can also look up restaurant menus and attraction costs at your destination to get a reasonable sense for how much you should expect to spend there, reducing the likelihood of completely blowing your budget (and racking up tabs on high-interest credit cards).
"Long, Cold & Snowy Here; Rain & That on the Tundra There," The Free Press, April 3, 2014, Christine Parrish, http://freepressonline.com/main.asp?SectionID=52&SubSectionID=78&ArticleID=31610
"One-Third of Americans Less LIkely To Travel This Summer Due to Economy," PR Newswire, June 19, 2013, http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/one-third-of-americans-less-likely-to-travel-this-summer-due-to-economic-outlook-212108271.html
"How to save money on your summer vacation hotels," Associated Press, April 2, 2014, Scott Mayerowitz, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/how-save-money-your-summer-vacation-hotels
"Get a tax refund from your vacation," MSN Money, September 1, 2011, Jeff Schnepper, http://money.msn.com/taxes/get-a-tax-refund-from-your-vacation-jeff-schnepper
"Own a Business? Here's How to Write Off Your Next Vacation," Forbes, March 3, 2014, Nellie Alkalp, http://www.forbes.com/sites/allbusiness/2014/03/03/how-to-write-off-your-next-vacation/2/
"7 Easy Ways to Save for Your Big Summer Vacation," U.S. News & World Report, February 25, 2014, Sabah Karimi, http://money.usnews.com/money/blogs/my-money/2014/02/25/7-easy-ways-to-save-for-your-big-summer-vacation
"5 Tips That Will Get You Closer To Your Dream Vacation," Business Insider, June 29, 2013, Laura Brothers, http://www.businessinsider.com/tips-plan-an-affordable-summer-vacation-2013-6
"14 Ways to Save $1,000 by the Summer," Mint, February 17, 2014, https://www.mint.com/blog/saving/14-ways-to-save-1000-by-the-summer-0214/