Taking a debt-free vacation in 3 easy steps

Depending on what you want to believe a family vacation costs anywhere between $1,180 and $4,580. Ouch.

Is it any wonder why – according to an American Express survey – 1/3 of American workers aren’t even bothering to take those prized week-long trips anymore? That’s a ton of debt to add on… particularly if your budget is already as tight as many are these days.

So is a debt-free vacation even possible? Not a stay on the couch and be lazy staycation, but an actual proper, get out of your city, go somewhere exciting and really get away vacation.

We not only think it’s possible, we think it’s highly doable for most Americans. Here’s how…

Take a debt-free vacation in three easy steps

Step 1: Choose a destination

This is the most strategic part of planning, because you have to be smart about booking the right trip for where you live. A vacation that costs a ton for someone sitting in the northeast maybe be cheap for someone in the south and vice versa.

For instance, the Debt.com offices are located in sunny South Florida. It’s actually pretty cheap to fly to a Caribbean island. According to TripAdvisor.com I can get roundtrip tickets to Puerto Rico for $175 – even less if I’m willing to delay my trip to fall or winter when rates are cheaper.

By contrast, if I live in New York, the average ticket to Puerto Rico is $229; Chicago residents pay more at $279. If you consider, a $104 difference in price per ticket would be over $400 added to your total bill for a vacation for your family of four. Of course, if we’re talking about traveling to Canada, both Chicago and New York residents are going to get a much cheaper deal that what I could get from South Florida. So planning strategically pays off.

Now, if you live in the middle of the country, you may need to get creative. Visit a major city or a national park that’s near you. So if you’re sitting in Norman, Oklahoma you head south to Texas or west to go national park hopping in New Mexico or Colorado.

Step 2: Book Early & Off-Season

The old adage is that the earlier you book a flight, the better the deal you get. But is that necessarily true? If I book a summer 2015 vacation now, will the tickets be cheaper than they’d be if I book at the beginning of next year.

Two studies referenced by Askmen.com find that the flight booking sweet spot is two months prior to when you want to take off. So if you want to take an August vacation then you’re in the ideal booking window would be the end of May to the beginning of June.

You should also follow general booking rules to get cheaper flights:

1. Weekday flights at non-peak flying hours (i.e. not rush hour) are usually cheaper.

Flying midday on a Thursday is almost always going to be cheaper than flying during end-of-day rush hour on a Friday.

2. Off-season flights (and hotel reservations) are always cheaper, too.

So find the off season for wherever you plan to visit and schedule around it.

3. Avoid major holidays, since booking is always going to be more expensive.

If you want to vacation over a holiday, schedule your flights during the non-peak times. For instance, if you’re going somewhere for memorial day weekend, you may have cheaper flights if you leave the Wednesday or Thursday before the weekend and then fly back on Tuesday or Wednesday of the next week.

Step 3: Save Strategically

Flights and hotel reservations only represent a portion of your vacation costs. You’ll also spend a chunk of cash on food, entertainment and even transportation while you’re there. If you aren’t careful, the credit card bills from your trip may be even bigger than what you paid for travel and accommodations.

You always hear that you need to save up to avoid depending on your credit cards while you’re away on your trip. But how much should you save, really?

Start by doing a little research on restaurants, attractions and events in the area you’ll be visiting. If you see something you absolutely don’t want to miss, right down the cost for your family to do whatever it is. Also use the prices as to estimate how much your trip will cost per day.

Make sure while you’re doing this to avoid extra expenses you don’t need. For instance, don’t plan to go out to eat every morning for breakfast if your accommodations offer a decent breakfast included in your room costs. Don’t’ take expensive tours when you can just walk around with a guide book.

Here’s how you use this info to help you plan…

1. Take the research and use it to build out an estimated cost for your trip.
2. Count back on the number of weeks (or pay periods) until your departure date.
3. Divide total cost by the time until your trip to see how much you need to save.
4. If you can’t save enough, push the dates for your trip so you have more time.

This may mean delaying your vacation for a month, but think how much better you’ll feel when you get back from your trip without a bunch of credit card debt that you now have to figure out how to pay back. You don’t want your getaway to just add to your stress, which is what happens when you rely on credit to cover the cost of your trip.