Don’t go into debt for your dream vacation: How to avoid financial nightmares

Don’t go into debt for your dream vacation: How to avoid financial nightmares

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“Easy Travel” is a ten-part series focusing on how to reduce bumps during vacations, anticipate roadblocks and be ready when things aren’t going your way. If you’d like to contribute to our future reporting and share your experience as a source, you can click here to fill out this quick form.

If it seems like nearly everyone has gone on vacation this summer, you’re right. 

The average American household is expected to spend $2,830 on summer vacation this year – nearly 40% more than in 2019, according to an Ipsos poll for Allianz Partners USA. And one in five Americans expects to increase leisure travel spending over the next three months, according to a recent survey from U.S. Travel Association and Ipsos.

“I’m actually leaving for Australia tomorrow,” Marguerita Cheng, a certified financial planner and CEO of Blue Ocean Global Wealth, told USA TODAY.  “I don’t hold myself as a travel expert, but I do love travel. And I love helping people realize their goals to be able to enjoy travel.”

Of course, she budgeted for her trip way in advance, but not everyone prepares for big expenses.

“When people do a lot of holiday shopping, and they charge it and they get the bill, they have what I call holiday hangover,” she said. “They’re still paying that in July.”

There’s no need to go into debt for a vacation. Here’s how to budget for any trip.

How do I start planning travel?

Think about your biggest travel expenses. They might be airfare, accommodations, activities or all of the above. Add them up and divide by 12 to see how much you’d have to set aside each month to cover them. 

“When you break it down, all of a sudden, it seems more attainable,” Cheng said.

That $2,830 vacation households planned for this summer would require roughly $236 in savings each month or $118 in savings each bi-weekly pay period.

How much money should I have saved for a trip? 

“It’s very personal,” Cheng said.

It depends on the destination, trip duration, travel party and many other factors.

For instance, a family of four may need to save thousands for a weeklong vacation at Walt Disney World, where expenses may include:

  • Travel to the Florida resort by plane, car or other means
  • Transportation within the Orlando area if needed
  • Accommodations, which vary widely
  • Dining, particularly for character meals and other table-service options
  • Theme park tickets
  • Add-ons like Genie+, Individual Lightning Lanes or PhotoPass service
  • Optional experiences like Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique makeovers and lightsaber building
  • Souvenirs, which don’t have to be pricey but can add up

You might not need to save up for souvenirs and day-to-day expenses at other destinations.

“Like when I go to Asia, I don’t really spend that much money on food,” Cheng said. “I joke around with my kids, like I spent less money on food there than I do here in America.”

The flights to Asia, however, are expensive.

Is $1,000 enough for a trip?  

It can be.

“Travel is good for the soul,” Cheng said. “It doesn’t have to be a month in Latin America. You can even have a weekend in the city.”

“It might be hard for you to go on a two-week cruise, but that doesn’t mean you can’t go away for a week to the beach or the mountains or something,” she added. “I don’t want people to think it’s all or none if they don’t have enough money for that international destination.”

How do I save up for vacation?

“I advise people save as much as you can throughout (the year),” she said.

To do that, she suggests thinking about cash flow as a mix of core essential committed expenses and lifestyle variable expenses.

“I don’t use fixed because fixed gets people tripped up, because utilities aren’t fixed, but they’re a core essential expense, right?” she said. “And I don’t use the word discretionary.”

People do, however, have a lot of control of that lifestyle variable spending, especially when it comes to big ticket items that are wants, not needs. 

“You may not need to replace your car every five years. Maybe it’s every eight years,” Cheng said. “Those years when you don’t have car payments, you can save more for travel.”

For her flights to and from Australia, Cheng wound up using miles, but she had planned to reallocate money she would normally have spent on attending conferences. 

“We want to make sure that clients know that there’s only a certain amount of money they can spend, but instead of saying ‘No, you can’t go on that trip. That’s too expensive,’ there are ways in which they can make that more affordable.’ “

What is the 50/30/20 rule? How to think about spending, saving

Is there such a thing as a vacation bank account?

Some people do like having a savings account specifically for vacations.

“That can be good if they have a spouse or partner who’s not really into saving or views saving as being restrictive,” Cheng said. “The fact that it’s in this designated account makes it more real for them, so they get less pushback.”

She said others prefer just to save on their own.

How should I pay for a vacation?

Cheng is not against paying with plastic.

“Do charge,” she said. “There’s some value in using your credit card because you can get some points. Also sometimes there’s insurance involved, but make sure that you are at least saving up.”

Just make sure you have a plan for paying it off, especially with high-interest rates.

“It can be good to see those rates on your CDs and your money market, but it’s not good to see it on your credit cards,” Cheng said, adding one more warning about credit cards. “Be really mindful of foreign transaction fees,” which can add up.

How can I save on travel costs?

A big way to save on vacations is to travel off-season.

“Obviously, you don’t want to go somewhere when it’s off-season you’re miserable and everything’s closed, but they don’t have to go at peak time,” Cheng said. 

She shared an example of clients who wanted to visit the South of France. 

“Because they’re retired, they don’t have to worry about kids’ schedules or peak time at work,” she said. “So they’re actually able to go to the South of France in September, October. It’s still lovely, but the airfare is considerably less. It’s also less crowded.”

How do you manage budgeting for vacations?

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