Ensure your vacation is time and money well spent

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A family packing their car for vacation
Are you planning a much needed getaway?
Whether your ideal vacation includes amusement parks, cultural sights, national monuments or sandy beaches, there are things you can do now to help ensure your vacation is time — and money — well spent.

Budget now, save later

Before catching your flight or gassing up the car for a road trip, consider creating a vacation budget. By planning ahead and exploring your options, you can make the most of your time away.
Let your fingers do the walking — Compare flight and hotel deals online. If your dates are flexible and you don't mind layovers, you can often score lower-priced flights. Some travel websites allow you to select a range of dates that you're willing to travel — and pick those that offer the best deals. Quick tip: Look at mid-week flights to save on costs.
Look beyond hotels — You no longer have to stay in a hotel to have a great vacation. You may want to consider a vacation rental or even a home swap. It's the perfect way to save money and see a different side of your destination. Staying in a local apartment in the heart of a foreign city will give you a more personal perspective than a corporate hotel at the edge of town. And, you can keep costs down by making breakfast at "home" or packing a lunch to take with you.
Prioritize your activities — Even if you had an unlimited budget, you wouldn't be able to do everything. Trying to jam too many things into a single trip can turn a fun getaway into a slog. Instead, prioritize what's important to you — is it a hotel with a view, outstanding cuisine or a sightseeing expedition? You'll have more fun if you focus on your priorities.
The 12 best "kid-friendly" destinations
  • Colonial Williamsburg, VA
  • Washington, DC
  • London, England
  • Boston, MA
  • Berlin, Germany
  • Philadelphia, PA
  • San Francisco, CA
  • New York, NY
  • San Diego, CA
  • Barcelona, Spain
  • Niagara Falls, NY
  • St. Augustine, FL
Source: budgettravel.com, 2013

Fitting it all in

When you're packing for a vacation, it's easy to picture all the exciting things you'll be doing — and pack a separate outfit for each activity. Sure, you'll be ready for anything, but you'll also be lugging a heavy suitcase, and it can cost you. Most airlines now charge for checked luggage. Plus, if you go over 50 pounds, be prepared to pay a surcharge. So before you zip that bag, think about it: Is that additional pair of shoes really worth the extra cost?
Instead of packing for every possible scenario, only select items that can perform double duty. For example, a pretty sarong can be a beach cover-up or a chic wrap at dinner. That dinner jacket can also double as your travel jacket on the chilly airplane.
If you're an avid reader (and don't want to travel with a bag of books), think about bringing along a digital reader. You can even save money by checking one out from your local library, preloaded with your favorite reading material.
Flying with kids?

Losing your luggage is no fun, but losing your luggage and having to entertain the little ones is worse. Pack a carry-on bag with all the necessities — games, snacks and a change of clothes — and you'll be ready for anything.

Safety takes no holidays

Unfortunately, nothing can ruin a vacation faster than a having your wallet stolen or losing your passport. Who wants to spend the afternoon on the phone with the consulate or credit card company when you could be visiting the Eiffel Tower? Remember to always keep a close eye on your valuables — a purse hanging on the back of a chair is an easy target.
Did you know that keeping your money safe starts before you leave home? It's a good idea to slim down your wallet and only bring one or two cards. Give your credit card company or bank a call to let them know you'll be traveling — that way if they see charges in Mexico while you're in Montreal, they'll be able to stop the fraud. If you're vacationing abroad, call beforehand to find out whether your credit card company charges foreign transaction fees and, if so, ask to have them waived (or bring a different card).
It's a good idea to make copies of all of your travel documents, IDs and credit cards. Write down the phone numbers for your bank, airline and, if you're heading overseas, your embassy. Leave one set of copies with a friend at home, and keep the other set separate from the originals in your travel bag. That way if something goes missing, you'll be able to contact your financial institution or airline, and keep the vacation going.
Leaving valuables in the hotel?

The safe in your room, not the one behind the front desk, is a better bet because only you can set the security code. Use it to stash your documents, jewelry, traveler's checks and any cash you don't feel like carrying.

Online options

Modern travel has gone digital. From making dinner reservations online to hiking with a handheld GPS, today's traveler often relies on technology. A little armchair travel before you leave can save you time and money.
Check online to see if any of the attractions you're planning to visit offer deals. For example, in some areas a single pass will admit you to multiple parks or monuments. Or, the museums on your itinerary might offer free admission in the afternoon. You can even use your smartphone to determine the wait times at amusement park rides.
Digital may be the future of travel, but don't forget to bring printed copies, too. That way, if you drop your phone in the lake, you'll still be able to check in to your hotel or hike out of the backcountry.
Taking your smartphone out of the country?

It's a good idea to check with your wireless carrier to make sure your plan covers usage outside of your own country. Overseas roaming fees can be steep, but you can often avoid the fees by adjusting your plan before you leave.

Staycation or bust!

If you're reviewing the numbers, and it doesn't seem like a big vacation is in the cards this year, don't despair. There's always the ultimate budget option: a staycation. In the midst of your daily grind, you might not take the time to explore and enjoy your own area. Consider trying a new restaurant in a nearby town, purchasing a day pass to a swanky pool or even taking a mini-road trip to a local historic site or state park. There may be more options available close to home than you realized!
Learn more and take action
  • Every vacation starts in one place — your savings account! You might even want to open a separate account just for vacations. Fund it through regular deductions from your paycheck. You'll be amazed at how quickly your balance can grow.
  • Is there an app for that? Of course there is! There are dozens of applications designed to help you find the perfect destination (Trip Advisor, Expedia) or restaurant (Yelp, Zagat), communicate with the locals (Google Translate, Duolingo), convert U.S. dollars to dozens of other currencies (GlobeConvert, XE Currency) and share snaps of your new favorite places (Instagram)!