Editor’s note: This story is part of the Road Trips special section.
Everyone wants to be able to take that whirlwind vacation to somewhere exotic; to toss fate into the wind, hop on a plane and finally visit that dream destination.
Unfortunately for most of us, basic finances won’t let us do that. Travel costs, hotels, food — it all adds up quickly and and can just as quickly spiral out of control.
Fortunately, we live in an era of resources. Numerous sources exist at your fingertips to help you avoid travel disasters and, more importantly, travel-related monetary mishaps.
Pulling off a budget vacation doesn’t come on a whim, which is why doing your research is so important. Being prepared is the key to a great trip, according to National Public Radio, and reading up on your destination either online or in travel books is essential.
Knowing where to eat, which days offer discounted entry to parks or museums and generally knowing how to get around your destination are critical, USA Today said, and websites like TripAdvisor.com and iExplore.com can help you learn your way around.
In the process of researching your dream destination, be sure to find out when is the cheapest time to visit. Traveling during off-peak seasons can bring some of the biggest savings, according to the Travel Channel. Weather is often a deciding factor for many tourists, and hitting a destination during the off-season is a great way to save on everything from flights and hotels to car rentals.
Speaking of flights, most are familiar with the popular flight-ticketing sites, including Priceline.com, Travelocity.com and Expedia.com. And while those sites make it easy to book a flight, there are a few more tricks to finding extra savings in those plane tickets
Consider flying on a weekday, USA Today recommends. Excursions that span Wednesday to Tuesday typically run less than Monday through Sunday trips. Also start looking at prices two months out, NPR said, checking every few days for fluctuations.
Pack light as well, eliminating everything you don’t need and avoiding checked-bag fees. There’s an old adage in the field, NPR said: take half as many things as you packed and twice as much money.
Consider alternate airports as well, US News said. Instead of automatically choosing the biggest or closest airport to your destination, consider other nearby airports. The cost of a car rental and driving to your final destination may end up being cheaper than flying into a major hub.
One last note about flight — yes it’s the quickest, easiest way to get somewhere, but if you’re traveling within the U.S., don’t discount the good, old-fashioned road trip. Sometimes driving is cheaper than flying, provided you have the time to spare, and the website CostToDrive.com can compare those costs.
Driving itself can be part of the destination, NPR said, as attractions along the way are a great way to get a taste of local culture.
Once you reach your destination, naturally, you’re going to need a place to stay. Hotwire.com and Hotels.com are commonly used to find discounted hotel rates, but money-smart travelers can take it a little further.
US News suggests going against your travel type to find less-crowded properties that are willing to discount their rooms. Seek out business hotels for weekend stays and leisure hotels for weekdays. Again, traveling during off-season can net low-cost deals.
When checking hotel prices, NPR said, also look beyond nightly room rates, which can hide some additional deals like “buy two nights and get one free, or “free spa services with room purchase.”
Thanks to Airbnb.com’s rise in popularity, finding a hotel room is not always your only option. Travelers can save up to 40 percent when booking a vacation home or apartment versus a hotel room, USA Today said. And the Travel Channel recommends CouchSurfing.org if planning international travel.
The savings don’t have to stop once you’re at your location either. USA Today recommends investing in a good pair of shoes and walking everywhere, which saves on transportation costs and is the best way to take in a new destination. Also take the time to learn your destination’s public transit system.
Packing your own food and utilizing your location’s grocery stores is a great way to avoid expensive restaurant costs, while splurging for lunch at an expensive restaurant is often cheaper than dinner.
Ultimately, while you’re trying to save money, don’t be too cheap, NPR said. It’s okay to spend a little extra for that once in a lifetime opportunity to fly over the Grand Canyon, for example. Because, hey, you are on vacation.