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Don't skip vacation; just watch the costs

By Jason Alderman

One of the first things many people trim from their budget during economic downturns is vacation. That's unfortunate because stressful times are when we most need to recharge our batteries. Taking on additional debt to finance a vacation is itself stressful, however.

With summer vacation just around the corner, here are a few tips for taking a well-deserved break that won't break the bank:

Staycations. Last summer's astronomical gas and airfare price hikes popularized "staycations," where people vacation close to home and explore their own backyard – sometimes literally. A few ideas:

  • If gardening relaxes you, dedicate time to sprucing up your yard. If you hate it, splurge on a gardener.
  • Use money you save by not traveling to hire a housecleaner after your staycation so you won't have to think about cleaning.
  • Become a local tourist. Research what online travel sites and the Chamber of Commerce recommend for visitor activities. Many businesses provide local-resident discounts to encourage return visits.
  • For a minor splurge, visit a local resort and take advantage of its amenities. Most offer off-days where rates are lower.
  • Enjoy crowd-free shopping and errands while everyone else is at work.

Uncover hidden vacation costs. If you do travel, make sure to budget beyond normal airfare, hotel, rental car and meal expenses. Consider such items as surcharges for extra or overweight luggage, sales and hotel taxes, babysitters, tips, taxis, rail and transit passes, event admission costs and ticket-ordering charges, new luggage, sporting equipment rental, and special clothing or accessory requirements.

Don't have a vacation budget? Visa Inc.'s free personal financial management site, Practical Money Skills for Life (, features a summer travel budgeting center filled with tools to help you create a vacation budget, including a web-based calculator that suggests various travel options and then automatically tallies the results.

Double-check prices. You can find great deals on airfares, hotels and rental cars by comparison shopping online. But beware: Before clicking "confirm" to finalize your purchase, make sure the final price matches the initial quote. I've seen fares jump $50 or more in just minutes or had the seat I thought I was booking suddenly become unavailable.

Try haggling. With so many people cutting back on travel, many hotels, airlines, restaurants and other tourist-oriented businesses are hurting. Don't be afraid request incentives like an extra night's lodging, free parking or shuttle service, meal vouchers or spa treatment discounts. At worst they'll just say no or perhaps offer some other perk. And always ask for member discounts if you belong to organizations like AAA or AARP – 10 or 15 percent here and there can add up.

Be flexible. Unless you're tied to your kids' school calendar, try to avoid peak travel times and routes. Flying mid-week or from more remote airports can save a bundle. And with so many flights overbooked, airlines frequently offer cash rewards or free tickets to those willing to be bumped to a later flight. Just make sure you won't lose any deposits at your destination.

Don't forego vacation – you've earned it. Just be cautious about how expenses can add up.

This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a tax or financial advisor for specific information on how tax laws apply to your situation and about your individual financial situation.

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