Summer trips might be as American as apple pie, but that doesn't mean they have to lead to another American staple -- credit card debt. In fact, there are lots of creative ways to reduce the cost of your vacation this season, from selecting a lesser-known destination to bargaining with your hotel for extra perks.
According to a TripAdvisor survey of more than 2,500 respondents, about nine in 10 Americans plan to take a summer vacation this year. The most common trips involve swimming, shopping and sightseeing, all of which can be done on a budget. Personal finance experts generally recommend saving up for the cost of the trip in advance to avoid charging any of it to a credit card, since interest and fees can make the trip even more expensive. Here are five ways to stay within your budget and at the same time plan a better, cheaper vacation:
[Read: 4 Road Trip Tips to Save You Money.]
1. Go where no one else is going.
The most popular destinations are constantly shifting as a result of worldwide events. The World Cup made Brazil a prime and pricey destination this summer, while deals on comparison sites like lastminute.com currently feature popular cities including London, Paris and Dubai. Europe tends to be extremely expensive, but if you can snag a discount, you could soon be sipping an espresso by the Seine.
2. Travel during less popular weeks.
Demand tends to spike exactly when you expect it to: Around any three-day weekends, including Labor Day. Families tend to travel during school holidays. If you can travel during the off-times when most people are going about their everyday lives, then you can find better deals. For those without school-age children, late summer can be a great time to hit popular spots, since kids have already headed back to school but the weather is still warm enough in many destinations for a beach vacation.
[Read: 4 Ways to Save on Summer Vacation.]
3. Ask for discounts and check for coupons.
Running Web searches for discounts in your destination or asking your hotel or restaurant for any special deals available can turn up savings where you didn't expect them. To maximize your chances of finding discounts, do as much searching in advance as possible and always ask the hotel front desk when you first check in. You might get free breakfast out of it.
If you belong to any large organizations, such as AARP or AAA, then you might qualify for some special deals that have been negotiated on your behalf. AARP, for example, works with Expedia to make it easier for members to search for discounts. Being age 62 or older also qualifies travelers for a $10 lifetime pass to U.S. national parks, and Amtrak offers discounts to children, students, seniors, active duty military personnel and their spouses and dependents.
4. Use travel websites to compare prices and grab last-minute deals.
The number of travel websites continues to proliferate. To find the best one for you, run a Web search with a few key words relevant to what you're looking for, such as "budget" or "last-minute" or "retiree travel deals," and you'll find customized discounts. New websites aimed at frugal travelers are popping up all the time; some include ishouldlogoff.com, vacationstogo.com, smartertravel.com and frugaltravelguy.com.
5. Rent homes and split the cost with friends.
Hotel rooms are notoriously expensive. While they come with clean sheets and new towels every day, you might prefer to rent a house with friends. It requires more work, including meal prep and planning, but you can get more space, a prime location and a much better deal. Websites such as vrbo.com or airbnb.com can help connect you with owners looking to rent. Be sure to read the reviews left by other customers to have a sense of what you're getting yourself into.
Another option is to get creative about how you travel. Seth Kugel, the Frugal Traveler columnist for The New York Times, recently wrote about how he managed to get to one of the most popular destinations of the summer -- Natal, Brazil, host of the World Cup -- for far less than the cost of a direct round-trip flight by taking 16 days to travel through three countries, including Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana. That way, the journey itself became part of the vacation.
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