How to Save on Your Summer Vacation
Despite most Americans planning to take a summer vacation last year, only 46% followed through, according to data from Value Penguin. A dramatic summer of canceled flights, rental car shortages and inflationary woes played a role.
In 2023, we expect more families to hit the road — or skies — for a summer vacation. But inflation is still affecting the average American’s budget, and flights are still more expensive than pre-pandemic levels.
How to Save Money on Your Summer Vacation
So how can you get out and explore the world without breaking the bank? We’ve assembled a wide range of tips for saving money on your summer vacation, whether you’re spending a week at Yellowstone, hanging with Mickey and friends in Florida or even boarding a flight to experience the summer crowds of Europe.
Save on the Destination
The first part of any summer vacation is deciding where you’ll go — and that can have the biggest impact on how much you’ll spend on everything else, from food to transportation to activities.
Here are some ways you can keep costs down:
1. Have a Staycation
Staycations don’t mean you have to stay in your home all week. Instead, take a day trip to a nearby town, museum, restaurant or park your family’s never explored, then head back home for dinner and bedtime.
A full week of this can yield some exciting adventures, closer to home and for a fraction of the cost.
2. Visit Friends and Family
Have loved ones who live in another part of the country or world? See if they’d be interested in hosting you.
For their hospitality, offer to help around the house while you’re there, consider taking them out to a nice dinner and bring them some gifts as a thank-you.
3. Plan Ahead
If you’ve got a specific destination in mind, you can still find ways to save money, even if the location is popular and expensive. Often, planning far in advance — we’re talking several months — means you can book things earlier for a lower rate.
You can use this time to research discounts on lodging, airfare, rental cars — you name it. Planning ahead also gives you more time to apply for a travel card and start racking up the credit card rewards to fund your family vacation.
Save on Lodging
Lodging is a major expense when traveling anywhere. Depending on the quality of the accommodations you choose, you could easily spend the equivalent of your monthly rent or mortgage on just a few nights in a hotel.
Here are a few tips for saving money on lodging during your summer vacation:
4. Book in Advance
If you know your travel dates six months or more in advance, there’s no harm in booking your lodging now, especially if you find options with free cancellation. The closer you get to your trip, the more the lodging might cost.
If you book a fully refundable stay in advance, continue to monitor lodging as you get closer to your trip. See a place you like more or spot a better deal? You’re free to cancel and make the switch.
5. Comparison Shop Online
Sites like Booking.com and Expedia make it easy to see a wide range of hotels within your budget and desired location, but it’s always a good idea to use more than one booking website to see where you can get the best deal. The same applies with vacation rental sites like Airbnb and VRBO.
In some cases, you may score the best deal by booking directly through a hotel’s website, but the comparison websites are a great place to discover lodging you might otherwise have never found.
6. Toggle the “Total Price” Option on Airbnb
Airbnb can lure you into a false sense of savings. You might see stays priced at super low rates only to discover upon clicking through to the listing, that it’s twice as expensive after cleaning and service fees.
But at that point, you may have fallen in love with a property that’s outside your price range, say, “Ah, what the heck?” and book it anyway.
Last year, Airbnb enabled a new feature that you have to toggle on. Click the “Display total price” toggle before searching for stays. This makes it easier to compare prices against other platforms before booking — and avoid the temptation to book a stay outside your budget.
7. Consider a Hostel
Hostels aren’t for everyone, especially families with children. But if you’re a younger traveler with a group of friends backpacking across another continent, hostels can be a game-changer.
The low cost of lodging through a hostel is a trade-off: You’ll share your sleeping quarters and bathroom with strangers, and the accommodations certainly aren’t five-star. For instance, you might have to pack your own towel.
But if you don’t mind a thin mattress and lack of privacy, hostels can be an easy way to save money on travel. And you just may make some friends.
Save on Air Travel
Saving money on air travel during the summer is easier said than done. Here are a few tips for keeping costs lower if you’re taking to the skies this summer.
8. Avoid Weekends
Research shows that the cheapest day to fly is Wednesday. If your plans are flexible, leave in the middle of the week, rather than on the weekend.
Of course, finding cheap flights is more nuanced than just avoiding weekends. Consider how holidays might affect your costs, as well as the on and off seasons of your destination. (Flights will cost more at peak tourist season for specific destinations.)
9. Use a Flight Tracker
Flight trackers like Google Flights are a good way to monitor the dynamic prices of flights you’re interested in. When prices drop, act fast and purchase your tickets.
While the travel industry has seen tremendous changes since the COVID-19 disruption, CheapAir’s 2023 study on flight savings yielded familiar advice: Book anywhere between 1.5 months and 5.5 months before departure for the best prices.
Two air travel tips are untrue: You don’t need to browse flights using incognito mode (prices fluctuate based on demand, not your browsing habits), and there’s no best day to book your flights.
10. Book a Flight With Layovers
Direct flights are convenient and less stressful, but they’re also more expensive. If you’re not in a rush, choose a flight with a layover to yield lower ticket prices.
Just make sure the layover is long enough to make your connection, especially if you’re traveling internationally and need to get through customs. Allow time for delays as well.
Fly out early in the morning. If flights are delayed because of bad weather or you miss a connection, you’ll have more of the day left to work with to reroute and reach your destination.
11. Use a Rewards Credit Card
The cost of airfare makes travel prohibitive to some families. But if you use a rewards credit card throughout the year for regular purchases (like gas and groceries), you might rack up enough cash back, points or miles to fund some flights and offset the overall cost.
12. Don’t Check a Bag
The cost to check a bag can add up. Airlines charge anywhere from $30 to $90 per bag, one way. If you’re in a four-person family, each with a checked bag, you could wind up adding $720 to your round-trip airfare.
Instead, pack strategically, selecting clothing items that you can mix and match to create different outfits. Don’t be afraid to wear shirts and pants more than once, and use packing cubes to keep your clothes organized during your travels.
If you’ll be gone for a while, do laundry during your vacation. You can pack laundry detergent sheets for your carry-on; no liquid involved!
Save on Ground Transportation
Air travel may cost more, but driving can still be expensive. And if you’re getting a rental car after flying to your destination, your summer vacation costs can quickly add up.
Here are some ways to save behind the wheel this summer:
13. Drive Your Own Car
If you’re within driving distance of your destination — it’s up to you to determine how many miles or hours away that is for you — consider driving your own car.
Sure, you’ll put miles on your car faster and will thus need to get routine car maintenance sooner, but it’s likely cheaper than renting a car or flying.
14. Ask for a Hybrid
If renting a car is your only option, prioritize fuel efficiency. Book a hybrid car online, if possible, or ask at the counter if there are any hybrid models available in the same vehicle class you booked.
15. Be Cautious of Upgrades
Sometimes, a rental agent may tell you you’ve received a free upgrade to a higher-tier vehicle. That might mean a sportier sedan or a massive SUV. But if you originally booked a compact car to get better gas mileage, this can mean you’ll now have to budget more for gas on the trip.
Remind the agent that you booked a compact car for a reason and tell them you’d prefer to drive what you booked. If there truly isn’t a compact available that day and you’re forced to drive the upgrade, you may be able to negotiate a discount or a free tank of gas.
If you don’t have luck negotiating at the desk, you can always call the corporate office after your trip to see what can be done.
Picking up a rental earlier in the day — ideally first thing in the morning — means there are more options on the lot. You’re more likely to get your fuel-efficient selection by arriving early.
16. Drive a Manual
Traveling abroad? Many countries outside the U.S. are more proficient in driving stick shifts. That means there are fewer automatics in a rental agency’s inventory, and you’ll pay more for the privilege of driving one.
If you know how to drive a manual, select a stick shift abroad. But if you learned when you were 16 and haven’t touched a manual since, it may be wiser to pay the upcharge for an automatic.
17. Understand Your Insurance Needs
Rental car insurance can be a tricky subject. Some car insurance companies extend your coverage when you rent a car in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, but you’ll usually need additional coverage if renting abroad.
That’s where your credit card comes in. Some — travel credit cards specifically — may offer car insurance coverage if you book the rental car using that card.
However, the coverage may not be as comprehensive as your car insurance back home. Make sure you understand the policy fully, and opt for additional coverage through the rental agency or a third party if it’s not enough.
Make notes of what coverage you have, either through your rental booking or a third-party insurance company. When you pick up your car, the rental agent may try to upsell you coverage you don’t need, so it’s important that you know what you’ve already paid for before reaching the counter.
18. Use Public Transportation
Outside of cities like New York and Chicago, you’re better off with a car in the U.S. Not true in many foreign countries!
Before renting a car for an international trip, research the country’s train, bus and even ferry network. You may be able to get around for all or most of your trip using more affordable means of transportation — and just rent cars for day trips off the beaten path.
19. Join a Fuel Rewards Program
Whether you’re driving your own car or renting one, join a gas rewards program. These are free to join and can take off some of the sting of filling up at the gas station.
These programs often offer in-store discounts as well, so you may be able to save money on that cup of coffee you desperately need while driving through the night to your destination.
20. Use an App to Save at the Pump
Your phone can help you save on gas and more. An app called Upside uses a map feature to show you local gas stations where you can beat the pump price by as much as 25 cents per gallon.
On top of that, Upside can help you earn an additional $234 each year with cashback offers at thousands of restaurants and grocery stores, making your vacation expenses even more manageable.
Upside will keep track of all your cash-back earnings. You can cash out any time via your bank or PayPal account, or exchange them for a gift card for brands like Starbucks and Amazon. You’ll get your money in two days or less, which could translate to extra cash for souvenirs.
Save on Food
Food can be a major expense when traveling, especially if you have a big family. In addition to using the Upside app, here’s how to save money on food during your summer vacation:
21. Prioritize Free Breakfast at the Hotel
Look for hotels offering free breakfast (or stay at a true bed and breakfast). Load up on protein-heavy options, like eggs, bacon and sausage, and guzzle down a cup or two of free coffee so you don’t have to hit up Starbucks on your way to a museum.
22. Get Lodging With a Kitchen
You can find hotels and Airbnbs with microwaves, sinks, refrigerators and even ovens. Purchase some groceries and make a few meals at your lodging to avoid dining out for every meal.
Even a hotel with counter space and a mini fridge is enough for making sandwiches or salads.
23. Pack Lunch
If you have a full day away from your lodging, pack some snacks or a full lunch in your day bag. Have a picnic during a hike, or eat some fruits and veggies while people-watching from a town square.
24. Get Off the Beaten Path
In major cities, restaurants are more expensive (and often less tasty and authentic!) in major tourist areas. Think Times Square in New York, Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco or the main piazzas in Italian cities.
Instead, venture off the beaten path — even just a few blocks away — for more reasonably priced meals.
Save on Entertainment
When exploring a new place, you’ll likely want to take in the sights: tour a Scottish castle, see a show on the Vegas strip, wander through an art museum or hop on the world’s tallest roller coaster. But these experiences add up.
Here are some ways to save money on entertainment during your summer vacation:
25. Search for Free Activities
There are plenty of free things to do in new places. See if a city offers free walking tours or find out if the local parks or museums offer free kids activities in the summer.
Even a self-guided tour around a city to see the historically significant sites can be a nice way to spend an afternoon. You can often find free audio guides and podcasts to help you navigate.
Some museums may offer free admission on select days or a couple of hours before closing each day.
26. Get Outside
Parks are a great way to get to know a city, and they’re often free. Likewise, many of our nation’s national and state parks are free (or very reasonably priced, at most) and offer days’ worth of hiking, kayaking, rock climbing, bird-watching and other outdoor activities.
27. Buy Combination Tickets
If you’ll be in one city for multiple days, see if there are any combination tickets that get you into multiple museums or historical sites. These are more affordable than buying individual tickets at each attraction.
Contributor Timothy Moore has written about personal finance with specialities in banking, taxes and insurance since 2012. His work has appeared in publications such as Forbes, USA Today and WDW Magazine.