Wednesday, November 30, 2016

How to keep your vacation under budget

We are back from an absolutely fabulous family vacation. The flight home last night was a little rough, as expected. We got into Oakland just after midnight, had to pick up our bags, and then take an Uber home. One kid made it to school on time, and the other was about 45 minutes late. Altogether, not too bad. I'm very happy that I changed the flights to come back a day earlier. Not only did it save $600 (not the ultimate goal), but it also gives me a chance to recover today & get everything sorted out - laundry, unpack, get groceries, etc.

So, did we come in under budget? Yes, we did! We were over in some categories, but under in others.

Here are my general tips, and then I'll share specific numbers:

  • Utilize travel points/credits/rewards for the hotel. This was the major savings for us. We've previously used an Starwood Amex for the majority of our spending. Two years worth of spending on the credit card (and, paying off each month, no interest charges) yielded five free nights in the particular hotel we wanted. We booked this 9 months in advance, as Thanksgiving is the peak season for this area. This saved approximately $3500-$4000. We didn't have enough points for the first night, so we paid out of pocket. 
  • Utilize travel points/credits/rewards for the airfare. Similar to the above, we tried to use mileage to book our airfare. However, that wasn't an option, even with 9 months of advanced planning. We instead used a companion fare (book one fare at full price, $99 for the second) that we had through our credit card. We also used my first class upgrade vouchers (status matching from business travel) for the flight there. This yielded us with free food, drinks & entertainment units on the flight to Hawaii, and was obviously a super comfortable experience. The companion fare saved $450.
  • Maximize your hotel and/or airline status, if you have it. Free bags are a good option to explore with airlines, as it allows you to bring more from home without a fee. In our case, the hotel status was limited, as the hotel we were at is a vacation ownership property. However, we did get a free continental breakfast for two every day. It was pretty small, but we used the yogurt & cereal for snacking & the bagels for sandwiches, etc. 
  • Plan a budget in advance! This is always a huge help. It gives us a good idea of how much to save, and what we can spend when we arrive.
  • Figure out transportation to & from the airport. We've previously parked at the airport, but given the length of stay, and the pricing on Ubers, it was cheaper to do that. Also, in this specific case, we were flying in & out of two different airports.
  • Bring things you'll need from home. This is a biggie if you plan to do any food preparation at all. We brought spices, pasta, snacks, refillable water bottles, etc. Food is also very expensive in Hawaii, so anything we could bring from home minimized our grocery budget.
  • Prioritize your spending. We have two kids who mostly just enjoy the pool, the beach, & the hot tub. They also like snorkeling from the beach in front of the hotel. We invested in snorkel sets at Costco on our first trip, so they've had three uses, and have more than paid for themselves. We also bring our own beach balls (one blew away - the winds were incredible one of the days!), and ordered them on Amazon vs buying at the hotel. They are 1/2 the price. We were lucky & had another couple give us their boogie board as they were leaving. We utilized that for entertainment (the boys favorite part) & then passed it along to another family when we were leaving.
All in all, we had a truly amazing time. I also ended up with $2,000 in airline credits for future trips. The full airline saga can be found here, for those of you who missed it. ;-) 

And, here are all of the details of our planned & actual budget for the trip. Obviously, not including alcohol was an oversight. ;-) We bought wine & beer at Costco. We cooked every meal ourselves, save for: one dinner out, a few desserts out, and Costco pizza on the way to the airport for the flight home. So, the groceries covered all breakfasts, lunches & dinners, with those exceptions. 

Hawaii budgetBudgetActual
Car rental313316.57
Dining out400389.41
One paid hotel night555.85555.85
Hotel taxes & resort fees275137.1

That's it for us! Share your best travel savings tips!


  1. Well done! We don't have airline status as the one we use the most gives a rebate of 1% on future flights so can use that credit anytime...although business is great hubby might make their status by the end of 2017. We do have hotel points, mostly hilton and holiday inns(we stay in a lot of places that don't have anything better) and usually are able to collect a couple of free nights a year. We also usually get a couple free car rental days a year which we use on our family trips to Alberta. The biggest freebie for us is using our credit cards for airline points. We have enough for 1 trip to Europe or 2 flights to Caribbean (possibly our next destination to somewhere we haven't been after Greece). Trying to get the odd meal freebie on hotels is something we do too. I ended up booking a 9 room family run hotel in Santorini on the Caldera and they include free wine and huge free breakfasts :) They had me at free wine lol. I think you are doing an amazing job of freebie management - I don't know how you keep everything straight as to when it is expiring etc but I use an excel Spreadsheet which is easy to update about once a month to make sure we are not missing out on anything.

    1. I'm so excited for your trip to Greece! And, getting meals included (not to mention the wine!!!!) is a big advantage. I sometimes have that included when I travel for work, and it means filing almost no expense reports. Love it. ;-)

      I also use a spreadsheet to track everything. Great minds. ;-)

  2. Woo hoo! Love your plan. I remember the first time we went to Florida, and were gifted another families sand toys, and we gifted them on to another family. I love the boogie board family to family solidarity! Because I travel so little now for work, no perks, to upgrade, but we just try and prioritize and do as many of the free activities for the destination as possible.

    1. It's so nice to share all of the goodies. Who wants to haul that stuff back & forth? We also asked the cleaning lady if she would be interested in some of the food, and she took a bunch, and the hotel actually donates unopened items to a food pantry. Other things that make you feel good about leftovers.

      The first time we went to Hawaii with the kids, I planned all of these activities. They wanted no part in any of them. They want to hang by the pool, snorkel on the boogie boards, go down the water slides, use the hot tub, and meet new friends. All of those things are "free/included", so it works out great!

      We did end up doing mini golf yesterday before our flight (you have to be out of the hotels so early, and our flight was late afternoon - and it wasn't beach weather), so that ended up being a good splurge activity.

  3. I think this is just fantastic. I have enjoyed reading your planning and now we get to see the end results. Thank you so much for inspiration and sharing!

  4. Glad you had such a nice trip!

    What a great price for a vacation to Hawaii! I considered it a great budget accomplishment when we were able to purchase all of our AIRFARE to GET THERE for what you spent on your entire trip! :) I know location makes a big difference though, I was shocked at how relatively inexpensive flights were from West Coast cities.

    I guess my two best budget tips are lodging tips for families who travel in peak season:

    1)VRBO, Redweek and other rental websites are your friend! Particularly if you want to go and plant yourself in one place for a week. We have rented from vacation home & timeshare owners in several states. The first time we did it was a little nerve wracking (seemed so risky compared to a hotel), but after that we were hooked.

    2)Plan early. Often the least expensive options at the "best" places are the first to be booked. Also, sometimes hotel prices will rise as dates get closer.