The Right—and Wrong—Way to Pay for Your Dream Trip
You don't have to beg, borrow, or steal to indulge your wanderlust. Armed with practical suggestions for saving, budgeting, and vacation layaway, your dream vacation may be more affordable than you think.
The thought of sending money to strangers may give you the willies, so it’s vital to choose a layaway operator that isn’t going to fold or skip town. Happily, that venerable institution, Sears, just entered the vacation layaway business in June. Searsvacations.com lets you make reservations with major hotel chains, cruise lines, car rental agencies, and airlines, and offers 100 vacation packages for under $399 through International Cruise & Excursions. In many cases Sears can offer savings—such as 40 percent off family packages—and there’s no fee for paying in installments. But you should make sure you understand when payments are due and whether there are late-payment fees. The major advantage to a layaway plan like this is that it essentially forces you to save by paying in advance—but if late payment fees add up, it’s just as bad an idea as using a high-interest credit card.
Another reputable plan is elayaway.com. It will automatically deduct money from your bank account each month toward the purchase of a gift certificate from select hotel chains (Hyatt, Marriott, and Best Western), car rental agencies (Avis and Budget), airlines (American and Southwest), and websites (Travelocity and bedandbreakfast.com). You’ll pay a processing fee of 1.9 percent of the gift certificate. (You basically pay a hefty premium to impose a savings plan on yourself.)
Gate 1 Travel lets you reserve a spot on one of its 400+ packages for as little as a $100 deposit per person as soon as the package is released (which is usually 12 to 18 months in advance), then pay off your trip in as many advance payments as you like. The catch is that your vacation must be completely paid for at least 45 days prior to your departure or you will forfeit your reservation and deposit.
What if I’m never going to have the cash for the trip I want?
You may be able to secure lodgings without going completely broke. For $10 a month, you can list your home on homeexchange.com for a swap. (Basically it gives you the opportunity to find someone in your dream destination who’s hankering to visit your neck of the woods.) The more detailed your home description (including photos and house rules), the more likely you are to attract a swapper. Similar sites include digsville.com and homelink.org. Another cash-free option is to trade your services for lodgings. This won’t work on a major chain hotel—go for a B&B or small hotel where you can speak directly with the owner, and consider in advance whether you can offer the kinds of services they might be interested in bartering for. (If you’re an accountant, landscaper, or IT pro, you’re on solid ground; a poet, investment banker, or nuclear physicist, not so much.) It’s also possible to “bank” bartering services with a barter exchange, such as ITEX, where small businesses can register for a fee and perform services for other members of the exchange, accumulating dollars that are yours to spend as you please.
Not surprisingly, readers on BudgetTravel.com offer some imaginative—and highly effective—ways to pay for the trips they crave.
“For all our vacation spending/mad money we save any $5 bills—they all go into our vacation savings pot. So if you go somewhere and pay with a $20 and get three $5’s back, they all come home to the pot! Last year we saved enough spending money for three trips!” Mary Lou Hood Brangers, Morristown, Tenn.
“I begin planning about six months ahead and pay for as many things as possible in advance, such as theater tickets and some hotels, so that the cost will be spread over as many billing cycles as possible.” Thirza Sloan, Covington, Tenn.
“I have a vacation savings account into which I put my credit card rewards checks, rebates, rolled change, and any found money as I get it. Because we get paid biweekly, there are a couple of months when we get three paychecks instead of two, so I also earmark one of those ‘extra’ checks for the vacation account.” Ingrid Windsor, Smithsburg, Md.