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Jason Alderman

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Trim Your Vacation Costs

Posted: 05/25/11 03:02 PM ET

To paraphrase Yogi Berra, when it comes to gas prices, this is like déjà vu all over again. Instability in Africa and the Middle East, among other factors, has driven up pump prices to levels we haven't seen since the summer of 2008.

Unfortunately for those planning their summer vacations, higher fuel prices are impacting many travel-related costs:

  • If you're driving to your destination, the cost to fill the tank has increased exponentially since last summer.

  • Airfares, which are largely driven by fuel costs, are way up. The same goes for cruise ships, buses and other forms of transportation.

  • Food is generally more expensive to account for increased shipping costs.

  • Hotels and other businesses are passing along their increased energy costs to consumers as well.

Because the last few years have been stressful on everyone, you probably need to recharge your batteries now more than ever. Here are a few tips for planning a vacation that won't break the bank:

First, be realistic about what you can afford. Racking up debt can be almost as stressful as no vacation at all, so examine how vacation spending will affect your overall budget. If it takes more than a month or two to pay off, it may be wise to scale back this year and start setting aside money now for next year's vacation.

Create a trip budget and try to anticipate all potential expenses. It's amazing how quickly unanticipated expenses can torpedo your budget. Consider things like:

  • Airfare -- include taxes, fees for extra or overweight baggage, transportation to and from the airport, in-flight meals and entertainment, etc.

  • Car rentals -- factor in taxes, gas and fill-up penalties and insurance (although check your auto insurance and credit card policies to ensure you don't pay for duplicate coverage).

  • Hotel/lodging -- don't forget taxes and other local fees, charges for phone/internet, room service, tips, etc. Consider lodging with a kitchen to save on restaurant charges.

  • Entertainment -- include meals, event admission and ticket-ordering charges, transit passes or taxis, sporting equipment rental, babysitters and special clothing or accessory requirements (sunscreen, etc.)

  • Cell phone roaming charges, especially in foreign countries, remote locations and at sea. Ask your carrier ahead of time to avoid nasty surprises.

Practical Money Skills for Life, a free personal financial management program run by my employer, Visa Inc., has a handy web-based travel calculator that can help you estimate travel costs and rejigger them to meet your budget needs. It's also available as a free iPhone app, which you can download from iTunes.

Search for deals on flights, hotels and rental cars at popular sites such as Orbitz, Travelocity, Kayak, Expedia, Priceline, Hotels.com, Travelzoo and Lastminute.com. But beware: Before clicking "confirm," 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 was booking suddenly become unavailable.

If you're traveling internationally, check the U.S. State Department's website for travel advisories and warnings, entrance requirements, passport and visa information, etc. If camping is your game, visit the National Park Service site or check your state or city's website for state and local campgrounds.

Try haggling. Many hotels, airlines, restaurants and other tourist-oriented businesses are hurting, so don't be afraid to request incentives like an extra night's lodging, free parking or shuttle service, meal vouchers or spa discounts. At worst they'll say no or perhaps offer another 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.

Consider a "staycation," where you become a tourist in your own area and save on travel and lodging costs. Make sure you treat it like a true vacation and don't get trapped doing routine chores. If you're at a loss for what to do, here are a few suggestions:

  • Read reviews of local restaurants, museums, spas and more at Yelp.com.

  • Search for local attractions you've never visited at Roadsideamerica.com or USATourist.com.

  • Browse upcoming local events at Eventful.com.

  • Splurge by visiting local resorts. Many offer special rates to residents or non-peak-day pricing.

  • 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.

For more travel tips, visit the Practical Money Skills for Life Summer Travel Budgeting site, AARP's Travel site, and my previous blog, Protect Your Personal Information on Vacation.
Don't pass up a 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 you and about your individual financial situation.

Follow Jason Alderman on Twitter: http://twitter.com/PracticalMoney