7 tips for a last-minute vacation on the cheap

Summer is in full swing, but if you hadn't had a chance to get out of town for a well-deserved vacation just yet, there's still a little time before school's in, leisure time's out and the weather makes you want to retreat indoors. Even if you can't afford the vacation you really want (somewhere exotic, luxurious and far, far away) doesn't mean you have to stay put. Here are a few tips that will help put travel on the map for you this summer — at a price that won't break the bank...

1) Seek adventure over distance

There's an old adage in personal finance that says that when it comes to spending money, it's best to focus on how much satisfaction you get for your money. The same applies to travel. Maybe you dream of going on an African safari or relaxing on a remote island in the South Pacific. That's definitely worth saving for, but if you don't have the cash this year, you don't have to settle for no adventure at all. Search online for local parks, attractions and festivals you haven't visited and get out there and experience some of what your neck of the woods has to offer — no currency exchange or immunizations required.

2) Be flexible

If you want to head further afield and need to book flights or hotels, flexibility is your biggest asset when it comes to sales and package deals. That's because some of the biggest bargains come with specific departure dates, many of which are close at hand. If you have the flexibility to leave on a few weeks' (or days') notice and are open to any kind of trip, you can score a great deal — and enjoy the sense of adventure that comes with being open to possibility!

Sign up for a few discount travel alerts, set a budget, watch for a deal that meets your needs and voila — you could end up in any number of fabulous destinations in no time. If leaving on a whim isn't possible, at least be open to flexible departure dates. According to a study conducted by FareCompare.com, Wednesday is the cheapest day to fly. If you're booking a week off work, who says it can't be from Wednesday to Wednesday? It's a bit unconventional, but that's exactly why it works!

3) Eat in

If there's one thing that'll sap your travel budget fast, it's food. Eating well on vacation is part of the fun, but eating three meals a day in a restaurant isn't good for your wallet (and it definitely isn't good for your waistline). Think about what you would eat if you were at home. Rather than pay $15 for shredded wheat and orange juice, stock your hotel room with your breakfast favourites and snacks. Then, head out for a nice lunch or dinner. Better yet, get a hotel or vacation condo with a kitchenette and do some of your own cooking. That way you can splurge on a nice meal when you do go out.

4) Look for hidden fees

Ever had a $9 bagel at an airport or scored a deal on a rental car only to find out your hotel would be charging an exorbitant amount to park it? Travelers' lack of familiarity with their surroundings often leaves them with limited options, and companies that cater to vacationers tend to take advantage of this. Most travel sites now include taxes and fees in their advertised prices, but you should be aware of what your fare — whether for flights, accommodations, a rental car or activities — includes. Read the documentation and information related to each purchase before agreeing to it and check out travel review sites such as TripAdvisor.com to learn about any unexpected fees other travelers might have faced.

Assume nothing, ask questions and try to be prepared to steer clear of additional fees and expenses wherever possible. It's a bit of trouble, but it's worth it. A little vacation shopping spree is way more fun than forking out for something mundane you expected to get for free.

5) Pack smart

Some people are master packers; they can fit everything they need for a three-week trip through Europe in a shoe box and still seem to have something to wear when it rains. If you aren't quite so methodical, don't despair; you don't have to reduce your travel wardrobe to three reversible pieces. However, because most airlines are now charging for checked luggage on domestic and other relatively short flights, it's worth trying to avoid checking bags, or at least keeping it to one piece. Most carriers will allow travelers one free bag for a long-haul international flight, but for shorter trips, even a single piece of checked luggage will cost you about $25. Overweight baggage will incur additional charges. Plus, if you like to shop, chances are you'll have heavier or additional baggage on the way home, so try to leave as light as possible.

6) Do your research

No matter where you're going, do some research before you leave. This isn't a ploy to suck the spontaneity out of your trip and turn you into a hard-driving, Type A traveler (promise!). If you want to go hardcore and plan each and every minute, have at it, but if you're more of a free spirit, just bring the travel guide with you and you'll be ready to explore on a whim.  In fact, you don't have to schedule or plan a thing. Just get to know what attractions and activities are going on at your destination and how much they cost. The point of arriving informed is that many attractions don't live up to their hype — or the price of admission. A good guide book should help steer you to attractions that will deliver what you want out of your vacation at a price you can afford.

7) Visit an old favourite

If there's a destination you've visited in the past and long to go back to, go for it. Sometimes, comfort and relaxation is all you can ask for in a vacation, and retreading old ground is the best way to do it. Only this time, you'll be an old pro at soaking up everything this particular vacation spot has to offer.

There's still time...

Summer and travel are like peanut butter and jelly; they don't have to go together, but the kid in you (and your kids for that matter) wouldn't have it any other way. If you haven't hit the road yet, there's still time to experience something new, or even revisit an old favourite. Whether you're far, far away or just a few miles down the road, a vacation isn't about money and it doesn't need to entail big spending. It's about letting go, leaving the ordinary behind and letting the magic of a new place take over.

GoldenGirlFinance.ca is a free personal finance and education site for women.

Nothing contained herein is intended to provide personalized financial, legal or tax advice. Before implementing any financial strategy, you should obtain information and advice from your financial, legal and/or tax advisers who are fully aware of your individual circumstances.

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