In life, there are trips, and then there are Trips of a Lifetime. Visiting the Galapagos Islands, seeing the Northern Lights in Norway, hiking Machu Picchu—these are common “dream” vacations you might aspire to take but worry you could never afford.
You’re hardly alone. Many of us would love to join the ranks of sightseers, thrill-seekers, and beach-goers, but keep our aspirations under lock and key because we fear the price tag.
Well, dust off that suitcase: Truth is, there are many ways to shave dollars from your travel budget so your dream can become a reality.
“More than ever before, Americans are thinking about how they can reach their dream destinations, not simply how they can escape the cold in the winter,” says Greg Geronemus, co-CEO of guided tour company smarTours. “If the past year was any indicator, 2017 will be the year of the bucket list travel.”
Here’s where to begin:
Save over time. As with any future expense, planning is key. If you decide today you’d like to head out on an African safari next week, coming up with the necessary resources is going to be a tall—and, for many, impossible—order. On the other hand, if you set a target departure date of June 2018 and divide your expected trip cost into monthly installments, your savings plan becomes infinitely more manageable: A $5,000 trip expense spread over 18 months is about $278 per month—still a sacrifice, but certainly less daunting than the lump-sum sticker shock.
“I see this particularly with honeymoons,” says Mollie Fitzgerald, co-owner of Frontiers International Travel in Gibsonia, Penn. “Once they make that commitment to each other to get married, they will save up some money and have a very defined budget for a dream vacation.”
Need a little help staying on track? Schedule automatic transfers from your checking account to an interest-earning, vacation-specific savings account on paydays and watch your vacation fund add up.
Get aggressive about credit card points. If you know where you want to go and how you’ll get there, you may be able to lower your total cost by applying for a credit card that rewards you with a certain number of airline miles or hotel points for every dollar spent. “Saving on the air gives you that much more to spend on the land,” Fitzgerald says. “It’s not always easy to get the seats on the flights you want, but with long-term planning and good strategy, I see people coming to me saying, ‘I have 800,000 miles and I’m cashing them in.’”
Look for a card with a low (or no) annual fee and use it for all of your spending so the points rack up. Introductory offers that reward you with bonus points for signing-on are also useful. At the very least, you may be able to trade your points for gift cards you could apply toward trip expenses.
Play with the dates. Visit your dream destination a few weeks before the crowds hit or after the busy season and you may be able to find deals on airfare and hotels. Africa, for example, is still an amazing place to visit from October to December or March to May, but with half the crowds and at half the price.
“I got to Athens last May for only $620 round trip, non-stop,” says Kevin Mejia, who lives in Queens, NY. “I think the reason I was able to get the ticket so cheaply is because I booked for early May. It’s still technically summer season in Greece, but the flock of tourists generally arrive late May to August. For Greece, booking in September is also great.”
Another pro-tip: Choose a week that isn’t a school break, such as the week between Christmas and New Year’s, which is one of the most popular travel weeks of the year.
Look for a strong dollar. Your cash will go much further in a destination where the American dollar is strong and, therefore, can be exchanged for a lot of the local currency. “The Peruvian Nuevo Sol has been decreasing against the dollar over the past few years, so your money will go further once you arrive,” says Britanny Carter, travel and tech expert with travel site FlyingYak.com.
That means Machu Picchu and Peru’s capital city of Lima may be within your grasp, after all.
Be flexible on accommodations. This is one of the biggest cost factors for any trip and, whether you bunk in an African safari lodge or an above-water bungalow in Bora Bora, it’s one expense where you might have considerable wiggle room. “If you’re on a budget that can be defined, we can control cost by using a four-star hotel instead of a five-star, or a fixed lodge instead of a mobile tented camp on a safari,” Fitzgerald says.
Consider a home swap. If you live somewhere other people find exciting—including, though hardly limited to, New York City or San Francisco—you might be able to parlay your home into a leg-up on your own vacation through a home exchange. It’s simple: Someone from your dream destination stays in your home and you stay in theirs, free of charge. And the map of possibilities is quite expansive: You can currently find lodging on HomeExchange.com for Italy’s Amalfi Coast; Anchorage, Alaska; and Helsinki, Finland for that Northern Lights show. That said, home swaps can be somewhat unpredictable, so this route may be for the more adventurous traveler.
If you’ve been pining after that dream trip but think it’s out of reach, there are a variety of ways to lower the price tag—from using credit card points to watching the strength of the dollar in certain locales. With some time and strategic planning, you can trim the costs of visiting almost any destination.