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Ah, it’s that time again. Time to begin planning yet another vacation (the sixth for this year). And time for well-meaning (I think) friends and family to ask, “How do you afford to go on so many vacations each year when we can’t even afford one? You must be putting it on credit
cards or cashing out your home equity, right?”

“Nope, not even close,” I say.

“Then you must be staying in flea bag motels and using courier flights or something, right?”

“Nope,” I say again. “I like to travel well.”

My questioner just shakes his or her head and mumbles something to the effect of, “I know you’re lying. Nobody can afford that many vacations.”

So how do I afford so many vacations, even though I don’t make a ton of money? First, and most importantly, I prioritize. After the bills are paid, I have a finite amount of leftover money to cover my “wants.” Travel is a priority in my life and I give up a lot of other “wants” to be able to do it. I try not be short with people when they ask me how I’m affording yet another vacation, but it’s difficult when I see some of them drinking coffee from Starbucks every morning, heading out to the movies every weekend, or eating out five meals per week. If those things make them happy, then that’s great. But they need to be aware that there are trade-offs.

Unless you are super rich, your discretionary money is only going to go so far. If you spend it all on other things, there’s none left for travel. If travel’s not what you want to do, then all is well. But if you want to travel, you’re probably going to have to give up some of your other wants in order to do it. That, or win the lottery.

My ability to travel often is helped by the fact that I don’t carry a lot of debt. Without those monthly credit card and loan payments, I’m able to free up a good portion of my income for travel. I realize that this isn’t easy for a lot of people, but it goes back to the priorities I mentioned above. If you want to travel often, prioritize and pay down your other debt to free up more income for travel.

I have a separate high-interest rate savings account set up for my vacation fund. That account is off limits for everything but vacations and dire emergencies not covered by my regular emergency fund. I have a set amount direct deposited from each paycheck so I don’t have to think about saving for vacations. I also put any “found” money into that account. Found money includes rebates, refunds, money from Get Paid To sites, and spare change. To spur the growth of this account, I never spend change or one dollar bills. I keep that money and deposit it into my vacation account. I also track my coupon savings and put the amount I save into my vacation fund. It all adds up quickly.

I budget and plan carefully for each trip. I do enough research beforehand so that I know exactly how much each component of the trip will cost, and then I hunt for deals and coupons to get the prices down further. The deals are out there, even in this economy, you just have to be willing to look. Yes, this is time consuming, but for me it’s part of the vacation fun. I like nothing better than coming out of the library with an armload of guidebooks, or sitting down to an evening spent researching on the Internet. I know many people who don’t plan or budget at all and then complain when the bill comes and it’s far more than they expected. They say, “I had no idea it would all be so much!” Planning and budgeting beforehand prevents those shocks.

While I like to travel well, I don’t need luxury. For some reason, a lot of people who ask about my vacations assume there are two kinds of travel. The first is “budget travel” which resembles a college spring break with ten people crammed into a Yugo for eight hours, then sharing a flea bag motel room and eating fast food at every meal. This is the sort of traveling they think I’m doing. Then there’s “luxury travel” which is staying in a five star hotel with a spa, eating five course meals and flying first class. This is the sort of travel they think I’d like to do, if I could “afford” it.

What people don’t always realize is that there is a middle ground. There are many nice hotels, restaurants, and attractions that don’t cost a fortune, but aren’t so cheap that you have to wear a flea collar to visit. You may have to seek these out in some destinations, but it’s well worth it to be able to travel well and affordably. A plus is that in many destinations, such places are locally owned and operated so you gain exposure to local cuisine, culture, and hospitality that you won’t get at the mega-resorts.

Finally, I don’t buy many souvenirs. Souvenirs eat up a large chunk of a vacation budget and aren’t worth it to me. I don’t need another t-shirt or tchotchke cluttering up my living space. Plus, getting stuff home can be a challenge. One well chosen item and a lot of
photographs are enough for me. I also keep a travel journal so I can look back and remember the details of my vacation and I collect a lot of freebies to “accessorize” my journal such as guide maps, ticket stubs, matchbook covers and programs.

Frequent travel is possible on just about any budget, as long as you are willing to make it a priority in your life. Once you make travel a priority, it becomes surprisingly easy to create a budget that makes it possible. You find yourself willing to give up other things in exchange for your next great trip. It becomes a personal challenge to hunt down the best airfare and hotel deals you can find. And you enjoy being the one “in the know” about all the great local restaurants and sights that can be had for little money. The only downside to frequent travel? Friends and family will start asking you how you afford all those vacations.

-Author: J. Derrick
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