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In this economy, many of us probably can’t afford to take a summer vacation like we’re used to. But if there’s a trip you can’t avoid in your future (like an out-of-town wedding or a family reunion), there are things you can do to minimize the cost of your trip no matter where you’re going. Here are a few suggestions on how to cut back:

Airfare: Do you have frequent flyer miles you can use? If not, if you’re close to an award ticket, consider buying a few miles to top off your account. It may not be the best deal in the long run, but if you have to travel now and you don’t have money now, it’s better to spend $150 to buy miles and use a frequent flyer ticket than to spend $350 to buy the ticket outright. If you have a few months until your trip, try signing up for a credit card that awards a generous number of frequent flyer miles for new signups to get enough miles for your trip. Keep in mind that the miles will take a while to post to your account, and frequent flyer seats get snatched up fast, so if your travel dates and times aren’t flexible, you may have a hard time actually using those miles. Other options include trying your luck with Priceline and adjusting your trip so you’re traveling on unpopular days and/or at unpopular times. I think the most effective websites for finding cheap flights are Sidestep, Kayak, and Yapta.

Transportation: Renting a car can be expensive. If you’re traveling specifically to attend an event or visit a person, either stay with that person or stay as close to them as possible. See if you can catch a ride with someone else (and offer to pay for gas or help offset their rental costs) or take a cab. And while navigating public transportation in an unfamiliar city is never fun, it might be worth figuring out if it means the difference between an affordable trip and getting your family in financial trouble.

Accommodations: Obviously, the easiest way to save money on travel is to stay with someone you know at your destination and room for free. If you’re traveling to attend a special event, perhaps there’s someone else going who you know that you can share a hotel room with. I haven’t found any good ways to dramatically decrease the cost of staying in a hotel besides priceline-rewards programs don’t seem to be as useful for hotels as for airfare.

Food: One of the major expenses of traveling is eating out for every meal. If you’re staying in a hotel, you can try to find an extended stay one that has a kitchen. You might think this type of hotel room would be more expensive, but it often isn’t. If this isn’t an option, at least try to find a hotel with a fridge and a microwave. As a last resort, you can eat picnic-style: get a cooler and some ice and plan to eat sandwiches for the length of your trip. You’ll save a bundle. If you’re staying with friends or family, see if they wouldn’t mind lending you some fridge space and letting you use their kitchen.

Souvenirs, gifts, and travel supplies: It probably goes without saying, but if money is tight, you should skip these items altogether. Whatever suitcase, clothes, shoes, etc. you already own will have to be sufficient. Save your limited funds for the expenses you can’t avoid. If you already own a digital camera and a computer, you’ll be able to create plenty of trip mementos for free. If you absolutely must get new clothes (such as for a wedding), find a way to fit them into your usual budget and buy items that you’ll be able to wear again (to work, to other special occassions, etc.).

If you find yourself faced with a trip you can’t say no to this year, change how you usually do things to make your trip affordable. You may be able to scrounge up the money for it by looking at ways you can cut your monthly expenses (which will pay off not just in terms of making one trip affordable, but in the long run). I think Suze Orman has it right when she says “people first, money second,” but that doesn’t mean you have to put yourself in a bad position to be there for the people you care about.

-Author: L. Fontelle
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