Summertime is vacation time for many families, with the kids out of school and the warm weather inviting outdoor adventures. Sticking to a budget during the busy travel season can be difficult, but these tips may help.
Related: 11 Ways to Save for a Summer Vacation
START PLANNING NOW
Airfare and hotel prices rise as popular travel dates approach. Try to book refundable accommodations early and keep looking for inexpensive options, or lock in prices if they seem reasonable and travel plans are certain.
Related: 10 Tricks for Finding Cheap Flights
START SAVING NOW TOO
Starting to save for a summer vacation ahead of time will help keep the credit card balance under control and leave more options open for fun activities. Consider spring cleaning a chance to make a little money for vacation by selling unwanted items at garage sales and online.
TRY TO BE FLEXIBLE
A little flexibility with travel dates can result in big savings. Flights on Tuesdays or Wednesdays are often cheapest, for example. Travelers able to leave at a moment's notice may find last-minute bargains on flights, hotels, or vacation packages.
CONSIDER ALTERNATIVE LOCATIONS
Although summer is a busy travel time in general, it's the off-season for some destinations. Consider visiting Utah or Arizona (aside from the Grand Canyon), or enjoy the beaches in southern Florida. For travel outside the continental United States, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Belize, and parts of Mexico may offer affordable accommodations. But keep in mind that prices are lower in these areas because the temperatures are higher.
CONSIDER MANY TYPES OF ACCOMMODATIONS
Budget hotels outside major cities or near airports are often cheaper than downtown accommodations, but financial district hotels may lower their prices for weekends or holiday weeks, when the business crowd is away. Rooms or spaces listed on vacation rental sites such as Airbnb or HomeAway can be less expensive than a hotel -- especially considering they typically have kitchens, letting guests save money by cooking meals. Less formal accommodations may be free through sites such as Couchsurfing, Global Free Loaders, and Hospitality Club.
TRY BLIND BIDDING
Travelers set on a traditional hotel stay can take their chances bidding blindly on a site such as Priceline or Hotwire, which let bidders choose a star rating and approximate location but not a specific hotel. It's possible to get a great deal this way, but there are no refunds once the bid is accepted and the hotel is revealed.
GO ON AN OUTDOOR ADVENTURE
An attractive option during dry months, camping offers some of the least expensive accommodations out there -- for those who have the gear. Some of the most popular campgrounds, such as those at Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks, can fill up months in advance, although there are usually a few first-come, first-served campgrounds or spots. Many lesser-known campgrounds offer an escape from civilization at a discount rate.
JOIN THE CLUB
Some airline and hotel frequent-traveler programs offer rewards for the most basic tier of membership. Even infrequent travelers may want to consider joining for extra perks such as free Internet access or late checkout.
CHECK MEMBERSHIP PRICES
Members of large organizations such as AAA or AARP may get discount rates on vacation packages, car rentals, hotels, flights, and cruises. Warehouse clubs such as Costco, BJ's, and Sam's Club also offer travel specials. It's always worth checking to see if a discount is available; the savings can be substantial.
RECONSIDER RENTAL CAR INSURANCE
Before paying a rental car agency a daily fee for insurance, check to make sure it's necessary. Some primary auto insurance policies cover rentals as well, and some credit cards include rental car coverage. Third-party providers also may offer less expensive insurance.
RENT A CAR OFF-SITE
Rental car agencies' airport branches often charge more than those just a few miles away. Compare all the available rates and check with the off-site locations to see if they provide free shuttles. Even if they don't, the savings can outweigh the cost of a cab.
AVOID AIRLINE BAGGAGE FEES
Almost every U.S. airline now charges for the first checked bag, in addition to bags over 50 pounds. Booking a flight with an airline-branded credit card can be a way to avoid fees -- but so can simply packing light. Otherwise the cost might be enough to justify choosing an alternative carrier.
ASK ABOUT STUDENT DISCOUNTS
Students and parents may be able to save money on travel by asking for student discounts. Lower admission fees are sometimes available at museums and other popular tourist attractions, and some airlines and rail services, including Amtrak, offer reduced rates.
Related: 10 Cheap Summer Vacations for Students
ASK ABOUT SENIOR DISCOUNTS
Seniors get discounts at hundreds of places, including restaurants, grocery stores, rental car agencies, and hotels. Sometimes an AARP membership is required, but usually it's enough to show ID with a birth date that makes the cutoff.
Traveling with friends and extended family allows everyone to split costs. Renting and sharing a house may be cheaper than booking two or three separate places, for example. Large gatherings provide free entertainment as a group reconnects, plays games, and prepares meals together.
WATCH OUT FOR FEES OVERSEAS
Many credit cards tack on fees up to 3 percent for purchases overseas, so travelers heading abroad can save money by using a credit card with no foreign transaction fees. To save money on ATM withdrawals, look for a checking account that refunds ATM fees internationally, such as the Charles Schwab High-Yield Checking account.
PLAN FREE ACTIVITIES FOR KIDS
When taking a road trip with children, look over the route and plan a few fun stops ahead of time. Free options include taking a quick walk around a state park, exploring a small town center, or stopping to see a roadside attraction. For entertainment on the go, add free games, shows, or movies to mobile devices before setting off.
BRING BEACH TOYS AND GEAR
Rather than buying brand-new toys at the beach, buy a few at a dollar store ahead of time. Vacationers driving to a beach destination should also consider investing in a set of folding chairs and an umbrella instead of renting gear at the beach. Better yet, look for an inexpensive vacation rental that comes with beach gear.
HAVE SNACKS HANDY
To save the cost of overpriced food and drinks from airports and rest stops, bring food from home or stop at a grocery store and buy snacks for a long trip. Treats and drinks can also help calm kids' nerves and provide distractions when a tantrum is brewing (they work just as well on adults who may get "hangry").
BRING MINI BOTTLES OF LIQUOR
For adults traveling by plane, buying mini bottles of liquor ahead of time can be much cheaper than buying drinks onboard. Bottles up to 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters) are small enough to go through security, and mixers are free on most flights.