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5 Vacation Budget Busters (and How to Avoid Them)

Vacation Budgeting
Allianz - Vacation Budgeting

Your vacation budget was $2,000. But when you get home, unpack your suitcase and look at your credit card bill, you see you actually spent $3,000. Did you really drop a grand on surf lessons, sarongs and tropical drinks?

It’s tempting to spend freely when you’re traveling, but having a thoughtfully planned vacation budget can save you some stress in the long run. Here are five ways people overspend on vacation, and some strategies for sticking to your financial plan.

1. Failing to agree on splurge-spend categories.

When I travel, I want to live it up. I want to stay in a nice hotel and order whatever I want at dinner. My husband, on the other hand, is always conscious of our vacation budget, and he prefers to spend as little as possible on eating out. Once, we stayed at a resort in the Bahamas and subsisted on tuna fish sandwiches and pineapple-rum cocktails we made in our room.

Over the years, we’ve learned to compromise. I’ll forgo a few fancy dinners, but I won’t stay at a dingy airport motel. And we both agree that experiences are more important than anything else. In Barcelona, I had hoped to hit a few trendy restaurants. Instead my husband went to the corner market and bought a bottle of wine, some sausage, manchego and bread. I was a little dismayed — until he suggested going up to our hotel’s rooftop deck and enjoying our own tapas at sunset. It’s one of my favorite travel memories.

2. Not doing the math on all-inclusive offers.

The easiest way to stick to your vacation budget is to pay for everything up front and head to an all-inclusive resort. But going all-inclusive won’t always save you money. Take a close look at what you’re getting: Are watersports included? All drinks, or just a few basic options? Will you have to pay additional resort fees?

If the all-inclusive rate is $320 per person per day, but the daily room rate is $200, will you really be eating and drinking $120 worth of food and piña coladas? And read travelers’ reviews: If the food’s mediocre, you may prefer to venture out to local restaurants instead.

3. Forgetting to budget for gratuities.

A few years ago, we took a 10-day tour of Israel. The guide we had for the first half of the trip was brusque and dismissive; the guide for the second half was enthusiastic and knowledgeable. But we tipped the first guy more. Why? Because as the trip drew to a close, we were short on cash. Years later, I still regret it — although we later sent him a gift and a note expressing our gratitude.

Make sure you add gratuities to your vacation budget, whether you’re cruising, taking a tour or exploring on your own. Find out what the tipping customs are at your destination, as locals may expect less than you’re accustomed to spending. For more, read our guide to tipping on vacation.

4. Not having a good handle on currency exchange rates.

When the British pound is hovering around a 1 to 1.30 exchange rate to the dollar, I do the easy thing: I assume they’re equivalent. It’s not that I can’t do the math; it’s just an easy mental shortcut. So if a curry dinner for two costs 50 pounds, it feels like spending $50. The actual tab is a little more than $65 — and over time, a big gap grows between what I think I’m spending and what I’ve actually spent.

I have the same problem when the exchange rate is lopsided. In 2016, for instance, one U.S. dollar was worth 546 Costa Rican colones. So a piece of local artwork priced at 30,000 colones only costs $55. What a bargain! Or is it?

Currency conversion can throw a wrench in your vacation budget. Travel blogger Wade Shepard has a sensible strategy for keeping exchange rates straight, which he calls currency landmarks. Let’s say you’re traveling to Thailand, and need to mentally convert baht to dollars. Remember that $1 is worth 35 baht; $10 is 350; and $100 is 3,500. Then, divide each in half: 50 cents is 17.5 baht, $5 is 175 baht, and $50 is 1751. If you can fix these numbers in your head, you can easily estimate just about any sum.

5. Skipping travel insurance to save money.

When you’re doing your vacation budgeting, you may start looking for ways to cut costs. You might decide to eat tuna fish sandwiches in your hotel room (I don’t recommend it). Or you might choose to skip getting travel insurance.

Here’s the problem: If you travel without insurance, you risk losing your entire vacation investment. If you have to cancel your trip last-minute because a family member falls ill, or a hurricane destroys your destination, you could lose your non-refundable costs and never get to enjoy your vacation. Worse, if you fall seriously ill overseas, emergency medical care and transportation could cost far more than you ever anticipated in your vacation budget. Travel insurance isn’t expensive; you’ll be surprised by how little it costs to insure the full cost of your trip. Get a quote today, and travel happy!

Richmond-based travel writer Muriel Barrett has a terrible sense of direction, and has spent many happy hours getting lost in Barcelona, Venice and Jerusalem. Her favorite travel memories all involve wildlife: watching sea turtles nest in Costa Rica, kayaking with seals in Vancouver and meeting a pink tarantula in Martinique.

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