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Start now to plan a fun, affordable vacation

Summer is just around the corner and if you have kids, that often means a fun-filled family vacation.

As you plan your summer, keep in mind the following tips.

Simple and short

When planning a vacation, do not limit yourself to thinking it must be elaborate and expensive. Summer getaways do not need to last two weeks or involve a visit to an expensive theme park. Keeping them simple often results in much less stress. I recommend planning a vacation for five to seven days.

Trips of that length allow you to take advantage of a range of discounts. For example, hotels often offer deals such as the fourth night free. If you are going to a city that holds conventions and attracts business travelers, weekend nights are often less expensive than weekdays. Hotels are becoming more willing to negotiate, and rental car companies are also eager to discount their rates.

If the vacation is short (and rather inexpensive), it may be possible to plan one trip for May and another for August. Or, plan some four-day-long weekends to nearby cities or sights. Driving vacations can offer a nice alternative to flying to a destination.

Involve the family

As you plan, get everyone’s input. Let the kids get involved in planning activities. The anticipation of a vacation adds to our happiness, so planning ahead is important.

If you decide on a car trip, plan ahead for activities during the drive. Audiobooks can entertain the family during a long drive. Let the kids create a CD or playlist of their favorite tunes. You may want to bring some games, and don’t forget classic travel games like car bingo.

Think about each member of your family and what would make them happy. If one child wants to play tennis and another wants to hike in the mountains, try to choose a location that will satisfy everyone.

If you have family members who live far away, perhaps you can meet between your two cities. Psychology research tells us that one of the best ways to become happier is by spending time with family and friends. Too much family time (and a hectic schedule) can create havoc, so plan some “down time” into the schedule, too.

Without kids

If you do not have kids, your vacation choices are unlimited. For couples who work full-time and need some relaxing time together, several four-day weekends throughout the year work great.

When traveling without kids, often it is best to avoid the typical summer vacation months, and travel in the spring or fall instead.

If you are traveling on your own, choose a city you would love to explore, or travel with an organized group if you wish.

Follow your personality and stay within your comfort zone. I have known many people who love the solitude of a “solo” vacation, while others would prefer to be meeting new friends in a group setting.

Saving money

Planning ahead can save money. Create a budget for the trip several months before the vacation. Hold a garage sale in the spring. Let the kids clean out their rooms and sell their unneeded toys and clothing. This can provide their spending money during the trip.

Avoid buying soda or sweets at the grocery store or when eating out for the next several months. This can add up to a large amount of money, and put the money in a vacation savings jar. Discuss with your family members that you are making some changes in order to afford a vacation.

If you reserve a hotel, calling the front desk staff can often result in lower rates than the national reservation center or travel websites. Continue to check back (and online) for lower rates, and request that the hotel honor them if you locate better rates.

If you are flying to your destination, Kayak recommends booking the flights four to six weeks ahead of time to get the lowest rates on domestic fares. For busy summer destinations I recommend booking a few months in advance. Travel sites also suggest flying on a Tuesday or Wednesday (which often avoids business travelers) or a Saturday morning.

The key to planning memorable vacations is to keep your focus on what your family will enjoy, which does not have to mean expensive or elaborate.

Donna Skeels Cygan, CFP, MBA is the author of “The Joy of Financial Security.” She has been a fee-only financial planner in Albuquerque for 20 years, and is the owner of Sage Future Financial, LLC.,