Vacation season is coming up and we can't overstress the benefits of planning EARLY. So, after you dig yourself out of your winter hibernation, get crackin' on that vacation planning. Starting now will save you big.
Figure Out Your Vacation Budget (And Stick to It)
First, make sure that you have a kick-butt budget. Then, calculate how much money you can afford for a vacation. Of that, what can you afford to spend on a vacation? Figure out the maximum you can spend on accommodations, transportation, food, and souvenirs, respectively. Remember, never go into credit card debt to fund a vacation! We recommend spending no more than 2% of your annual net income on vacations each year. (If you're looking at your budget breakdown, plan to take vacay money from the miscellaneous category.)
Choose a Location
Is the place that you've set your sights on within your budget for accommodations? It could be if you plan to go during the off-season. Otherwise, try to choose somewhere you have friends who will let you crash. Want to keep your budget in check but don't know a soul? Try CouchSurfing.
Don't Be Hostile Toward Hostels
If you're intrepid try staying at a hostel, where you can meet other travelers and bask in the camaraderie (and lack of privacy). Hostels are not just for college students. Our favorite site for that is HostelWorld, which features reviews, a great rating system, and maps to the facilities. A tip from experienced travelers: Most hostels earmark a certain number of beds for HostelWorld, but they sometimes have more rooms available than listed on the site. If you want to stay somewhere that appears to be "sold out" online, try calling in to see if you can get a non-earmarked room...at the HostelWorld price.
Reserve Accommodations That Fit Your Traveling Style
If hostels aren't quite your thing, try Priceline to find the cheapest hotel stays. If you're only willing to travel in style, we urge you not to blow all your money on swanky accommodations. At the very least, visit Tablet Hotels, which helps people find deals on luxury stays. Stay tuned for an upcoming review of Tablet, and how to get the best accommodations for the least money.
Our favorite sites for finding the best deals are Kayak and Fly.com (read our review of Fly.com). Be flexible about travel dates for the best deals. Also, don't forget to enter your frequent flier number, which can earn you hundreds of dollars in free flights and other rewards!
We like this incredibly comprehensive, interactive packing list. It goes a little overboard, suggesting even a shortwave radio as a gadget you might want to bring, but you can customize the list so it shows exactly what you’ll need. Pack light to avoid checking luggage ... that way, you can dodge baggage fees.
Plan Your Departure
Don't waste your time waiting at the gate, or money when you get stranded and have to buy overpriced food at the airport. Instead, check for flight delays before you head out of the house. Check out FlightView, a BlackBerry and Palm app (there's a mobile site made for iPhones, too) that informs you of flight delays and cancellations. The app costs $5, but we're totally fine simply visiting the mobile site on our phone's browser, for free. If you do get stuck at the gate, use GateGuru, which will tell you where to go within the airport to find the best, and best-priced amenities. GateGuru costs $1.
Be Savvy, Even on the Plane
Make sure that you're at your best when you get to your destination, by avoiding jetlag. You might not want to shell out $10 for an app if you're an infrequent traveler, but Jet Lag Rx is worth the money if you fly frequently for business and need to be at your prime when you hop off the plane. The app provides you with a customized schedule for your flight, telling you when to eat, sleep, etc, to minimize the effects of jet lag. After all, getting your money's worth from your vacation is also about being awake for it.