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How Not to Blow Your Budget on Vacation

We're thrilled to present this smart LearnVest story here on Savvy!

Whether you’re planning a vacation in Paris or a skydive in the States this summer, we don’t want you counting pennies while you stroll along the Seine or thinking about your savings account as you plummet toward Earth.

Vacations are well-deserved treats and money shouldn’t be a cloud over these precious times away. On the other hand, the “anything goes” spirit that is so intoxicating during a trip can turn a little . . . toxic afterward, when you’re home facing staggering credit card bills.

Follow our tips for staying within your budget on vacation so money concerns don’t interfere with your good times.

Start Planning Early—With A Budget In Mind

The key to optimal vacation spending is—you guessed it—planning and budgeting. About 8% of your total yearly budget can go toward “fun” spending like travel. If you love to travel, you can increase this portion of your budget by cutting other areas. When trip planning, balance your total costs based on 1) where you’re going; 2) how you plan to get there; and 3) what you’ll do once there. For example, while a small island in the Pacific might have really great rates on hotels or restaurants, it might cost a small fortune to fly there—but you’ll save on low-cost beach activities. If you’re on a budget, plan a trip that doesn’t gouge you in all three areas.

(To learn how to find cheap airplane tickets, click here.)

Create A Daily Cash Allowance

After the initial investments of transportation and hotel, set a daily budget for expected food, drink, activities and souvenirs/shopping. Inflate the number by 10% to 15% as a cushion for small emergencies or unforeseen expenses. Vacations are a great time to practice the “cash diet.” Once you arrive at your daily allowance, set aside that amount in separate envelopes for each day and stash the envelopes in the hotel safe. Each day, use only what’s in one envelope. Your credit card can be saved for emergencies.

Read on for more tips on how to save money on your trip.

Foreign money often doesn’t feel like real money—we don’t have the same psychological association with spending it. So you don’t blow through half an envelope on a tip, consider jotting the cost in US dollars on the envelope to keep track. Or just keep looking at the envelope to see how much is left for the day!

Be An Exchange Expert

You’ll get the best exchange rate at your destination (not at home), and usually at a bank ATM. Foreign banks will have lower exchange rates than commercial exchange counters. Exchange the total amount of money you can spend based on your budget. Call your bank and credit cards ahead of time to find out their foreign transaction fees—some charge, some don’t. You’ll definitely want to know this ahead of time so you’re not racking up fees at the ATM every day or incurring extra charges every time you swipe. Credit card companies will also freeze your card if you don’t tell them ahead of time you’re heading to another country, or even to a different state (they’ll think someone has stolen your card). A courtesy call to your credit card company will save you from embarrassment in the gift shop.

Don’t Play Santa (But Don’t Be Scrooge, Either)

It’s tempting to pick up souvenirs for friends and family every time you pass a store. But while we’re all for gift giving, there’s no need to return from Italy with four leather bags for your mom, or a candle and a bracelet and a bar of soap for your best friend. Before leaving, make a list of people to buy gifts for and how much you want to spend on each person. When you hit a nice shop where you can knock several gifts off your list, buy in bulk and negotiate a discount. Shop with your budget in mind—don’t pick up cheap tchotchkes whenever you see them. And speaking of . . .

How Many Snow Globes Do You Really Need?

When going on vacation, you want to make your memories last. But before buying that miniature Eiffel Tower, think about whether the “souvenir” in question fits into your lifestyle or home décor. Snag items that work seamlessly with your lifestyle, like a fair-trade clutch from South America or a jar of pineapple jam from Hawaii—that way, vacation memories become a part of your everyday life instead of relegated to a dusty mantle display. Plan your year’s budget with your vacation in mind—if you know you can get an inexpensive silk scarf in Vietnam when you head there later this year, don’t buy one stateside, where it will be more expensive. Also, consider buying less stuff but taking a lot of photos you can later frame or keep on your phone or computer screen.

Eat Like A Local

Hotel restaurants can often be much pricier than restaurants in the surrounding area. If you can’t afford to spend $30 each morning on the breakfast buffet, ask for recommendations for inexpensive cafes or sandwich shops nearby. Street food is another inexpensive option and is a great way to try authentic local cuisine. You can also save on breakfast, lunch and snacks—and experience local color—by buying fresh produce at local markets.

Leave Room For More

Leave room in your suitcase for items you may want to bring back so you don’t have to buy another luggage piece on your trip or get slapped with additional baggage fees. If you’re allowed to carry on or check another bag, consider bringing a fold-up tote bag and packing it in your suitcase to accommodate extra items.

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