Your bags are packed, your airline boarding passes are ready to go, and your kids are bouncing off the walls with excitement. Even better, you’re proud of yourself and your shrewd vacation planning this go-round. Thanks to your carefully crafted vacation budget, this trip has already been saved for and paid off. What could go wrong?
Ask anyone who travels often enough, and they’ll tell you a whole lot can go wrong – even if try to plan for everything. Vacation budgets are especially fickle and hard to stick to for several reasons, but mostly because you can’t plan for the unknown. If you’re traveling somewhere new, for example, you may not know about that toll road up ahead, or the fact that the free state park you’re visiting charges $25 for parking.
Or maybe you really did plan for everything — but the especially hot weather means more cold drinks and snacks for the kiddos. Or you plan to cook cheap dinners in your condo, but pure vacation exhaustion sends you running for the closest restaurant each night for your evening meal.
Still, it’s possible to plan for some of the unknown and hidden costs you’ll face if you know what’s out there and have a better idea of what to expect. And if you’re savvy enough, you might even be able to work around or avoid some hidden expenses altogether.
Here’s a strategy we suggest wholeheartedly: Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.
And as you craft the budget for your upcoming vacation, try to think beyond the best-case scenario. What could go wrong? And which parts of your trip have the potential to cost more than you planned? Here are some of the hidden costs you should watch out for:
Airline Taxes and Fees
Flying this year? Make sure to check your ticket for the cost of airline taxes and fees. When you travel domestically, you’re generally only required to pay $5.60 per leg in fees mandated by the federal government. But for international flights, the fees, taxes, and fuel surcharges can easily add hundreds of dollars to the cost of each ticket.
When you pay for airfare, you won’t necessarily notice since taxes and fees are built into the cost of your ticket. But when you score “free” flights with airline miles, that only covers the cost of the ticket — you’ll have to pay for any taxes and fees levied on your particular flight separately.
If you don’t watch out, airline taxes and fees can knock your travel budget completely off track. And while there’s no way to avoid paying them besides changing your travel plan altogether — flying through Iceland instead of London, for example, can save you hundreds of dollars in departure taxes — you do have the option of shopping around for cheaper flights. When you’re using airline miles, on the other hand, it’s smart to search for award fares ahead of time to see what your taxes and fees might look like.
The best way to plan for these fees is to be aware of them in the first place.
Checked Baggage Fees
If you don’t know your airline’s policy on checked luggage, you could be in for a rude awakening when you pony up to the counter to check in for your flight. Different airlines have different fees for checked baggage. While a few airlines, such as Southwest, still let you check one bag for free on domestic flights, others charge $25 or more for every bag you check.
For a family of four, the cost of checking one bag each can easily surge over $100 each way. If you don’t plan for this added expense, it can send your vacation budget into a tailspin before you even get off the ground.
Research your airline’s policy ahead of time, so you can pack lighter, stick to carry-on baggage only, or at least plan for the expense.
Hotel Resort Fees
If you stay at hotels and resorts often, you’re probably already aware of “resort fees.” If not, you might be shocked when you learn what a resort fee is – and what it isn’t.
By and large, resort fees are unavoidable add-on fees charged by hotels and resorts. Most of the time, they include negligible benefits like access to an on-site gym or pool, plus Wi-Fi access that should probably be free anyway.
The kicker is, hotels aren’t usually required to include these fees in the nightly rates they advertise. Often times, you won’t find out about the resort fee until you scan the fine print. And in the worst-case scenario, you won’t find out about it until you’re required to fork over an extra $20 to $70 per night when you check into or out of your hotel.
Foreign Transaction Fees
Credit cards are by far the most convenient form of payment when you’re traveling at home or overseas. First, most credit cards offer zero liability on fraudulent purchases, making credit a smart alternative to use your bank-assigned debit card. And since credit cards will automatically exchange currency when you make purchases abroad, they can save you from the hassle and expensive commission fees of trading in your American dollars for foreign money.
Before you travel abroad with credit, however, you should make sure you pick up a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. If you don’t, you’ll likely be on the hook for additional fees that add up to 3% or more to the cost of every purchase you make.
Snacks and Convenience Food
Even when you plan for everything, kids can dream up some pretty crazy ways to spend your money. They’re hot and can’t find a water fountain – so obviously, you need to spring for a lemonade. Or they’re tired of sitting in the airport and the McDonald’s in the terminal is calling their name.
You can bring snacks with you through airport security and directly onto the plane, but not drinks. With some forethought and planning, some basic snacks in your carry-on can help you avoid a situation where you’re required to buy overpriced airport food.
And if you’re driving, you have no excuse not to plan ahead when it comes to snacks. Pack a small cooler with plenty of snacks and drinks for everyone and you’ll avoid overpaying for gas station snacks and convenience foods.
The thought of renting a stroller at a place like Disney World sounds entirely preposterous until you actually arrive at Disney World. Once you land within the park’s shiny gates and find yourself in the thick of the crowds, having your kid being tucked away where they can’t disappear makes a lot more sense. If it’s stiflingly hot or your kids are small, you may even want to save them some footsteps as well.
If you don’t plan ahead for a stroller at your favorite theme park, brace yourself. At Disney World in Orlando, Fla., for example, renting a double stroller will add a staggering $31 per day to the cost of your trip. It can cost considerably less at smaller and less expensive resorts, but you can avoid these added costs altogether by bringing a stroller from home if you have one. And if you don’t have one, borrow one!
Entry Fees and Parking
You can often hit up state parks and historical sites for free, but even some seemingly free attractions cost money. You might be required to make a donation to get into a museum or historical church, or pay a tax on your way out. Other times, attractions you want to visit are free to enter, but it costs an arm and a leg to park your car for the day.
The only way to prepare for entry fees and parking costs is to do as much research online as you can ahead of time. You might encounter a surprise fee regardless, but you’ll be best prepared to handle it if you plan for the worst and scour the internet for information on fees before you go.
A cheap beach vacation is possible if you plan ahead. Drive your car to the closest beach you can find, rent a nearby vacation condo off VRBO or Airbnb, and cook your own meals to keep costs at a minimum.
But don’t forget to plan for sunscreen. At up to $12 per container, you can easily spend $12 per day just to keep your family safe from the sun’s harmful rays. When I take my family to the beach or the water park, for instance, we can easily go through one can of sunscreen or more per day.
If you don’t plan ahead, these costs can easily take you by surprise. And if you end up having to buy sunscreen when you arrive on vacation, you may go broke trying to stock up. At resorts in some destinations in Mexico, for example, sunscreen sold on-site regularly goes for more than $30 per bottle. If you’re checking a bag for your trip, you can avoid getting gouged by buying extra sunscreen at home and bringing it with you.
International Data and Roaming Fees
Plan on bringing your phone on an international trip? That’s perfectly fine, but it could cost you big-time. Depending on where you go and which carrier you use, you may be required to pay international data and roaming fees. And for some destinations, you might need to buy a SIM card for your phone to work at all.
For our family’s trip to Italy last year, we opted to purchase a $200 SIM card so we could use the internet freely and without restraint. This was enormously helpful as we desperately needed the “map” function on my phone — but also convenient since we could upload photos and I could keep up with work email while we traveled.
If you’re dreaming up an international trip, it can pay to plan ahead and look for the best deal on data and phone service before you go. At the very least, make sure you know your phone provider’s charges for international data and roaming so you won’t return home to the rude surprise of an expensive phone bill.
While most taxes are included in your room fee at American hotels and resorts, some cities abroad charge special or extra taxes on tourism. Most of the time, you won’t be asked to pay these taxes until you check into your hotel or check out and settle the bill.
These taxes are wide and inconsistent, existing in some popular European cities and not at all in others. In Rome, for example, extra city taxes are imposed on each paid night’s stay, and the charges increase based on the quality of hotel you book. Nightly fees at a one- or two-star hotel are just €3, for example, but you’ll pay €7 per night to stay in a five-star hotel.
In Barcelona, on the other hand, extra hotel taxes range from €0.45 to €2.50 per person, per night. Generally speaking, you won’t be required to pay these taxes until you check out of your hotel – that’s when they get you.
While you can’t avoid extra city taxes, you can plan for them. Make sure you research any cities you plan to visit ahead of time, taking special care to note how much these fees will add to the cost of your trip. Once you’re aware of the fees, you can make your peace with them and add them to your travel budget with everything else.
To Avoid a Vacation Budget Fail, Plan Ahead
Creating a travel or vacation budget takes some time and requires some research, but it’s absolutely worth it. By planning ahead for the many costs you’ll encounter, you can make sure your vacation remains affordable and free of any expensive surprises.
Just remember, travel comes with its share of hidden costs. While you should do your best to plan ahead, you should also give yourself a bit of a buffer in the event of unexpected expenses.
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