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Most are willing to pay a lot to get away from it all, thinking: “I work hard, I deserve a lavish vacation!” Yes you do, but it really doesn’t have to cost a lot to have the time of your life. We all like to save money and really part of having a dream vacation is having a great time without spending a lot. If you are willing to put in a little time to plan your vacations, it will cost you less and you’ll have more fun. 

No one knows best about what you like to do with your time than you! So why let anyone else decide what you should do on your vacation? Travel packages are put together for those who don’t have time for a vacation…and you do have time for a vacation, so you should plan it!

Start with where you want to go. Are you looking for tropical relaxation, historical travel, foodie experiences, extreme adventure? Your dream vacation should start with a simple theme. Food and drink usually defines our vacations and Mexico has some of the best in the world. So, this summer – Mexico is for us! We’ve been to Cancun, Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas – all are wonderful destinations. But what do you do if you don’t want to spend $350 per person or more to get there? Well, we’ve also been to smaller, lesser known destinations in Mexico and had amazing experiences. So we are saving a lot of money by spending a nominal amount on additional car insurance and driving to Mexico. In our experience, the roads have been good and our roadside assistance extends to Mexico. With all these assurances, we’ll be set at ease with car travel in a foreign country. 

If you don’t live close enough to drive to your vacation destination, you might consider using a credit card for which you can also earn airline miles. Mileage cards make a lot of sense, especially if you happen to fly a lot for work. We put as much as we can on our United Airline MileagePlus Visa card (including automatic bill pays), but always make it a rule to pay off the balance every month. We haven’t paid cash for airline tickets in years, including last year’s trip to Alaska and France the year before. We now have enough for four tickets to Thailand next year! But, back to Mexico…

Where you stay on your vacation can define the entire experience and it can be the largest cost you will incur. To help sort through all your options, websites like Tripadvisor or are very useful. Yelp is also a good resource for reviews, however, Tripadvisor has more presence outside the U.S. These are great tools for zeroing in on exactly what you want (beach front, awesome pool, etc.), but in most cases booking through them will cost you extra. As an example, for our vacation I found two great places that were 15%-25% more expensive when not booking direct with the resort (2 nights at Estero Beach Hotel & Resort is $389.72 on, booking direct: $333.20 – while 2 nights Las Rosas Hotel & Spa is $421.26 on, booking direct: $326.00). Also, remember to check cancellation policies before you book.

Now, what to do while on vacation? A lot of this is made easy when staying at a resort with a pool, beach, restaurants and planned activities. Many travelers leave it at that, figuring it’s only a relaxing vacation if they don’t have to think about anything. However, what happens when you find out that a great band played last night and you missed it, or that special restaurant you wanted to go to is closed on the one night you have open? If you want to make the most of your vacation, you need to plan your days. Really! Plan it and be flexible about the schedule to ensure you have the best experience. 

Put everything in Google Calendar – it’s easy to use and easy to access. After using Yelp, Tripadvisor and tips from the Lonely Planet Mexico Travel Guide and the Crossing South Travel Show, I started to load in several restaurants, breweries, wineries, adventure activities (sand boarding, zip lines, ATVs), spa treatments (massages, haircuts, manicures) and times for shopping at local markets. I then checked the websites for each of these activities and added the hours of operation and URLs to the notes of the calendar items. Doing this, I was able to easily see that we should visit the Valle de Guadalupe wine country on a Thursday when it is less busy. Google provides crowd statistics for many businesses, which made it easy for me to schedule market visits on less crowded days as well. I found discounts on our adventure activities by visiting on certain days. I moved plans around for the restaurants we wanted to visit, as their hours of operation dictated. All of this did take a couple of focused hours, but the vacation will be so much better. This doesn’t cost you anything, and besides it’s so much fun to actively dream about your vacation by planning it. I have done this type of travel planning for over 20 years and our vacations really are amazing!

If you avoid the high costs of airline travel, book your hotels directly and set up your own travel itinerary, you will be able increase the highlights of your vacation and the experiences shared with loved ones. We are leaving for Mexico soon. Our itinerary is ready. Can’t wait! Email me if you’d like a copy of our itinerary or would like me to help with tips on your upcoming vacation. Fun times are just around the corner!

Do you live for free time? Have you ever wondered if you could retire early or work a lot less and perhaps take even more vacations? Watch for my next blog where I’ll discuss how it really is possible!