Planning a (Debt-Free) Dream Vacation

Most people agree that a vacation is supposed to be relaxing, but planning for one can be just the opposite. Still, poor planning can cost money and time, causing headaches and frustration when you’re supposed to be getting away from it all.

Some people like to book a ticket and see where life takes them. Others prefer cruises or tours where the planning is taken care of for them. I prefer to plan my trips, researching and budgeting as much as I can while I’m at home to make the vacation as smooth as possible. If that sounds like the route for you, today I’m going to share my method, step-by-step, for budgeting and planning a vacation, including spreadsheets you download and customize.

This method is effective in planning trip logistics and budgets, laying out how to do the following:

  • Estimate how much the trip will cost, allowing you to save sufficiently and not come back to a credit card debt slap in the face
  • Efficiently plan your time, maximizing time spent doing fun stuff and minimizing time lost due to scheduling conflicts
  • Easily keep important information at your fingertips to save money and time

This method saved me at least $375 on my last trip after a cabana in Mexico lost my reservation. Because I used this step-by-step system, I had documentation of my reservation and deposit, and the owner agreed to “make their friends leave” and accommodate me. (Things work a bit differently at Mexican beach cabanas.)

Stuff like that isn’t fun when you’re on vacation, so let’s avoid those hassles. Pick a destination, and start planning.

Choose a travel guidebook — or three
Most travelers find that there isn’t just one guide that covers all of their needs. Some books cover the logistics — where to stay and how to get around the city. Others might focus on history, culture, and the arts. Then there are some that are even more specific, like biking through the Netherlands or kayaking in New Zealand. Get one book that adequately covers the basics and at least one that covers your personal interests.

Planning tip: Check out several guide books out from your local library to get a feel for the writing style. If you like one, then purchase the latest edition. This also saves money if your trip is more than a year away. Travel guidebooks quickly become outdated, so it’s very important to purchase the latest edition to take on your trip.

How to know if it’s guidebook love
Here’s what to consider when deciding which guidebooks to buy:

  • Do the accommodations and restaurants fit your budget?
  • Do you like the layout? Is it easy to find information?
  • Does it have detailed maps?
  • Does it cover your primary travel interests, such as history, culture, food, markets, safaris, ecotourism, farm stays, hiking, etc.?
  • Does it make you feel even more excited about your trip?

If you plan to visit only one specific region or city, or if you just plan to spend the bulk of your time in one, consider a regional or city guide with more specialized information.

Guidebooks worth a look
If you aren’t sure where to start, here are a few guidebook series worth checking out:

  • Rick Steves’ Europe Through the Back Door. Steves believes in making travelers “temporary Europeans.” From his book: “The more money you spend, the bigger the wall you build between yourself and the culture you traveled so far to visit. Stay in the small inns, eat in family-style restaurants, visit out-of-the-way places, rub elbows with the locals. You’ll spend less money and have a great time in the process.” The guidebooks include tons of practical information about where to sleep, eat, how to use public transit, budgeting, historical sites, maps, and more. Steves’ book got me from Rome to Pompeii, and I saved $50 over the route that others in our travel group used.
  • Lonely Planet. Perfect for logistics, but you’ll need to supplement with another book for history and in-depth cultural information. This series is especially good for long-term travel, as is gives extensive information about where to stay, how to get around, etc.
  • Frommer’s. Another series that advocates living like a local, but is very extensive in the destinations it covers. A book from this series helped me to rent a car and successfully drive around the Yucatan peninsula, use toll roads, and not get lost once.
  • Fodor’s Guides. There are several series of Fodor’s travel books, each written for a different type of traveler. Fodor’s uses local writers to give readers the most accurate information and inside knowledge.
  • Let’s Go. If you’re a student, or just on a student’s budget, this guidebook series is one to consider. Written by students, there’s information on all things cool and free.

Also check out Budget Travel for articles on your destination(s). I’ve found some great hotels written up in Budget Travel that were out-of-the-way and not as popular as some of the ones listed in the big guidebooks tend to become.

Basic planning
Once you have your travel resources, you’re ready to start planning and budgeting. Download and open my Vacation Budget and Itinerary Planner (1.2mb XLSX) and click on the Basic Plan tab. (If you have an older version of Excel, here’s a 1.0mb XLS file.)

  • How many days do you have for this trip? Enter that number into the yellow box.
  • Where do you want to go? List each city in the column to the left.
  • How many days do you want to spend in each location? Enter those numbers into right column.

If the difference is negative, you need to earn some more vacation days or make some cuts to your itinerary. Don’t try to pack in too much. If you spend all of your time jetting from point A to point B, you won’t see as much. What is most important? Be sure to check your guide books to see how much time is recommended for each place.

Fill in the details
Now that you have a basic outline, use the Expense & Itinerary Planner page to plan your itinerary. First, fill in the dates. Next, list the following, step by step, in the Activity column:

  • Transportation between points
  • Accommodations
  • Attractions

Use the guidebooks to estimate expenses for each item in the Activity section, and enter those into the Expense column. If I’m staying at one hotel for three nights, I typically list the expense just once on the first day I’m staying there, but you can list it on each day if you like.


You’ll need to search online for airfare and train estimates. For airfare, check out the big sites, like Kayak, but don’t forget to look at budget carriers, too. Fellow GRS staff writer Adam Baker wrote a great guide, 5 Little-Known Websites That Will Save You Time and Money When Booking Airfare Online. Adam writes, “In most cases, the cheapest fare will be found using a combination of sites depending on your specific travel plans.” Try lesser-known websites when searching for the lowest airfare.

For rail travel in Europe, Rick Steves provides a comprehensive guide to Eurail passes, including how they work, how to plan your trip, and cost comparisons. Include any mode of transportation you’ll use, whether it’s rental cars, buses, taxis, ferries, or elephants.

In the Notes column, include important details, such as hotels that only accept cash upon arrival, offer continental breakfast, or other important details.

Now use your books to estimate meal expenses (plus tips) under the Food section. I like to find budget hotels with complimentary breakfasts, which can reduce expenses a bit if the hotel comes at a good price. If the primary reason you’re going to Italy is to dine like royalty, however, by all means, add that in there. You can toast to me with your glass of Brunello.


If you like souvenirs, add a budget for that expense. Personally, my favorite souvenirs are photographs, which weigh no more than my digital camera and cost nothing. Add any other expenses in this section. For example, if you are renting a car, add in an estimate for gas.

State of the budget
You should have an estimated grand total for your trip. Is it in your budget? If you haven’t started saving for the trip, how many months until departure? Divide your trip cost by the number of months until you leave to find out how much you’ll need to save each month. If you can’t save that amount, reassess your trip plan or the departure date.

No reservations: Start booking your trip
You have a budget and an itinerary, and you’re ready to start making reservations. As you make reservations, enter whatever you’re paying now in the Pre-paid column, and the amount due on arrival (DOA) in the DOA column.

Fill in times associated with each activity where appropriate, especially for departures and appointments. You don’t need to schedule every minute of every day, only the activities with a time frame associated with them. For example, if a museum you want to visit closes at 1 p.m., that’s something to write on the itinerary. If you want to see a show that starts at 7 p.m., that’s another important detail to note.

Planning tip: As you make reservations, save receipts, confirmations, and e-mails for air, hotels, and anything else that required a deposit. Just stick them in a folder until you’ve finished booking your trip.

Create your personalized travel guide
Gather the following items, in this order:

  1. Budget and Itinerary Planner sheet
  2. Torn-out, relevant pages from guide books (Tear up a book?! Yes. They are quickly outdated anyway, remember?)
  3. A page with addresses, telephone numbers, and websites to each hotel, attraction, or transportation source, where applicable
  4. Reservation receipts, confirmations, and e-mails
  5. Photocopy of the passports of each person going on the trip
  6. The 800 numbers for each credit card that will be used on the trip, in case you need to report one lost or stolen (Also, call your credit card companies to let them know when and where you are going, or your card might get frozen for unusual charges.)
  7. One page with emergency numbers, such as the nearest U.S. consular office. U.S. embassies or consulates can provide assistance if you need it. Go to the U.S. Department of State to get contact information for the area(s) in which you will be traveling.

Take this stack of papers to a print shop and make a spiral-bound copy for each person traveling with you plus an extra copy to leave with a friend or family member.

It’s a bit of work upfront, but it saves you a lot of hassle on your vacation if you have an itinerary and important information at hand, and you won’t be shocked by a massive credit card bill when you come home. Plus, if you give a copy of your personalized travel guide to your mom, she might not nag you quite as much for going white-water rafting in Nepal.

J.D.’s note: Kris and I have recently become avid watchers of The Amazing Race. Between watching that show and reading April’s article, I’m dying to get out and see the world. To celebrate the completion of my book, we’ll soon be taking a trip to Belize, but I want to do even more!

More about...Planning, Travel

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