How to Book a Dream Vacation Without the Budget Nightmare

We love to travel. Some of us love to be spontaneous when we travel. We may board a plane with no itinerary and no idea where the next day might take us. On the other hand, some of us are planners at heart and prefer something like an all-inclusive package, where we don’t have to deal with last-minute decisions and unexpected costs. Luckily there are ways to save, no matter what your preference—whether it’s an all-inclusive vacation or a less inclusive, à la carte getaway.

À la Carte and Within Budget

No, we’re not talking about a fancy French restaurant where nothing comes with your entrée and you end up paying $20 for a side of pommes frites—aka French fries. But the restaurant and the vacation do have something in common. Much like ordering à la carte in a restaurant, you pay for everything separately on an à la carte vacation—from food and drinks to accommodations and activities.

À la carte vacations are an ideal choice for visiting a city or renting a house near the beach. You can either book a hotel and eat out at restaurants every day, or make your own meals—also known as self-catering. Obviously, self-catering is usually the most budget-friendly option, but there are ways to save even if you eat out for every meal.

Going the Restaurant Route

For all the foodies out there or those who think cooking on vacation is akin to scrubbing the floors with a toothbrush, this is for you. Rest assured, you can explore the local fare and save some green to boot. You will have to budget more on food, but with these tried and true tips, you can indulge without breaking the bank:

  • Avoid tourist traps. A little research goes a long way in ensuring you get the most for your money. Sites like and can help you weed out over-priced tourist traps with reviews from real people who have been there. Another strategy is to ask a local for a recommendation once you reach your destination.
  • Choose more casual venues. For inexpensive, authentic local fare, opt for alternatives to a sit-down meal. Food stands, fish markets and small take-out joints can be just as delicious—or more so—without the hefty price tag.
  • Go online to stay on budget. Sites like offer deep discounts on restaurants across the country if you purchase a gift card in advance. You can also search a restaurant’s website to see if they offer coupons or special offers.
  • Be an early bird. Most restaurants offer lower-priced menu items at lunchtime. Many also offer early-bird specials right before the dinner crowd arrives—usually around 3 or 4 p.m.
  • Feed the kids for free. Some hotel chains, such as Marriot and Holiday Inn, offer packages that allow children 12 and under to stay and eat for free.
  • Ride and dine. Many amusement parks, such as Disney World, Cedar Point, Universal Studios and Busch Gardens, offer discount dining plans that let you eat all day at venues throughout the park for one low price.

Self-Cater and Save

If your 4-year-old eats nothing but chicken fingers and peanut butter sandwiches, or your family is one kid shy of a basketball team, self-catering may be the way to go. In addition to picky eaters and large families, this option is also great for tight budgets and those who like to cook. Whether you plan to prepare every meal or just one or two a day, you’ll want to ask yourself these questions:

  • Which amenities do I really need? If you’re planning to cook in for every meal, you’ll want to rent a condominium or house with a full kitchen. Some hotel chains offer full kitchens, but more common is the kitchenette, which offers a microwave, sink and small refrigerator. A kitchenette is definitely doable if you’re planning on eating at least one or two meals out. It allows you to keep breakfast items such as yogurt, fruit and cereal on hand, and heat up leftovers.
  • Where is the nearest grocery store? Before you go, find the nearest grocery store. Is it convenient to where you’re staying? Or will you need to do your shopping on the way there? And unless the grocery store is right down the street, you’ll need a car or other transportation in case you run out of food.
  • Is it convenient? If you have to stay far away from the main attractions in order to have a kitchen, it’s often not worth the time, inconvenience and gas money to make your own food. And you may end up eating out at the last minute just to avoid driving all the way back to your rental.

When an All-Inclusive is an All-Around Good Idea

All-inclusive vacations and cruises are sometimes treated like the poster child for false advertising. Many people think what you see in the brochures and websites is not what you get. While it’s true that a poorly chosen all-inclusive vacation can result in bland, cafeteria-type food, crowded cruise decks and a one-size-fits-all experience, a well-chosen all-inclusive can be one of the greatest, most carefree vacations ever. And with sites like Groupon and LivingSocial, travel packages are more accessible than ever.

The beauty of the all-inclusive package is in its simplicity. Everything—or almost everything—is paid for ahead of time, so you usually don’t have to carry cash or spend more than you planned. If you choose the right package and consider any hidden costs, an all-inclusive vacation can be the perfect way to stick to a budget without even thinking about it.

One Size Does Not Fit All

There are many types of all-inclusive vacations available. The key is finding the one that fits you and your budget. Here are a few tips:

  • Find the right fit for your lifestyle. All-inclusive resorts cater to many different travelers. If you’re seeking peace and quiet and would rather not share the pool with cannon-balling kids, an adult-only resort may be an ideal choice. For families looking to get away together, there are resorts that offer kid-friendly meals and activities, along with on-site childcare services so mom and dad can venture out by themselves. And singles resorts like Club Med offer games, activities and nightlife that give you the chance to meet other singles from all over the world.
  • Choose adventure, relaxation or even a little of both. There are all-inclusive packages to fit every taste—from family getaways on a working ranch to laid-back beach resorts and cruises.
  • Make sure you know what’s included in your all-inclusive. Every all-inclusive package is different. Almost all include meals, non-alcoholic drinks, airport transfers and accommodations, but some may not include tips, alcohol and activities. On the other hand, some resorts may have a strict no-tipping policy. Your best bet is to read the fine print before you book your vacation so you don’t end up shelling out more than you ever expected.

Once you choose a resort, do your research by reading online reviews, ratings and recommendations. And if you have questions, don’t hesitate to call or email the resort or travel company. In most cases, they’ll be happy to help.

The Most Important Tip: Relax and Enjoy

No matter which vacation you choose, remember that you’re supposed to splurge a little. The right vacation will more than make up for its cost in a better mindset, increased productivity and a more relaxed you. The idea is to spend your hard-earned money wisely, so you can get away from it all—money worries included.