How to plan a vacation in 8 steps

Is your social media feed filled with smiling faces at the beach or atop a scenic mountain? With travel at the top of many people’s agendas, perhaps you’re imagining where you’ll go next. It might be time to cash in your vacation days if travel fits into your financial goals this year. 

Planning a trip could seem like a lot of work, but these tips from seasoned travelers can get you en route with ease. Here’s how to plan a budget-friendly vacation in eight steps.

Key takeaways

  • Keeping a travel budget can ensure that the trip fits into your financial goals.
  • Being flexible with travel dates, booking flights and tickets ahead of time and searching for deals may help save money on vacation.
  • Using smart packing tips and researching local customs can help you be prepared for every step of the journey.

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1. List your dream locations and choose your adventure

The first step in vacation planning? Choosing where to go.

“Are you looking for a romantic getaway?” asks Fred Hoffman, full-time traveler and founder of The True Wilderness. “A family-friendly vacation? Or an adventure-packed trip?” He suggests considering the kind of trip you want to take. This can help you pick a location.

Eva Keller, blogger at Discovering Hidden Gems, recommends creating a vacation bucket list. “By having an idea of where you want to go, you’ll have a good starting point each time you sit down to plan a vacation,” Keller explains. Her vacation bucket list includes more than just destinations. It also lists experiences like a river cruise and wine tasting as well as certain cultures she wants to explore.

With a vision in mind—and maybe a mood board—you could be ready to start planning your vacation.

Budget-friendly tip: Add some affordable vacation spots to your list. They could surprise you with great experiences.

A person walks on a hanging bridge in Costa Rica.

2. Plan your budget

A travel budget can set the tone—and spending limits—for your next vacation. Consider how much you’re willing to pay for transportation, accommodations, food and activities. “If you have a higher budget, it’s a good idea to schedule an overseas vacation,” Hoffman says. “If you’re looking to save money, consider taking a road trip or camping trip instead.”

Rebecca Gade Sawicki of vegan travel blog Veggies Abroad agrees. “Always know your budget, and make sure it’s front and center with your planning,” she says. If your budget is less than $1,000 per person, she suggests steering away from luxurious locations and searching for more affordable options.

With a budget in mind, you can start saving for your vacation. “Look for discounts and deals on travel websites before booking anything,” Hoffman suggests. The following questions may also help you create a travel budget: 

  • How much can I afford to spend in total?
  • How flexible is my travel timeline?
  • Are there more affordable locations offering similar experiences?
  • Do I have access to discounts I can take advantage of?

For more travel budget tips, check out these traveling on a budget and budget-friendly family vacation planning guides.

Budget-friendly tip: Earn rewards with a travel credit card. Plus, eligible Capital One cardholders can book a trip with Capital One Travel and find great prices on hotels, airfare and rental cars.*

3. Check your calendar and research dates

With a location and budget in mind, you can schedule dates for your vacation. The price of travel could vary depending on the month and even the day of the week.

“If you’re flexible with your dates, you may be able to save money by traveling during the offseason,” Hoffman says. 

For example, beaches and amusement parks can be especially busy during the summer when kids are out of school. And many folks plan trips around holidays like Memorial Day and Thanksgiving. These high-traffic seasons can make prices skyrocket. If you’re able to go on vacation while other people are working or in school, you might be able to save money.

4. Book flights and hotels

Once you’ve chosen a date, it’s time to buy flight tickets and consider your accommodations. 

When booking your flight, be sure to compare prices between different airlines,” Hoffman recommends. “You may also want to look into flight times and schedules to see what will work best for your trip.”

Gade Sawicki adds that you might be able to adjust your flight locations to lower the cost. “If flying into one airport over another saves you $100, you can spend that money on dinner!” she says.

Once you arrive, where will you want to stay? The type of experience you want might determine the lodging you book. “If you’re traveling on a tight budget, you may want to look into hostels,” Hoffman says. “For a more comfortable trip, you can book a hotel room or vacation home.” He suggests reading reviews and comparing prices before making a reservation.

And if you’re a Venture X cardholder, you could check out the hotels offered in the Premier Collection through Capital One Travel. Enjoy a suite of exclusive benefits with every stay like a $100 experience credit, daily breakfast for two and more.

Budget-friendly tip: Don’t wait until the last minute. Airfare and hotel room prices tend to rise the closer you get to your departure dates. It’s good to do your research early and book ahead of time.

A beach resort is an option for vacation.

5. Search for deals on activities

While a vacation can be worth the splurge, it doesn’t have to hurt your wallet. You might be able to find discounts and credit card perks to help you save money while traveling.

“Keep in mind that most destinations can be a great vacation on all kinds of budgets,” Keller says. She and her husband have stayed in many types of accommodations—from a tent in Yellowstone National Park to the Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills. By finding deals and humble lodging, the couple usually spends less than $100 a night. And when they want to splurge, they can tap into the money they’ve saved.

Janelle Cooper, blogger at Joyriding With Jash, sticks to her budget by living like a local. She’s currently living in Mexico, but she’s also called Haiti, Italy, Senegal and South Korea home. “Learning public transportation, eating the local cuisine and avoiding tourist traps can save you hundreds of dollars a month,” she says.

Budget-friendly tip: Gade Sawicki recommends understanding the fine print of travel insurance to help save you from emergency expenses in the long run. You can buy a separate plan or check out what travel insurance benefits your credit card may offer. “It’s important to have a comprehensive plan and know your benefits,” she says.

6. Build your ideal itinerary

Now to the fun part—finding everything you want to do, see and eat on your trip. Some research and planning can help you build an itinerary that keeps everyone on the trip happy. 

“You can make sure everybody gets to do something they want, whether you’re traveling as a couple, as a family or with friends,” Keller says. She reads tourism blogs and Google search results to make a list of activities and find hidden gems. She also suggests making dining reservations so you don’t miss out on any must-eats.

Gade Sawicki relies on a map to keep track of her plans. “When I find things I don’t want to miss, I pin them on Google Maps,” she explains. “If I end up in one part of the city, I can see if there are things I want to do or eat nearby.”

As you finalize your itinerary, it helps to make dinner reservations and reserve tickets for excursions—like museums or galleries—ahead of time. And if you’d rather have someone do the work for you, a travel agent can help with planning and may even offer reduced rates and exclusive perks.

7. Pack your bags

A well-packed suitcase can be a staple of a stress-free vacation. If you’re gazing into your closet and wondering what to bring, consider making a packing list.

“Even the most seasoned travelers can be forgetful, but a packing list can do wonders to ensure you don’t forget anything,” Gade Sawicki says. She recalls a time she forgot to bring her camera and ended up buying a new one in Spain—not an expense she planned for.

It also might help to pack lightly and efficiently. Gade Sawicki jokes that unless you’re going on a formal trip, you can leave the ball gown at home. “We tend to bring more than we need,” she says. She also suggests rolling your clothes to save space. “Using these tips, you can easily fit everything in a carry-on suitcase.”

A person packs accessories and bright clothing for vacation.

8. Research local customs

“Customs can vary from country to country and even city to city,” Cooper says. “As an expat and digital nomad, I am responsible for the impact I have on the communities I visit.”

Cooper recommends researching the way of life where you’re traveling, including how to tip and what to wear. “Conscious travel is the best kind of travel,” she shares. “It’s the only way to preserve the beauty of the places we love to visit.”

If you’re able, it helps to get to know local phrases, etiquette and environmental practices. And remember to respect local residents and their neighborhoods—you’re a visitor in their home, after all.

Planning a vacation in a nutshell

Whether you’re globetrotting or taking a staycation, planning a vacation doesn’t have to be stressful. Using these tips, you could be traveling in no time. Just remember to set that out-of-office message, and off you go.

Want to make the most of your next trip? You could use a Capital One travel rewards credit card to earn extra miles on every purchase and enjoy access to smart booking features like price alerts and more through Capital One Travel. And who knows—the miles you earn might just take you on your next vacation. Bon voyage!

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