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Feature Stories

How to have the vacation you want on the budget you have

Cindy Richards, LifeTimes Editor

Like almost everything else, the cost of travel continues to rise. But that doesn't mean you have to forgo those long-cherished plans for the trip of a lifetime. Nor does it mean you have to sleep in hostels or eat only one meal a day.

But it does mean you have to do a little more research and decide where you're willing to compromise. The first step is to make a list of the things you must do so it really is the trip of a lifetime. If you're going to the Balloon Festival in Albuquerque because you always wanted to ride in a hot air balloon, then budget for that balloon ride. If you don't, you might regret it.

Once you have decided which vacation features are non-negotiable, look for other ways to cut costs to ensure the entire trip is affordable.  The three biggest travel expenses are transportation, lodging, and food. These tips will help you save on all three.

Getting there

Is it cheaper to drive or fly? You can find out by going online to the Fly or Drive Calculator from befrugal.com.

If you will be flying to your destination, flexibility is the key to lower cost airfares. Be adaptable on the dates you'll fly, the time you'll fly, and even where you'll fly. Mid-week plane fares tend to be less expensive, as are off-season fares for travel in the fall and winter when kids are in school.

If possible, be flexible on the cities you fly in and out of. For example, if you can't find a good deal flying in or out of St. Louis or New York City, check the cost of flying in or out of Chicago and Newark. In exchange for buying a tank of gas to reach your final city, you might find a significantly cheaper flight.

There are all sorts of opinions about how early to book a flight, but the general rule of thumb is to book at least 29 days before you fly, according to an analysis of 2013 ticket prices by CheapAir.

If you have good credit, chances are you can snag a free plane ticket by signing up for a travel rewards credit card. There often are promotions that offer 50,000 or more bonus miles if you spend a certain amount in the first few months as a card member. Just remember to pay off the balance each month or the interest charges could eat up any potential savings.

If you are driving to your destination, apps like GasBuddy will help you find the cheapest gas nearby. And it's important to make sure your car is in shape for the drive before you leave home. Get the oil changed and the tires checked. Nothing can blow a vacation budget faster than an emergency car repair.

Where to stay

Hotels are not the only option. Far from it. With the Internet making it so easy to connect around the world, it's possible to rent a house, apartment, or condo, house sit, or swap houses with someone else.

If you prefer to stay in hotels, there are ways to get more for your money. For example, consider an extended stay hotel such as a Residence Inn that caters to long-term business clients. You'll have more space to spread out, free hot breakfast each morning, and free dinners a couple of nights during the week.

To get the best hotel rate, search online sites such as Priceline.com or Hotels.com. Before you book, call the hotel directly (not the 800 number call center) to see if the hotel will match the price. That way, if there's a problem, you won't have to deal with a third party to resolve the issue.

Always book the basic room, then check in late, be very nice to the tired front desk clerk, and ask whether any room upgrades are available. Chances are there will be and you can snag the ocean view room at parking lot view rates.

Always sign up for loyalty programs. In return for giving up some personal information, you can get perks such as free wifi, free breakfast, free happy hour, and free upgrades.

Finally, if you forget something, ask at the front desk before heading out to buy it. Most hotels have stashes of toiletries and a box of umbrellas and cell phone charging cords previous guests left behind. They will be happy to lend one to you during your stay-or even give it to you to take home.

Eat better for less

Before you leave, scope out the restaurants you really must try. Then plan to have lunch there. It will be the same great food in smaller luncheon portions at correspondingly smaller luncheon prices.

Splurge on one meal a day but save on the other two by stopping at the grocery to pick up the makings for a picnic and daily breakfast.

When you go to a restaurant, go easy on the drinks, which can easily double the cost of your total bill.  If having a drink is a key part of your dining experience, look for a BYOB restaurant where you can bring in your own bottle of wine – bought at a grocery or liquor store for a fraction of what you would have paid at the restaurant.

See China's Terra Cotta Warriors on a budget – by visiting them in Indianapolis.