Every year, we see new studies on the ever-growing bank of unused vacation days and the many reasons people choose not to take time off — including cost. Vacations can be expensive, but if you’re smart and a good planner, they don’t have to be.
I’m a big fan of getting away and having trips on the calendar to look forward to. Beyond just disconnecting for a few days, there are true health benefits to taking time off from work. Vacations reduce stress, lower your risk of heart attack, and reenergize your mind. A couple full weeks off each year would be great, but even long weekend trips can do the trick. They give you the opportunity to experience different parts of the country (or globe) quickly and cheaper than what you’d invest in a full week.
In my years of travel and careful planning, here are some of my top tips for getting the most out of your time off.
Loyalty pays off. It really does pay to be loyal to a specific airline and hotel brand. I lived in a major airline hub city for many years, so my loyalty to that airline was borne out of convenience for the most part. Over the years, I’ve stuck with that airline and learned how to play the Miles Game.
No matter which airline you choose, be sure to register for all its promotions and bookmark the airline’s website to regularly check on fare sales. For example, Delta has a monthly “flash sale” where it dramatically discount fares to a specific city for a limited amount of time. In the previous year, I’ve gone to Tokyo, Brussels and Zurich for just 50,000 miles.
Loyalty also applies to hotel brands. Like the airlines, be sure to bookmark the hotel brand’s website to check for sales and promotions. Other perks of having an elite status with a rewards program include room upgrades, free high-speed WIFI and complimentary breakfasts.
Select a credit card that lines up with your travel goals. This is one of the fastest and easiest ways to collect airline miles. I use my American Express Delta Reserve card for every purchase, then pay it off at the end of each month. There’s a $450 annual fee, but this card also gives you complimentary lounge access (which would cost more than the $450 if purchased alone), an annual companion certificate, and bonus miles when you reach certain spending thresholds. With reward flights as low as 20,000 miles at times, you can get several free trips a year just by sticking with one card.
Know when not to be loyal. I don’t feel the same loyalty quotient for car rental companies. If you’re not visiting a super-popular destination with tight availability, you can get significant car rental discounts by naming your own price on priceline.com. Look to see what the going rate is for a trip, then cut that daily price by a few dollars. It’s rare the site doesn’t accept a price.
Sometimes it’s also OK to break up with your favorite hotel brand. If traveling with another couple or a small group of friends, it’s often more cost effective to rent a house or condo through VRBO.com or Airbnb.com. It also allows you to experience an area like a local, in an actual neighborhood.
Go somewhere unexpected. I’ve visited places on few must-see lists that turned out to be some of my favorites. And don’t forget about places nearby. I live in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with many great destinations just a couple of hours away offering a variety of great restaurants, breweries and activities.
It’s easy to find things to do in these unexpected places. Start by checking the town’s convention and visitor’s bureau site. It’ll often show a list of discounts, an event calendar and seasonal activities. One time in Fargo, North Dakota we ended up at a beer and potato tasting fundraiser put on by the local Shriners chapter. We got to meet some locals, drink delicious regional beers, and sample a ton of different potato recipes.
Bring something home. No matter where I travel, there’s one thing that always comes back with me: a magnet. My fridge is covered in magnets from each of the 50 states and more than 25 countries I’ve visited. It’s a great conversation piece for when folks come over to the house and it cheers me up each — further proof vacations do a body good even months later.
Use these travel tips and tricks to see more, do more and use more of your vacation days.