One of the great perks in the military is the 30 days of paid leave. That is an entire month of vacation days that your family can use to explore your duty station and beyond. My family and I love taking vacations (even just staycation, but as a family of 6, this can be a challenge when thinking about the budget of the trip. Sure we can get the days off, but can we actually go to Disney World without going broke? Here are five tips to make sure your epic vacation is in your budget:
1. Make a planBefore we even think about booking a vacation, we talk about where we want to go. Since we have school-aged kids, we generally keep our long vacations to the summertime. Around spring break, we finalize our summer vacation pick. It may seem like it's so far away but deciding where you are going to go will help you figure out the best way to budget for your vacation. Since we decided to go to Florida this year, we knew that we needed to get plane tickets, hotel and a rental car. Now that we know our three big ticket items, we can come up with ways to set aside money to pay for the trip.
2. Set aside cashA few ways to generate “extra” money is by setting up an automatic payment to a savings account with your bank. You can even do an allotment on your leave and earnings statement (LES). If you have ever heard the old phrase “pay yourself first,” this is the idea behind saving for vacation. It can be a small amount, like $50, or a couple hundred if your normal budget allows for that much wiggle room. You can also physically set aside cash. In the past, we've put a $20 bill into our vacation box once a week until vacation time. If you do that for four months leading up to your vacation, you will have $320 in cash to spend. And that money is perfect for souvenirs or snacks.
3. Get a rewards cardDid you know that when your service member travels for work, they are allowed to earn miles and points on flights and hotels? Yes, it is true. So get a rewards number with the airline and a hotel rewards card. These are generally free to sign up for and as they travel around the world for business, you will earn points that can be redeemed for discounts on flights or hotels, free tickets, hotel rooms or even upgrades.
It may not seem like these reward cards are helping your budget but if you get a free upgrade to a suite at a hotel instead of a standard room all because your spouse went to a school for 9 weeks, that is a big win in my book. You can use the reward cards for leisure or official travel so you can always be earning points for your next vacation.
You should also call the hotels you want to stay at to see if they offer a military or government rate. These are not always listed on the website and if you can get the same room for less money, it means more money for souvenirs!
4. Consider MWR resortsMilitary Welfare and Recreation hotels and resorts are often an untapped resource. They are very affordable since they are done on a sliding scale based on rank, and the hotel will usually have some sort of shopette so you can get reasonably priced snacks and drinks. They are open to all DoD ID card holders and some are in some pretty amazing places.
There is, of course, the Shades of Green hotel on the Disney World property that has an Exchange located in it, but other locations have MWR hotels and resorts too. Have you ever wanted to go to the Big Island of Hawaii and see the volcanoes? There is an MWR hotel there!
If there is a military base nearby your vacation spot, check out their MWR website to see if lodging is available. As an added bonus, many are IHG hotel reward members so you can even earn points on your rewards card, too. Here's some more military benefits that might just be perfect for your road trip.
5. To fly or to driveUnless your vacation is combined with a PCS move, you probably do not have to drive to your location. Weighing out the options of a flight price vs driving price is important. Some key factors that should influence your budget are the price of gas, a hotel stay if the location is more than a day drive, the price of the plane ticket, and if you will need a rental car while you are at your location. Many resorts will have shuttles from the airport so if you are flying to a resort location, look into that. Hotels in prime vacation spots usually charge for parking so that is an additional fee to consider.
Once you have set aside the money you need for your trip, you should book it as soon as you can. Make sure your spouse has permission to take leave when you want to before you book it and if their schedule is on the crazier side of things, consider getting insurance so if the leave gets cancelled, you can recoup a portion of your money. As with most things in the military, prior planning is key to a successful and stress-free vacation. Giving yourself plenty of time to plan out your finances beforehand means more relaxing once you get there.