One of the social media party games I’m following right now is the cautiously optimistic question, “What’s the first thing you’ll do once there’s a safe and effective vaccine for COVID-19?” I love the range of responses, from the new aunt waiting to hold her baby niece for the first time to the writer dreaming of a strong cocktail, a crowded bar, and plenty of juicy gossip to eavesdrop.
My fantasy features a bag of peanut M&Ms and a window seat on a trans-Atlantic flight to — almost anywhere, really, with my husband, Andrew, beside me and the kids happily staying with a grandparent (hey, it’s my dream).
Travel has long been an important part of my marriage and family life. I want to acknowledge both our exceptional privilege to be able to travel extensively before 2020, and our unbelievable good luck that so far, cancelling planned trips has been most of the “loss” we’ve been dealt in the pandemic.
The trip we’ve been reliving lately is the backpacking adventure we took as newlyweds. We spent the first year of our marriage saving $18,000. Then we quit our jobs to spend 6 months in 10 countries: India, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Ireland, Greece, Albania, Montenegro, Croatia, and France. Some of the financial practices that helped us fund our trip might help you save money for travel, too, whether you’re hoping to rebook a trip you cancelled or just want to ensure that your finances are in good shape once it’s safe to travel again.
Consider Purchasing Travel Insurance
Full disclosure: When we planned our big trip, we didn’t drop the extra money on travel insurance. We were going, hell or high water, so insurance felt like an unnecessary expense.
But that was in 2014. If we were planning a major vacation in 2020, we’d make a different choice. Travel insurance that covers things like illness while traveling or changes in whether you’re cleared to travel to your destination can lower your stress and liability. Coronavirus surges may keep travel volatile for a while, so it’s smart to be prepared for the unexpected.
Set a Target Amount of Money
As newlyweds, Andrew and I were happy to sleep at hostels, work for our keep on an Irish farm, and catch cheap flights at odd hours to save a few bucks. On later trips with toddlers in tow, we were willing to pay more for a comfortable family experience.
When you plan your trip, think about the kinds of lodging, food, and activities that make travel worth it to you. If the thought of sleeping in a hostel grosses you out, plan on saving money for more upscale accommodation. If you’re passionate about street food, you probably won’t need to set aside as much food money as a Michelin-star hunter.
Whether you need $2,000 or $20,000 to afford your dream trip, setting a defined savings goal lets you determine how long and how aggressively you’ll need to budget. If travel is a long way off, it might even be worth it to open a high-yield savings account to keep travel funds separate and maximize interest.
Watch for Travel Deals
Your target trip budget can depend a lot on what deals you’re able to find. The travel industry has been hard hit in 2020. Some airlines and hotels may be incentivized to offer discounts to win travelers back.
Watch for credit card special promotions, too. For my 30th birthday, we spotted a credit card promotion that could get us hundreds of dollars’ worth of flight credit. By using points and booking an economy airline, we managed to get round-trip airfare to Paris for the two of us, our daughter, and my best friend for under $2,000.
We don’t know when vaccines will be widely available and the coronavirus won’t pose a serious threat to travel and safety, so make sure any deal is flexible and refundable before you book it.
Savings and Budgeting Tips
Once you’ve got numbers in place, it’s time to get saving. These are the cuts my husband and I made to help us save $18,000 in about a year:
Choose cheap or free date nights
When you’re saving long-term, you need to get good at having fun for free, or close to it. Fortunately, a lot of cheap options are pandemic-friendly, too. Plan a hike or park visit, and bring your own picnic. Movie rentals make fun at-home date nights. Lots of organizations are flocking to Zoom to host literary readings or livestream performances, many for free. If you do venture out, go for ice cream rather than a sit-down dinner to save money and still feel like you’re doing something special.
Don’t buy takeout
I don’t feel in the mood to cook dinner every night, either! But while we saved for a 6-month trip, we learned that takeout orders could seriously cut into our budget. Buying grocery store versions of takeout favorites easily saved us $10 or more per meal.
Throwing a frozen pizza in the oven isn’t any more work than getting in the car to pick up an order. Replacing takeout with at-home convenience meals twice a week can net a cool $1,000 in savings after a year.
Enjoy your latte
I’ve written about finance for a long time, and my least favorite advice is to give up lattes. During our travel saving year, we made a point to budget $100 of discretional spending money for each of us per month — pretty much exactly enough to have a latte every single day.
Hard-core saving only works if you have a little room for treats. The key is to be intentional. If I wanted a latte, I bought one, but other days, I went no-spend so I could treat myself to a new book or Groupon yoga class pass with accumulated “fun money.” I thought more carefully about what I wanted so that I’d fully enjoy my purchases.
Drop hidden expenses
It’s easy to rack up pointless expenses for things you don’t use. Redundant streaming services, unused gym memberships, and magazines you don’t read are just bills.
Getting TV shows delayed on the free tier of Hulu or borrowing scratched DVDs from the library can be frustrating at times. But for me, the choice came down to: Do I want a month’s access to The Daily Show or a day spent in Versailles?
Cut unnecessary purchases
Unless your body has changed recently, you probably don’t need new clothes. Libraries loan books for free. Whatever gadget, accessory, or service is following you on targeted ads, chances are, you can live without it, at least for 6-12 months.
Making a plan to save is the easy part. Sticking with all of your budget cuts for months on end is the real test. Planning a 6-month dream adventure taught me the value of enjoying the anticipation:
- Keep a visual reminder: Santorini was a must-see destination for me. We hung a Santorini calendar so I started every day with a reminder of what I was saving for. (We stayed in a cave house overlooking the sea, which was everything I’d hoped for.)
- Break goals into small chunks: Even $100 can pay for a memorable part of your vacation. Make a bingo card or checklist full of travel experiences, and check each step closer to your big goal.
- Celebrate milestones: Booked a plane ticket to Bali? Dance around the living room! Pour tropical-themed cocktails and rent Eat, Pray, Love to get a glimpse of your destination!
- Talk about your trip together: Make a Pinterest board or check out Google Street View, learn a few sentences of the language together if you don’t speak it, and talk about why this vacation is important to you.
For my pandemic birthday in May, Andrew gave me an unusual photo album. It’s full of pictures of the places around the world we’ve never been — yet. It may not be safe to travel now, but it feels good to spend an evening turning pages to see Iceland, Peru, and Morocco. It inspires me to stay positive and keep saving money. When vaccines and control over outbreaks put travel back on the map for our family, we’ll be ready.
Jessica Sillers writes about finance, travel, parenting, and business for various companies and publications. She lives near Washington, D.C. with her family and enjoys books, travel, and dancing. Find more of her writing at www.dcfreelancewriter.com.