by Dave Ramsey
Holiday travel is stressful. We get it.
And trying to travel on a budget can make it even more tricky.
Between finances and family, making travel plans during the Christmas season can be difficult to navigate. You may be itching to go somewhere warm and tropical or you may just want to visit your Great-Aunt Edna. But you aren’t sure how to make it work. Your family commitments are too full and your bank account is too empty. Or maybe you have an upcoming expense that is more important than a trip.
So how do you know if it makes sense to travel this Christmas? Here are six questions to help you decide:
Things to Consider Before Making Your Holiday Travel Plans
Can you afford it?
It’s a simple question, but so many people just hit the road at Christmastime without thinking of how they’ll pay for their getaway. Will all those gas fill-ups, hotel stays, and restaurant visits end up on a credit card? If so, you’ll be lucky to have it paid off by Memorial Day. Here’s a better idea: Save up and pay for your holiday travel with cash!
Will you enjoy the trip?
Don’t go somewhere just because you think you have to. The holidays are crazy enough without the pressure of squeezing a vacation in the mix. And who wants to wake up Christmas morning on an uncomfortable sleeper sofa in your mom’s musty basement?
Feel free to cut yourself some slack. Consider having your family come to visit you for a change! Santa won’t put you on the naughty list for passing on traveling this Christmas.
Do you have existing debt?
It’s a lot easier to pay for a trip when you aren’t throwing your money at credit card or car payments every month. Worrying about bills back at home will suck the joy out of a Christmas vacation faster than you can say "Bah humbug!"
Don’t spend money on a vacation when you aren’t even current on your credit card or student loan. You wouldn’t be able to enjoy yourself anyway with collectors constantly calling while you’re trying to gobble up turkey around the dinner table.
Instead of spending money on a trip, why not get an extra job, make a budget, and clean up your finances before the new year? Consider putting the Christmas vacation on hold this year. Instead, maybe this is the year for a Christmas staycation! Then you can hit the road next year with more cash and less stress.
Will the trip mess up future plans?
Let’s say you have a teenager who is headed to college next year. That’s something you can see coming. If you don’t have any cash saved to help pay for Junior’s college tuition yet, maybe planning a Christmas vacation isn’t a good idea. The same goes if there’s a job change, wedding, new baby, work relocation, or some other big expense on the horizon. Don’t spend now and wonder how you’ll pay later.
Is it time for a "virtual Christmas"?
Can’t handle the holiday travel? No worries! Thanks to video chat services like Skype, FaceTime, and Facebook Messenger, you can open presents and sing your favorite carols with out-of-town family members without leaving the comfort of your cozy home.
Although nothing will ever beat a good, old-fashioned hug from Grandma, a video chat call can help her still be part of the action on Christmas morning when the kids are opening her hand-knit sweaters. Not to mention, these services are usually free!
Will the cost of the trip eat up your income?
Say you earn $40,000 a year. For that income, a $5,000 getaway is over the top. If you can’t pull off a more reasonable trip, don’t go. Or look for ways to cut costs by driving instead of flying, going somewhere where lodging is free (Hi, Aunt Betsy!), or packing a cooler of food instead of dining out.
Right now, your money situation may keep you from traveling for Christmas. And although it may be disappointing, use that emotion as motivation to get your money in order so you have more freedom next year. Holiday travel can be fun—just make sure you don’t wreck your sanity or savings account in the process.
If You Do Decide to Travel This Christmas . . .
Save a little each week
If you put away a little money every week, you’ll barely notice it’s gone! Soon you’ll have a nice chunk of change sitting there to go toward your tropical Christmas vacation... or you know, gas money to get to Grandma’s house across the country.
Bundle your travel
Some companies go the extra mile when it comes to traveling for the holidays. Look into travel companies that combine your flight and hotel accommodations to give you a deal. You can save money just by booking them together!
Ask for discounts
You’d be surprised by how many travel companies offer student, veteran, military or senior discounts. It never hurts to ask what kind of discounts they might be able to give you. Just asking that simple question could save you some major cash.
Travel during the week
If you can adjust your plans, try to travel on a weekday. Airlines often offer cheaper flights during the week. And if you’re road-tripping it, odds are you’ll have less traffic on the road then. Plus, hotel prices are usually much cheaper on weekdays too!
Make Holiday Travel Plans Without Using a Credit Card
Higher travel costs at Christmas don’t mean you have to charge it to a credit card. We’ve heard the same thing over and over for years: "I can’t travel without a credit card!" We always wonder what planet people are traveling to because, here on Earth, debit cards work just as easily as credit cards.
All major carriers take debit cards these days, and it’s incredibly easy to just hop on a website—whether it’s a carrier’s site or an online broker—and book a trip. The cool thing about a debit card is the money you use is your money, not a bank’s money.
Yes, you can use a debit card at a hotel. Some hotels will place a temporary hold on your account for the bill amount to cover "incidentals." In other words, if you invite Mötley Crüe to your hotel room and they put a guitar through the TV, you can expect to be charged for the incident (plus some) to cover the cost.
Be aware of how much money is in your account before you travel. Avoid accidental overdrafts by keeping some extra money in your account and asking your hotel if they’ll be putting a hold on your card before you go.
Some people are convinced they can’t use a debit card to rent a car. Rental car companies may make debit card users jump through a few hoops, but that isn’t worth the cost of putting it on a credit card with a jacked-up interest rate.
Just like hotels, most rental car companies will likely put a hold on your account (anywhere from $100–500). That’s just in case you drift into a corner while trying to qualify for NASCAR in their Corolla.
Give yourself a little peace of mind by calling your preferred rental car company and asking if they take debit cards and what the hold will be. If you still believe you can’t use a debit card to rent a car, you’ve bought into an old myth that is hopefully breathing its last breath.
If you’re not going to be driving much on your trip, consider using a ride-hailing service like Uber. That way you won’t have to deal with a rental car company at all. Plus, you won’t have to pay for parking!
If you’re traveling overseas, you can probably expect some additional fees depending on where you bank. Some banks will charge either a small fee for each transaction or an exchange surcharge for withdrawing money from an ATM. Check with your bank before you go and make sure you clearly understand their policies.
You can also ask your bank about in-network ATMs in the city you’re traveling to, or get plenty of cash exchanged from your bank before you head out. If you’re worried about keeping your cash secure, buy a cheap money belt or neck wallet and wear it hidden under your clothes. Plan ahead and you’ll be fine. It sure beats the long-term cost of using a credit card.
It’s really not difficult to travel without a credit card over the holidays. Don’t let a decade-old traveling myth hold you back from cutting up those credit cards forever and living a debt-free life! Besides, you don’t want the Ghost of Christmas Past haunting you in May.
Change your Christmas future by learning how to win with money no matter where you go.