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How good is good enough?  Do you need five star luxury, or can you accept two star squalor?

In the final part of this series, we help you decide at what level to set your expenditures, hopefully neither too high nor too low.

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How Much to Spend on a Vacation part 5

A rule of thumb to gauge appropriate levels of expenditure, and an essential thing to include in every vacation

Some people get blinded by the greater cost of gas elsewhere in the world, and rent the smallest car they can to save on gas.

But the cost of the gas, and the amount they save, is truly trivial, and when you consider the greater comfort and convenience of a larger car, perhaps it is more sensible to get a better car even though its rental and gas costs are somewhat higher.

Part five of a five part series on how to budget and plan for a vacation.  See also :

1.  An introduction to the philosophy of travel cost budgeting

2.  Understanding the true cost of your vacation and what this means

3.  Using the true cost figure and knowing when you should spend a little more on travel costs

4.  Balancing the time and cost of your vacation - how less can be more

5.  What quality level to choose, and the importance of including a special highlight in your vacation



In this, the last of our five part series on how to plan and budget your vacation, we give you some important guidelines on what level of quality to target.

Lastly, we end up with the suggestion that every vacation should include at least one special experience that makes the vacation stand out in your mind for the years that follow.

Maintain or Exceed Your At Home Standards

Most people go on vacation as a 'feel good' reward to themselves.  You work hard for most of the year, and in return, you truly deserve a reward, a vacation.

If you're on an expedition/safari in some uncivilized remote and desolate corner of the world, different issues apply, but most of the time, we want our vacation to be a relaxing and comfortable experience.

When you're traveling, you should generally use, as a rule of thumb, the concept that you want to enjoy a life style comparable to or better than your life style at home.  This is perhaps best exemplified when renting a car.

Car rental considerations

It has always been a puzzle to me that people will own a nearly new car at home of moderately good size, capacity, and quality, and then seldom drive it more than an hour a day, traveling to and from home, work, and the local shopping mall; but then when they go on vacation, they'll choose an inferior car that they'll be traveling potentially long distances, many hours a day in.

This makes no sense at all.  If you own a mid size six cylinder four door car at home, why would you want to rent a compact four cylinder two door car on vacation?  The answer is, of course, because you've obsessively focused in on the obvious costs of a vehicle that you rent for a week while ignoring the similar costs of the vehicle you own all year at home.

Remembering the calculation that shows how much each hour of your vacation is worth to you, why not do a similar calculation to see how much your car rental is costing you per hour of 'in car' time, and then compare the difference in cost between an inferior to your own car and a comparable or superior to your own car.

Say, for example, you are choosing between a compact, a mid-size, and a full-size car, and the rates are either $40, $60, or $80/day.  Perhaps you'll average three hours in the car each day (ie 50 - 150 miles of travel), and there are two of you traveling.

So the cost, per hour in the car, is $6.70, $10 or $13.40 per hour for each of you.

Wouldn't you pay an extra $3.30 an hour, as a passenger, to be in a more comfortable car, one with more leg room, a better seat, more space for luggage, and a quieter smoother ride?

Wouldn't you as a driver pay an extra $3.30/hour for a car with more power to overtake when needed, a car that is more solidly built and perhaps safer if something goes wrong?

Remember also that the cost per quality hour of your vacation is probably something over $100/hr.  When you're already paying that much per hour, surely spending another $10 to change your experience from neutral or negative to positive is money well spent?

Or, look at it another way.  If you're renting the car for five days, the total cost is $200, $300 or $400.  What is the relative importance of an extra $100 or $200 in terms of a vacation that has a total cost to you somewhere way over $5000?

Don't be penny-wise and pound foolish.

A hotel example too

People will often say 'Oh, we're happy to stay somewhere cheap, because we're only going to be staying in the hotel to sleep; we'll be out sightseeing all day'.

Well, yes, on the face of it, that is a fair and maybe even a sensible statement.  But let's think more carefully about this.

You're going to spend somewhere between a third and a half of your entire vacation in the hotel.  Yes, sure, much of that time will be spent sleeping, but your sleep is important too.  Indeed, it is even more important that you can sleep well on vacation than at home.  You may be wrestling with jetlag and the last thing you want to do is be in a hotel room with walls so thin you are woken up by the person in the next room snoring, and you can clearly hear every intimate detail of their time in their bathroom (and, ahem, vice versa).

You want a comfortable bed in a quiet room, and while you don't need a spacious multi-room suite, you do need space to put your suitcases down and be able to walk around them, and hopefully a comfortable chair or two to sit in, and a good workable bathroom with a decent shower.  These things all cost money, and if you choose the most budget hotel, you're going to be risking bad sleep and uncomfortable time awake.  You'll fall asleep on tours or at evening plays and concerts, and you may end up in arguments with your traveling companion because neither of you are comfortable, relaxed, or happy with your hotel choice.

There's another hotel issue as well.  Hotels in the best locations, or even in merely good locations, are closer to the center of the place you're visiting.  This means you waste less of your valuable time (keep remembering the cost per hour of your quality time) traveling between the hotel and where you want to be.

It means you can return to the hotel at lunchtime if you wish for a break, and to drop your morning's purchases before going out again after lunch.  You will even save money by not having to spend as much to travel between the hotel and the places you want to visit.

You'll of course pay extra for a hotel in a better location, but this immediate and obvious extra cost up front will be returned to you in the form of greater comfort, greater convenience, and time savings.

There are plenty of other reasons to consider a better than basic hotel.  For example, a basic hotel will not only have very small uncomfortable rooms, but might have no elevator.  If you're lucky, a bell boy will take your bags to your room when you check in, but you'll still have to climb 30, 40, 50, even 60 or more stairs to go up to your room every time.  And after a long day of sightseeing, the last thing you want to do is to have to climb 60 stairs to get to your room.

A basic hotel might have no restaurant.  Sure, you'll often wish to eat meals elsewhere, but you might also want to occasionally take it easy and just eat something at the hotel, whether it be a breakfast, or a dinner, or anything else.

There are so many reasons why even the person who says 'I'm only going to be sleeping in the hotel, I'll be out all day sightseeing' should consider a better than basic hotel.

Create Some Special Memories

We suggest that every trip should include at least one highlight - something you'll remember for years and decades into the future.

We've all been on vacations where, within a few days of returning, the memories are already fading, and within a few months, it has disappeared away into nothing but another generic travel experience with vague and fuzzy memories of not very much.  That is regrettable and surely not your objective - the whole idea of a travel experience is to have some memorable and out of the ordinary experiences.

For example, you might travel to Europe many times, but you want to be able to say 'Oh yes, that was the trip when we did/saw/enjoyed (insert some special memorable component of your trip here)'.

Special memories can be anything out of the ordinary.  Maybe it is buying top priced tickets to a concert.  Maybe it is an extravagant meal in the city's best restaurant with a bottle of expensive wine to go with the meal.  Maybe it is a private tour, just for the two of you, with a personal guide and chauffeur driven limousine.  Or a helicopter ride over a city or area of great natural beauty.  Perhaps it is spending a couple of nights in the Presidential Suite of an upmarket hotel.  Or maybe staying in a wonderful castle or stately home for a night or two.  Maybe it is getting tailor-made clothes or shoes.  Maybe it is an early morning balloon flight with champagne breakfast.

There are any number of special things at most places you might go to.  The point isn't so much which one you choose, but rather, that you should consider including at least one special experience as part of any vacation.  Yes, sometimes the entire vacation might be a special experience, but when that is not the case, be sure to include something memorable as part of your trip.

Special experiences need not necessarily be extravagantly expensive.  For example, I still vividly remember on one of my very first visits to London (and I've been there more than 100 times subsequently) the highlight of the visit was attending the Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London one evening.  The event is free, and also a memorable experience that became that trip's special experience.

Except for those rare occasions where the entire trip is the special event (for example, perhaps a trans-Atlantic crossing on the Queen Mary 2), you want to have a single special defining moment for the entire vacation.  This is as true if the entire vacation is a dream/deluxe vacation or if it is a budget saver style vacation.  You need something to define the experience and lock it in your memory.

There are lots of ways to create special memories.  We recommend, however, that you take the steps outlined in this article series to ensure that your most memorable experiences are consistently good experiences rather than bad ones!

Part five of a five part series on how to budget and plan for a vacation.  See also the other articles in this series :

1.  An introduction to the philosophy of travel cost budgeting

2.  Understanding the true cost of your vacation and what this means

3.  Using the true cost figure and knowing when you should spend a little more on travel costs

4.  Balancing the time and cost of your vacation - how less can be more

5.  What quality level to choose, and the importance of including a special highlight in your vacation


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Originally published 14 Nov 2008, last update 21 Jul 2020

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

Related Articles
Vacation Budgeting Strategies 1 - Introduction and Overarching Philosophy
Vacation Budgeting 2 - The True Cost of Your Vacation Time
Vacation Budgeting 3 - When to Spend a Little More
Vacation Budgeting 4 - Balancing Time and Cost Constraints
Vacation Budgeting 5 - Spending Enough
Vacation Planning Strategies
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