Your guide to skipping the insanity this year.
I was driving the other day and I saw a pumpkin patch sign up. It’s freaking Labor Day weekend! I know what that means. Halloween will quickly turn into Thanksgiving and the insanity of the spendy holiday season will begin instantly.
Have you ever thought about escaping the holidays? No last-minute trips to malls, hiding gifts in the trunk, wrapping oversized packages. Completely ignoring the news stories about people getting trampled on Black Friday. There’s really a reason it’s called Black Friday.
Choose Adventure over Stuff
What would happen if you could get the whole family to buy in on your secret holiday escape plan? Choosing adventure over stuff this holiday season. I know this is next to impossible if you have kids under 12 years old, but it’s never too early to start planting the seed. Our kids got a taste of it last year. We had a get together with family and friends in Mexico. We saw whales, visited small villages, took boat rides, sat on the beach.
The holiday escape plan is pretty simple. Instead of the traditional gift giving bonanza of material goods that are soon forgotten, we will put all of that money towards a family adventure. Last year we did a little of both which, looking back on it, is cheating. We also spent a bit too much once we got to Mexico.
I needed complete buy in on the plan this year. Our gifts to each other would be adventure and time with family and friends. To my surprise, I got very little pushback. Our youngest commented “Why wouldn’t we choose that?” Another comment was “I always have a hard time coming up with stuff to ask for anyway.” I’ll let you know how all this turns out after Christmas morning, at least they’ll be waking up at the beach.
Paying for your adventure
Now the hard part starts, but just think how much time you’re saving by skipping all those trips to the store and wrapping presents. The first thing I did was look back over the last couple years at what we spent on Christmas gifts, local travel, and all the other holiday related “stuff”.
I use Quicken, which I actually hate, but it’s one of the few software programs out there that lets you track and compare spending over the years based on actual bank and credit card transactions. So. for instance. I can quickly run a report on expenses tagged “holidays” for the last three Novembers/ Decembers. I can even create average spending reports over five or more years.
Side Note: If you don’t track your expenses, start doing it now. There are much better tools available than when I started tracking mine. Mint.com and Personal Capital are two good ones. Tracking and managing your expenses is the first step to spending more time at the beach.
Come up with a solid number and average over the last few years, even if you need to go through old credit card bills statements online. Once you have that number you can get a feel for what kind of adventure you’re looking at.
Family travel hacking
If you’re traveling with a couple kids, the biggest chunk of your expenses will be on airfare. Ideally, you want to start looking at airfares about 5 or 6 months out. I like using kayak.com to set up airfare alerts. You can pick several departure airports, dates and destinations and kayak will combine them into one quick daily email update you can quickly scan for any major drops in fares. They also have a cool calendar so you can see your lowest-cost options for dates of travel.
It’s important to know how much you want to spend on airline tickets, or how many points you have to use towards them, so you’re ready to pull the trigger when that low-fare pops up. Check out my quick guide to family travel hacking for more details. If your travel dates are flexible, or you’re not sure where you want to go, I really like the site Airfarewatchdog.com. You can follow them via email or RSS feed.
Start building up your points arsenal
If you haven’t updated your credit cards lately, or don’t have a credit card that’s earning points on every purchase, set that up now. The points credit card game has recently changed with newer cards offering between 1 ½% and 2% on every purchase and 40K points on sign up. We use Chase Sapphire and Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express Card. Points can add up quickly especially if you run a business or track all of your family’s purchases on credit cards. Point redemption has also become easier. I found that most airline point programs have become useless especially if you’re traveling around the holidays with more than one person. We currently use websites like chase.com or worldpoints.com that are linked to our credit cards allowing us to apply points to reduce the price of individual tickets. So good point strategy would be:
- Look for credit cards that pay 1.5 or 2% on every dollar spent.
- Find the lowest fares / flight numbers using travel hacking tools like kayak and airfare watchdog.
- Book the matching flights on sites like Chase, American Express, or World Points that allow you to apply points to reduce the price of the fare. Some like Chase Rewards make your points go 20% further when you book on their website.
Over half of our family’s air travel this year will be covered by points. If you’re carrying credit card debt, skip the adventure this year and focus on paying that down. I’ve found that paying interest on credit card debt wipes out any benefit you get from points earned. Keep the lowest interest card you qualify for and pay that debt off first.
Enjoy your adventure
Personally, I enjoy planning adventures. What I sometimes run into trouble with is spending a bit too much on food and drink once I get to my destination. A week full of restaurant dinners, even with a great exchange rate, can quickly eclipse the cost of your hotel or airfare.
Use tripadvisor to create a saved list of quality affordable restaurants before you go. Don’t get sucked into last minute tourist traps. Think about visiting a local market and stocking up on some basic breakfast food and snacks. In a foreign country, this can be a learning experience. You can usually find good local markets on tripadvisor and use their mobile apps to take you right to them. One last tip, save these restaurants markets and attractions in the app before you leave home. The Wi-Fi or mobile service where you’re going may make this more of a chore,so plan ahead.