6 Steps to Save on Your Summer Vacation

How to avoid expensive flights, overbooked hotels, and crowded vacation spots.

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Vacation, arguably the most important part of the year, is the time when we can finally put all our problems on the back burner and escape into the summer breeze without a care in the world. At least that's how it's supposed to be. Unfortunately, summer vacations can end up in complete disaster with expensive flights, overbooked hotels, and crowded vacation spots if you fail to plan far enough in advance.

As exciting as simply throwing caution to the wind and jumping on the first plane out of here may sound, that plan (or lack thereof) can dump you in some of the least fun vacation situations on the planet. It can also end up costing you an arm, a leg, and a pound of flesh.

[See 10 Smart Ways to Improve Your Budget.]

Locations that cater to tourists tend to be extremely expensive when you simply show up on a moment's notice looking to have a good time. On the other hand, those same locations can afford the wise traveler a fun, happy, and inexpensive time if you are clever enough to make a few preparations ahead of time. Here are six things you must do now to enjoy an affordable summer vacation:

Book in advance. It's no secret that planes, trains, and hotels can be cheaper when booked in advance. Even if booked just a little in advance, airlines and hotels often reward you with lower fairs and great fringe benefits. There are even entire vacation packages including meals, lodging, transportation, and a host of other goodies, which, if booked ahead of time, can be had dirt-cheap. Known as "early bird" specials, these advance packages can give you the dream vacation you've always wanted with the perks only found in your wildest fantasies, all at a very manageable price.

Booking in advance also ensures the availability of the option you decide upon. Last-minute vacationers often find that all the best spots are completely booked, and they end up having to settle for less-than-satisfactory dates, locations, and lodgings. When you prepare ahead of time, you may find that you often get the pick of the litter at a rock-bottom price.

[See 3 Ways to Increase Travel Rewards.]

Got kids? It is especially important to provide some structure and advance planning to your vacation when you have children in tow. Although singles or even couples have pretty high tolerance for roughing it and can settle for pretty much anything, when the babies are on board, small complications can quickly turn into nightmares. If you need to book an extra hotel room, grab it, or even consider using Vacation Rentals by Owner (VRBO) to get a house that leaves you with enough room and hopefully some of your sanity when kids are under foot.

Schedule. Besides determining where to go and how much to spend, deciding when to go is an important step toward a successful vacation, and it's one that you can take right now. All the days of the week are equal, but when it comes to airfares, some are more equal than others. Traveling on a Sunday, for instance, can often cost much more than traveling on Wednesday or Thursday. In general, weekdays are cheaper than weekends, but if you need to travel on the weekend, Saturday is cheaper than Sunday.

There may also be local festivals at your vacation spot, which you may prefer to attend or miss. Consider these factors and decide ahead of time exactly when to travel for your vacation.

Make connections. If you know people in the city where you are planning your vacation, now is the time to give them a call. These contacts can give you the inside scoop on the cheapest and best places to eat, sightsee, and hang out, so you'll want to advise them ahead of time about your plans. If you're really lucky, friends might offer you a free place to stay during your trip. If you don't know anyone there, ask your friends if they happen to know anyone. Friends of friends can often be useful resources.

Research. Reading up a bit on the spot where you plan to vacation can be another valuable addition to your vacation saving arsenal. The more you know about a place, the better experiences you can have there and the more likely you will be to find the eye-popping deals and bargains. Sometimes the best spots to visit in a city are free, but you have to know where they are.

There are also many online sites such as Trip Advisor that provide a ton of hotel, airline, and general travel reviews. It's always a good idea to study up on your destination and get the "inside scoop" on the best spots.

[See 3 Creative Uses for Frequent Flyer Miles.]

Budget during your vacation and don't forget to consider insurance. Take some time to create a budget for your vacation. Chock it full of details and extras and make sure it's all clear and written down. Budgeting ahead of time can go a long way toward helping you to spend only what you want to spend on your vacation. Start with a figure for the total amount you wish to spend, then break it down into smaller chunks for meals, accommodations, travel expenses, and just plain fun.

When you plan ahead, there is always the risk that an emergency or an act of God will force you to change your travel plans. This can often be remedied by investing in some kind of travel insurance. Travel insurance packages can guard against all necessary cancellation situations, whether natural or man-made, and can be the final piece in the puzzle of a vacation that is both fun and inexpensive.

Chad Fisher spends his time building and promoting websites for people to learn more about affordable housing and has developed a free site for consumers to compare auto insurance quotes from providers in their state.