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For the perfect vacation, set expectations before you go!

Summer has officially arrived, and with it comes the much-anticipated season of summer vacations. Whether that means packing up the family and heading to a far-away destination or piling everyone in the car for a day-trip to Disney, the best advice I can offer—both personally and financially—is to set expectations long before you go. 

Why are expectations so important? As with any type of planning, financial or otherwise, having a plan is the #1 key to success. Consider these statistics: According to AAA, almost 100 million Americans, or 4 out of every 10 adults, will take a family trip in 2019.[1] Of those millions of holiday travelers, a recent report from Vacasa[2] identified two distinct camps. The first is “super savers,” who view the price of a trip as a key factor when planning a vacation and who will spend an average of 2-3 weeks pay on this year’s summer vacation. The second group, called the “high rollers,” will spend $6,000 or more on their summer getaways. 

Whichever camp you belong to, it’s important, above all, to know your budget—and to base that budget on what you can afford! However, creating a vacation budget and actually sticking to that budget are two different things. I speak from experience.

Just this past Sunday, I returned from my first cruise since 2002. I was thrilled at the prospect of the trip, which included cherished time with two of my teenaged grandchildren. All three of us wanted to see Alaska, so it was a little dream in the making. I was thrilled to find an agency that promised to find us an “affordable” cruise that would meet all of our needs. In retrospect, I have to wonder if our definitions of “affordable” came from two different dictionaries. First, there was the “family cabin” that was more expensive than a standard room but made sense for our family of three. Then there were the planned shore excursions, which totaled almost a third of the price of the cruise itself. Then (and I’m still reeling from these) were the upcharges, which ranged from $120 for a “premium” dining experience (maybe worth it), to several hundred dollars per person for Internet access (definitely not worth it!), to $100 for “port valet service” that included transferring our bags from the ship to our plane home so we could spend a day suitcase-free in Seattle (definitely worth it!). 

And then there was the on-ship credit card, one for each of us, that made it all too easy to rack up a hundred smaller charges without even blinking. The kids’ cards required my approval for anything over $30, but anything under that amount seemed all too free. Luckily, my traveling buddies didn’t overspend (aside from a last-day obsession with a game in which they could “win” a pair of Beats headphones, but it could have been worse!). The whole experience has me wondering how some of the other families fared. What if they weren’t hyper-conscious about how much they were spending? How many families are going to face a quite unexpected, and quite massive, credit card bill at the end of the month? It’s a high price to pay for a little rest and relaxation.

If I had it my way, every cruise—and every vacation for that matter—would have a single, easy-to-read sticker price for the total trip. Unfortunately, it’s rarely that simple. Cruise lines have a thousand potential add-ons (go-karting anyone?). At Disneyland, visitors are gouged $5 for a bottle of water (and I’m sure every visitor to Galaxy’s Edge gets pretty thirsty in those long lines!). It’s no wonder that Mint.com reported that out of the 2.2 million users who created a monthly travel budget with its technology in 2018, 44% overspent their vacation budgets.

What’s the solution? As usual, it’s all in the planning. First, set expectations—your own and those of your traveling companions. If everyone knows that you might splurge on a premium meal one night but have to stick to pizza the next, no one will be disappointed about that pesky budget. Second, do your homework! This is, I confess, where I went wrong on this trip. I naively thought that most of the costs were covered. In the end, the price tag was nearly double what I’d expected. And lastly, be diligent about the sneaky culprits that can blow your budget to bits. Breakfast at the airport. Taxes and tips. Baggage and “resort” fees. Wi-fi access. Hotel parking. Some of these extras can be avoided. Others can’t. But by thinking and planning ahead, you will know what to expect so you can sit back and truly enjoy the trip.

For me, this is the time in my life when my priority is creating great experiences with my family, and especially my grandchildren. Sure, our cruise ended up costing more than I expected, and I could have done without the massive crowds and sheer noise of it all, but the kids loved every minute of it. I wouldn’t trade that for the world. But when my next vacation comes around, with the kids or without, I’m going to do a much better job at planning the details. If you have any tips—or any of your own experiences to share—I’d love to hear them!


[1] “AAA: Nearly 100 Million Americans Will Embark on Family Vacations this Year,” March 21, 2019
[2] Vacasa summer travel trends report, 2019