You dream of lounging on the beaches of Jamaica. You long to tour the castles of Europe. You want to take the kids to see Mickey.

But then you look at your account balance … sigh.

All is not lost, however, if you’re willing to invest a little time, planning and savings into your next getaway.

“The best process for planning a great vacation is the sooner, the better,” says Nancy Hawkins, owner of Luxury Journey Travel. “The best thing to do to get the best deal is to buy a package with your flight, your resort or hotel, transfers and attractions all at the same time. I try to tell people to plan a year in advance, and we put it all together for them.”

It’s free to hire most travel agents, who get paid on commission based on their relationships with service industry leaders around the world, and many offer group discounts and payment plans with no fees, so any worries about affording that perfect vacation flies right out the cabin window.

“With us, you don’t have to get a loan,” Hawkins says of her agency that mainly helps clients travel abroad. “We do payments without any finance charges.

“It’s almost like a layaway vacation. Remember the old layaway plans at Kmart, where you could layaway stuff for Christmas? That’s kind of what you can do with this,” she explains. “It depends on the location and the supplier that I use as for what kind of payment you have to put down, but I’ve seen them as low as $100 if you’re booking far enough out.”

Book it yourself or hire a travel agent?

Sure, you can plan your own vacation, as long as you’re willing to deal with all of the hassles of finding the best deal, coordinating all transportation and accommodations, and booking any excursions or reservations for during your trip.

With a plethora of websites offering deals on flights, hotels, resorts and more, who’s got time to wade through all the noise to find the absolute best option?

A good travel agent takes the hassle out of vacation planning by knowing who to call, when to book and how to find the best discounts.

“Travel agents have better connections,” Hawkins says. “I travel all the time. I go to make connections with people. We just got back from Spain, I’m doing a cruise this year, I did Ireland last fall, and I did a river cruise in Hungary, Germany and Austria.

“I’ve been to over 100 all-inclusive resorts just in the past couple of years, meeting the sales managers so when I have a client who wants to go there, I can email them and say ‘Hey, Mr. and Mrs. Smith are going to be there and I want you to take good care of them.’ It just provides some little perks, plus we know all the little tricks for putting groups together and how you can get a discount if you do a group,” she adds.

Hawkins says all of her services are free to the client and she receives her commission about two weeks after the trip concludes.

“Whether they plan it through bookit.com or Expedia, or book it directly with the hotel or they use a travel professional, it’s going to be the same. Whoever took that reservation for them is going to make that commission,” Hawkins says. “People always think they can do better online, but I always say, ‘Who are you going to call when you have trouble?’

“The online websites don’t have a local number. I answer my phone all the time,” she says. “I was up one morning about 3:30 a.m. because a client was confused at the airport. They were at the United gate and their flight was on American. So, when you call Expedia, I’m pretty sure they’re not going to be so understanding about it.”

Some people also think planning their own vacation to Florida, for instance, will be cheaper than using a travel agent to plan a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Jamaica, Hawkins says.

“They think it’s cheaper. They got the hotel, the flight, the car and it’s this much. If they go to Jamaica, it’s $1,000 more.

“But, how much are you going to spend for your family to eat and drink for a week? Think about that stuff. They don’t consider it when they’re just getting excited. Why wouldn’t you want to do something where everything is already included?”

Save money by planning ahead

The best way to throw your finances into turmoil is to take a spur-of-the-moment trip without planning or budgeting ahead of time, local financial planners say.

Everyone deserves a little time off now and then, but charging the vacation to a high-interest credit card ultimately just adds to your debt, which does nothing to relieve stress.

Aaron Morrow, a wealth management specialist at LJI Wealth Management, says one of his clients decided to go on an unplanned spring break trip and used several thousand dollars from an emergency fund to pay for it.

“Then, they go on vacation and the weather was bad, and they sat in jackets and rain all week. It was an emotional decision,” he says, and one with no plan on how to pay it back.

Gino Johnson, a CPA at Peachin, Schwartz & Weingardt, says one of his clients decided to take his family to Disney World with no pre-planning and returned home to a $10,000 credit card debt. “A family of six in Disney World … they didn’t really save for it, and they just kept spending,” he says.

While he admits he’s not the best at pre-planning his own vacations, CPA Andrew Hamaker of Pathfinder Group says he always tries to take advantage of accumulated airline points with Delta Airlines when traveling. All three financial experts also advise saving for up to a year to pay for a vacation.

“I recommend everybody take money out of their paycheck every time they get paid and throw it into a savings account,” Hamaker says. “If you save $50 per paycheck, times that by 26 weeks, you’ll have $1,300 saved up in one year.”

Group discounts, payment plans and more choices

Planning a vacation a year in advance saves money and time, but it also opens up more options, such as better airfare prices, cabin locations and larger group discounts, Hawkins says.

Want to go to Disney World? Buy a package that includes a hotel on-site along with all dining needs — and don’t allow your kids to charge the ice cream cones or souvenirs to their Disney wristbands.

“If you just throw yourself into Disney World and don’t plan ahead of time, yeah, you’re going to toss a lot of money away and not even realize it,” Hawkins says.

What about taking a cruise abroad to Spain or Italy? “Those kinds of places are becoming very popular again. And they can join an existing group that my supplier has to receive discounts,” she says.

“I just did four couples who went to Greece for close to $8,000 per couple. That’s flights out of Indianapolis, several tours they’re going to go on, and they wanted 5-star hotels. If you’re willing to stay in a 3½-star hotel and you just want it to be clean, you can also save money.”

While booking a Carnival cruise for spring break in March also remains a popular option for families, November is the best time for couples with no children to find good deals and less crowds. Hawkins says she always plans her vacations for the end of April or beginning of May.

“The reason I do that … we love Cabo San Lucas. It’s beautiful weather, upper 70s, low 80s, a nice breeze, humidity is like zero. It’s a great time to be in Cabo,” Hawkins says.

Instead of feeling deprived and trying to save money for the perfect vacation, look into hiring a travel agent to find the best deals and use their payment plans to afford the best getaway.

“It’s easy to do a small deposit and make monthly payments, so that makes it affordable for many people,” Hawkins says. “Instead of saying, I’ve got to give them $3,000 today, they only have to pay $235 per person and they can make monthly payments until about 45 days before departure. So, that makes it really affordable for people that don’t think they can afford it.”

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