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Plan Your Dream Vacation on a Shoestring Budget

Don't have an extra $5k lying around to blow on a trip? You can still vacation like royalty. All it takes is a little creativity and smart planning.

You need a vacation, and you know just the place. For years, you've been dreaming of a getaway in Europe, or the Caribbean, a cabin in the Rockies or the bustle of New York City.

There's just one problem: Every dream destination has a price tag, and they're all way outside your budget.

Or are they?

Not every vacation that feels like a grand getaway needs to hit your wallet like one. Substitute creativity and smart planning, and you can take a great vacation on a small budget. Here's how.

Choose Your Destination Wisely

The most popular destinations nearly always have the highest prices -- but there are amazing experiences waiting in less-populous places with a lower price tag. For instance, many vacation opportunities in the Greek islands can be had for a fraction of the cost of a trip to Corsica or the Cote d'Azur, while sacrificing none of the natural beauty, amazing attractions or chance to relax.

Check Out Flash Sales

The United States Travel Association offers "Daily Getaways" flash sales. Each day's sale offers up to 50 percent off regular prices for everything you need, from airfare to hotels and transportation. Since flash sales are often date-specific, you'll need flexibility in your schedule to take advantage of them -- but if you can, they're a great way to get away on a tight budget.

Leverage Your Perks

Credit card companies, memberships with wholesalers like Costco, professional organizations.... Chances are, you belong to at least one group that can help you score reduced airfare, cheaper rental vehicles, airport lounge access, free admission to museums or other perks. Dig out the paperwork for your credit cards, insurance and various memberships to see what you can save with the affiliations you already have.

Plan for the Off Season

Want to save some money, skip the tourists and increase your chances of getting the time off you want? Schedule vacations for the "off seasons," such as April through Memorial Day and Labor Day through the end of October. You'll compete with fewer co-workers for the time off and fewer tourists at your dream location -- and you'll save plenty of money, too.

Compare Costs

The costs of a vacation can rack up when you don't plan for things like transportation at your destination, shopping, dining out and entrance fees. If you're planning a more active vacation, consider the costs of renting equipment like snowmobiles or bicycles versus the added transportation costs (including tolls) for bringing your own. Likewise, compare costs with your destination: Major natural attractions like Miami Beach and Santa Monica are often more expensive than equally beautiful, but less-populated, beaches not far away.

Add Vacation Rentals to Your Options

Hotel costs can rack up quickly, and hotels often limit your opportunities to eat and relax. Instead, consider renting a vacation home, which allows you to eat in when you want and to relax in comfort in case of a rainy day or a desire for downtime. Sites like Airbnb and VRBO offer large networks of users, which can help you find properties closer to the restaurants, activities and other locations you're most interested in visiting.

Splurge to Your Tastes

What's the one luxury you want most from your vacation -- and which don't matter to you very much? For instance, maybe you've always wanted a luxurious ocean-view suite with a balcony, but you don't mind flying coach. Choose one or two top luxuries for your trip you're willing to pay full price for, then look for ways to make up the cost by saving money on items you care less about.

Live Your Own Good Life

If your dream vacation involves immersing yourself in a particular destination, the best way to do this might be to spend an entire afternoon drinking cappuccino in a sidewalk cafe and watching the people walk by. Or riding your mountain bike through lush natural settings. Options like these are not only low-cost, they immerse you in your vacation experience and can be even more valuable than packing your day with more expensive activities. Decide what "the good life" looks like to you, and build it into your time away.

The best part? Planning a trip can be as much fun as taking one. And when you're enjoying your vacation, you can do so with the knowledge that you made it work.

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