Put it on Autopilot: "The very best way to save money is for someone to take it off the top before you even see it," says Bodnar, who suggests setting up an automatic transfer from your checking account into a savings account earmarked for your vacation. "It's the best psychological trick I know. Even if it's just $25 or $50 a month -- it doesn't have to be a lot of money -- it's the least painful way to save," she says.
At the end of a year, a $50-a-month contribution adds up to $600 -- perhaps not enough for a grand getaway, but also not chump change.
Devise a Pay-Off Plan: Let's suppose that you're only able to save up half of what your vacation will cost. Bodnar says it's essential to come up with a plan to pay off the remainder within about six months of returning home.
"It's so important not to get in over your head," she says. "For most people, six months is a manageable amount of time. You don't want your vacation to take two years to pay off, certainly not in this environment. It's too easy to let it just sit there as a lump of debt."
Be Social: Want to make it easy for Grandma and Uncle John to contribute to your vacation fund? Consider opening an account at SmartyPig, an online piggy bank where you can set a savings goal and target date. While you save, your money earns interest in a FDIC-insured financial institution to the tune of 3.25 percent APR, one of the most competitive rates in the country. And if you decide to make your goal public -- you can even post a widget to your Facebook or MySpace page -- your friends and family can also make donations.
Almost one in five SmartyPig customers are saving for a travel goal, according to Mike Ferrari, the company's co-founder and COO. "In fact," says Ferrari, "I have two kids, and my wife and I are saving on SmartyPig for two trips right now."
Put it on Layaway: Some hotels are introducing layaway programs to let guests pay off their bill even before they arrive. Since March 1, guests at Apple Core Hotels in New York City have had the opportunity to use layaway to finance a future hotel stay at any of the group's five properties, including La Quinta, Red Roof Inn, Comfort Inn, the Hotel at Times Square and Ramada Inn.
"Guests can start with a down payment of as little as $20," explains Vijay Dandapani, the President and COO of Apple Core Hotels. "Then they have the opportunity to build up the pre-payment in the time leading up to their trip."
For travelers, it's hard to argue with the combination of reasonable prices, flexible payments, and risk-free booking that comes with the Apple Core layaway plan. "There's a misconception that New York City is expensive," says Dandapani, pointing out that the rack rate for Apple Core Hotels is between $139 and $159 a night. "We don't impose a timeline with our layaway plan," he says. "Guests can pay little by little, or they can pay off the balance all at once when they check out of the hotel."
What if a guest changes her mind and cancels? "She gets her money back," says Dandapani. Best of all, opting for Apple Core's layaway plan guarantees that you nail the best price. "If the rates go up, your reservation is locked in at the lower rate," explains Dandapani. "And if the rate goes down after you book, we'll refund the difference."