Ed McMasters and his wife are taking their dream vacation this summer. Together with their two children, 11 and 8, the couple will spend 12 days in Germany and Austria. It is a trip they have been saving toward for more than five years. In Salzburg, Austria, they will splurge on a stay in the Hohensalzburg Castle, one of Europe’s largest fortresses, with a view of the city. They have already spent more than $5,000 on tickets, car rentals and insurance and expect to spend a few thousand dollars more on other expenses.

“We have postponed this trip twice because of other things that demanded the funds,” said McMasters, 45, who lives in Cincinnati, Ohio. “This is not a weekend trip in Cincinnati. This is a real dream come true.”

When it comes to life’s luxuries, travel is a fairly universal aspiration. But everyone has different ideas about their perfect trip. For some, it is a European tour. For others, a cruise or a trip to Hawaii. For still others, an African safari. The hottest destination city in the world right now is Bangkok, followed closely by London, Paris, Singapore and New York, according to a recent MasterCard study. In other words, the world is your travel oyster, so long as you have the means to get where you are going.

What it’ll take: The average traveller spent the equivalent of about $2,390 on his or her last trip, according to data from Visa. Saudi Arabians spent the most at 24,999 riyals ($6,666), followed by Australians who spent $4,343 ($4,118), Chinese who shelled out ¥23,455 ($3,824) and Brazilians who spent R$6,320 ($2,956). Americans plan to spend about $1,145 per person on summer travel, including transportation, according to a recent American Express survey.

How long you need to prepare: As long as it takes. Travel should not put you into debt. If you do not have the money this year, plan to go next year instead and keep saving.

“By the time I take my husband, three kids and their significant others, that’s a lot of money,” said Mackey McNeill, author of The Intersection of Joy and Money. “As a family, we’re just starting to talk about where we might go in a couple of years.”

Do it now: Start putting money aside. Calculate how much you will need, decide when you want to go and divide by the number of months in between. (A useful site is impulsesave.com.) Then transfer that amount to a savings account automatically. If you cannot save that much per month, extend your trip timeline or cut back expenses like lunches out or drinks after work to meet your goal.

In the meantime, set up airfare alerts to your destination so you can track rates and monitor sales. You can program price alerts on sites such as Airfarewatchdog, TripAdvisor, SkyScanner and FareCompare. Most top travel sites offer international travel options and are accessible in an array of countries.

Another strategy: If you live in a region where credit cards are common, such as the United States and parts of Europe, use a card that yields travel perks such as air miles or hotel points — put all major household expenses on it to maximize your reward potential. (As long as you don’t carry a balance, that is.) You might be able to use those rewards to pay for an airline ticket, or at least score an upgrade to business class.

“Credit cards affiliated with an airline can also come with additional benefits such as free checked baggage and priority boarding,” said Jodi Forman, who runs Florida-based LiveFabuLESS.com, a money-saving tip site.

You should also keep your eye on the news. Major disasters in one part of a country can make travel in other parts more affordable. Wayne Dunlap, a blogger at travel bargain site UnhookNow.com and author of Plan Your Escape, used this method to travel to Thailand after the 2004 tsunami.

“Phuket in the south needed time to recover, but we planned our trip to start in Bangkok, more than 500 miles away,” Dunlap said. “We took advantage of much-reduced tourist crowds and amazing prices.”

Do it later: There is little evidence that flights are cheaper on a particular day — although tickets may be slightly less expensive on the weekends — but timing your purchase to your trip departure date is important. The optimum window appears to be six to seven weeks out, according to studies from Airlines Reporting Corp and CheapAir.com.

Turn to locale specific websites when searching for deals in particular regions. For travel to Mexico and the Caribbean, try BookIt.com or VacSmart.com, suggests Pauline Frommer, publisher of Frommers.com.

GoToday.com and VirginVacations.com are useful for European trips. ChinaSpree.com is a good bet for that country. There are also flash sale sites, such as Jetsetters.com and Vacationist.com, which offer a reduced price on specific items or reservations for a limited time.

Do it less expensively: Experts say travellers can save serious cash by booking airfare and hotels together. “In situations where there’s a lot of competition between different hotels, they do not want the general public to know how much they can actually charge,” Frommer said. “If they can tie it up in an air/hotel package, you can literally save hundreds of dollars.”

You can also rent a house, villa or apartment instead. Among other advantages, you won’t be forced to eat three meals out every day.

“It’s my favourite way to travel now,” said Anne Banas, executive editor of SmarterTravel.com. “You can get a whole house and spend less money, and you can live a little bit more like a local.”

Try HomeAway, FlipKey, and VRBO.com to find hotel alternatives.

In the end, a vacation is only a dream come true if it doesn’t leave you with a hefty credit card balance. Whatever you do with your vacation time, make sure it fits your budget — and your heart’s desire.