Do you dread taking a summer vacation because of the debt it causes months later? You’re not the only one who thinks that.

More than half (54%) of those surveyed recently by Creditcards.com were not planning to take any summer vacation at all. The survey also found that parents at any age are twice as likely as adults without kids to still be paying for their vacations four to six months later.

What happens to your credit when you charge a vacation and carry the balance

Let’s break down what happens to your credit when you charge a vacation to your credit cards and carry the balance over several months.

  1. Amounts owed goes up: When you charge a vacation to your credit cards, it’s typically costs thousands of dollars and includes airfare for the whole family as well as hotel charges, food and entertainments costs for the whole vacation. Your vacation tab rises the longer the vacation and the larger the family. Charging that amount uses up the available credit on your credit cards which is the “credit utilization” or “amounts owed” part of your credit score. When you use up your available credit and don’t pay it down by the next statement date, your credit score usually goes down significantly and only rises slowly until you pay down that balance significantly.
  2. You pay more for the entire trip: If you carry that vacation trip balance from month to month (or four to six months like those parents in the survey) you are paying interest charges, nationally averaged right now at 15%, on the amount charged for the vacation. This can add hundreds or even thousands of dollars in additional credit card interest charges to your vacation.
  3. Payment history may suffer: Adding thousands of dollars of vacation charges to your credit cards can result in payments the next month you may not be able to afford. Making credit account payments on-time not only make up a large portion of your credit score but they also cause the quickest dip in credit score when you miss a payment. Even one late payment stays as a negative mark on your credit report and can affect your score for a year or more (the further the late payment is in the past the less effect it has on your score). The effect is magnified if more late payments happen.

The single best way to protect your credit when taking a vacation

As the respondents in the survey said, 78% plan to use money saved up for their trip. This way you can pay any balance charged and avoid carrying a large balance that ruins your credit in the months following your trip.

To be clear, it’s not the charging that ruins your credit, it’s carrying the balance that ruins your credit and has a negative impact on your finances overall because it puts stress on making (more) payments.

The survey found that older Americans over age 65 were more likely to charge a vacation than those aged 18-29, but they also said they planned to pay off any vacation debt the fastest.  These older Americans may have money saved up for trips and also may be more likely to use travel credit cards and credit card rewards that come with money-saving travel perks, airline miles and even cash-back so charging vacation expenses on the cards make sense for them.

Ways to reduce your vacation spend and protect your credit score

Any way you can reduce your vacation spending will help you better pay for it either before the statement due date or as soon as possible after.

  • Make it a family goal. Get the whole family involved in saving up for the trip, in creating a vacation budget and in sticking to the spending plan. This way you make a plan to only charge what you can afford to pay off before the statement due date. When the whole family is involved in the savings and the budget plan, it’s easier to remind everyone of the goals when daily “wants” pop up.
  • Do as many things as you can do for free. That means finding the public beaches and county, state and national park attractions that are considerably less expensive than other paid activities such as renting a boat, riding horses or dune buggies or jet skis for one hour and other expensive planned activities. If your hotel offers free breakfast or free activities of any kind, use them. Enlist each family member to research and present ideas for less expensive activities everyone can agree on so everyone is excited.
  • Only charge for things that earn rewards or perks. If you earn miles or cash-back or free baggage or free trip insurance or rental car insurance by charging on your credit card and you have the money to pay it off before the statement due date, then use that credit card because it will cost you less in the long run.
  • Only charge to get the best deals. Consider using the card for nabbing the best deals and fares right when you see them available. You can also use the card for its booking ease and then pay the hotel or rental car bill in cash afterwards, when no rewards exist for those charges.
  • Keep updated with rewards and perks on your specific credit cards. Beyond airfare miles, it’s possible you could be using rewards and perks from your credit cards to purchase activities and items for your trip and during your trip. It’s also possible that your credit cards rewards and perks change from quarter to quarter. Take the time to read about all your different credit card benefits and plan how to use each well before your trip.
  • Keep a cash trip budget. If budgeting is hard for you when using credit cards, consider using the envelope method to control trip spending on entertainment, meals and needless shopping. Determine a budget for this spending, leave the credit card in the room and use the cash in an envelope to keep you from overspending and charging.

Of course it is easier to just charge any activities, food and souvenirs family members want than it is to research and be creative in how you spend your day to spend less. But much relationship research has found that creating these types of experiences together make family memories that bind you together, while buying “things” often does not.