With everything I've learned by couponing and saving money, I was ready to apply my knowledge to planning a vacation.

Except this wasn't any old vacation: It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime trips that required years of planning and saving. I took a 15-day trip to China and experienced history, unbelievable food and a culture that was truly mesmerizing.

A dream vacation doesn’t have to create a lifetime of debt along with a lifetime of memories. Here’s how to stretch dollars further and get the most value on a vacation:

Use Sites Offering Cash Back

Use websites like Ebates to get cash back when scheduling flights. We traveled to multiple places within China using inter-China flights. I looked at Ebates to see which sites would give me the most money back. I found that Vayama would give me a $10 discount on every flight I booked, and I would also get $9 back through Ebates. That's a $19 savings per flight after picking the least expensive flights. Airlines in China don't offer discounts for round trip so I was able to save $19 each way, and I booked each flight separately.

Use Frequent Flyer Miles Wisely

I planned my whole trip around the lowest mileage, non-stop frequent flyer tickets I could get. There are usually two mileage levels on frequent flyer tickets: Saver and Regular. For instance, a round trip Economy Saver ticket to Shanghai on American Airlines is 70,000 miles ($1,000 value). An Economy Anytime ticket is a whopping 140,000 miles round trip ($1,200 value). Here's the unbelievable thing: A Business Class Saver ticket is 110,000 ($5,000 value) and there's a lot more availability. If miles are used on hotels or rental cars it is possible to get even less value. Remember to get mileage credit for any flights, hotels or rental cars that are paid for as part of the trip being scheduled.

Know When to Book a Tour

Many people go to China or other foreign countries with a tour group. While this can be a great value, I am personally not a fan of tour groups, air-conditioned buses and tourist shopping stops. Savvy travelers can do a little research and book tours in places where they are really needed.

Take a taxi to the tourist destinations and get a lesson in local culture along the way. It's so helpful to hire someone local to drive to popular tourist destinations because they can explain the significance of these historic sites.

In Shanghai, it was so easy to get around, and many of the sights were more self-explanatory. In our 15-day trip, we booked five tour days and we're so pleased with the results. The language barrier was, at most, a slight distraction. The best advice I was given before the trip was to make sure I had the address of where I was going written in Mandarin to give to the taxi drivers.

Using all of these tips, we were able to book a trip of a lifetime and saved more than 50%, allowing us to have a no-regrets vacation and lifelong memories.

Read this other KCL article for more ideas on how to make a dream vacation affordable.

This is a guest post by Jenifer from Los Angeles, CA
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