Money

How I vacationed like a tycoon on French Riviera on middle-class budget

_DSC8817
Raquel Maria Carbonell Pagola | Getty Images

I just got back from the sun-drenched French Riviera, where I lived the life of the yachting class for eight days on a working man's salary. I'm writing to let you know that you, too, can afford to vacation where hedge fund honchos, Russian oligarchs and other rich people do.

But, first, a reality check: This was not a Europe on 20-dollars-a-day backpack trip like I did in the early '80s, when the definition of luxury was a low-cost bunk in a youth hostel, a go-anywhere two-month train pass for $350 and a nightly dinner consisting of bread, cheese and the survivalist liquid better known as water.

More from USA Today:
What sinking dollar means for your portfolio
Spread the wealth: It's not just 'popular' stocks that go up
Your European vacation just got pricier

No, this was a real, adult vacation, with my wife (who also works), and 16-year-old son. A memorable getaway. A splurge to be sure. But not a budget buster.

The all-in cost for three? Roughly $6,500.

Not too bad considering a ValuePenguin.com analysis of the Census Bureau's Consumer Expenditure Survey data found the average cost for a 12-night international trip was $3,251 in 2013, the latest government data available. Averages can be deceiving, however, as some people "go all out and spend $10,000 to $15,000 on a trip," says Divya Sangam of ValuePenguin.com, a consumer research website.

Overall, when it comes to pleasure trips, it is a tale of two Americas, with those who hardly spend a night away from home and those who drop an average of $4,700 on vacations each year, Sangam adds. A recent survey by Allianz Global Assistance found that Americans, when asked, "How much money do you anticipate spending on vacation this summer?" said $1,978.

96620943
Patrick Aventurier | Getty Images

My "affordable" getaway included a two-bed, two-bath apartment with yacht-like views overlooking the sea in Villefranche sur mer, a sleepy old town just east of Nice, France. The trip also included many lunch and dinners out, where I dined on local favorites such as ravioli nicoise, steak frites and risotto parmesan. And side trips to places like the mountaintop village of Eze, and Monaco, known for its high-end casinos, big yachts and Grand Prix car race. The final cost even included a splurge day at a private beach club in Cap-D'ail, where a lounge chair and umbrella sets you back 30 euros, or about $34 in U.S. currency.

The point? While vacationing is never cheap (it is, by definition, a discretionary expenditure) a memorable getaway rather than a staycation, is within reach — with proper planning, budgeting and other money-saving secrets.

Sangam of ValuePenguin.com sums up best the money side of vacations: "I strongly believe it is important to have fun but to do so only after doing your research and after you know what you can afford to spend. It's normal to go over budget but you don't want to go crazy and rack up a lot of debt and pay for it later."

Here's some tips on how I, a frequent visitor to the south of France, keep foreign trip costs as low as possible.

Budget for a planned itinerary

Determine what you can afford to spend. A rudimentary agenda puts a dollar number on the vacation. Then decide if you have enough cash stashed away for a splurge day at a killer beach or a five-star restaurant. If not, when you get to your destination, seek out the hippest free public beach and find a cheaper restaurant the locals flock too.

It's not uncommon for vacationers to suffer from budget creep, experts say. But that's OK just as long as the spending isn't a threat to your financial health when you return home.

"They do tend to spend more than they predicted," says Daniel Durazo, director of communications at Allianz Global Assistance, a global provider of travel insurance.

Save on the big stuff

Going abroad requires a plane ticket and a place to sleep. And that's not cheap, especially during the summer travel season. Time to cash in those travel rewards on your credit card.

Or scour travel sites for cheap flights and accommodations as early as you can. And don't rule out using connecting flights to reach your destination. For my recent trip I booked three round-trip tickets from New York to Nice in late December 2016. The payoff: three round-trip tickets (with a stop on the way in Madrid and a connection in London on the way home) for $2,200, or $733.35 per ticket. A similar flight itinerary today would cost $1,333 per ticket, or 82% more, according to Kayak.com.

ALASKA AIR EARNS
Bloomberg | Getty Images

There's the sharing economy, too. Getting a flat through, say, Airbnb is likely to cost less than a 4- or 5-star hotel, experts say. My advice: through diligent research and word of mouth find a legitimate owner of multiple rental properties with a strong track record. For the past decade, for example, I have booked first-rate apartments in Villefranche sur mer through well-run RivieraExperience.com.

Mix in cheap days

If you go on a spending spree one day. Go cheap the next day. While a $500 day may create a crater in your wallet, spending just $100 the next day will keep you from busting the budget. That means steering clear of restaurants and grabbing a lunch from a food stand selling, say, a pan bagnat. Or grabbing a baguette and some cheese.

Keep track of what you are spending

It sounds like a buzz-kill method, but each night on vacation I tally up the day's expenditures and overall costs to date. That way, if my spending is out of control, I can rein it in before it's too late. "Keep a diary of expenses," says Sangam of ValuePenguin.com. "You don't want sticker shock at the end."

Like this story? Like CNBC Make It on Facebook

Don't miss: 9 ways to live the dream on a dime

This article originally appeared on USA Today.