Image: Beach © Corbis

Don't get us wrong -- everybody deserves, and needs, a vacation. The benefits of time off from life's daily challenges have innumerable health and psychological benefits.

You work hard for your money and deserve to enjoy it.

But the escalating cost of getting away can sap your wallet and savings more than you realize.

According to AAA, roughly 57% of Americans plan to take a vacation of four days or more this summer. Nearly half are budgeting at least $1,000 for their summertime excursions.

While we might scoff at someone who buys a new, cutting-edge computer system or an HDTV multimedia setup once a year, few raise an eyebrow when just as much is spent on a vacation. It is as if "vacation money" isn't real money.

Even the most frugal vacationers may find that their fun in the sun ends up costing more than they expected, especially in the long run. Here are five reasons why:

1. Cutting into savings

Vacations can prove costly, especially if you bring an entire family along.

A recent survey by GfK Custom Research found that the travel behavior of Americans more or less corresponds to that of the average world citizen. Vacationing Americans, though, are willing to spend more money than tourists from any other country.

Despite that, the U.S. still manages to be close to the average of all countries in terms of outlay, the 16-country survey found: About one-third pay up to $1,236 per person, per year, on vacations; 15% spend between $1,235 and $2,472; 18% spend more than $2,472.

Yes, you work hard for your money and value time away from work and spending uninterrupted time with your family. But consider the underlying value proposition of a retirement plan -- compound interest.

If you were to put that $1,200 a year of vacation money into a retirement plan for 30 years (assuming a 5% average rate of return), you would amass more than $84,000 by the time you retired.

Again, this isn't to suggest you should abandon all future vacation plans. But it is enlightening to see how that once-a-year indulgence can add up.

2. Spending money you didn't count on

The costs of vacations and travel can add up quickly (and may be more than you had budgeted for) as you pay extra costs and fees.

If you are flying, there may be baggage fees and an added levy if you pick certain seats or require more legroom. Fees of a few dollars at the time quickly add up: headphones, curbside check-in, in-flight meals and snacks, movie rentals, pillows and blankets, early boarding, airport snacks, reading materials and Internet access. Failing to resist the lure of the SkyMall catalog will add to unplanned expenses.

The hotel itself may hit you with an unexpected, per-day "resort fee" for use of the pool and other amenities. Beach passes, parking, cab rides or buses are other costs you might not have thought about when you planned your itinerary.

Especially in tourist areas, tipping is more common -- and expected by more people -- than might be the case at home. Be prepared to part quickly with any dollar bills and fives tucked in your wallet.

These extra expenses won't net you much in terms of lasting value and certainly won't be precious memories. But they will exact a toll on your household savings.

3. You'll gladly overpay

There is a vacation mindset that makes even the most frugal sort overspend willingly.

Would you pay $100 for dinner or $150 to see a live show? Maybe not at home, but the minute you hit the Las Vegas Strip or hunker down on a cruise ship, you might not give it a second thought.

Souvenirs can quickly add up, even if the folks at home are likely to get only a momentary kick out of those snow globes and oversize T-shirts.

Would you ordinarily shell out $7 for a candy bar or $80 for a bottle of cheap vodka? Hitting the minibar or calling for room service will impose a hefty surcharge. You may not be thinking about a child's college savings account, however, when the craving for a nightcap or midnight snack strikes.

4. Vacation planning distracts us

Getting away from it all for a week or two is one thing, but the amount of time we spend planning our trips and jaunts is distracting us from more important decisions and work.

A survey last year of 2,897 consumers who got or refinanced a home loan in the past five years, conducted by Harris Interactive for Zillow, found they typically spent only five hours on research. An equal amount of time was spent planning a vacation.

When calculated as time spent per dollar spent, Harris Interactive determined that Americans spend almost 80 times more time researching their vacation than a home loan.

"The last few years should have driven home the lesson that understanding one's home loan is critically important, but mortgages continue to be something that most people don't want to spend time thinking about," says Stan Humphries, the chief economist for Zillow, a real-estate website that provides price estimates on 70 million U.S. homes.

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Given a diversion from interest-rate crunching, bill paying or portfolio rebalancing, most will choose the diversion of vacation daydreams.

5. No vacation from debt

Even if you have dedicated savings to provide for your vacation plans, odds are that you'll still plunk down plastic along the way. Those who finance their trip entirely on a credit card have even more to be concerned about.

According to CreditCards.com's Weekly Credit Card Rate Report, the national average for credit card APR is around 14.75%. Unless you pay off those vacation charges immediately upon returning home, that interest will continue to accrue. Making only minimum monthly payments will turn that week at the beach into many months of bills.

Even if you have cash in hand for your trip (or staycation), applying that money to pay down debt would pay off in the long run by reducing the principal (and, as a result, interest) on your other loans. Throwing frugality out the window for one or two weeks a year could keep your cycle of debt going strong.