We asked Parents readers what destinations they're dying to visit, and then we took the list to a half-dozen travel experts who specialize in finding bargains. The result: this trip planner that could literally save you thousands.
Save on airfare More planes fly into Oahu and Maui than to other Hawaiian islands, so you can usually get a better deal if you vacation on one of them. "You'll typically find the lowest-cost airfares to Hawaii in January through mid-April and in early fall," says Gabe Saglie, a senior editor for travelzoo.com. What's a great rate? With taxes and fees, $650 round-trip from the East Coast, $550 from the Midwest, and $325 from the West.
Sleep cheaper Upscale resorts are lowering room rates and adding perks, says Kyle McCarthy, founder of Family Travel Forum (myfamilytravels.com). Take the Camp Penguin package at Hilton Hawaiian Village, on Waikiki Beach. Starting at $279 per night, it includes free admission once during your stay to the camp (where kids 5 to 12 can go shell hunting and build volcanos in the sand) plus discounts on spa treatments and beach activities. On Oahu's quieter North Shore, the Turtle Bay Resort (a haven for horse-loving kids) offers a "fifth-night-free" package. Stay that long, and an oceanfront room with two queen beds and a lanai where you can hang out after you put the kids to bed works out to less than $200 per night. On Maui, vacation deals abound too. The summer rates at the oceanfront Ka'anapali Beach Hotel start at $166 per night, and kids ages 5 and under eat free. Plus, there's no charge for many of the activities like hula lessons and lei-making. With the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa's Family Vacation package for four starting at $279 per night, the family gets free breakfast and kids 12 and under eat lunch and dinner at no cost too. Another option: The Westin Ka'anapali Ocean Resort Villas. Its Sunsational Savings package gives you a third night free and breakfast for two daily; use promo code ZS3.
Eat well for less On Oahu, try Diamond Head Market & Grill, where you can get a sandwich for $6. Maui Tacos, with several locations, serves up grilled fish, chopped salad, and, on the kids' menu, a bean-and-cheese burrito.
Find freebies There's no charge for any of Hawaii's beaches and many, like Kama'ole Beach Park on Maui and Kailua Beach Park on Oahu, have a grassy area and nature trails nearby. On Maui, you can get free hula lessons and lei-making classes at Whalers Village. On Oahu, watch a fireworks display at Waikiki Beach every Friday night.
Save on airfare Plan your trip for spring or fall and spend up to $300 less per person than in summer, says Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, cofounder of the family travel site wejustgotback.com. England and Ireland are typically the cheapest countries to fly to from the U.S. In off-peak months, it's not hard to find a deal under $700 for a round-trip ticket (with taxes and fees) from the East Coast, $750 from the Midwest, and $800 from the West. A good reason to start in London: From there, you can get to other European countries through low-cost regional carriers like Ryanair and easyJet. Use momondo.com to compare prices for flights within Europe. "You can fly to almost any European country from London for under $150 round-trip," says McCarthy. "That's usually cheaper than the train." Also look into offers that combine airfare, hotel, and rental car. "In Europe, packages tend to be a very good value," says Saglie. "I see weeklong packages to Europe from the East Coast for under $1,000 per person, and under $800 from November through March."
Sleep cheaper Rooms at the Premier Inn, a chain with more than 600 locations in the U.K. and Ireland, look like they came out of your local IKEA and typically cost under $100 per night. The Hotel Novotel, also with hundreds of locations around the Continent, has larger rooms and a play area in the lobby, starting at around $150 per night. You might even be able to catch a deal at fancy yet family-friendly hotels like Grosvenor House, a JW Marriott Hotel next to London's Hyde Park (during fall and winter, rates can start at $144 per night).
Eat well for less Pick up groceries for in-room breakfasts and picnic lunches, suggests Tom Hall, the London-based director of online editorial for the Lonely Planet Travel guidebook series. "When I travel with my wife and kids ages 2 and 4, we buy enough food for a few days at the local farmers' market," he says. "It's cheap and fresh." Request a mini fridge when you book your hotel room (it's not standard in most chains) and ask the concierge for market suggestions. Also check out lfm.org.uk for a directory of London farmers' markets and provence-hideaway.com for a list of markets in France. What's more, many European museums have low-cost cafés with good food, he says. A family of four can eat at the restaurant at the Natural History Museum in London for less than $40.
Find freebies Take advantage of no-cost cultural activities. London's Royal Academy of Music offers free kid-friendly concerts a few times a week and family play days monthly. Many museums throughout Europe, such as London's British Museum (with dinosaur fossils and mummies) and Paris's Museum of Modern Art (Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, with amazing sculptures) don't charge admission for their permanent collections. It also doesn't cost anything to see some of the touristy attractions, like the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace or Rome's Pantheon. In between all the sightseeing, let your kid blow off some steam at one of Europe's magnificent parks. In London, The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground in Kensington Gardens features a giant wooden pirate ship, a sensory trail, and tepees; the Parc Montsouris in Paris offers a pony ride, a puppet theater, and two carousels.
Walt Disney World
Save on airfare Avoid mid-February to mid-April and late November through December to slash $100 per ticket, says Mary Waring, founder of mousesavers.com, a site for Disney deals. Look for $150 round-trip fares (with taxes and fees) from the East Coast, $200 from the Midwest, and $300 from the West Coast.
Sleep cheaper You can't beat the convenience (and free ride from the airport) of staying at a Disney resort. Rooms at Disney's All-Star and Pop Century resorts start at about $84 per night. If you have more than two kids, consider one of the themed family suites at Disney's Art of Animation Resort, opening this month. Starting at about $250 per night, they sleep six and have two bathrooms, a living room, and a mini kitchen. Many Orlando hotels offer free shuttles to all the theme parks, so they're a smart pick if you want to check out Universal Studios or SeaWorld too. The SpringHill Suites Orlando at Lake Buena Vista (starting at $99 per night) and Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate (starting at $177 per night) are good choices. If you're traveling from May 24 to September 28, you might even be able to snag a room at The Ritz-Carlton Orlando Grande Lakes (where children are greeted at a special check-in desk and given a rubber bracelet for free ice cream during their stay) for as low as $199 per night.
Eat well for less Most full-service restaurants serve the same dishes at lunch and dinner, but they're about one-third less before 4 p.m. so have your "big meal" earlier in the day, suggests Len Testa, coauthor of The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2012. Plus, Disney doesn't mind if you bring your own snacks into the park. You can have a shopping order delivered to your room from gardengrocer.com and stash it in your mini fridge (standard in most hotels). If you stay at a Disney resort, look into Disney's five types of dining plans. But read the details at disneyworld.disney.go.com and go to allears.net to see the menus with prices for all the restaurants. "Some families come out ahead on the deal, and others lose money," says Waring.
Find freebies Take advantage of the awesome pools at your resort -- and skip the $60 "water park add-on" to your theme park tickets. "The waterparks are great for tweens and teens, but younger kids will have just as much fun at your hotel pool," says Testa. Check out the street performers at the BoardWalk Inn Resort -- your kid might even get to be part of a juggling or magic show.
Mexico and the Caribbean
Save on airfare Go in the early summer -- when ticket prices drop but the threat of bad weather is much lower than it is during the rest of the off-peak season, says Kelleher. In general, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Bahamas are the cheapest places to fly to, but you might get great deals on others depending on whether discount airlines like Southwest, JetBlue, and Frontier cover that route out of your local airport. Anything under $300 round-trip (including taxes and fees) is awesome from the East Coast and Midwest. Flying from the West will be cheaper to closer-by places like Mexico and pricier to the Bahamas.
Sleep cheaper The chain of Occidental's Allegro resorts starts as low as $40 per person per night with meals and activities, including kayaking, tennis, and a mini disco for kids. McCarthy's pick is Maho Bay Camps in the U.S. Virgin Islands, an eco-friendly resort near a National Park that has family nature programs. Studio rooms with a private deck and a kitchenette start at $130 per night. In the Bahamas, family-mecca Atlantis, with dozens of waterslides and a special play area for young kids, is exclusively offering Parents readers a package starting at $499 per person for four nights, including a two-for-one discount to the kids' club. It's for travel through September 15; you must call 800-Atlantis and book by May 31. In Cancún, the Villa del Palmar, which opened last year, is offering rooms starting at $154 per night, including breakfast for two.
Eat well for less If you're not staying at an all-inclusive resort, check out the "street food" scene. Pinchos (ka-bobs of pork or chicken) are big in Puerto Rico, as are mole chicken and beans in Mexico and shaved ice in the Dominican Republic. Seafood is fresh and reasonably priced. In the Bahamas, try The Fish Fry, a collection of brightly colored restaurants with outdoor seating along the shore, which sell local fare like conch salad and grilled shrimp.
Find freebies There's no charge to get on most beaches in the Caribbean, and if you pack snorkeling gear, you'll save money on rentals, suggests Josey Miller, tripadvisor.com's travel expert. Hiking is another popular no-cost activity. The U.S. Virgin Islands has more than 20 hiking trails, and many of them are easy enough for kids to handle. In Puerto Rico, there are also several family-friendly hikes in the El Yunque National Forest.
Originally published in the May 2012 issue of Parents magazine.
This piece was accurate at publication time, but all prices, offerings and availabilities are subject to change. Please contact each hotel and attraction for up-to-date rates and information before taking your trip.