Great Budget Vacations

Looking for a fun, affordable trip with the kids? Here, three creative families share their strategies for unforgettable getaways.

Swap Homes

Money-Saving Tactic #1

By Lisa Gibbs

I'd always dreamed of taking long, exotic vacations with my family. But the thought of spending more than a few days in a cramped hotel room with my husband, Rick, and our kids, Benjamin, 7, and Laura, 5, gave me the shivers. And the cost was way beyond our budget. So each year, with a sigh, I would resign myself to another visit with my in-laws. Then I read about home exchanging. Families arrange to vacation at the same time, trading houses and often cars. It sounded great: The savings on accommodations, car rental, and restaurant meals would make the trip affordable. Plus, we'd have the space to decompress.

That's how my family, along with my mother, Carole Gibbs, ended up swapping homes with Pierre and Martine Poirier and their children, Jean-Francois, 8, and Catherine, 11. For most of July 2001, we lived in their three-bedroom house in a suburb of Montreal while the Poiriers took over our home outside Fort Lauderdale. And this summer, we're planning to spend three glorious weeks in a seaside town in Ireland, at the residence of Declan and Joan Fortune.

Home exchanging lets me give my kids a fantastic cultural experience without breaking the bank. But a successful swap takes plenty of preparation. Picking an exchange partner was the hardest part--and the most important. After all, I was letting strangers into my home.

After researching all of the options, I chose HomeExchange.com (800-877-8723), the Website I found easiest to use. Looking up homes on the site is free; listing our house was $30 for a year. Months in advance of both trips, I began fielding inquiries from potential swappers. If an area seemed promising, we checked plane fares and exchanged photos of our homes and information about local attractions.

We considered not only logistics (Did our vacation dates match up? Would they mind taking care of our cat?) but also more subjective matters: Did we feel comfortable letting these people live in our home and drive our car? We exchanged dozens of electronic messages with the Poiriers and the Fortunes, spoke with them several times by phone, and asked tons of questions. Ultimately, we were won over by each family's enthusiasm and good humor.

Once we'd chosen our exchange partners, we collected local brochures, discount coupons, and helpful articles for them. We typed up lists of important phone numbers, family-friendly restaurants, and things to do. The Poiriers did likewise for us. We also exchanged information about the nearest hospital and care center. This really paid off when Benjamin ran into a wall the day before our return and required five stitches. Finally, we overlapped our trips slightly so we could meet the Poiriers in person in Montreal and hand over keys, a video-rental card, and a homemade tape of how our house worked. We plan to do the same for the Fortunes.

The Poiriers' home was a great base for touring the province of Quebec, and downtown Montreal was only 20 minutes away. And exchanging homes let us experience Canada as if we were natives. We shopped in local supermarkets and swam in the community pool. On the downside, we got lost driving the suburban streets, and Ben and Laura got lonely for other kids at times. For our Ireland trip, we've asked the Fortunes for names of family friends so we can schedule a playdate or two.

Having breakfast with the Poiriers back in Fort Lauderdale, before taking them to the airport, we realized how much we had missed our home. But here's the bottom line: We never would have tried a three-week vacation in a foreign country if not for home exchanging. We saved at least $3,500 and had all the comforts of home. This year, Ireland. Next year, who knows?

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Take a Friendship Tour

Money-Saving Tactic #2

By Renee Bacher

It's easy to turn an invitation from friends to "stay a while" into a fantastic vacation--whether you're visiting one pal or many. For our family, the seven-week trip that took us from Louisiana to New England could have been a mind-numbing stress fest. My husband, Ed, and I brought along our kids (Hannah, Isaac, and Benny, then 7, 4, and 2) and our dog and descended on four sets of friends and my octogenarian grandparents. At each stop, we stayed anywhere from one night to several weeks. Yet our vacation was a great success, and here's why.

We made it clear from the outset that we didn't expect to be entertained. This took the pressure off everyone and led to truly relaxing visits at every stop. In Providence, for instance, just sitting in a lawn chair beside my college friend Jane and cracking up over our kids' antics in the yard was much more fun than sightseeing would have been.

We also tried to be model guests. We presented each family with a box of Southern goodies, including baking mixes for hush puppies, Louisiana spices, and hot sauces--all purchased from my local Wal-Mart for less than $10 per family. We shopped or chipped in for our share of groceries and cooked a meal at nearly every stop. (Ed makes a wicked gumbo.) And we made our best effort to leave while the fun was in full swing so we wouldn't wear out our welcome. We filled in the gaps between visits by staying at inexpensive motels and inns.

My husband and I relaxed our rules about things like bedtime and the amount of ice cream consumed. And we gave our kids plenty of TLC to ease the frequent adjustments they had to make. They still whined occasionally, and the drive in our old full-size van got pretty exasperating at times, but we sang, played games, listened to tapes, counted cows, and daydreamed. Seeing how other families did things was a wonderful experience for our kids. On Long Island, New York, our nonswimming boys ached with frustration when they saw how well their young hosts could swim. So Julie, my childhood best friend, took over. Within three days, she had both of my boys swimming the width of her pool underwater.

Our children made new pals--or "cousins" as they called them--but I was especially touched by the connection they formed with my grandparents in Queens, New York. Returning from the bakery with Nana Toby one morning, they acted as if they had been to Walt Disney World. And Grandpa Phil (who recently passed away) won their hearts by letting them bounce on his bed and watch Nickelodeon. Now whenever we call Nana, our kids are eager to talk to her.

Our children picked cherries near Monticello, Virginia; caught snapper with a borrowed fishing rod on Long Island Sound; and watched goats being milked in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. We all had tons of fun and still kept our costs down. An inexpensive vacation? I'd call it priceless.

Book a Budget Motel

Money-Saving Tactic #3

By Laura Sutherland

For years, my husband, Lance, and I--as well as our young teens, Madeleine and Walker--have been intrigued by the red rock formations and Native-American ruins near Sedona, Arizona. So last summer, we decided to head south from our home, in Santa Cruz, California, to explore the area. There was just one problem to resolve: how to keep our costs down.

We decided to drive instead of fly and to visit state parks and monuments, which would save us money. But where to stay? We'd be on the go every day, so our accommodations didn't have to be fancy. All we really needed was a comfortable place to sleep and shower.

I searched the Internet for budget motels in Sedona and turned up three for less than $85 a night--higher than most budget rates but reasonable for this tourist town. For each hotel, I called both the toll-free reservation line and the local number because the prices quoted can vary. My top choice was the Sedona Super 8 Motel because it offered the best deal when I reached the local reservation desk. After asking about discounts and then getting 10 percent off for our AAA membership, I wound up with a rate of $71 a night.

The room sounded just fine to me. It had two double beds, a TV, and room for a roll-away bed so my kids could bunk separately. Plus, the motel had a pool and complimentary coffee in the lobby. I booked it on the spot.

I also requested a mini refrigerator and a microwave, which most budget motels have in limited numbers (along with cribs). The Super 8 reserved a fridge for us (all the microwaves were booked up already), and I made a note to pack bowls, spoons, and sandwich bags so we could prepare our own breakfasts and picnic lunches. We figured that our savings would allow us two modest splurges: an off-road tour of the red rocks in a Barbie-pink Jeep and dinner at the personality-filled Cowboy Club.

We pulled in late after a long drive and checked in. We were pleased that our room opened onto an interior, rather than an outdoor, corridor (rare in most budget motels), which added an extra measure of security. Once the rollaway bed was unfolded, the room was definitely a bit cozy. But it was clean and comfortable. Most budget motel chains have a minimum room-size requirement and must meet certain cleanliness standards to be eligible for membership in the chain.

Early the next morning, we bolted down our cereal, grabbed coffee and hot chocolate in the lobby, and headed to Red Rock State Park to explore some of its easier hiking trails. Along the way, we saw amazing rock formations, with names like Cathedral Rock, Napoleon's Tomb, Seven Warriors, and the Mermaid. Later, we headed to Slide Rock State Park and spent the afternoon in the river, gleefully sliding down smooth rock chutes in the spectacular red canyon. Then, as the shadows lengthened, we headed back to the Super 8.

As we freshened up for our dinner at the Cowboy Club, there was a traffic jam at the bathroom, and I was glad that I had packed our own soap, a decent supply of shampoo, and other toiletries. Budget motels supply only a tiny bar of soap or two, a few anemic towels--and that's about it. Luckily, you can usually request extra towels.

The Cowboy Club was a kick, and our dinner included prickly-pear-catcus fries, skewers of rattlesnake meat (approached with great trepidation), and buffalo. The next day, on our Pink Jeep Tour, we off-roaded it through dry gulches, past exotic desert plants. In the following days, we explored the Sinagua Indian ruins at Tuzigoot and poked around the picturesque hillside mining town of Jerome. We returned each night to our motel simply to sleep.

Ask my kids about our vacation and they'll tell you about the giant cactus, the landscape of striking red spires and buttes, and the ancient Indian pueblos carved out of cliffs. They won't mention our motel room, and that's just fine with me--I know that going the budget route helped make their great memories possible.

Web Exclusive: More Tips on Home Exchanges

Getting started: Browse listings of home exchange web sites such as www.homeexchange.com, which have easy-to-use databases searchable by destination and keyword. Start planning at least six months before your trip.

Finding a swap: Try to find families with children as close in age to yours as possible; that way you'll be able to swap toys and lists of child-friendly activities. Ask lots of questions about the homes amenities (do they have air conditioning? Does the car have automatic transmission?) and the surrounding neighborhood. Insist on photos of the home's interior and exterior. Check out HomeExchange.com's Trading Places guide for a sample agreement that each of you can sign to affirm commitment to the trip.

Making it work: Prepare lists of important phone numbers and directions to the grocery store, movie theater, hospital. Don't forget to tell them about the running toilet and other quirks; better yet, fix them before you go. Discuss how you'll handle phone expenses, minor repairs, plant watering, etc. Check auto insurance policies, and write a letter giving permission for the use of your car (just in case.) For off-limits toys or precious heirlooms, it's best to pack them away temporarily.

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Web Exclusive: More on Budget Motels

Which inexpensive motel chains are kid-friendly? What amenities can you expect from the top names? Get this info and more from our article Best Budget Motels for Families.

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    Copyright © 2002. Reprinted with permission from the September 2002 issue of Parents magazine.

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