Bargain Getaways

Think you can't afford a family vacation? Think again. Here, our penny-pinching plan to help your dollars go the distance.

Flights and Lodging

One of my favorite family trips was our spring vacation at Walt Disney World, in Florida. My kids loved the roller-coaster rides, but the highlight for me was saving nearly $400 in airfare. Netting my little windfall was easier than you might think: Just surfing the Web and making a couple of phone calls helped me uncover big bargains. In fact, a little up-front investigating can save a family hundreds--even thousands--of dollars on their vacation, says Bill McGee, a Consumer Reports travel-industry expert. Before you pack your bags, follow our money-saving steps for a great family vacation.

Getting Started

  • Set a budget. A family of four spends an average of $244 per day on food and lodging, reports the American Automobile Association (AAA), but plenty of folks can get by on less. To figure your budget, take the overall amount you're willing to spend (say $1,500), then subtract the cost for the necessities (such as passes for a theme park), and divide the rest by the number of days you want to travel. Decide whether you'd rather skimp on costs or time. Trimming your stay from seven nights to five can boost your budget without lowering your standards.
  • Be season savvy. If you've got babies or preschoolers, traveling outside school-vacation weeks and peak times can save you a bundle. For example, beach lovers can find great deals by visiting Florida just after Labor Day, and skiers who hit the Colorado slopes in April instead of February can enjoy prime spring skiing for less.
  • Pick an economical destination. In North Dakota, a family of four will spend an average of $175 per day on food and lodging. That's why the state, which is popular for horseback riding and boating, is one of the cheapest vacation spots in the country, according to AAA. If your family loves sand and surf, look no farther than Virginia Beach, which is less expensive than other oceanfront destinations. For an international getaway, consider a trip to Mexico or Canada, where you don't have to worry about the pocketbook-pounding Euro exchange rate.
  • Buy packages. Look for air/resort deals (especially those offering "kids-fly-free" or "kids-stay-free" perks) in newspaper ads, through travel agents, or by clicking the "Vacation" link on super sites such as expedia.com or travelocity.com. Just make sure the combined rate isn't more than the sum of its parts: For instance, having to pay full-coach fares for the grown-ups can negate the kids' free airfare. And don't pay for extras you won't use, such as a snorkeling lesson your kids are too young to take.

Frugal Flights

  • Plan ahead. If you must travel at peak times, such as Christmas and Thanksgiving, save money by booking your flight as early as possible. For off-peak times, buy tickets at least 21 days in advance. But ask if you're allowed to alter your itinerary; many airlines now charge $50 to $100 for changes to economy fares and don't offer refunds.
  • Ask about discounts. U.S. Airways and other airlines may offer lower rates for children and infants traveling in car seats—a much safer alternative to flying your child for free on your lap. Find out before you buy your tickets. Connecting flights are often less expensive than nonstop, but you'll have to weigh the savings against the added travel time and hassle.
  • Be flexible. Altering your time or date of departure could lead you to a cheaper fare. See whether changing your schedule will make a difference by clicking on a travel Website's "flex" function, which automatically checks alternate dates and times. Get the best rates by staying a Saturday night and traveling on a Tuesday or Wednesday. Leaving from airports in another city or the suburbs could also save you a bundle--even after adding in the extra gas to get there. For example, a family of four would have saved $820 recently if they'd booked a flight to Orlando out of St. Louis instead of Burlington, Iowa.
  • Think beyond the name brands. Low-cost airlines, including JetBlue, Song, and AirTran, offer great fares. A round-trip cross-country fare on JetBlue, for example, was recently about $100 less than the nearest-priced big-name airline.
  • Call a pro. Travel agents have access to cheap charter and air-consolidator seats. But don't book until you find out what their fees are, including whether they'll charge you just to look up your options.

Lodging for Less

  • Go budget. Active families don't usually spend much time in the room, so pick a clean and economical hotel, such as Quality Inn or Super 8. Since quality within these chains can vary, make sure that you research each hotel individually at fodors.com, frommers.com, or tripadvisor.com, which all offer helpful user reviews. If you want accommodations that are more spacious, all-suite hotels, such as Summerfield and Embassy, are smart choices.
  • Check into condos. Weekly rentals are great substitutes for pay-by-the-night hotel rooms. To boot, in-house kitchens trim dining-out tabs and give you some control over the kids' nuggets-and-fries consumption. Go to cyberrentals.com for national listings for just about every family size and budget.
  • Pay one price. All-inclusive resorts are good options for families on a budget, since prices typically include room, food, entertainment, and a children's program (ask about extra fees). A week for a family of four at the Inn at East Hill Farm, in Troy, New Hampshire, will cost you around $1,800.
  • Location, location, location! Your kids can play on the beach without actually staying on it. Oceanfront in Santa Monica, California, can cost you more than $200 per night. Move across the street, and you can save $100 or more a night. Similarly, surfside in Cape Cod's Dennisport, Massachusetts, will cost you about twice as much as a spacious room a mile away from the beach.
  • Call the hotel directly. Central reservations lines and Websites (such as hilton.com) don't always have the lowest rates for each individual hotel. The properties themselves, on the other hand, are sometimes allowed to juggle rates based on how desperately they need to fill their empty rooms. Bottom line: You sometimes can get the best rate by dialing direct.
  • Try eBay. Use this auction Website to find big deals on timeshare owners' unwanted weeks. For example, a June week in a two-bedroom condo at the Sheraton Vistana Resort, in Orlando, went for at least $300 less than the same unit reserved through an agency. As with all purchases made this way, make sure you check out the property, the cost to get there, and the seller's eBay rating before bidding.
  • Swap houses. Fans swear by it, and trading your family's home for another's is cheap--it can even net you transportation, since swappers often trade cars too. Great sites to check out: intervacus.com, swapnow.com, and homeexchange.com.

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