Instead of hopping in the car to drive all day, plan out a one-tank mini-trip. You'll still feel like you're getting away, and there are probably some awesome nearby attractions that you've been meaning to get to for ages -- now's the time!
Score a deal by seeking out by-owner rentals when you need overnight digs -- and be ready to negotiate. "With people not traveling as much this summer it's a great time to call up the owners of vacation condos or mom-and-pop type hotels to ask for a deal," says Ellie Kay, mother of seven and the author of A Mom's Guide to Family Finances. "You'll speak directly with the owner, and because they're used to being full at this time of the year, they're more likely to offer you a discount."
With surcharges on everything from food to luggage, flying isn't cheap these days. Here's how to save where you can:
* Bring along your snacks for the flight rather than buying munchies last-minute at the airport or onboard. Ditto on activities and books for the kids -- be organized and bring along diversions (preferably ones they haven't seen for a while) from home.
* If you travel frequently, it may be worth it to spring for a compact DVD player rather than buying the airline's earphones and paying to use the onboard entertainment systems. Another option? Borrow one from a mommy-friend.
* Both kids and adults are each allowed one personal item and one bag as carry-ons -- so take advantage and bring on the full number that your group is allowed. You may be able to avoid checking luggage altogether.
* Maximize what you carry on (and avoid having to pay to check) by packing efficiently. "Remember there are laundry facilities everywhere you go," says Emily Kaufman, aka The Travel Mom, and author of The Travel Mom's Ultimate Book of Family Travel. "From camping to cruise ships, you be able to find a place to do laundry on the road if you need to."
* Combine suitcases if you do check. You can put everyone's stuff in one large bag to cut down on the cost of checking separate ones -- just keep in mind that most airlines charge you for bags over 50 pounds.
* Find the best deal by searching sites like bookingbuddy.com and kayak.com. These sites give you the results from multiple travel search engines -- because slightly different prices for the same flights do emerge on different sites.
* Sign up for travel newsletters and alerts. You could end up saving time and money by hearing immediately when a destination you know you're interested in goes on sale. Also, travelzoo.com publishes a weekly newsletter of Top 20 deals that includes last-minute steals as well as bargains on vacations you would plan a few months out.
You gotta eat, but going to a restaurant for every single meal adds up fast. Here's how to save:
* Book a studio (a room with a kitchen) so you can pick up some basic groceries and prepare simple meals and snacks in your own digs. Or, if you stay in a room without a kitchen, remember that many offer free continental breakfasts which can save you $5-$10 per person, per day -- and that adds up over the course of a week. Don't forget to grab a piece of fruit (or two) from the breakfast spread to nosh on later.
* There's no need to have a sit-down meal, every meal. While you're out and about, look for a deli or supermarket where you can grab some sandwiches and take them with you to a park for a picnic.
* When you do eat out, know how to make it cheap. "I've paid $25 for a $50 gift certificate to a steakhouse that I found at restaurant.com," says Kay. "You can really find great deals for restaurants on the Web -- just Google for them."
* Two other cheap eats resources are entertainment.com, where you can purchase coupon books for your destination, and coupondivas.com, where you can look up Kids Eat Free programs -- something many restaurants and hotels offer on particular days of the week.
Plan a staycation -- a vacation where you stay at home and line up fun activities around the house or in your community. "'Vacation' to a 6-year-old doesn't really mean anything yet," says Annette Economides, mother of five and co-author of America's Cheapest Family Gets You Right on the Money. "They'll have just as much fun spending time with you doing things like going for hikes, visiting museums, and taking day trips as they would traveling."
Some ideas to add to your itinerary:
* Visit local historical sites, aquariums, and kid-friendly museums (many offer free days during the week).
* Plan a "city day" where you take public transportation into a nearby city to explore.
* Plan a "country day" where you go out to a farm to pick fruit or feed the animals.
* Have a backyard safari where you hunt for bugs and spot birds.
* Go for a nearby hike or bike ride.
* Plan a three-night movie marathon where you watch one movie of a trilogy (or one part of a longer movie if you've got younger kids) each night.
* Visit a park or playground you don't usually frequent.
* Plan a play date at the public pool.
* Catch an outdoor movie screening -- lots of communities are doing these now, and most of them are free. Bring a picnic and your own popcorn to make it an entire evening's event. Find screening calendars in some major cities around the country below, or go online to locate others that are close to your home.
Once you add up the cost of gear, supplies, and the extra gas it takes to get your overloaded car to a faraway campsite, the outing can become pricey.
Instead, have a backyard campout. Kids can help scope out the "campsite" and pitch the tent. You can cook your meals on the grill (don't forget s'mores), eat alfresco, tell spooky stories by flashlight, and sleep outside in the tent. Bonus: Home (with your bathroom and well-stocked medicine cabinet) is right there for potty breaks and bug bites.
A trip to a theme park doesn't have to include long car rides, flights, and hotels -- chances are your kids (especially younger ones) will be just as thrilled with a great local park.
Hit up your park's Web site before you go. Many offer discounts on tickets purchased online, have printable coupons for deals on food, and offer information about reduced fares for afternoon admission, season passes, and group ticket sales.
Host: Instead of spending your precious vacation days on planes or in the car en route to visit friends and family, why not ask them come to you this year? Plan some fun ways to spend your free days at home or nearby -- even if you're doing things you've done a thousand times, it will feel new to share them with visiting grandparents, cousins, or other families with kids you don't get to see often.
Be Hosted: Have a friend or relative with a house in the mountains? The beach? Anywhere but here? Hitting up friends and family for visits rather than staying in a hotel can be a huge cost saver. So don't be shy about (respectfully) inquiring about a visit. Just remember not to overstay your welcome -- especially if your hosts have kid-chaos of their own.
Make your vacay a multifamily trip and save bucks by going in on a house (with a full kitchen!) together. Lots of popular beach and mountain destinations have houses that can sleep multiple families and you'll be able to take turns watching the kids at the beach or on hiking trails. Also switch off making meals -- you'll all save money by not eating out and you'll get a mini-break from cooking.
Take note: these trips do require a little extra planning in order for everything to run smoothly. "Work out what everybody's rules and expectations for the trip will be before you go," says Kaufman. "If you decide how you'll divide up food costs, take turns watching the kids, and all of the other details before you travel, nobody will be disappointed or surprised on the trip."
Prevent post-vacation credit card bill shock (and teach your kids a thing or two about budgeting) by thinking about how much each day will cost in advance -- and then giving your kids (over age 7) a reasonable amount of cash as their daily spending money. Let them know they can keep anything that's left over so they'll think about whether or not they really need both the cotton candy and the jumbo lollipop -- or if they can make do with one or the other and pocket the rest. Be clear and stick to you guns -- if the money runs out, that's it. No bailing out your spendthrift kid.