In this economy, it feels frivolous to crave a summer vacation -- shouldn't we be saving? Paying off debt? Being virtuous? But if there is a smidgen of silver lining to this recession, it's the number of suddenly available great travel deals out there. I would never urge anyone to spend money they don't have, of course. I've got a firm "no vacations on Visa" policy. But when you're weighing your financial priorities, it's important to acknowledge that a small investment in your sanity can really pay off. Let the bargain hunting begin!
Start online. To get the lowest prices on everything from rental cars to hotel rooms, comparison shop online. The travel search engine Kayak.com will do some of the homework for you, searching several sites at once (like Expedia.com and Orbitz.com) to ensure you get the best deal available and avoid service fees. Another way to save is on Priceline.com, where you can use the "name your price" option to find flights and accommodations within your budget, notes Colleen Lanin, creator of the site Travelmamas.com. Including the words "coupon" or "discount code" (for instance, "Disney discount code") in an online search can turn up promotions that can knock down prices even further.
Consider a city. Traveling to an urban mecca doesn't have to mean big prices if you plan ahead. Great hotel deals are available in major cities during the summer months, when many residents head to the beaches and lakes. Another way to maximize your dollars: Look for the CityPass network (citypass.com), which gives you access to multiple attractions (museums, aquariums, etc.) for one low price, says travel writer Toni Klym McLellan, author of the blog Bringthefamily.net.
Think off-season. If you love swimming and indoor, air-conditioned activities, hotels and resorts in hot locations like Arizona and Palm Springs have great summer deals, says Lanin. Or consider ski resorts, which can offer hiking, golf, swimming, biking, and the same plush accommodations for much less.
Vacation, family-style. Visiting family is a no-brainer if you want to spend less. Simone Clarke Pratt, who lives in Brooklyn, makes long-weekend trips to her parents' place in Florida with her husband and toddler. "The only costs are airfare, car rental, and food," she says. And, if you're lucky, "there's free babysitting," adds Elizabeth Donovan of Centreville, Virginia, whose family makes an annual trip to Massachusetts to visit her in-laws.
If a vacation with your own family isn't possible (or desirable), Brennan Kearney, mother of two from Margaretville, New York, is an advocate of traveling with friends who have kids. "We split a house in Puerto Rico for a week -- it was only $600 per family. We grilled at night and swapped childcare. Everyone got a break."
Leverage your house. Accommodations eat up a huge part of any vacation budget, but a home exchange can provide big savings. Try Homelink.org and Homeexchange.com to find vacation swaps. These sites charge a yearly membership fee of about $100, but that's a fraction of what you'd pay for several nights in a hotel. Plus, the swaps are typically free: You trade your three-bedroom house near Philly for a three-bedroom house near New Orleans. And if you don't like the idea of someone else staying in your place, try VRBO.com for low-cost "vacation rentals by owner," adds McLellan.
Tap a national treasure. The best hidden secrets of the national and state parks networks are the many family-friendly, low-price vacation options, such as cabins that -- don't worry -- have running water and electricity. I found a cabin in the Colorado Rockies for $300 for six days, and it sleeps seven, which means you may be able to split it with another family. If you love camping, the prices drop and your horizons expand. Visit Recreation.gov, where you can search for deals by state, park, or activity.
Get your due. If you or your spouse has served in the armed forces, you may be eligible for military discounts from many travel companies. Mention your military status before you make any reservations.
Hit cruise control. Many cruises offer inexpensive, all-inclusive, sometimes last-minute deals. How about a four-night cruise from Miami to the Bahamas for $349 (per adult) on the Disney Cruise Line? Or seven nights on the Mexican Riviera starting at $559 (per adult) on Carnival Cruise Lines? Families who are willing to stay in an inner cabin (without a window) can cruise for extra-low prices and still enjoy all the same entertainment, adds Lanin. Try Cruisesonly.com or Cruise.com to sail away into the sunset.
MP Dunleavey is all about living well on the money you have. Check out her book Money Can Buy Happiness.