You needn't be stuck at home all summer simply because you haven't had the time to plan a vacation. If you don't mind a little spontaneity, you and your family can still get away. And there's a benefit to a quickie trip: The availability of money-saving, last-minute deals. The secret? Being flexible. As in, "We want a beach vacation with lots of activities" versus "We want to go to Guatemala City and stay in the Excelsior Hotel on the Fourth of July." As Patty Hulbert, spokesperson for the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), says, "There's no guarantee you'll get your first choice at the last minute, but that doesn't mean you can't find something you'll be happy with." Herewith, a guide to pulling together a great family vacation in three weeks or less.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright are the authors of several travel guidebooks, including Fun Places to Go With Children in New England.
TRAVEL AGENT...OR POINT AND CLICK?
Thanks to the Internet, it's easier than ever for you to be your own travel agent. If you've targeted exactly where you want to go, and know your departure dates, you can -- with just a couple of mouse clicks -- comparison shop among airlines, hotels, and resorts, and make your reservations online. You can see last-minute deals at a glance, and even get e-mailed updates of specials. Among the sites that allow you to compare airfares or name your price, as well as to book online: www.travelocity.com; www.priceline.com; www.air4less.com. Or visit the airlines' own websites -- most have them -- to find current ticket prices and seat availability, and to book.
But planning a vacation from A to Z on the Internet can be daunting and time-consuming, since there are a multitude of sites devoted to travel. And you can easily make a mistake. Once you've found that lowball fare, be sure to click on the rules and regulations page. Tickets often have restrictions, including maximum and minimum stays, advance purchase requirements, and blackout dates. You may be stuck with hefty penalty charges (up to 100 percent) should your travel plans change.
Another strategy: Call the airline reservations line at 1 A.M. Most airlines load discount airfares into their computers after midnight. This is also the time when seats that were cancelled that day become available.
On the other hand, if you use a travel agent, then an industry insider will be doing the legwork for you, and should have access to last-minute deals that may not be publicized. To find an agent who specializes in family travel,r visit www.astanet.com.
BEST LAST-MINUTE DESTINATION IDEAS
THE ORLANDO THEME PARKS are great for a spontaneous getaway, travel experts say. You can often get cheap airfares with a few days' notice, and Orlando has a mother lode of hotels, so it's easy to find a fun place to stay.
CONSIDER A CRUISE if your family likes big resorts with lots of activities. Large ships have many cabins to fill, and at the last minute they sometimes unload unsold cabins at bargain rates. If you book one to two weeks prior to the sailing date, you can save up to $500, according to Frank Gaeta of Yankee Holidays travel agency.
Recent last-minute offerings (for travel within 30 days aboard major ship lines) included seven nights cruising the U.S. Virgin Islands, starting at $499, and seven nights from Fort Lauderdale to Cozumel, Roatan, Honduras, and Belize, for $399.
GO TROPICAL. Big-package (air and land) tour operators offer deep discounts for trips departing within a week, travel experts say. Best deals in the summer: the Caribbean, Mexico, and south Florida. So what if it's hot? (Okay, very hot.) That's why there's air conditioning -- and palm fronds.
ON THE ROAD AGAIN. Remember those "Hey, let's jump in the car and go to Florida!" trips from your carefree single life? The cast of characters has changed -- some of the characters now being under three feet tall -- but a road trip can still have that free-spirited appeal. With kids, stick to the "6-and-under" rule: With kids 6 and under, spend less than six hours in the car, round-trip, to get to your destination, and try these other sanity-saving tips:
- Show the kids where you're going on a map (older ones can take turns being the navigator).
- Talk about distances in language they can understand: "We'll be in the car for five hours, about the time it takes to get to Aunt Betty's."
- Plan to stop every hour or so to stretch your legs, and to let the children burn off some energy.
If you really want to be adventurous, choose lodgings as you go. For hotel/motel deals, stop at visitor-information booths at highway rest stops. Or drive up to a place and try your luck. Hotels, thinking that they'll be able to sell them at nondiscounted rates, typically keep a block of rooms and then dump them at the last minute when they're not sold.
Feel more comfortable knowing where you'll spend the night? Several family-friendly hotel chains offer summer promotions.
If you're headed to a major city, check out hotel consolidators, which sell unsold rooms at bargain rates, offering savings of 20 to 70 percent. .
Does bonding with your kids around a campfire spark your imagination? Though reservations at state and national parks fill up months in advance, it's worth calling a park's headquarters: Many places hold some sites and release them on a first-come, first-served basis, so if you pull in early in the morning, you might luck out.
But you may do better at a commercial campground (often located close to the big parks and nature areas). For one of these, it's best to book before you hit the road. Kampgrounds of America (KOA), has about 500 campgrounds around the U.S. (some near big cities), and offers amenities like swimming pools and, at some locales, free shuttle rides to nearby attractions. For families with babies and toddlers, there are also cabins or cottages ; cabins range from $35 to $55 per night). Yogi Bear's Jellystone Park has 65 camp resorts, each offering such activities as nature programs and bonfires.
A recreation vehicle (RV) is another option. There can be last-minute rental cancellations even during the busy season, often in family-favorite locales, such as the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. RVs have televisions and VCRs, as well as ample storage, which makes it easy to bring along toys and baby gear. Rental prices range from $600 to $1,500 for a week, depending on the size of the vehicle, location, and dates. While it doesn't take any special training to drive an RV, you'll want to practice maneuvering the vehicle before hitting the road. And don't hurry through the orientation process: Learn how to use the RV's water, electric, and sewer systems.
For rental information, contact Cruise America, or check the Yellow Pages under Recreational Vehicles: Renting and Leasing.
An unexpected benefit of last-minute travel? It can tap into your "anything can happen" sense of wonder and adventure -- and there should always be time for that.