Follow the Deals
Consider overall value. Orlando—home of you-know-what—offers the most total bang for your vacay bucks, according to hotwire.com's 2012 Travel Value Index. Or maybe Charlotte, NC, or Albuquerque appeals? Check out the entire top 10 at hot wire.com/destination/travel-value-index2.jsp.
Work backward from your budget. If you just plain want to get away (anywhere!), plug in your airport, a budget, and dates at expedia.com/tripexplorer to discover packages in your price range. Kayak.com/explore does the same with airfares.
Think outside the beach. Have a certain type of getaway in mind? Widen your target to, say, “warm weather and swimming” rather than the more specific “Florida beaches,” suggests Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, editor-in-chief of family-travel site wejustgotback.com. “A lake town in driving distance offers a lot of the same family-fun options as a beach you'd have to fly to, for a lot less.”
Set sale. If you're in easy driving distance of a port, cruises can offer good values for families and often feature in-state discounts. Vacationstogo.com's “90-day ticker” is a simple first stop to see which last-minute deals are hot.
Find a Fab Fare
Time it right. How's this for specific: Search Tuesdays at 3 p.m. “Typically, one or more airlines will launch a sale late Monday or early Tuesday, then others match,” says Rick Seaney, CEO of farecompare.com. Wait until the matching's done, then pounce.
Get clicking. Hit the usual suspects like expedia.com, travelocity.com, orbitz.com, kayak.com, hipmunk.com, and google.com/flights—yes, all (or many) of them, suggests Arthur Frommer, founder of the namesake travel guides. The “best” site can vary. At farecompare.com and airfarewatchdog.com, get pinged when the price for your flight changes; bing.com/travel's “price predictor” suggests whether to buy now or wait.
Ponder a package. A “bundle” can offer big value for last-minute family travelers, notes Joe Megibow, VP/GM of expedia.com, who says savings can be as high as $500 for the exact same flight and hotel when bought together. Just choose “flight + hotel” when you search any site.
Act in a flash. Airlines are active online and often tweet out sales. (JetBlue, for instance, posts deals on Tuesdays at twitter.com/#!/JetBlueCheeps.) Wanderlisting.com is a great one-stop site for finding hotels and airlines on Twitter, and @airfarewatchdog tweets top deals (including promo codes).
Be social. LivingSocial, Groupon Getaways, and SniqueAway sell limited-time travel packages or hotel stays at a discount (daily-deal aggregator yipit.com will e-mail you offers tailored to your fam's interests). Get out your glasses, though, because the fine print's worth perusing: You're locking in a discount but not always a reservation, and blackout dates might make the “deal” unappealing.