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- Tips from Anne Banas, Executive Editor of smartertravel.com, Michael Nalepa, editor of "Fodor's Essential USA" and Chris Elliot, syndicated columnist and host of "What You Get For The Money: Vacations" on the Fine Living Network.
Before You Go:
Prices drop 20%-50% (closer to 50%) the day after Labor Day. If you have little kids and don't have to worry about missing school, wait until everyone is done vacationing to head to places like Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. They are pricy destinations, but worth it with the price cut. The weather is the same, and you'll have the place to yourself.
Travel mid-week to save. Small hotels and bed and breakfasts often charge more on the weekends and sometimes require that you stay a minimum of 2 or 3 days.
Traveling on the day of holidays isn't practical. It's been said you should travel on the fourth of July to avoid traffic, but on the 4th of July, you'll want to be with your family.
If it's a long holiday weekend, avoid traveling Thursday, when most people will be traveling. Leave on Friday. Travel Friday night or Saturday morning, when everyone will already have arrived at their destination.
- Cities are good weekend destinations because the people that live there typically leave for the shore or the country.
Philadelphia gets overlooked. It's cheaper than its neighbors New York City and Washington, D.C., and there are lots of fun things to do -- world class museums, historic sites, great dining, all at more affordable prices. There are also a lot of great sites in the area -- Lancaster County, Longwood Gardens and Valley Forge.
Texas Hill Country, Austin is great, too. It's affordable and really gaining in popularity. The New York Times named it one of the top places to go this summer. Austin and San Antonio are two great cities to see because they are really unique, offering great music, Tex-Mex and barbecue, as well as outdoor activities like dude ranches, national parks and hiking.
Summer is off-season at ski resorts, so you can get great deals, and you can enjoy plenty of outdoor, family-focused activities at reduced rates. Kids love riding the gondolas, hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and a lot of places have alpine slides (similar to sledding on luge-like tracks) (Check out Stow, Vermont and Breckenridge, Colorado.)
Camping is a good value if you have the gear and plan on using it a lot. If not, look for a cabin with a kitchenette.
Consider a State Park -- it's a great alternative, and most states have them. They are less crowded and more affordable.
- Look for special promotions. Most towns have a Convention Visitors Bureau, where you can get free gas cards, free night stays, free meals, deals for kids, spa treatments, or other packages and deals.
When you're renting a car, ask the right questions. Before you get insurance, call your regular car insurance company and see what your policy covers. You might already be covered, and you could save $15 - $20 a day.
Auction for the best rental car deal. Go to an auction site like priceline.com. You could save $15 - $20 a day.
- Vacation rentals can make you feel like you're at home. You'll have more space and privacy, so the whole family will be more comfortable. You can also cook your meals in the kitchen. (Check out VRBO.com and homeaway.com.)
Timeshares can be a great value if you'll return often, but don't offer much flexibility. While they're not for everyone (they are a pretty long term investment, almost like a mortgage,) you could spend less than you would on a hotel. (Look into condos and timeshares at craigslist.com.)
- Before You Go:
Stock up on snacks. You can make it really fun by going to a discount store and let everyone pick out their favorites. It will be two or three times cheaper than if you bought it on the road.
Pack your first day's lunch and keep it in a cooler.
Look for places where kids eat for free. (Look it up: mykidseatfree.com.) Type in your destination, the day of the week you'll be looking for a meal, and it will tell you where to go!
- Don't wait until the last minute to pack. Pack a few days ahead of time, and over the next few days, pare down what you're bringing. Limit yourself to one bag -- it can be done!
Pack enough clothes for half of the trip, and then do laundry along the way. Many hotels offer laundry services for a fee. Or better yet...
Work a round of laundry into your travels. During your site-seeing, take a break and go to a local Laundromat. While waiting for your clothes, you can do site-seeing, shopping, or get some lunch.
- The most organized person in the family should pack the car. If you can, put all of the kids' stuff in one bag. That saves a lot of space.
Pack only what you need to get where you're going, and buy the rest when you get there. They sell stuff like diapers and infant formula where you're going. Every inch of space is important, and you don¿t need to bring an entire box of diapers when they sell diapers everywhere.
When packing, remember to leave room for souvenirs. You'll probably pick up some things along the way.
- Create your own kids' meals. Order side dishes and split the portions. For example, get one order of mac 'n' cheese and split it between two or three kids, then order some sides.
Look for the "early bird special." Certain restaurants have discount menus if you eat earlier -- your family might be doing that anyway.
- On the Road:
To get better gas mileage and have a safer road trip, make sure your tires are inflated, get your oil changed and check the spark plugs in your air filter.
Use your cruise control to regulate your fuel.
Drive as evenly as you can -¿ if you see a stop light is about to change to green, coast a little so you don't have to stop. (This saves gas.)
Don't go too far out of your way on the quest for the cheapest gas. Often it's not practical and in the end you waste time and don't save that much money. If you're in an unfamiliar town you can get really lost and it's not worth it.
Pay with cash at the pump. Some stations have gotten clever with how they price gas. They quote on the board a cash price for the gas but sometimes charge up to six cents a gallon more if you're paying with a credit card. They call this a "cash discount" and it used to only pop up in remote areas, but it's becoming more common and gas stations are usually pretty unclear about it.
- Give your child a souvenir budget. Cater it to the destination and the age of your child. You'll spend less, and it's a great budgeting exercise. When your child wants something, remind them they have much money they have and ask them "is that really something you want?"
Know where you're going. GPS is important, and so are Google maps. But they're not perfect. Sometimes a $5 gas station map can save you time. And with gas prices so high, saving driving time means saving money, too.
- Eat your main meal at lunch. Lunch portions at restaurants are just a little smaller but priced much better. You can save about 40%. Then for dinner, eat something you've packed, get a pizza, eat with friends or whip up something at the hotel.
Eat where the locals eat. Look online to find local spots that won't overprice meals. Plus, you'll get an authentic experience. If you want to incorporate local food into your home-cooked meals, visit local farmers markets to find fresh items.
- Keep close to your regular eating and sleeping schedules. If your kids are used to having lunch at 1 PM, driving through lunch time will make them unhappy travelers.
Don't get too ambitious. Getting your family into the car after work on Friday and starting a long drive all night can make for a miserable experience.
Stay calm. Don't drive aggressively or get tense. Remind yourself that you're on vacation, and enjoy the things you see along the way. Your favorite memories might be those random stops and stands that you hadn't even planned to see.
Tips from Anne Banas, Executive Editor of smartertravel.com, Michael Nalepa, editor of "Fodor's Essential USA" and Chris Elliot, syndicated columnist and host of "What You Get For The Money: Vacations" on the Fine Living Network.