Each year, the Staes family travels to a different state for Amateur Athletic Union Basketball finals, which doubles as a week-long summer vacation. Â Having three children with varying ages and interests–Ethan, 13; Grace, 10; and Holden, 6–the Staes try to have fun without breaking the bank. “When possible, my husband Steven and I rent a home or condo for the week for $600. Â We can cook several meals, enjoy the private pool, and use amenities like the game room,” says Michelle, 41. “When we stay at a hotel, we look for discounts and complimentary breakfast.”
Summer vacations–whether for families, couples, singles or groups–don’t have to be expensive to be memorable. Here’s how to stay within your budget while planning your summer getaway.
The authors of Five Star Living on a Two Star Budget (Harvest House Publishers; $9.48), Margaret Feinberg and Natalie Nichols Gillespie, note that flying midweek, booking at least 21 days in advance, being flexible with dates, and using Websites such as Orbitz and Cheap Tickets are all good strategies for getting the best deals on airfare.
“Amtrak is a great alternative. There are no baggage fees, snacks are offered, sleeper sofas are available and each seat has an outlet so you can use your laptop, DVD or hand-held video game,” saysÂ Nicole Early-Plummer, a travel professional with LTTTravel Connection.
Go directly to the rental car Websites for the best rates. Â “Upon locating the online rates, contact the local rental agency to negotiate the best deal,” says Jeff Fortson, editor of JeffCars.com, a car-buying advocacy website for minorities.
In many cases, reserving an economy vehicle in advance at a lower rate almost always ensures a free upgrade. Typically, there aren’t enough economy vehicles in inventory to meet the demand, which leads to free upgrades by the rental agency. Â Also, shy away from unnecessary fees associated with rental insurance, pre-paid gas, mileage restrictions, and airport pickup. Â And when shopping around for the best deal, make sure to ask if there are any additional fees (such as fuel charges and additional driver fees) that might increase the advertised price.
Hotels, Resorts, and Villas
Like the Staes, if you want more bang for your buck, stay at hotels that feature discount rates, free breakfast, Wi-Fi, and offers where kids stay free. Start with SideStep, a travel and search site that specializes in helping consumers compare the best prices for flights, hotels, rental cars, cruises, and more.Â Also search Hotels.com and Kayak.com for comparisons.Â When you find a hotel of interest, be sure to go to the hotel company’s main Website to double-check that the discounter is really offering the best price.
Holiday Inn has a special deal for families with kids. Travelers who are 19 and under stay free at all of the company’s hotels.Â “The Holiday Inn Express brand has refreshed their properties and offer a wide selection of affordable locations averaging $80 a night,” says Joel Widzer, author of Penny Pincher’s Passport to Luxury Travel (Traveler’s Tales Guides; $12.95).
TripAdvisor.com is a great research tool for checking out hotels and vacation spots beforehand.Â The site offers brief reviews written by travelers who’ve been to the hotel or location you’re planning to visit. “I don’t book a hotel without going to Tripadvisor first,” say Nicole Early-Plummer, a travel professional for LTTTravel Connection. Another site Early-Plummer recommends: VillasCaribe.com. “If you’re looking for something different to do with the family, you can rent a five-bedroom, five-bathroom villa in the Caribbean–complete with a cook and housekeeper–for only $1,000 for four days and five nights,” she says.
Beachfront getaways normally charge a premium during the summer. Even so, savvy shoppers can still find a good bargain. Courtyard by Marriott in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, for instance, offers great rates starting at $169 nightly. “Steps from the ocean, guests can enjoy recreational activities that include bike trails, hiking, jet skiing, kayaking, sailing, golfing, surfing, and scuba diving,” says Lisa Dickinson, regional director of sales for Shaner Hotel Group.Â See Gordon’s Guide for other discounts on beach resorts in the U.S.
When in a city with an amusement park, try inquiring at the local grocery store, gas station or visitor’s bureau about discount tickets. About.com has a comprehensive section on its Website, Themeparks.about.com, that gives information on savings at theme parks, water parks and roller coasters throughout the world.Â “A couple of Websites specialize in Disney World with incredible detail.Â All Ears lists current menus with prices.Â And Mouse Savers, which is dedicated to saving money at Disney World, has details about meals, snacks and drinks,” says Teresa Plowright, family vacations writer for About.com.
For free fun and excitement, type 101 things to do and your state into your browser.Â Our nation’s capital offers myriad tourist attractions from visiting the Smithsonian and Lincoln Memorial to the National Zoo and Space Museum.Â You can also find deals by clicking on the 101 free things to do in Washington D.C. link. “The National monuments, the U.S. Capital building and White House are free also,” says Widzer.Â One little-known perk in D.C.: you can contact your member of Congress in advance of your trip to request complimentary tickets to tour the White House.
Take advantage of special discounts
Websites such as MyKidsEatFree.com, KidsMealDeals.com, and KidsEat4Free.com list restaurants that offer kids’ meals free of charge.Â Adults can enjoy discounts on dining as well. “A site I’ve recently learned about is CouponMap.com.Â For any given location, the site lists available coupons at all sorts of places, including restaurants and attractions,” says Plowright.Â Â Â There are also discounts for students. Check out Websites such as Student Universe and Contiki.
More Travel Websites for Summer Vacation Deals
Sidestep.com — Searches over 200 travel sites for best deals
Priceline.com — Name your price discounts and best prices guaranteed
Expedia.com — Provides info for researching, planning, and purchasing trip
Leslie Royal is a regular contributor to BlackEnterprise.com.