Traveling on a Budget


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Perhaps not surprisingly, 2009 was the year of staycations instead of vacations. According the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 2009 had the fewest air passengers of the decade; there were 16.7 million fewer U.S. passengers on domestic or international airline flights last year compared to 2008.

Amid all this grim news is a beacon of light: Because of the economic downturn and the travel industry's desire to lure frugal families back to holiday locales, there are travel deals everywhere. Savvy parents can find their dollar (and perhaps their family) going farther.

Destination
Marley Braun of Cary is famous among her friends for her vacation planning. The mother of two won a one-week family Adventure by Disney trip to Costa Rica from the ABC morning talk show "The View." Braun's main travel tip is to take advantage of off-season rates when choosing a vacation destination. "If we go skiing, we go out to Colorado in their off-season. At the end of March, they still have a lot of snow, and the rates are much cheaper." Braun, who also enjoys cruises, said she'd never consider a summer peak-rate cruise. "October is cheaper and it's technically the end of hurricane season, and the odds of bad weather are low," says Braun.

Bridget Minor-Reynolds of Winston-Salem, a mother of three, agrees. "We go off-season, and that tends to help with the expense. I love the Carolina beach in October."

Our national parks offer a great travel option for families, but watch out for summer vacation excursions to these destinations. The Braun family has visited Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, the Redwood Forest and the Painted Desert, but all during the shoulder season (just before or after peak times). "If you look at the national parks and you go before the high season in July, you won't find it as crowded. Most places are going to be available and a lot less expensive," says Braun.

Minor-Reynolds agrees. "And since the off-season starts as soon as the school year starts [and our kids aren't school age], it's easier for us."

For parents with younger kids or kids who are in year-round school, there is an advantage to selecting destinations that won't interfere with school or coincide with the big summer rush.

Other families find that far-flung locations offer great deals that are unique educational and recreational opportunities. Raleigh mother Nicole Peterson, her husband and toddler son recently returned from Los Cabos, Mexico. "Since having [our son] Lucas, we have taken him to Costa Rica once and Mexico twice, and of course local beach trips overnight," says Peterson. The Petersons have stayed for several consecutive weeks at some of these exotic locations, but in order to have such long vacations, they budget strictly, research deals on airfare and car rentals, and choose accommodations that allow them to cook on site. "We stayed in Los Cabos for 24 days, which was a real luxury. But in order to do that, we definitely needed to be frugal," says Peterson.

Lodging
One of Peterson's tips for frugal travel is to rent a home or condo instead of staying in a hotel. Shop around to find your ideal lodging. "This vacation was also the first time that we used vacation rental by owner [VRBO.com]. We've heard good things about it from friends, and found that many renters were willing to negotiate, either by discounting price or adding free nights," Peterson says.

According to Brendan Byrnes, the public-relations manager of AAA Carolinas in Charlotte, there are many highly rated campsites that are an easy drive away. "For example, in Myrtle Beach there are four campgrounds that are rated 3 [the highest rating] by AAA, and they all have certain amenities. You can tent camp or RV camp, and an oceanfront site ranges from $40 to $70 a night," says Byrnes. Most campgrounds have modern conveniences such as bathrooms with shower stalls and toilets; some even offer villas, snack bars, Internet connectivity and pools.

"Camping is something people are doing more and more as they are paying attention to the dollar," Byrnes says. "It can be fun for people who can get along in tight spaces. If you can survive a car ride, you'll be OK." For AAA members, there is a free book that lists campsites throughout the Carolinas. Go to the AAA.com Web site and search campsites by location to get a description of each camp, its rating, the type of lodging available and the amenities unique to the site.

For families who prefer hotels, pay attention to discounts. Many hotels offer an automatic savings for AAA members. Byrnes advises, "In this economy, some hotels are offering even better rates [than you would get with your AAA discount]. No matter who you are calling, always ask about what deals are going on. Some hotels offer packages that include tickets to attractions. Prices on hotels are coming down to get people in the door."

Also, many hotels allow you to redeem their own points or credit-card points toward stays, food or upgrades. If you have the points, it doesn't hurt to ask.

Lodging costs are reduced by sharing your space with friends. "We almost always travel with another family," Braun says. "For a beach vacation, it's much cheaper, and you have built-in entertainment for your kids. You find yourself hanging out more, and you don't need to go out and pay for entertainment. At many places, two families can share a suite." And then lodging costs half the price.

Transport
As the dismal statistics of the Bureau of Transportation Statistics show, many families are opting to drive to locations rather than fly because of airline hassles and increased expenses such as additional charges for checked baggage. "Gas prices currently are sitting about $1 more than this time last year, but are still down from the peak in September 2008," Byrnes says. "So car travel compared to air travel is a good bargain." He also advises families to look into travel by train, though train service is still somewhat limited.

One of the advantages of traveling by car is turning the journey itself into an adventure. The Minor-Reynolds family frequently takes long car trips and visits (and stays) with family members or friends along the way. "It's fun and more economical," says Bridget Minor-Reynolds.

For families who must fly, ticket deals can be found at the travel extremes for folks who plan far in advance and those who can travel at the last minute. Also, Web sites like Travelocity.com, Expedia.com and Orbitz.com provide information on airlines and travel dates to find the best fare. And don't underestimate the power of calling the airline and asking about its best rate or if it will price match.

For car rentals, exhaust all your options. Online sites will often lump air travel and car rental into an economical package. AAA members get a discount at car-rental companies if they ask for it, and some corporate discounts extend to employees even when they travel for leisure. Member shopping clubs can also get reduced rates. Peterson was surprised when her husband reminded her to check Costco for car-rental prices for their Mexican vacation. "Costco offers discounts on car rentals, and as you know renting a car internationally can be very expensive, mostly because of the required insurance. We found that Costco was nearly half as expensive compared to searching online," says Peterson.

Food
For many families, breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks on the road can add up quickly. Looking for economical ways to keep everyone fed is always a good way to travel on a budget, says Byrnes. "First and foremost, the things that add up are entertainment [activities] and dining." He encourages families to find alternative ways to cook and eat while on their adventures, and says, "Bring a grill if you camp. A lot of people opt for lodging in suites where you have a kitchen so you can cook in the hotel room."

For families staying in hotels, ask about free breakfasts and restaurant discounts both on site and at properties affiliated with the hotel. Also, request a fridge for your room so you can bring leftover restaurant foods and snacks back to the hotel with you.

One of the great things about camping or house rentals is being able to save on restaurant expenses. Because of this, Peterson is a big fan of renting vacation homes. She says, "This allows for a bit more space for Lucas to roam [as well as sleep in a different room], but more importantly, it allows us to cook the majority of our meals."

By cooking in, families can explore the local ingredients, shops and markets. "It's fun to go to the local grocery store and a farmers market for produce," Peterson says.

Fun
Ultimately, the most important part of travel isn't saving money, it's enjoying your family wherever you end up. That means considering the appropriateness of where you want to go, even at the best prices.

"Since having Lucas, we have learned that beach vacations are the most relaxing, since the beach or pool allows him to play and easily find buddies," Peterson says. "European vacations are enticing, but we find we would rather do those kinds of trips alone, since taking a 3-year-old boy to an art museum isn't all that relaxing."

Another useful tip is to look at the memberships you already have and see if there are reciprocal arrangements at museums, aquariums or zoos in your destination city. Minor-Reynolds' family loves visiting the zoo and kids' museums when they are traveling. "We have [local] annual memberships that will allow us to do things at our vacation spots," she says.

Parks that allow activities such as hiking, rafting and rock climbing come with built-in fun that doesn't cost much, if anything. And fun certainly doesn't need to cost a thing.

Robin Whitsell is a Chapel Hill-based freelance writer and mother of three.

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