With rising fuel prices making travel tough by car and by plane, planning a family vacation seems impossible. The "staycation" is getting old, so we have some tips on how to trim costs. With a little more research, you can still get away with the family this summer.
- Take Advantage of Free. See our hotels offering kids stay and eat free programs, which can add up to big savings when it comes to feeding a brood of four. And don't forget to check out awards on credit cards, frequent flyers, and hotel VIP guests programs. Many of us forget that steep discounts are available on hotels, and flights and a quick login to review account balances and special offers may save hundreds.
- Ask for Discounts. Hotels are not always at full capacity, so it doesn't hurt to contact hotels directly to ask for discounted rates or even to mention lower rates at a nearby hotel. You'd be surprised by a hotel's ability to drop the price.
- Check Multiple Websites. To save money, you need to do a little digging. Don't just review one hotel pricing site and trust it to be the lowest deal. If you see a price advertised on one site like Expedia.com, visit the actual hotel website to see if they offer steals, and vice versa. I once saw one website list a hotel's lowest fees at $200/nt but when I went to the hotel's site I discovered a special mid-week deal at $100/nt.
- Combine and Save. The big aggregate sites like Expedia.com and Hotels.com also offer more discounts when booking both airfare and hotel, or hotel and rental car at the same time.
- Social Media Social media is changing the way companies interact with their customers. Is your family vacationing at a certain hotel? Check them out on Twitter or Facebook. More hotels, resorts, airlines, amusement parks and even roadside attractions all actively engage with their followers and fans, and most will usually offer special discounts or featured deals on their social media pages. It never hurts to reach out and interact!
- Check Multiple Websites. Just like hotels, review both aggregate websites and the airlines' own websites to find the best price and deal. And remember the best day to book online is on Tuesdays, when most airlines announce their sales.
- Travel With Less. Airlines are now charging baggage fees, sometimes a fee per bag, sometimes for the second bag, some even for carry-on bags, and all for oversized and overweight bags. Pack less and save. Don't forget -- you can wear a shirt more than once on a trip!
- Join Loyalty Programs. Those aforementioned baggage fees are often waived when you are a member of a frequent flyer program, at least for the first bag and carry-ons. They are free programs, so whether you're a frequent flyer or a once-a-year flyer, it's worth it to enroll to save on the fees.
- Fly on a Weekday. Everyone wants to get out of town for the weekend, so you'll see rates go up on Thursday, Friday and Saturday flights outbound and Sundays and Mondays returning. When booking your summer vacation, forget Friday night to Sunday night planning and try a Sunday morning to Saturday night flight and enjoy some extra time away from home while you save hundreds.
ON THE ROAD
While there is no running from gas prices, there are a few tips to make a road trip more cost effective.
- Join AAA. You know their tagline: Sooner or later you'll break down and join AAA? So true. Imagine a blown tire or overheated car or a dead alternator. AAA's discounted towing service is less than the price of one-year's membership, so go ahead and enroll and have some piece of mind when on the road. Then, enjoy the AAA travel discounts on hotels, restaurants, theme parks and attractions!
- Download a Cheap Gas Finder App. The GasBuddy App, and others, like SmartFuel, Gas Guru and Fuel Finder, provide gas station locators based on the cheapest gas near you. Use it when you travel by car to make sure you're getting the best prices -- just don't let your tank get too low before you start searching! An empty gas tank is no fun!
- Stock the Mini-Bar. Many hotels provide refrigerators or mini-bars; if you have an empty fridge, stock it with drinks and snacks purchased at a local market. If you have a fully stocked mini-bar, ask the hotel to empty it (reducing the risk of a toddler's candy bar theft) and fill it with your own low-priced snacks.
- Bring Snacks. Don't blow your budget on food while sightseeing or enjoying an amusement park, and bring you own snacks. Some amusement parks allow backpacks filled with snacks and drinks, including Disney Theme Parks, which also provide small lockers for a fee, so you can store your pack until you're hungry. The $5 you spend on apples will last a lot longer than the $5 ice cream bar.
- Check for Hotel Discounts. Some restaurants near hotels offer special discounts to guests. These may be advertised in the in-room hotel guides or at the reception desk. I once found a San Antonio hotel partnered with a Tex-Mex restaurant that offered half-priced appetizers and drinks. We order nothing but appetizers for a night of tapas that cost less than $20.
- Don't Forget About Apps. These days, if you don't know what you're looking for, chances are there's an app to help you along -- and eating is no different. There are several apps on the market that are here to help you and your crew dine on the cheap. ScoutMob is an app that features daily restaurants offering free or severely discounted (50 percent, usually) meals to patrons, and apps like UrbanSpoon allow you to select your location, a variety of fares (bagels, American, Chinese, etc.) and a price range (from one "$" to "$$$$"), and shows you every restaurant option in the area.
- Convention & Visitors Bureaus. Visit the websites of the areas you'll be visiting, as many are posting deals and discounts through their CVBs. Many larger cities are offering passport-like discount books that for one price give you admission into its biggest attractions. Not only will you save on admission, you'll skip the ticket lines.
- Family Vacation Critic Deals. Don't forget to check out our Deals section to see what offers are available at family-friendly spots across the country, as well as Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean.
For more money-saving tips, see 10 Ways to Find Cheap Flights for Families and 10 Best Budget-Friendly Family Resorts. And be sure to check our Forums to share tips with other families!