Timing Is Everything
Choose destinations that will be in the off season when you go. Typically, northern areas are cheaper in the winter and southern areas are cheaper in the summer. Off season means lower priced accommodations and fewer crowds.
Do Your Research
Get a recent guidebook about the area you are visiting. Frommer’s and Fodor’s guides are excellent resources and often list family friendly hotels, attractions and restaurants. There are also guides written especially for the budget traveler. Search online for the area’s visitor information center/bureau or chamber of commerce. Request any free or low priced maps, brochures and guides offered. These materials will give you a second source to use when planning your trip. Some locations have a wealth of information online but little to offer as printed matter, so be sure to explore the online information.
By Wing or By Wheel
If you can manage it, driving will almost always be cheaper than flying, but you have to factor in the time it will take, any extra overnight stops that will be needed, as well as the cost of gas (not to mention the hours of screaming and “are we there yet?” from the back seat). Trains are less expensive than planes and not as slow as cars. If you plan to fly, shop for the best bargain. Travel agents are able to easily find the lowest rates for you, but are unable to book flights on some discount airlines such as Jet Blue. Online, Expedia offers the best travel search engine. Try more than one way to find the flight that you need at the price that you need. Consider www.travelocity.com, but it is buyer beware since you may be given long layovers and inconvenient flight times. Don’t forget to get and use those frequent flyer miles.
A Room with a View
Make a list of all the hotels or motels in the area in which you want to stay and compare prices. Don’t rule out those that are nearby but not as convenient. Many hotels that are outside of high demand areas offer free shuttle service and lower prices. Most hotels have web sites where you can check rates and availability online. While large chains will list an 800 number to call, it is always best to call the long distance number given because this will connect you to the branch you wish to stay at instead of to the national reservation center.
You often can get better prices and packages when you talk to an in house reservation employee. Ask about packages, family rates and special offers. Check for AAA rates as well as rates for any other organization you belong to. Ask for extras like rollaway beds or cribs to be added at no charge. Large hotels offer family packages that may include free gifts for kids, meals for kids, tickets to local attractions, free parking, breakfast, etc. City hotels will have lower weekend rates (because of the high number of business travelers during the week) while vacation based locations (places like the Berkshires, any coast or the Grand Canyon) will have lower weekday prices.
Check rates for suites. Many hotels offer family suites, which will give you two rooms for a little more than the cost of one room at another hotel. If you factor in the cost of a rollaway bed plus the difficulty of stuffing everyone into one room, this may be well worth a few extra dollars.
If the hotel you stay at has a free visitor’s card club, join it. You can earn points towards a free or discounted stay.
If the hotel or motel faces a scenic view, such as the ocean, ask for a room without the view for a lower rate.
It is worth renting a condo if you will be staying at your destination a week. A condo will give you more space, as well a kitchen where you can prepare your family’s meals, for a price less than the cost of a hotel room for a week. Even if the cost is more than a hotel or motel you are considering, the kitchen will save enough to make up the difference. Check with a travel agent or get a listing of condos from the area visitor’s center.
Clip Your Coupons
When you get promotional material in the mail from the visitor’s center or chamber of commerce, check it carefully for coupons. Local attractions and restaurants often include coupons in these packages. While searching online, check all web sites carefully for coupons. Many coupons can be printed directly from web sites. Some cities offer visitor’s coupon books for a small fee.
Continental breakfasts are popular at mid-range hotels and some motels. Check to see if this will be included in your rate. If not, get a room with a small refrigerator and purchase milk and juice and snacks to keep on hand. Buy things at local bakeries or shops for breakfast and eat in your room. When traveling, be sure to carry water bottles and snacks to avoid having to make expensive midday snack purchases. If your room has a mini-bar, ignore it.
Restaurant lunches are less expensive than dinners, so try to fill everyone up at lunchtime. Seek out local family restaurants and be sure to try ethnic restaurants where you may be surprised by the prices. Hotel restaurants are rarely a bargain unless kids eat free.
Don’t dismiss all-inclusive resorts which might appear expensive at first glance. After calculating your true cost of your anticipated vacation and comparing it to the all-inclusive price, you may be pleasantly surprised. Don’t forget to include, wonderful meals, anytime snacks, airport transportation, accommodations, hotel taxes, water sports, land sport, evening recreation, some sight-seeing trips, drinks and cocktails, beach towels, classes, and even tipping. Then compare your anticipated cost with the all-inclusive price which often includes everything except airfare (and some even offer package deals which would result in airfare being far lower than any other way).
If you drove your own vehicle, remember that driving in large cities can be difficult and confusing and that you will have to pay for parking at each destination.
Public transportation is a good solution in cities. Check with the transportation authority to find out about visitor’s passes and special offers. Also consider daily passes on trolleys and other tourist transportation where you can get on and off. Taxis are the most expensive alternative and are also a safety concern since they do not contain child safety seats. Walking is a good solution, so pack your sneakers and stroller if you have small children.
Renting a car may be an option to consider if you are visiting a suburban or rural area. Check all the companies to compare rates and use coupons from organizations you belong to.
Seeing and Doing
If you have been unable to find coupons for the attractions you want to visit, call and ask if they have any and where they can be found. Check on reduced admission at attractions after 5 p.m. or in the evening hours. Don’t forget to avail yourself of free attractions, such as waterfronts, parks, beaches, self-designed walking or driving tours and malls or specialized area markets. —By Brette McWhorter Sember