Planning your 2013 family getaway? Here's a refresher course on the best ways to save, along with some ideas to make this year's vacation one you won't forget.
Taking the family on a memorable vacation has never been easy, and rising prices for airlines and gas aren’t making it easier. So when you begin the process of planning this year’s getaways, don’t forget these tried and true methods for getting more bang for your vacation buck…
1. Price airline tickets individually
If you’re buying tickets for a group or even a couple, keep in mind airlines will always quote the highest price to all travelers, even if a lower fare is available to one or more in the group.
When searching online for fares, always start by specifying a single traveler. Only after finding the best fare should you search again for a group. If you then get a higher price for multiple tickets, you know you can save by purchasing seats one at a time. This trick also works when searching for multiple frequent flier award seats at the lowest redemption levels.
2. Save on meals
After transportation and hotels, eating out will be your largest vacation expense. Planning meals saves money and helps avoid unhealthy and boring fast food.
Take whatever food you can from home to avoid paying sky-high prices at the airport or while flying. You can save eating at theme parks such as Disney’s by eating off-site or sneaking food in.
Plan ahead for restaurants at your destination by using the same techniques you use at home, like Groupon or restaurants.com. Ask locals where the best food and deals are. If you possibly can, upgrade to a room with a kitchen – an upfront expense that can more than pay for itself. And finally, visit the local grocery store to shop for a picnic or a cookout at a nearby park.
3. Save on attractions
To save at tourist destinations, think like a resident. Coloradans (my home state) never pay full price for ski lift tickets – they find discounts all over Denver. Residents of Fort Lauderdale (home of Money Talks News) know the cheapest way to explore the waterways of the “Venice of America” is paying a few bucks and riding the water taxi.
Call the area’s visitor’s bureau and ask where to find discounted admission tickets. Find out if museums, parks, or zoos will be offering free admission during your stay. Search the website of the attraction for offers or visit other marketplaces like Craigslist and Ebay. When you arrive, ask locals where they take their visiting friends and where the best deals are.
Start talking to locals the minute you arrive: at the rental car counter, restaurants, your hotel – wherever you find them.
4. Book your hotel directly
Be careful when booking hotel rooms through third-party sites like Expedia. Many important features of your room may be listed merely as “preferences.” Too many families arrive at their hotel late in the evening only to find out that their bed configuration was not guaranteed.
When you purchase your room directly from the hotel (not a nationwide 800 number) you will be able to negotiate the best price and be guaranteed the room type. If checking in later in the evening, call ahead and speak with a manager to confirm that your room will be held.
One final hotel tip: Don’t stay in one. It’s possible these days to find complete houses for the same cost – see Vacation Houses at Hotel Room Prices
5. Visit public parks
The memory of a grizzly bear will outlast that of Mickey Mouse, and no corporation will ever build a theme park as cool as the Grand Canyon, the Rocky Mountains, or the Everglades. Visit this page of the National Park Service website to see when admission is free.
It’s ironic, and sad, that so many Americans will stand in line and pay 10 times the price to see fake landscapes rather than the breathtaking sights and experiences offered by our national parks. There’s a reason they’re the envy of the world. And don’t forget to research state and local parks at your destination as well.
6. Attend festivals
From Frontier Days in Cheyenne to the Roswell UFO Festival, many American cities host unique parties to attract tourists. Visiting a fun or quirky event while on vacation is a definite memory-maker. See what’s happening in your area or others for an interesting and fun way to see the USA.
7. Consider recreation over sightseeing
Taking a tour bus isn’t just more expensive than alternatives – it’s also more boring. Rent a bike, take a hike, or paddle a canoe. By becoming an active participant rather than a passive spectator, you’ll get some exercise, save money, and have more fun as a family.
Bottom line: Use imagination instead of money
The more time you spend thinking about what to do and where to do it, the less you’ll spend and the more fun you’ll have. Don’t let TV commercials dictate your travel plans; start early, talk to friends, and do some reading. And when you find that perfect spot, use the techniques listed here and elsewhere on the site (check out our travel section) to get the biggest bang for your vacation buck.
And remember: When it comes to vacations, it doesn’t cost more to have more fun. In fact, sometimes it’s the opposite.