When it comes to vacation planning this year, many families are finding that almost everything costs more. Plane tickets are more expensive, hotel room rates are up, and car rental prices -- and the gasoline to fill the tanks -- have risen. But there are ways to get away this summer without busting your budget, consumer and travel experts say. "People get it into their minds that they have to travel across the country or to another country to have a good time, but they don't," said Nancy Dunnan, editor of the TravelSmart newsletter. "The closer they stay to home, the less expensive it's going to be." Dunnan's top recommendations for affordable vacations are visits to state and national parks. To find state parks in your area, go to an Internet search engine and type in "state parks" and a state's name. For national parks, go to the National Park Service site at www.nps.gov. "You can day trip to parks in your area," she said. "Or there often are good cabins or camping areas that tend to be underused, especially in the state parks." For longer trips, Dunnan and other experts suggest consumers shop online for tickets and hotels but also check local travel agents to see if they can get better prices.
"A lot of people surf the Web looking for deals," she said. "Travel agents do the same thing, but they have more time to surf and more knowledge about the industry." Travel agents often get a fee for their work and a commission for booking a trip, so consumers should ask what the costs are going to be, Dunnan said. Lisa Lee Freeman, deputy editor of Consumer Reports Money Adviser newsletter, said many of the best deals are online, but you have to hunt for them. A good starting point for plane tickets are the "big three" travel aggregation sites: Expedia.com, Orbitz.com and Travelocity.com."Remember that discount airlines don't show up on these sites," Freeman said. "So it's best to figure out which airlines fly to the city where you want to go and check their Web site directly." Discount airlines include AirTran, America West, JetBlue Airways and Southwest. Freeman said that Consumer Reports generally doesn't recommend using the so-called opaque travel sites Priceline.com and Hotwire.com because consumers aren't told what they're paying for until they've actually committed to the purchase. "But if you're aware of the downside, you could get good deals if you're flexible" about which airlines you want to fly and when, she said.
When it comes to hotels, don't necessarily go for the cheapest place you can find. "There is a reason it is the cheapest," Freeman said. "It could be in a bad part of town or be run-down." Again, deals can be found on aggregation sites -- Quickbook.com and Hotels.com. But consumers also should check a specific hotel's site to see if it's running a special that isn't showing up elsewhere. "If you find a hotel online, always call the hotel directly to see if you can negotiate an even better deal," Freeman said. "Even if they won't come down on the rate, they might be willing to throw in extras, like a free breakfast or free parking." Steve Rhode, a private money coach in Rockville, Md., said one vacation tactic often overlooked by families is booking a cruise. "They can be a cost-effective and affordable way to take a luxury vacation for very little money," Rhode said. "Today you can book a seven-day cruise for less than $700 a person -- and that covers transportation, lodging, meals and entertainment." Best of all, he added, "you only have to unpack once." He added that families willing to fly with little notice can find deals if they register for airlines e-mail newsletters, which often contain special last-minute discounts.
Rhode suggests families try to avoid taking on too much credit card debt for their summer holidays.
"After vacation comes back-to-school time, the most expensive time of the year for many families," Rhode said. "After that, it's Christmas time again."
If families do have to take on debt for their vacations, Rhode suggests they keep tabs on what they spend this year and look back at what they spent last year.
"Come up with an estimate, and put away one-twelfth of that every month until next summer," Rhode said. "Then you'll break this cycle of going into debt and next year you'll be going on vacation debt free."
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