by Gary Foreman
It's time to get the suitcases out of the attic and start thinking about the great family vacation! And we can expect to spend pretty freely to support that get-away. The average family will spend about $3,000 on food and lodging for a two-week vacation. Transportation makes the total even higher. Is there a way to cut those costs a little without spoiling the trip? Sure! In fact, some money-saving ideas will actually help you have a more enjoyable trip.
Some of your best opportunities to save happen before you even leave home. Begin by calling the Chamber of Commerce in any areas you'll be visiting. You can get their number through long-distance directory assistance 1-(area code)-555-1212. Tell them that you'll be visiting the area and you'd like advice on places to go and stay. Most will provide a wealth of information. The Chamber's goal is to help local businesses. Part of that is telling people what's available in the area. Don't be surprised if they provide you with maps, brochures on local attractions, and even discount coupons. Strike up a conversation with them. Tell them what your family likes to do. There could be something that's not normally a tourist attraction that would be perfect for your family. A few minutes on the phone could be the key to finding out about good local restaurants and other interesting sites that only the locals know about.
Next you'll want to check the state's agency that's dedicated to tourism and travel. Typically it will be located in the state capital. Here you'll get the opportunity to ask about free state maps and brochures describing different attractions. If you tell them your route, they can suggest some side trips. And don't forget states that you're just planning on driving through. Before the creation of the interstate highway and the "destination" tourist attraction, many fine places competed for tourist dollars. Some of them are still wonderful places to visit. You can find state parks, zoos, specialized museums and halls of fame if you're willing to do a little research, and most are inexpensive compared with the big attractions. Not only will you save money, but the lack of crowds and lines is nice, too! A trip to the library is in order. You'll want to browse the travel magazines, specifically the advertising sections. Look for places in the general vicinity of your travels. Call or write away for any literature available. By learning more about various attractions, you'll make better decisions on which places to visit and which ones to skip. And many of the packets will include special discount offers.
Then check the library for travel guides. If possible, take them home so you'll have time to really digest them. Passing the books among family members will give you the opportunity to discuss what will please everyone. You'll also increase the anticipation for the trip.
A few weeks before leaving you'll want to check your car mechanically. It's much cheaper to have a repair done by your local shop than on the road where your options are few. And the waiting room of the auto repair center isn't likely to be on your list of tourist attractions!
Once you're on the road you'll find that meals offer a good opportunity for fun and savings. While it's easiest to stop at a chain restaurant right near the interstate exit, you'll want to consider an alternative for some meals.
Have an impromptu picnic. A loaf of bread, some lunchmeat, chips and drinks are available at any grocery store and should cost less than the typical chain lunch. Most towns have a park or place that would be appropriate for a picnic. That's more relaxing than the standard lunch and it could be a great chance to let the kids run off a little energy after being cooped up in a car all morning. On your way back to the highway you can stop and clean up while you refuel the family vehicle. Another option for different meals is to look for a stretch where a state or US highway runs parallel to the interstate for 10 or 20 miles. Get off the interstate and look for a local diner or family-style restaurant. You'll likely find something that's cheaper and more relaxing. While you're off the interstate, it's a good time to buy gas and save a few cents a gallon.
One way to add pleasure to your trip without additional expenses is to plan in some "down time." Every waking minute of a vacation doesn't need to be filled with something. There's nothing wrong with staying in the same spot for two nights and just hanging around the motel pool all day and watching the sunset in the evening. You'll save money and reduce stress for the next day or two.
Wherever you go, don't forget to ask about discounts. For instance, some auto clubs offer motel discounts. It costs nothing to ask. At worst, you've wasted a minute. With luck, you've paid for half of dinner! And even if you can't get a discount based on some group membership, ask if they'll give you a break on the price. If it appears that you might drive up the street to a competitor, prices can drop.
Many restaurants and motels in tourist areas will have free coupon booklets available. Pick them up and check for discount coupons. You might find one for tomorrow's planned attraction!
Finally, a word about souvenirs. There's really only so many mouse ears that anyone needs. But a jar filled with sand from the beach or even entry passes make excellent reminders of a wonderful vacation. And that's the goal: to have a wonderful vacation!
Gary Foreman is a former financial planner and purchasing manager who founded The Dollar Stretcher.com website and newsletters in 1996. He's the author of How to Conquer Debt No Matter How Much You Have and he's been featured in MSN Money, Yahoo Finance, Fox Business, The Nightly Business Report, US News Money, Credit.com and CreditCards.com. Gary shares his philosophy of money here. Gary is available for audio, video or print interviews. For more info see his media page.
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