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Believe it or not, there is an upside to a bad economy. Since fewer people are making vacations a priority, hotels and resorts are offering fantastic deals to anyone willing to travel.
"The odds of getting last-minute deals is better these days than ever before," says Gabe Saglie, senior editor at Travelzoo. "Properties and cruise lines would rather get people in at drastically reduced rates than settle for empty rooms and cabins."
According to the experts, now is also a great time to bargain and negotiate your way to the budget-friendly family vacation of your dreams. "Travel is a buyer's market, so don't be shy about asking what else a hotel can do for you — upgraded room, resort credits, free food for the kids," says Eileen Ogintz, writer of MSNBC's Taking the Kids column.
So, how can you find a terrific deal at the 11th hour? The best plan of action: determine your budget, including incidentals such as food, drinks, and activities; once you have a figure in mind, read on to evaluate your options.
Been meaning to visit your cousin in Colorado? Staying with family (as long as they have room to spare!) can be a great, cost-effective way to vacation on a tight budget. Try visiting a few relatives or friends in the same region so you don't wear out your welcome. Also, consider a house swap with friends or family members whose spring break vacations line up with yours. An added bonus: trading homes provides a great opportunity for insider info on the best places to visit. (Check out Shoestring's Couch Surfing Etiquette for more tips on trading spaces.)
Vegas, Baby, Vegas
"Las Vegas is an unusually soft market, with never-before-seen pricing from even 4- and 5-star resorts," says Saglie. "Seeking out Vegas' family-friendly options, from stage shows to tours to nearby attractions like Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon, could be especially worthwhile." For instance, right now you can book a suite at the Mandalay Bay for $70 to $80 on select days through June 3rd.
Grin and Share It
Traveling with friends can be entertaining and financially rewarding since expenses are shared. Rent a house (try FlipKey, VRBO, or HomeAway) or a time share (try PandaShares or RedWeek), bring board games and a great attitude, and use listings like Trekaroo to find free activities in the area. "Also, look for places where kids eat free," says Esther Lee, Trekaroo's founder. "Resources like My Kids Eat Free can help you find those restaurants."
Under the Stars
In warmer climates, spring camping can be a perfect way to create priceless family memories for short money. All you need is camping equipment and a full bag of groceries — don't forget the marshmallows! Check out VenturePax.com to find great campsites and evaluate activities. For those who eschew tents, state parks often offer affordable cabins perfect for families. Week-long stays in a two-bedroom cabin at Virginia State Parks, for instance, cost less than $500.
All in the Family
"Cruises can be an especially good value this year," says Saglie. All-inclusive vacations offer peace of mind, and since the majority of costs are upfront it’s easier to stay within budget. Check out TripRes to find great last-minute deals on cruises. On land, check out destinations like Rankin Ranch, a family friendly ranch in California, where the American Plan pricing includes lodging, meals, horseback riding, children's programs for ages 4 to 11, and all ranch activities.
Big cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco have become affordable vacation destinations this year and offer great activities for kids and adults alike. Keep in mind that it's better to book a metropolitan getaway over the weekend when business travel is slow. "Have a local resident guide you through kid-friendly parks or neighborhoods," adds Lee. Cities such as New York City, Houston, and Toronto offer websites that will match you with a guide, or reach out and connect with local parenting bloggers, like San Diego Bargain Mama in San Diego or Boston Mamas in Boston, prior to your trip for tried-and-true advice, events, and activities.
Many resorts across the country offer mini-theme park experiences with lazy rivers, children's centers, and on-site activities so you can cut down on expenses. Plus, many hotels are offering special "Kid Packages" that often beat posted rates, just check the special offers section of the hotel's website and you'll likely find a deal. For example, the Hotel Monaco in Seattle offers the "SoFISHticated Family" package, which includes passes to the Seattle Aquarium, Goldfish crackers, a goldfish toy, one hour of complimentary in-room Nintendo, and an in-room pet goldfish during your stay. The Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort in Phoenix, also offers daily family activities every hour starting at 11 a.m., including waterslide races, scavenger hunts, ice cream socials and "dive-in movies" where kids can watch a flick by or in the pool!
Travel with Heart
For families with older children (ages 8 and above), why not approach your vacation as an educational opportunity? Plus, "voluntourism" allows families to visit exotic locations at reasonable prices. The Miguel Angel Asturias Academy, a non-profit school in Guatemala, arranges volunteer and adventure tours in the Quetzaltenango region for groups of all sizes and ages. "Visitors will climb mountains, go kayaking, volunteer at a non-profit school, try traditional foods, and experience shopping in a street market," says Steve Mullaney, director of development at the academy. Cost is $1,450 for a family of four and includes everything except airfare. For other volunteer opportunities, visit Voluntourism.org.
Luxury for Less
If your family years for more exotic travel, now is the time to find a fantastic deal on destinations that would normally be cost-prohibitive. Check out websites like FamilyGetaway.com that offer luxury vacations or adventure packages at great rates, often including extras like meals and activities. The site's Colorado River package offers a five-night adventure down the Colorado River, including rafting equipment, professional guide, and all meals for $3,335. Also, honeymoon destinations are currently offering once-in-a-lifetime family deals. For just under $4,000, you can book a five-night family trip to Tahiti, including airfare. The only caveat? Kids must be under 12.
Dreaming of St. Martin but can only afford Seattle? Try a different approach to visiting your fantasy island — like "glamping," a new trend that blends glamour and camping. "Many of our guests tell us they love staying in a Swiss Family Robinson-type treehouse and escaping the high tech world for a week or two," says Melody Smith, marketing director for Maho Bay Camps and Estate Concordia Preserve in St. John. Visitors to the eco-resorts stay in tent cottages with screened-in windows and private terraces — even electrical outlets. The cottages are just a short walk from white sand beaches and are surrounded by lush tropical plants, where you can see iguanas and birds feeding from the flowering trees. "It's one of the least expensive ways to visit the Caribbean, with rates starting at $80 per night for two people and a low $135 per night even during high season," says Smith.
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