It's ironic, isn't it? Rising costs of gas, airfare and just about everything else threaten to scuttle the the family vacation. Yet stressful times like these are just when families need a vacation most. Fortunately, another irony is that frugal vacations can actually be less stressful and bring family members closer than lap-of-luxury getaways.
Having fun on a budget may take extra effort. To put together an itinerary that has something for everyone requires creativity. You may need to check blogs and travelers' forums to learn about off-the-beaten-path attractions and their potential pleasures and pitfalls. Research is especially important for making a Plan B -- and you always want to have a Plan B -- on limited funds. Rain may cancel a day at the beach, for instance, but you'll know that the saltwater taffy maker gives free tours.
Remember that attitude is everything. Don't act as if you're settling for less. Take advantage of experiences that higher-priced itineraries might miss. The guide at a smaller museum may have more time to talk about the exhibits and local lore -- and give you a referral to a place that's usually off-limits to tourists, like a custom bootmaker's workshop.
So pack your sense of adventure. We're off on a 10-stop tour of family vacation ideas that won't break the bank. We'll start in our own backyard. Have you seen what's going on there lately?
Park District Activities
If you live in or near a town of any size, chances are that your park district offers more than parks. There's something for almost every interest. There might be amateur theater and concerts for the culturally minded, zoos and aquariums for the animal lover, aquatic centers and ice rinks for the sports nut, and museums and historical reenactments for the history buff. Some regular and seasonal events fit into holiday weekends or school breaks. For instance, you might spend a summer Saturday splashing in a pool and then watch a movie at dusk. On Sunday, travel back in time and walk through a prehistoric swamp. How about a winter weekend crawling through vole holes, learning how snowflakes form and making evergreen wreaths?
District residents will pay a nominal fee to use facilities or take a class; others pay slightly more. You might buy a family membership to a zoo or recreation center for discount rates at every visit. Some districts offer scholarships that pay for programs for families with limited incomes.
If you think that education and vacation are poles apart, read our next idea to learn how you can have a fun in the halls of academia -- without duct-taping your roomate in the dorm or sneaking a flock of chickens in the dean's office.
Homecoming Weekend at the Alma Mater
Going to your alma mater's homecoming festivities is another way to get your money's worth (or your spouse's) from a pricey college education. Check the schedule for family-friendly activities like picnics, parades, petting zoos and kid-friendly theater performances. Let early education majors entertain the kids with face painting and crafts while you relive memories with college pals. Teenagers may enjoy a peek at college life with a campus tour or bookstore browsing session.
For meals, you can support the next crop of grads by buying food from student groups' concessions. If you're culinarily inclined, pack some goodies for tailgating. Schools typically have hotels hold a block of rooms for alumni at reduced rates. Local merchants often have special promotions and events, especially in college towns.
One priceless bonus: You can impress (or embarrass) your kids with pictures of yourself in your Greek days, by playing in the alumni softball game or joining in a chorus of your college song.
Speaking of songs, our next tip has us humming that popular tune of yesteryear: "We'll travel the road, sharing our load, side by side."
Sharing Costs with Another Family
It may not be true that two can live as cheaply as one, but two families can sometimes travel more cheaply than one. They can travel happily, too, if they decide beforehand how to split expenses and time together.
For example, if you're driving, will you split gas fifty-fifty or proportionally based on family size? How will you handle a blown fan belt or other unexpected expense? Differences in budgets may come into play, which can be make for uncomfortable discussions. You might agree on daily or weekly limits for shared, controllable expenses. For example, a frugal family can indulge their companions' taste for lobster one day, if the big spenders agree to dine on fast-food hamburgers the next. Or everyone can compromise on a family restaurant buffet.
Also, decide whether you're sharing only expenses or the entire vacation. Good times can be better, and cheaper, with friends. However, even best friends may have different ideas of what constitutes a good time. Will your family view your companions' plans for an afternoon at the wax museum as fun and funky? Or will it only mean less time for your outing at the waterpark? Differences in children's ages will also affect how much they enjoy shared activities.
Traveling with another family has the added advantage of reduced responsibilities. You may have someone to share driving duties and escort the gang to the restroom.
Our next stop celebrates one of the advantages of living in a world filled with people of diverse cultural traditions -- endless reasons to celebrate. .
Free Cultural Events
If you're in western United States in the spring, you can go to San Fransisco's Chinese New Year Parade. It's the biggest one outside of Asia, with a 200-foot-long Golden Dragon and 600,000-firework grand finale [source: San Francisco Chinatown]. Or you can go to Butte, Mont., for one of the smallest Chinese New Year parades, with a 60-foot dragon, 10,000-firework grand finale, and warming refreshments provided by the local Chinese heritage society [source: Mai Wah Society].
If you're in the Southeast, you can celebrate Mardi Gras all weekend in New Orleans -- yes, there are family-friendly festivities -- or in Iota, La.., (population 1,400), where the merrymaking starts at 8:30 a.m. and shuts down at 5:00 p.m. [source: Jefferson Parish, Iota Mardi Gras Association].
Then there's the Gathering of Nations Native American Powwow in Albuquerque in April ....
The point is, wherever you are (or go), you're apt to find cultural groups that are happy to share their traditional festivals with their neighbors for free -- or nearly so. What better way to learn about the world's kaleidoscope of cultures than by munching their food, listening to their music and admiring their crafts?
Just as culture happens everywhere, so does history. Our next suggestion explains how to use that fact to your vacationing advantage.
Smaller Historical Sites
There's no denying the impact of visiting Gettysburg National Park the site of one of the most decisive battles in the Civil War. But admission, a guided bus tour and lunch at the Park's restaurant can run a family of four upwards of $150 [source: The Gettysburg Foundation].
Not far away is the lesser-known Monocacy National Battlefield, site of the Civil War battle that saved Washington, D.C., from falling to the Confederacy. There, admission is free. Brochures identify significant points for self-guided driving and walking tours [source: National Park Service]. Dozens of restaurants in a nearby town offer meals for every taste.
The situation is repeated at plantations, monuments and museums across the country. Smaller historical venues can offer similar experiences and teach the same lessons as larger ones. Because you explore at your own pace, you can focus on the aspects that are most meaningful to you and that you want to mean the most to your kids. And in the safety of your small group, children may feel more comfortable asking questions and making comments that help them learn and understand.
Speaking of feeling comfortable, our next idea offers all the comforts of home -- but not yours.
Home swapping is just what it sounds like. Your family and another family live in each other's home for the length of your vacation. You avoid the cost of hotels and eating out constantly. If the home is near attractions you want to see, you save on transportation, too. Before considering this option, however, check your insurance policy. How does it cover damages and injuries to guests?
The least expensive way to connect with home swappers is through advertising/classifieds sites, such as Craigslist.com. Subscription-based Web sites can speed your search. Some offer short-term (such as three-month) memberships, which are probably the most economical for a one-time vacation.
The process is something like blind dating: You describe your home and look for suitable digs in your desired destination. A backyard pool could be a safety hazard if you have a toddler, for instance. Eventually, through photo or video exchange and communication, you find a good match. And, as with dating, the more honest the parties are, the happier everyone will be with the outcome.
Before handing over the keys, work out a detailed written agreement. For example, who pays the utilities? How many people are allowed to stay? Are pets permitted? What about smoking? Are any parts of the property off-limits?
And do tell the neighbors. A visit from police checking on suspicious activity is more local flavor than most guests bargain for.
On our next leg of this journey, we travel by horse -- iron horse, that is.
Train tours prove the truth in the saying, "Getting there is half the fun." One all-inclusive price gets you a chauffeured drive through landscape no minivan can handle (over a gorge, for instance), a mobile restaurant and bathroom breaks whenever nature calls. Every seat is a window seat. You might "ahh" at the Canadian Rockies, visting historic towns along the way. Or glide along the Gulf of Mexico, with walking tours of San Antonio at one end and New Orleans at the other.
Most often you'll sleep in a hotel. If you overnight onboard, you might want to splurge on a berth (bunk beds). Otherwise, you'll greet the sunrise stretched out on your reclining seat, which is still more comfortable than trying to catch 40 winks in the passenger seat of the minivan.
Going by rail also reduces your carbon footprint. Today's passenger rail uses between 20 and 30 percent less energy than airplanes and automobiles [source: Amtrak].
If our next suggestion had a theme song, it would be "This Land Is Your Land."
National Wildlife Refuges
Some of the most stunning scenery and truly wild life is on display at a National Wildlife Refuge near you, from soaring eagles to stealthy alligators, and from prairies billowing with blazing star to swamps festooned with Spanish moss. You can hunt, fish, hike, kayak or just take in the wonders from photography blinds and observation decks. Look for special events when planning your vacation. You can make crafts and learn how to plant a butterfly garden at the Butterfly Festival in Florida or take a birdwatching hayride on Virginia's Chincoteague Island. Check to see whether camping is allowed, as policies vary from one refuge to another. Some refuges encompass historical sites, including New England lighthouses and Native American pueblos in New Mexico.
About 100 of the 555 refuges in the U.S. charge fees [source: National Wildlife Refuge System]. Some have a small admission fee. Others charge only for hunting and fishing permits. Most or all of the fees go back into maintaining the habitat. Other activities, such as guided tours, may be available from private vendors.
National Wildlife Refuges are just one of many operations, both public and private, that rely on volunteers to keep running. That leads us to our next suggestion.
For the child in us all who loves to play in the dirt (or at least get a little messy), a volunteer vacation can be rewarding fun. Families with younger kids might weed fields at an organic farm in exchange for room and board. Teens and their parents can help clean up trails for the Sierra Club. Churches and other groups often organize trips in times of need, as to help rebuild Joplin, Mo., after the May 2011 tornadoes.
Many volunteer vacations are arranged through nonprofit groups such as VolunteerMatch and World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). They have minimum age requirements to ensure the safety and success of the volunteers and the project. Check with the organizing group before promising your 10-year old that she can help build a community center in Appalachia.
As with all volunteer opportunities, look for one that matches your family's abilities, values and, in this case, budget. Membership in a conservancy group may include a discount on volunteer trips. Other organizers may charge $2,000 or more for a week-long project. That fee covers basic lodging and meals. You'll be responsible for all your other expenses, including transportation to and from the destination. Given the cost of travel, it's good to remember that charity starts at home.
You may be wondering how we could possibly top nine brilliant vacation ideas. We can't. Instead, we're leaving that up to you.
Do-it-yourself projects are big these days. Why not apply it to vacation planning? Pick up a visitor's guide from your state's department of tourism to see what strikes your fancy. You might spend a long weekend checking out regional weirdities or points of pride (which are often one and the same). In southern Illinois, for instance, you'll find the world's largest ketchup bottle in Carbondale, the grave of Robert Stroud (aka the Birdman of Alcatraz) in Metropolis and the Home of the White Squirrels, the town of Olney.
You could also plan a longer pilgrimage -- to significant sites in Mississippi blues history, for example, or a tour of Gutzon Borglum's sculptures (he carved a lot more than Mount. Rushmore). Or try actually visiting those attractions you see advertised on billboards along the interstate every time you take your oldest kid to college.
In closing, we wish you bon voyage. And if you go to Olney, bring us back a pack of white squirrel playing cards.
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