Fun and Affordable Family Vacation Ideas for Summer

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Family camping on sandy beach, California, USA
Jim Arbogast/Getty ImagesCamping is one of the more inexpensive summer vacation options for families.
By Teresa Mears

With summer comes thoughts of travel: road trips and theme parks and visits to Grandma's house, camping and cruising and hanging out by the pool.

The most organized of families, of course, have already made their summer vacation plans. But for those of us who haven't yet decided, or hyper-organized families who are already thinking about next year, we've got some excellent ideas.

The good news is you don't have to be rich to enjoy a great family vacation.

"A lot of people have in their mind that a family vacation has to cost a lot of money," says Jody Halsted, who shares travel tips at FamilyRambling.com and has been traveling with kids since the first of her two daughters was 3 months old. "It can cost a lot of money, but it doesn't have to."

How much a family vacation costs depends on a lot of variables, starting with how long you plan to vacation and whether you will drive or fly. Choice of lodging also makes a big difference, as does what you plan to do and where you plan to eat.

And, of course, it depends on where you start your trip.

%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%"If people are on a budget, they really should be looking at destinations they could drive to," says Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, the family vacations expert at About.com.

A road trip can be a vacation in itself, not just a means to an end. Arm the kids with cameras and let them photograph the World's Largest Ball of Twine or the World's Largest Pistachio Nut, share their photos on social media and create collages when they return home.

"A road trip is the perfect family vacation," says Tamela Rich, an author who spends much of her time on road trips. "It's not about going to a destination and forking over money. It's what you do on the way."

She suggests letting older kids research and plan what to see and where to eat along the way. She likes the Roadside America (for Apple devices only) and History Here (for both Apple and Android devices) apps for finding unusual sights and historical markers.

If your dates are flexible, you can save money. Hotels in large cities are often cheaper over the weekend, but a resort may offer better rates midweek.

Extended-stay hotels or vacation rentals let you cook meals. Some chain hotels provide free breakfasts, and a picnic in the park is cheaper than lunch in a restaurant. "If you're eating out three meals a day, that's going to really add up," Kelleher says.

Admission fees to theme parks, zoos and attractions can be costly. Check with local tourist offices and websites for destination-city deals and coupon books as well as information on free events. The Entertainment Book, which is significantly discounted now that it's the middle of the year, offers lots of two-for-one coupons for local attractions. Choosing a destination where lots of attractions are free, such was Washington, D.C., also cuts costs.

And remember, kids are often happier when the trip is not completely jam-packed. "Sometimes the best thing for kids is to let them have their free time in a park or playground," Halsted says.

Here are suggestions for fun family vacations at three budget points: $500, $1,000 and $5,000. All vacation costs are approximated for a family of four, two adults and two children, although prices vary considerably based on where you start and how you travel.

$500 Family Vacation

Camping. Halsted is planning a multigenerational trip with 16 relatives to a KOA campground in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, about an eight-hour drive from her home in Iowa. And not all camping requires pitching a tent. In addition to RV spots, KOA and other campgrounds offer cabins, yurts and even tree houses and a caboose for overnight lodging. Not only is it cheaper than staying in a motel, it's a more interesting experience, Rich says, with lots of activities for kids. "At night people aren't holed up," she says. "They're out. They're roasting marshmallows and whatever ... kids get to meet up with other kids. That really enhances the experience."

State and national parks. You can visit state and national parks for the day or camp for the night, staying in tents, cabins or lodges. Ohio, for example, has five state parks that are mini-resorts with water sports, pools and lots of activities. They are offering a package with 20 percent off lodging and a $50 daily restaurant credit, Kelleher says. You can also enjoy an affordable vacation at a national park. "For $500, families can have an amazing vacation at any national park," says James Kaiser, who has written guidebooks to several U.S. national parks. He estimates the cost at $60 a day for a family, including the gasoline you'd use to get there.

Water park resorts. Resort packages are a great option for families because they include lodging and admission to the water park. Look for these deals at major chain Great Wolf Lodge's parks and at many in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin, an area with a number of lodges plus freestanding water parks. If you live near one of those types of attractions, the family can stay a few days.

Visiting relatives. Traveling to see relatives who live within driving distance means you don't pay for lodging and can eat at least some meals at home. Thanks to the free room and board, you've got money to explore the attractions in that city.

$1,000 Family Vacation

Cruise. A family cruise can be surprisingly affordable, especially if you don't have to fly to the port. Summer is the offseason for the Caribbean, so prices will be lower. But you can also get cruises from places besides Florida and Texas, including New York and Boston. Once you've paid your fare, all lodging, meals and activities are covered, and most cruise ships have baby-sitting and activities for the kids.

Vacation rental. Want to spend a weekend hanging out at the beach or hiking in the mountains? Pick a destination that's interesting and affordable, and rent a house or apartment. Kelleher was impressed with Daytona Beach, Florida, which not only has pristine beaches but lots of fairly inexpensive things to do. At the Marine Science Center in Ponce Inlet, Florida, for example, admission is $5 for adults and $2 for children.

Offseason resort. Resorts in Arizona, Colorado, Florida and other winter destinations offer rock-bottom deals in summer. Yes, it's hot in Arizona, but the resorts have great pools to cool down. While there's no snow in Colorado, there's still great hiking.

$5,000 Family Vacation

All-inclusive resort in the Caribbean and Mexico. This is the low season in the Caribbean, meaning rates are much more affordable, says Sally Black, a travel agent who publishes a VacationKids.com blog. Some resorts even offer "kids stay free and eat free" packages, as well as free child care. If you don't already have passports, expect to spend more than $100 per person for those.

Disney World: Getting the best deal requires planning and knowing when to go, Black says. Prices are better in late summer than early summer, and Disney (DIS) is offering a free dining plan that starts at the end of August.

All-inclusive U.S. resort. These include dude ranches and the Club Med properties that cater to families. Kelleher's family has gone for six years to Tyler Place Family Resort in Vermont, where everyone is assigned a bicycle on arrival. There are kids' activities by age group for babies to teens. Discounts are available early and late in the season at many resorts.

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13 Tips for the Best Hotel Rates
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Fun and Affordable Family Vacation Ideas for Summer
Before you book a room, call the hotel itself (the specific location, not the chain's 800 number) during business hours to see if the hotel will match or beat rates you've found online. Sometimes they'll throw in extras such as free Wi-Fi, breakfast or late checkout. This gives you maximum flexibility because you usually don't have to pay in advance, plus you won't need to deal with a third party if something goes wrong or you come across a cheaper alternative.  
Some hotels charge a resort fee that may not be included in an online quote. Others charge for Wi-Fi, breakfast or use of the gym. In a city center, parking can cost $35 or more a day. To avoid unpleasant surprises, always ask about which fees are included and how much they'll cost you.
Many small hotels don't want to pay search site commissions and therefore they don't participate. When you call them, you're often talking to an owner or manager who is empowered to offer a discount. TripAdvisor (TRIP) is a good site to use to identify these small hotels, but you should go directly to the hotel to make reservations.
If you're traveling with a family or planning a longer stay, look into renting an apartment or house. You can find listings at HomeAwayFlipKey and VRBO, among other services. Many of these lodgings charge a cleaning fee, so keep that in mind when you're calculating total costs. But with a kitchen you may save on food because you can cook some meals.
On a road trip, pick up the coupon books at rest stops and convenience stores. Those coupons, offered by the owners of individual franchises, often beat the national deals advertised on the chains' websites.
This doesn't work at the height of the tourist season, but often times it will get you the best deal at hotels that start the day with plenty of empty rooms. If you just show up, you can also see the room before you commit. Several apps, including Hotel Tonight, cater to travelers looking for a room on the fly.
If you book with a service that requires payment in advance, read all the fine print. And make sure you know how much it will cost if you have to cancel.
In Europe particularly, tourist offices offer room-finding services for same-day rooms. Even in the United States, some cities, such as Newport, R.I., get a list every morning from local hotels of rooms they want to sell for that night. "Think of this as an old-fashion version of Expedia.com, only a real-life person finds the accommodations that is right for you ... at the right price," says Andrea McHugh, marketing and communications manager of Discover Newport.
Sites such as BetterBidding.com allow you to find out what other travelers have paid at HotWire and Priceline and can sometimes identify the "mystery" hotels that keep their name and location secret until you book.
Groupon (GRPN), LivingSocial and other deal-of-the-day services offer travel deals, but most of the time you must act quickly to snag one.
If you're traveling to just one destination, look for a deal that includes hotel, airfare and car rental, which may be cheaper than buying these components individually.
Many credit cards offer points equivalent to several nights' hotel stays just for signing up, plus you can earn points when you use your new credit cards. "Using hotel points for free stays is the best deal in the travel industry," says Kevin Barry, who publishes Frugal Mouse, a website about traveling to Disney parks. "Last fall I went on a two-week vacation to Europe. ... One hundred percent of our hotel stays were covered by hotel points, and we stayed at very nice locations."
That means fall in Florida and summer in the Caribbean, winter in Europe, weekends near convention areas and weekdays in resort areas.
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