Smart travelers know that scoring the best deals means starting the research early, and with spring already here, summer vacations are just around the corner. To save money and create lasting memories, consider taking a less traditional trip this year. Here are 10 cheap summer vacation ideas that won't put a big dent in the family budget.
Off-Season Ski Resorts.
Ski resorts offer great summer fun at cheap prices in the warmer months. Most resorts offer mountain biking and hiking, and depending on the resort, opportunities for horseback riding, river rafting, kayaking, and rock climbing may also be available. To entice travelers, resorts often offer package deals and promotions. Aspen, Colorado, for example, turns its ski slopes into a hiking and horseback mecca while fishing and mountain climbing also become popular when the snow caps melt away. Keystone, Colorado, is another summer destination that offers more than 15 free summer activities from June to September.
As summer vacations go, a backpacking trip is about as inexpensive as it gets. Carrying food and tent on your back allows access to some of the country's most amazing, unspoiled scenery. The magazine Backpacker offers loads of information for first-timers. To save money, borrow gear from a friend or rent it from an outfitter such as REI. While a backpacking trip may require a bit more preparation than a standard vacation, travelers willing to trade flight itineraries and hotel reservations for trails, campsites, and meal plans can get a true adventure in the bargain. Choose a destination within driving distance -- a national park for example -- to keep the trip costs even lower.
Staying on a houseboat, like renting a vacation home, lets vacationers save money by sharing expenses with other families and cooking their own meals. On the water, there are no temptations to eat out or spend money on entertainment. Instead, the lake becomes your playground and the scenery your entertainment. Many large U.S. lakes are magnets for houseboaters, with established rentals and harbors. Houseboats run the gamut, from luxury 70-foot boats that sleep more than a dozen to smaller rigs that comfortably house a family of five. Sites such as Houseboating.org can aid your research.
In states such as Minnesota, extended canoe trips are quite common. But you don't have to be from the "Land of 10,000 Lakes" to enjoy a summer vacation in the great outdoors. Other popular destinations include New York, Maine, and Vermont, which are connected by the the North Forest Canoe Trail. The best venues for canoe trips are rivers, large bodies of water, and areas where many lakes sit close together (because canoers have to carry, or "portage," their vessels from lake to lake). Like a backpacking trip, this involves time in the wilderness, traveling with your own food and shelter.
If camping seems like roughing it a bit too much and renting a house is too expensive, consider renting a Forest Service cabin. Rustic but affordable, these cabins are situated throughout the U.S. National Forests. They're often located in the backcountry, and while a few are accessible by road, most are not. Visitors must backpack their way in with the food and clothing they need. Many cabins come with bunk beds and counter space for cooking; a few include wood stoves or propane heaters, rowboats (if lakeside), and incredible views. Visit Recreation.gov to research locations by state. It's worth noting that many state parks offer standard cabin rentals, as well.
Summer camp is not just for kids. Consider a week-long adventure at a camp that caters to the whole family. Meals and lodging are included in the price, and you don't have to plan any activities -- or do any planning, really. In general, the lodging is rustic, with wall tents or bunkhouses, but that's part of the reason it's so affordable: This isn't a resort. The YMCA offers several family camps across the U.S., including Merrimack Valley Camp in Massachusetts and Medomak Family Camp in Rockland, Maine.
Sightseeing vacations are easy on the wallet because many of the activities are free. Washington, D.C., for example, offers a host of museums, monuments, and government history -- all for free. While lodging isn't cheap, there are ways to save money on transportation. Washington is easily walkable, and for destinations further afield, the regional mass transit system, the Metro, offers an unlimited day pass for $14.50. Boston is another city packed full of history and free entertainment. Take a walk on the Freedom Trail, which includes famous historical landmarks such as the sites of the Boston Massacre and Boston Tea Party. You can also score free tours of the U.S. Custom House and the USS Constitution, the world's oldest commissioned warship.
With gas prices lower than they've been in years, driving to a favorite destination may be the cheapest way to get there. Whether it's camping at a state or national park or a weekend at a theme park, the adventure is only limited by imagination. Family road trips are a fairly inexpensive way to explore interesting places and historical sites, and remove some of the inconvenience (and expense) that comes with flying. They also permit more spontaneity, allowing the freedom to take a last-minute detour or visit destinations off the beaten path. If time is a factor, create a list of destinations within your own state you've long wanted to visit. Staying close to home can limit the distance and overall cost of the trip, but it doesn't have to limit the fun.
Beach hotels and resorts are at their most expensive (and popular) during the summer months, which could reduce the number of days you can afford to stay. A beach doesn't have to mean the ocean, though. Lakes offer just as much fun in the sun at a much lower cost -- minus the salt. Small apartments just steps from Lake Michigan or Lake Erie can be rented for as little as $100 a night. Consider renting a house or cabin with another family to make the lodging even more affordable. Lakeside cities such as Holland, Michigan, feature attractions like sand dunes and summertime art fairs.
A twist on sites such as Airbnb and HomeAway, home exchange clubs let adventure-seekers rent their homes to people visiting from the place where they hope to vacation. Just keep an eye on fees, which reach as high as $500. Love Home Swap membership ranges from $20 to $34 a month depending on the searching options you choose. IVHE.com starts at $13 a month. To increase the chances of finding someone to swap homes with, browse multiple club websites before joining one, or sign up for the free trials that many sites offer, to determine how many swaps are available in the city you want to visit. The more homes available to swap, the greater the chances of finding the right deal.
RELATED: View the top 10 family destinations of 2016
Top 10 family vacations
10 cheap summer vacation ideas
1. Atlantis Paradise Island Resort
Discover a lost civilization on your vacation, and let your family act as the explorers! The $850 million Atlantis Paradise Island re-creates the infamous lost continent, filled with adventure and intrigue. This mecca of family fun features more than 3,400 guest rooms, 21 restaurants and countless activities, including exhibit lagoons that house 50,000 animals, such as sharks, lionfish and stingrays.
Water enthusiasts can visit miles of beaches, take a dip in one of 11 pools or play on 18 different waterslides. Leave your fears at home, though: The Mayan Temple's Leap of Faith slide features a 60-foot drop into an acrylic tunnel that's submerged in a shark-infested lagoon.
If the sight of snow gets your family excited, grab the skis and head to Snowbird for a wonderful, wintry vacation. The resort, which rests in Little Cottonwood Canyon, offers 3,240 vertical feet and 2,500 acres of mountain to explore. Thanks to its proximity to the Great Salt Lake, it sees an average of more than 500 inches of snow annually.
More than forty years after being founded, the resort now features 10 lifts, 169 runs and an uphill capacity of 17,400 people. Beginners ages 3 and up can learn skiing and snowboarding at the Snowbird Mountain School. Love the outdoors but not a fan of the slopes? The resort also offers ice skating, snow tubing, snowshoe tours and luge sleds. Parents can unwind with a stone massage or herbal wrap at the luxurious Cliff Spa.
Photo credit: Gary Caviness / iStock / Getty Images Plus
3. Tanque Verde Ranch
The 640-acre Tanque Verde Ranch is a serene oasis nestled in the Sonoran Desert, near Saguaro National Park. With more than 120 horses, it's no surprise that this dude ranch offers ample riding opportunities. Specialty options available include breakfast rides (with a meal at the Old Homestead), 6-hour-long day rides, and picnic rides with lunch in Cottonwood Grove. Newcomers can take riding lessons at a variety of levels.
Naturalist guides offer hikes through the desert wilds, exploring canyons, cacti and even secret waterfalls. The popular kids' program offers little cowpokes (ages 4-12) the chance to "ride 'em cowboy!" Children are divided into 3 age groups — the Buckaroos, Wranglers and Outlaws — and treated to riding lessons, tennis, swimming and arts and crafts.
Photo credit: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
4. Hilton Waikoloa Village
In Hawaii, the Hilton Waikoloa Village promises endless activity and unprecedented luxury. Parents hoping to find a child-friendly haven can sign their tykes up for Club Keiki. During its day and night camps, kids can feed koi and swans, hunt for treasure and explore tide pools.
The resort's tropical gardens, saltwater lagoons and 2 golf courses are tempting, but the most popular retreat is Dolphin Quest. It provides guests with a variety of interactive dolphin programs, including training adventures, a family experience and kids' quest. Meanwhile, at Waikoloa's 4-acre lagoon, water lovers can schedule kayak trips, snorkel sails and seasonal whale-watching tours. After dark, attend the Legends of Hawaii luau to experience traditional island dancing and music, as well as a buffet dinner.
Photo credit: Edmunds Dana / Perspectives / Getty Images
5. Kingsmill Resort
Stretching over 3,000 acres of Virginia wilderness, Kingsmill Resort boasts its own long list of recreational activities, as well as close proximity to the fun found in nearby Colonial Williamsburg and Busch Gardens. Active families can enjoy the resort's 2 18-hole golf courses, 15 tennis courts and Sports Club, which features indoor and outdoor pools, exercise classes, personal trainers and a billiards and game room.
Stop by the concierge desk for special Junior Guest registration, and children will receive a Kids' Fun Pack introducing them to the resort. The kids' camp is the perfect opportunity for 5- to 12-year-olds to play tennis and golf, swim, fish, have theme days and make arts and crafts. Don't forget to sign little ones up for Kids' Night Out, a pizza and game party that allows parents to have a romantic date night at one of the 4 signature restaurants on-site.
Photo credit: Kingsmill Resort
6. Circus Circus
The biggest permanent big top in the world can be found rising in all its colorful glory in Las Vegas. More than 3.5 million people a year stop by to experience the live entertainment and whimsy that Circus Circus has to offer. The resort lies on 70 acres of land, and with nearly 3,800 rooms, it's the fifth-largest resort-casino in Vegas.
Photo credit: Mitchell Funk / The Image Bank / Getty Images
"Oohs" and "ahhs" fill the air every half-hour as performers engage in airborne stunts on the resort's center stage. Surrounding the stage is the Midway, an enormous carnival filled with 200 games and wandering clowns. Possibly the world's biggest funhouse, the indoor Adventuredome theme park continues the excitement with more than 20 rides, plus miniature golf and laser tag.
7. Out 'n' About Treesort
Nestled into treetops and branches is one of the world's most unusual bed-and-breakfasts. This high-in-the-sky treehouse resort proves that trees aren't just for the birds. Fifteen treehouses, which sleep anywhere from 2 to 8 people, make up the "treesort" (but because of legal issues, not all 15 are available for overnight lodging).
Guests climb stairs, ladders, even a 90-foot-long suspension bridge. At the Swiss Family Complex, a swinging bridge separates child and adult units, and a fire pole and rope swings provide kids with ground access. Luxury lovers will enjoy the Tree Room Schoolhouse Suite, which fits 4 and has a bathroom, kitchenette, master bedroom, sitting area and loft. Fun perks include lessons in treehouse building, horseback riding, rafting, ropes courses, pools and arts and crafts classes.
Photo credit: Out'n'about Treesort
8. Club Med Ixtapa Pacific
Take your family south of the border for some Club Med-style family fun. The charming Club Med Ixtapa Pacific quickly woos kids and parents with its seemingly endless roster of activities for all ages. Situated on 37 acres along Mexico's western coast, the resort hosts more than 20,000 visitors a year, 60% of whom are under age 11!
A variety of clubs are designed to entertain children throughout the day. Divided by age groups, Baby Club Med, Petit Club Med, Mini Club Med and Juniors Club Med keep kids ages 4 months to 17 years busy with outdoor activities, shows and crafts. Ixtapa Pacific offers adult activities including tennis, scuba diving, archery, kayaking, water polo, volleyball and picnics. Families venturing off the resort property can visit Ixtapa Island or take sunset cruises, fishing trips and even excursions into the Mexican fishing village of Zihuatanejo.
Photo credit: Club Med Ixtapa Pacific
9. Omni La Costa Resort and Spa
Most commonly associated with its 2 championship golf courses and its world-class spa, the Omni La Costa now earns itself a new reputation: family resort. Tucked among the property's rolling greens, renowned golf school and 17 tennis courts is a world of activities designed for little ones on retreat.
At the Kidtopia children's club, young guests experience the resort's magnificent facilities in a kid-friendly environment, filling their time with tennis, croquet, hiking, swimming, nature walks, crafts and pingpong. While they're making friends and having fun, parents can indulge in the body- and soul-soothing luxury that defines the Omni La Costa.
Photo credit: La Costa Resort and Spa
10. Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge
At Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge, families experience the thrills of an African safari without ever leaving their hotel. If a trip to the Serengeti is out of your price range, a visit to this wild lodge will more than suffice. Strolling throughout the property's 33 acres of savannas, guests will see more than 200 animals representing 100 different species, including antelopes and gazelles.
Rooms are decorated with a traditional African ambience: earth-tone walls, handcrafted furniture, tapestries and mosquito nets. But true historical value can be found in the 4,000 native handicrafts placed throughout the lodge. When it's time to dine, experience the tastes of Africa at one of the resort's inspired restaurants, including Jiko, which features wood-burning ovens, and Boma, a buffet under a thatched roof.