CUT COSTS AND STILL HAVE FUN
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.
FOREST SERVICE CABINS
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.