Bargain Travel for Families

Looking for ways to go on a family vacation that won't break the bank? We've gathered tips to help you get more for your vacation buck.

By Katherine Relf-CaƱas

Join a home exchange club.

Participating in a house swap through an organization like HomeExchange.com provides an alternative to the typical tourist experience. Trading homes with another family can enrich your experience of your host's locality and allows you to see how locals live. Besides the cost savings, which are considerable, you will also enjoy many other benefits. Trading partners commonly swap cars, boats, skis, and bikes, too. Families who participate in a house exchange report that living in more spacious quarters can improve everyone's sleep. According to HomeExchange.com founder, Ed Kushins, the trend is seeing its fastest growth in the weekend swap. "Some members participate in 5, 10, 15 exchanges a year. They use each others' places as second homes." And, if you are doing regular exchanges with another member, it takes about 10 seconds to propose a date, and then you head to Napa for a wine weekend, and they head to your place in San Francisco for the theater," he says.

Find accommodations with a kitchen.

This will save you relying on restaurants for all of your meals. Even if there's just a refrigerator in your room, you can consider buying milk, juice and cereal, and having breakfast in your room. You'll save money and time getting everyone going more quickly and efficiently in the morning. If you are staying in a hotel, ask the concierge or go online to find out where the local farmer's market is. You can improvise a picnic or plan a more serious jaunt into the country to savor locally grown products and enjoy fresh-air dining.

Spend a night in the great indoors.

Institutions from coast to coast are now hosting sleepovers in imitation of the film "Night at the Museum." Called "Dozin' with the Dinos," the Field Museum of Chicago holds an overnight with tours, workshops, and performances for 6- to 12-year-olds and their families. ($55 per family member.) The American Museum of Natural History in New York opens its doors to 8 to 12 year olds and their families for "A Night at the Museum." ($109 per family member. While this may sound expensive, with budget hotels in New York now charging $200 or more per night, this could be a bargain!) If you are looking for an unusual rural lodging experience, you can stay at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse hostel on the Northern California coast. Here you can fall asleep to the sound of crashing waves, and a room with a view will be a bargain. Guests can opt for shared or private rooms. Check online for public program listings for museums, zoos, aquariums or lighthouses in your destination city. Reserve early as these overnighters fill up fast.

You may be an American Automobile Association (AAA) member, but according to a company spokesperson, most members often don't take advantage of the full range of AAA discounts.

According to their literature, the organization's 50,000,000 members save an average of $87 a year on leisure and travel expenditures. We usually think car towing or free maps when we think of AAA. But, as North America's largest travel agency they offer a range of services to travelers through a vast network of partnerships. You can save on hotels, rental cars and tourist attractions. AAA's Show Your Card and Save program helps members save from 5 to 50 percent off of many different travel purchases. In fact, any time you book a hotel, rental car, or purchase tickets for an attraction, just ask, "Is there a AAA discount?" Then show your card and save! These savings often pay for your annual membership.

Heading to the great outdoors? You can save on entrance fees to more than 400 natural, cultural and recreational sites across the U.S.

If you are going to more than two National Parks, you can purchase an annual pass for $80. On the National Park Service Web site,you can make campground reservations To get a pass, buy one in person at the park, or call 1-888-ASK USGS, Ext. 1, or shop online at U.S. Geological Survey.

Try a family volunteer vacation.

In exchange for room and board you can put in a good day's work (or a week or two) on an organic farm.. It's a fun way to learn new skills and see how organic farms operate. World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), an international organization. publishes opportunities in its members' directory. Habitat for Humanity accepts family groups, and the organization provides home-building opportunities all over the world. A volunteer vacation gives your family the opportunity to provide service, and learn about the locale and its culture, too. For more volunteer vacation ideas, see Taking the Kids on a Volunteer Vacation.

See if you meet the requirements for a tax write-off to help pay for expenses on your volunteer vacation.

While being of service might be your primary motivation for putting in time helping your favorite qualifying nonprofit, it is worth your time to find out if you qualify for savings during tax time, too. Check the information on the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Web site, or have your tax preparer research and assess your eligibility. Do keep receipts and detailed records of your trip. Your family can write off certain costs associated with transportation to volunteer with a registered 501(c)(3) organization, provided you meet certain criteria.

Youth Hostels aren't just for backpacking college kids.

Hostelling is especially helpful in reducing a longer-term trip budget. It can also help you meet other traveling families. Thousands of popular worldwide destinations have accommodations for families that cost just a fraction of what one would spend on a hotel. Many hostels feature family rooms, which offer a greater degree of privacy and quiet compared to the typical dormitory rooms that are usually full of backpacking college kids. The level of accommodations may be simple but hostels are not unlike a budget hotel. At hostels, you will be eating breakfast and other meals in a cafeteria, and if you explore the grounds you may find a camping area. Many hostels also have gardens, play areas, barbecues and swimming pools. Laundry facilities are also a common feature. Check this worldwide hostel database for details.

If you're a military family, you can save by staying in a temporary lodging facility near specific installations.

To research room availability, call or check the particular military installation's Web site. A publication entitled Military Travel Guide USA, published by Military Living, is a good source for phone numbers and Web sites for temporary lodging facilities in the United States. Many of these rooms include kitchen facilities, which offer an additional way to save on your food bill. Military families who need R&R can also receive deep discounts if they keep an eye out for military appreciation days at major theme parks and tourist attractions throughout the U.S. Another resort getaway option for eligible members of the military community is Shades of Green, an Armed Forces Recreation Center available to certain eligible members of the U.S. Armed Forces community, their families, and some civilians in the Department of Defense and elsewhere. Check Shades of Green for more information. Specific eligibility criteria must be met before a guest may make a reservation.

Thrill your train-obsessed kids with an Amtrak ride and save on airfare at the same time.

For most Amtrak routes, children are entitled to travel at 50 percent off the standard adult fare. Several restrictions do apply. The discount fares are also subject to a number of rules. For instance, children traveling alone are not entitled to a children's discount and infants (under age 2) will not get their own seat with this discount fare program. If your child has a love affair with trains, getting there will be more fun if you have the time to travel by rail. Read more at the Amtrak Web site. Amtrak also runs weekly specials on select routes and posts them on their Web site.

Take advantage of complimentary meal offers from hotels catering to family travelers.

Some chains offer nationwide, year-round programs. Others offer continental breakfast, or one, two, or three square meals for kids as part of a family getaway package. You'll also find the ratio of free meals to purchased meals varies. Look for programs or promotions of this kind at more upscale chains and resorts. Embassy Suites Hotels takes pride in being "the first and only upscale, full-service, all-suite hotel brand to offer guests a complimentary cooked-to-order breakfast every morning." They have also developed a kid concierge service: Embassy Suites Kids-Eye View Passport. It lists "kid approved" attractions in 36 cities. A recent offering from the Westin Pasadena in California lets children choose from its kids' menu and dine free with room service and a free movie as part of its family getaway.

Conduct an Internet search for restaurants with "kids eat free" programs.

The offers vary, the days of the week vary, and not all of them are chains. If you're willing to spend the time doing online research, your efforts will be rewarded by free meals for your kids. While the listings at MyKidsEatFree.com may not be completely up to date, contact info is provided so you can verify with the restaurants listed in this state-by-state directory. The website also offers coupons and other ideas for budget dining with kids.

Use online flight aggregators.

With their independent, 'neutral' online search tools, travel aggregators can help you locate the lowest fare from among hundreds of travel sites and airlines on the Web. At Kayak, the service finds flight, hotel, cruise and car rental deals along with eye-pleasing site design, simple controls, copious customer-oriented FAQs, and humor! Kayak searches hundreds of travel sites, then you take your pick from options displayed on their site. You leave the site to book your travel with the provider that offered the best option. Kayak won't book your tickets or take your reservations. Keep in mind, though, that it may be difficult to find child fares. According to the site's FAQ, only some of the airline sites allow you to alter your fare information once you click over to the airline's reservation form. Other airfare aggregators include Wegolo and Airfare Watch. They offer search tools and links to assist you in controlling the cost of your flights and other travel deals.

Take out travel insurance.

You never know when a family member will get sick right before you leave or while you are traveling, so consider purchasing travel insurance. Shop around for a good travel insurance package tailored to your specific needs. They're not all created equal. Access America, available through AAA, offers one of the most liberal products out there. Providers often update their policy offerings to bring you more, so keep your eye out for new benchmarks and rules for what is covered. Medical referral networks are another handy feature that can help in a medical emergency when you are away from home. Packages that cover your non-refundable trip costs are a good way to recoup part or all of your travel investment.

Katherine Relf-Canas travels whenever she can. Her daughter, Olivia, now 6, is a responsible globetrotter in training. Her freelance writing has appeared in Mothering and GeoParents.