A Guide to Family Vacations

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  1. indira

    indira Junior IL'ite

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    If you are planning a vacation with family, this article provides a good tips on how to plan and make vacations cheaper - Indira.

    How to make your trips more memorable -- and affordable

    By SUSAN WARREN
    Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
    June 13, 2005; Page R4


    Family vacations may have been considered a luxury, once upon a time. In today's overscheduled world, they are increasingly seen as essential.

    The trouble is, traveling as a family cranks up the costs as well as the fun.

    "We find that even parents in the premium category still are concerned about their spending getting out of whack," says Nancy Nelson-Duac, executive editor of FamilyTravelFiles.com, a Web site based in St. Augustine, Fla., that supplies advice and resources for parents traveling with children.
    To give your children a memorable holiday, it isn't necessary to spend like it's play money -- or to act like a Scrooge. With a little planning, there are lots of ways to economize on all kinds of costs.
    At the same time, your kids can learn about sensible spending even in pursuit of a good time. To give them some perspective on expenses, tell older children how much parts of the trip cost, or assign a youngster to keep a daily tally of hotel, meal and souvenir bills.

    The biggest thing to remember: What children value most about family vacations is the time spent together.

    "It's not the tchotchkes that make your holiday, it's the memories," says Ms. Nelson-Duac. "Coughing up more money doesn't necessarily make it a wonderful holiday."

    What follows is a guide that can help make your future family vacations both memorable and more affordable.

    THE THREE CHOICES

    Start by recognizing the three choices every vacation planner makes that are so fundamental some don't even realize they've made them -- until it's too late:

    Now or later? Don't delay planning. If you can, start making arrangements as soon as you've got the time blocked out on your calendar. Doing things at the last minute costs more, limits your family's options and throws open the door to impulsive spending.

    How much is too much? Travel experts recommend establishing a firm budget that takes into account everything from transportation and hotel to meals and souvenirs. Then stick to it. Consider taking along a prepaid travel card. Issued by the major card companies, they're widely accepted. And, with a safety feature similar to travelers checks, the cards can't be used without a signature or a PIN.

    Do it yourself or use an agent? The Internet puts everything at your fingertips, from vast amounts of research and reviews to flight and hotel reservations. If you like to be in control, the Internet certainly lets you do that. Then again, travel agents who specialize in family vacations can save you time and money by doing everything for you and putting their inside knowledge to work.

    PICKING A DESTINATION

    Where does it say that in order to have big fun, you have to spend big?

    "You don't want to go on vacation and regret it every time you go out to eat," says Dorothy Jordon, publisher of FamilyTravelTimes.com, a New York-based Internet travel resource for families.

    For inexpensive domestic travel, one of the most overlooked destinations is state parks. Some can rival private resorts in the activities they offer: Canoeing, swimming, hiking, museums and historical re-enactments are common. Nor do you have to own an RV or sleep in a tent. Many have cabins or lodges that offer better deals than nearby hotels. Colorado alone has 41 state parks with accommodations from campsites and cabins to yurts (a kind of large, sturdy tent). In Kentucky, 17 state parks provide lodges and cabins, and nine of the 51 state parks in Arkansas feature cabins nestled into lakeside, mountaintop and woodland settings.

    Check with a state's tourism or natural-resources department for information and reservations. Most states have detailed Web sites where you can research your trip, view pictures and make reservations.

    Unfortunately, the weaker dollar has made foreign travel generally more expensive. But there are still good deals to be had. A dollar goes further in Latin America or Canada than it does in Western Europe. French-speaking Quebec feels like a vacation in France with a much better exchange rate, and getting there is less expensive, as well. Argentina and Peru, too, are exotic destinations that cost less than many foreign hotspots.

    Asia is another relatively cheap alternative to Europe, though the airfare can cost more. Several travel experts recommend South Korea, Thailand and Singapore as family-friendly places. Local tour guides specialize in escorting families to places of interest, like ancient temples and colorful bazaars. Such escorts can help navigate language and cultural differences, and give the kids some education at the same time.

    If your heart is set on Europe, keep in mind that Western Europe is one of the most expensive vacation choices right now due in part to the relative strength of the euro. Parts of Eastern Europe, however, like Hungary and the Czech Republic, have not adopted the euro and still offer good value. In the Czech Republic, for instance, you can take your kids on a tour through the prisons and torture chambers of the 13th-century Krivoklat Castle, or explore caves and canyons in the eastern part of the nation.

    Some parts of the euro zone recognize the higher cost for Americans these days and offer discounts and special deals. Switzerland has a complimentary Swiss Family Card that allows children up to 16 to ride the train free with their parents. And a Flexi Pass for two adults traveling together can be purchased for about $300 for four days of second-class travel -- cheaper than the usual $180-per-adult rate. Both offers are exclusively for foreign visitors.

    Staying off the beaten path is another way to keep your costs down in Western Europe. Try to identify lesser-known locations around which a good number of activities, historical sites and attractions are clustered. In Switzerland or the Netherlands, for instance, you can rent an apartment in one spot for a cheaper weekly rate than a hotel, then take day trips by train or even bicycle for sightseeing.

    GETTING THERE

    The high gasoline prices likely this summer might have parents, too, asking, "Are we there yet?" But if you plan ahead, you might not have to pay as much at the pump as some. Gasoline is often cheaper in the city than out on the highway, so fill up before leaving town. Try to avoid gas-eating rush hours in the big cities. For better mileage, consider taking the sedan instead of the SUV, and to improve your car's performance, make sure the tires are properly inflated.

    If you need to rent a car, hiring it for a week can be cheaper than for three or four days. Get your rental away from the airport, where prices run higher. And make sure the deal includes unlimited mileage.

    If you're headed abroad, airline tickets cost more the later you buy them, so book as early as possible. Fares also can depend on departure time and day, so being flexible pays. Compare airports, too. Ticket prices can vary considerably between airports less than 100 miles apart, and you might save money by driving a bit farther, or taking commuter flights between airports.

    So-called consolidators, such as those found at European Travel Network buy up seats in bulk and sell them at a discount. Consolidators often can provide a cheaper fare for international travel than even the best deals from the better-known online travel specialists.

    After you land, if you plan to cover a lot of ground, rail passes bought in advance in the U.S. can be a bargain; otherwise buying point-to-point rail tickets may be cheaper. Rail passes for various countries can be purchased through travel agents or bought online through sites like RailEurope.com, a Web site operated by Rail Europe Group, a privately held company that is majority-owned by the French and Swiss national railroads.
     
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  2. indira

    indira Junior IL'ite

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    A Guide to Family Vacations...2

    ACCOMMODATIONS

    Conventional hotels are beginning to compete with suite-style hotels for family business. More are offering specials such as renting a second room for the kids at half-price, travel experts say.

    Boutique hotels or family-operated inns in smaller towns are generally cheaper than large chains in the big city, so consider staying outside town and commuting into the city for sightseeing.

    If staying in one place is an option, the best deals for families, especially of five or more, are private rentals. Weekly rates for apartments or cottages can be dramatically cheaper than taking two hotel rooms. Thousands of cottages and apartments all over the world are available for rent through private booking agencies, individual owners and government agencies like Britain's National Trust, which offers 320 properties in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Most agents have Web sites with pictures and rates, and also can mail out catalogs of their properties.

    Offbeat accommodations are available for the adventurous. In the Netherlands, families can camp in teardrop-shaped tents that hang like giant seedpods from trees at the De Hertshoorn campground near Garderen.

    MEALS

    Restaurants are one of the biggest sources for impulse spending on the road. Hungry travelers often duck into the nearest establishment and end up paying more than they expected. Picky eaters -- or kids who are too excited to eat -- can waste an expensive meal.

    Renting a kitchen-equipped apartment or cottage is probably the best money-saver, though that may be less of a vacation for the head chef in the family.

    If restaurants are a must, those outside city centers generally are less expensive. When in the city, ethnic restaurants can be a great place for good, cheap meals. And look for the local hangouts, which are often less expensive.

    You can limit restaurant bills by doing what your own mom used to tell you: Start each day with a good breakfast. Many hotels -- and, of course, bed and breakfasts -- include breakfast in the room rate. If it's not included and your options in the neighborhood are limited, consider sharing something from room service. Ms. Jordon, the Internet publisher, says she would order breakfast for two from room service when her children were young, then everyone would share. "That was more than enough for getting us started on the day," she says.

    Families traveling with younger children -- which means an earlier bedtime -- also can save by splurging on a big lunch, followed by a light dinner. Pack snacks to curb appetites between meals. Picnics can be more fun for kids, and cheaper for parents.

    ENTERTAINMENT & SOUVENIRS

    A common way for families to blow a vacation budget is by forgetting to factor in the cost of doing stuff and buying stuff.

    Before leaving on vacation, contact local tourism bureaus and ask for free maps, guidebooks and discount coupon books. If you're a member of a travel club like AAA, take advantage of the travel discounts and services that come with membership. Many larger cities sell a city pass, a book of tickets to local attractions such as museums, aquariums and sightseeing tours. Such deals provide a substantial savings compared with buying individual tickets. Some also include bus passes.

    Ask locals what you can do and see free of charge. Entry fees for parks and museums and historic sites can add up quickly, while many natural attractions don't cost anything, or require a modest fee for the entire day.

    Gift shops, "I-was-there" T-shirts and exotic marketplaces offer endless temptations to spend more money. Saying "no" to dazzled and excited kids is especially tough on vacation. Calculating in advance how much you want to spend on souvenirs helps curb the impulse to buy just one more thing.

    Travel experts recommend giving children their own allowance for souvenirs, and letting them decide what to spend it on. Ms. Jordon found that her kids suddenly got much more conservative about their spending when they had to manage their own money. "It cuts down on the 'buy-me' syndrome," she says.

    PACKAGE DEALS

    The surest way to stick to a budget, many travel experts say, is to go with the package solution. All-inclusive deals, whether for a resort or an entire trip, not only make life easier, they remove much of the opportunity for impulse spending.

    "The best thing about the all-inclusive package is there is no guesswork," says Cindy Grant, owner of the Expert Family Travel agency in Dallas. "It's more expensive in the beginning, but in the end you'll be spending less."

    Lots of companies specialize in package tours for families. Packages and charters can be booked through travel agents, or through links that can be found on a variety of Web sites, including FamilyTravelFiles.com or FamilyTravelNetwork.com. Will and Joan Weber, founders of Journeys International Inc. in Ann Arbor, Mich., have tested many of their company's tours with their own kids. Airlines and destinations like Disney World also can offer good deals on family packages through their own Web sites.

    Shop around. Some packages include kids' meals and activities for no additional charge, so long as the children stay in the parents' hotel room.

    Cruises can be another all-inclusive venue. Room, meals, entertainment -- most everything on the ship comes with the price, with a few exceptions, like alcohol. Fall is the best time to get good deals on cruises, including discounts for the third or fourth person staying in a cabin.

    Lisa and Dean Frazee of Omaha, Neb., who have a toddler and a teenage son, recently managed a three-day getaway for under $1,000 by sticking to a single venue. The family spent $350 a night for two nights at the Great Wolf Lodge in Kansas City, Kan., where all the entertainment was built in: the hotel had a water park and arcade for the teenager, and organized activities, such as a bedtime theater, for the toddler. Breakfast was $3 apiece for an all-you-can-eat buffet. "It made everybody happy," Ms. Frazee says of the hotel.

    If your family prefers more freedom, consider forming your own group tour with another family or two to share costs for things like rental houses and tour guides. Sharing costs with another family may mean you can afford a nicer rental in a better location.

    Samantha McClure of Small World Travel in Austin, Texas, believes tour guides specializing in kids are one of the best vacation investments. "My kids didn't want to leave the Louvre after five hours with my favorite guide in Paris," says Ms. McClure. The guide was "worth her weight in gold."
     

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