We all need a little travel. Playing tourist, getting away from home for a few days, vacationing for two weeks—these experiences re-energize and give us the opportunity to step back and look at our lives from a different perspective. Big ideas come from traveling. Life decisions. Your children gain, too. They see you more relaxed and engaged, plus they begin to understand that there’s a bigger world full of all kinds of people. New sights, sounds, and tastes can broaden their horizons.
Your family may be in scrimp-and-save mode right now. But you know what? So are big businesses, including airlines and hotels. They’re slashing prices and offering huge value-added perks, such as free meals, event tickets, and parking. Some discounts reach as high as 70 percent.
You can take advantage of this unprecedented buyer’s market. We asked Peter Greenberg, travel expert from NBC’s Today Show, to provide insider information for saving on the essentials: transportation, accommodations, food, and sights. Here’s Peter’s plan for your family.
Choose Your Vacation
Before you start looking into making reservations, ask yourself what kind of vacation works best for your family. An all-inclusive resort is a great option, for instance, because kids stay free at many of them. Food, transportation, and some activities are included in the rate, which means you do less planning and get more for your money. Similarly, cruises are all-inclusive (except for port activities), and you get to roam the open seas. Road trips can promote family togetherness, and though you may be wary of gas costs, it could be much cheaper than airline tickets. For accommodations, renting an RV or staying in a different motel each night might appeal to you—waking up in a new place every day can be exciting.
Camping is the ultimate low-cost option. Pitch a tent, swim in a lake, cook s’mores—the few expenses you’ll incur are food, entrance fee, and gas. Plus, what hotel room vista could beat a view of, say, the Rocky Mountains from your sleeping bag?
You might also consider a long-distance train ride. Amtrak offers the California Rail Pass, which allows up to 7 days of travel in a 21-day period ($159 per adult, $80 per child age 2 to 15, free for under 2). For about double the money, they also offer a nationwide rail pass. Just imagine the excitement for your kids when they hear "All aboard!"
This year, many of the great deals you’ll find now stretch all the way through the summer—and some into early fall.
- Flights. Buying airline tickets online is still the smartest way to find the best prices. Try aiming for the first flight out each morning if your young travelers can handle it; they’re cheaper and you’ll avoid major crowds. Likewise, mid-week flights are typically less expensive.
- Cars. If renting a vehicle, you’ll pretty much have your pick. Because business travel hasn’t fully recovered, rental companies have more cars than they know what to do with. If you own a car, don’t purchase the rental insurance offered. Chances are, your owner’s insurance covers it. Bring along a copy of the policy—you’ll save substantially. If you’re driving between states, beware of drop-off charges—most are negotiable, but make sure to address that in advance. In fact, a number of rental companies offer "drive away" deals. When they need to move cars seasonally (from Florida north during the summer, for example), they will often charge as little as $9 a day to have you drive one. These are not advertised deals, but if you ask, you can often get them. Another great booking tip: Reserve your car on a Saturday. That’s when rental companies tend to overbook their cars, so you might find yourself with a free upgrade.
- Motels. Skip the 800 reservations number. That will only get you to a national clearinghouse for reservations where prices are set firmly and the service agents don’t care as much about your business. Instead, call the motel directly and ask for the manager on duty or director of sales; these are the people with whom you can negotiate a lower rate or extras like a free meal. (You have power: An unsold room is revenue the hotel will never recoup.) Talking with the motel directly also establishes a relationship, so that when you arrive, you know who to go to, and you stand a better chance of getting an upgrade.
Save on the Road
- Food. Pack your own snacks for train, plane, and automobile rides. If your hotel room has a fridge or you’re staying in a rental home, get groceries and eat bagged lunches and breakfasts and dinners in. When eating out, look for coupons. Most city tourism offices and welcome centers sell or give out tourist discount cards or coupon booklets.
- Activities. You’ll find top draws at many destinations are free or low cost. In a city, buy a guidebook of great walks or take a walking tour. San Francisco’s City Guides (sfcityguides.org) offers 45 different free tours year-round, and Chronicle Books makes terrifically handy City Walks card deck guides for 15 cities worldwide. Shoot to visit museums on the days they offer free admission—Friday from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, for example. If you’re into nature, buy a National Parks annual pass for only $80. It covers you and three other visitors (kids under age 15 are free) and will get you into historic battlefields, seashores, and scenic rivers and trails, too. If you did a "grand circle" road trip to visit Grand Canyon, Zion, and Bryce Canyon National Parks without one of these passes, you’d pay $25 per vehicle per park.
- Shopping. Keep it to a minimum, or don’t do it at all. The photos you take and memories you make are far more valuable keepsakes than a souvenir coffee mug.