Vacations for Families With Smaller Wallets

Maybe it's swinging in a double hammock, listening to your 5-year-old's latest knock-knock joke. Maybe it's stopping with your 9-year-old to gorge on huckleberries as you navigate mountain bikes down a trail studded with wildflowers. Maybe it's parasailing with your 17-year-old, or screaming your head off while testing out the newest scarier-than-ever roller coaster. Whatever your summer vacation fantasy, you can make it happen this year--no matter what the gloomy economic pundits say.

Go before it's too late, before the 9-year-old begs to go to camp, before the 17-year-old insists that his summer job and girlfriend will keep him home.

Sure, you're wondering whether you should spend the money this year. But you all need the time together. You worked hard for that vacation. More important, you don't have to win the lottery or get an unexpected promotion to make your gang's vacation dreams come true this summer. You just have to plan wisely.

Here are some suggestions:

* Shave a day or two off the trip in order to afford a stay in a resort with water slides.

* While on the road, eat picnic lunches instead of fast food.

* Alternate between pricey attractions and lazy days at the beach or hotel pool.

* Set the kids' souvenir budget before you leave home, and stick to it.

* Choose a place where meals are included, so you're not paying $3 every time your son wants a drink. Or prepare some meals yourself, thus avoiding $50 breakfast tabs.

* Check resort and vacation-area Web sites for special deals. Always call, too, and ask if there's a better rate or package. Ask again when you check in. You'll often be accommodated.

* Shift your vacation dates slightly to work around deals. You might even be able to afford places you've only dreamed about.

Impossible? Not when you spend your summer vacation in winter hot spots such as the Caribbean or Florida or Aspen, Colo. Not only will you pay less to sleep and play, but restaurants and other attractions (except theme parks) will be less crowded. Even Hawaii, which is never out of season, has plenty of summer deals for families. You should have better luck finding air fare deals too.

And you'll find plenty of other parents and kids who are looking for fun at a price that won't bust the budget. So many families head to the Caribbean in summer these days that they now call it "family season." Ski areas turn their children's ski schools into summer adventure camps and host festival after festival--music, art, film, dance--as well as guided hikes, fishing trips and rafting expeditions

My desk is piled high with summer deals. Here's a sampling:

On the big island of Hawaii, pay for one room at the Mauna Kea Resort and get a second room free. Kids 10 and under eat free and pay half price for Keiki Camp. Packages start at $330 per night. Call (800) 774-6234 or visit the Internet site http://www.princeresortshawaii.com.

Get every fifth night free, with packages starting at less than $175 per night, at one-bedroom Maui condos booked with Destination Resorts Hawaii, a condo company in the upscale area of Wailea. There are special car rental, tennis and golf packages as well as larger condos that are ideal for family reunions. They'll even buy your groceries for you before you arrive. Call (800) 367-5246 or visit http://www.drhmaui.com. While on Maui, pay only $54.50 (a savings of $20 per adult) and take a child for free on the Pacific Whale Foundation's eco-trip. You'll see dolphins and green sea turtles, and you'll snorkel at a partially submerged volcanic crater. Naturalists will show the kids how to snorkel. Call (800) 942-5311 or visit http://www.pacificwhale.org.

Book a week in a two-bedroom condo for $180 per night and get the seventh night free at the 48-unit Hanalei Colony Resort on Kauai. A three-hour Keiki Camp with an emphasis on Hawaiian crafts and culture costs $20. Call (800) 628-3004 or visit http://www.hcr.com.

Help researchers put sea turtle eggs back into the ocean during your stay at the CasaMagna Marriott resorts in Puerto Vallarta and Cancun. All-inclusive rates start at just under $320 per night, including kids' club, all meals and drinks. The Cancun resort is also close to Mayan ruins. Call (800) 223-6388 or visit http://www.offshoreresorts.com.

In select cities you can save 20% on weekend rates at Omni Hotels when you start your sightseeing trip on a Friday. Cities include New York, Dallas, Los Angeles and Chicago. Rates start at less than $100 a night--more than half off--and include a kids' welcome kit. Call (800) THE OMNI or visit http://www.omnihotels.com. Kids should visit http://www.omnikidsrule.com for tips on the most kid-friendly sites in town.

Spread out in a suite and get free breakfasts at Doubletree Suites and Embassy Suites. Embassy gives kids Nickelodeon Trip Packs, complete with camera, toy and Nick trip journal. Call (800) 222-TREE or visit http://www.doubletree.com; [800] EMBASSY or http://www.embassysuites.com.

Take the kids to free children's programs at the summer-long Aspen Music Festival while staying in hotels starting at $130 a night.

Spend the rest of your time hiking, mountain biking and checking out the shops where the stars go during ski season. Call (888) 290-1324 or visit http://www.aspenchamber.org.

Taking the Kids appears the first and third week of every month.

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