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RISMEDIA, June 2, 2010—(MCT)—Whether you’re driving, flying or hanging at home, Memorial Day weekend marked the start of the summer travel season.And it can quickly become a budget-buster.

“It’s easy to underestimate the cost of a vacation,” said Dave Jones, president of the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies, adding there’s a lot of pent-up craving for a vacation coming out of this recession. But the last thing anyone needs, he said, is “a one-week vacation that takes one year to pay off.”

When glitzy theme parks charge gazillions and cheap airfares are harder to come by, maxing out a credit card can happen all too quickly.

The average family of four will spend $4,000 on a vacation this summer, according to a recent American Express survey of 2,000 U.S. consumers. Only half of those surveyed—51%—planned to take a summer getaway, but the vast majority said they’re devising strategies to cut costs while traveling.

Here are some how-to tips:

Know what it costs
Don’t get blindsided by the daily parking-lunch-souvenir-drinks-dinner-nightlife routine. If you haven’t set aside vacation savings, try planning a trip you can pay off completely within three months. That way, you’re not dipping into your emergency reserves or overloading credit cards.

Getting there
For a family of four, traveling by car will almost always be cheaper than flying. But distances and logistics don’t always make that possible. If you’re making airline reservations, take note that planes are flying fuller and filling up faster. If your travel time is flexible, booking flights during off-peak hours or midweek can be a money-saver. Try websites such as Airfarewatchdog.com or Kayak.com, which search for the lowest rates among dozens of carriers. Compare prices with your favorite airline’s reservations site. Before booking, be sure your comparisons include all taxes and fees, and take into account the number/duration of stops.

Beyond the box
Look for alternatives to pricey hotel rooms: vacation cabins, staying with friends or family, bed-and-breakfast inns, even a local hostel. For instance, if you’re visiting Seattle near the University of Washington campus, a single room at the European-style College Inn—breakfast included, bathroom down the hall—is only $55 to $60 a night. Nightly rates at Sacramento’s downtown hostel start at $28 for a shared dorm or $55.75 for a single private room. Another option is renting a vacation home with family or friends from sites like VacationRentals.com or Vacation Rentals By Owner, which lists homes, condos, apartments and cabins. If you’re a B&B enthusiast, sites like BedandBreakfast.com let you sign up for free, weekly e-mail alerts for last-minute, discounted B&B rooms.

Gas up and go
Sites like www.traffic.com show you real-time traffic congestion and give estimates on your arrival time at destinations within major cities. The AAA website, www.csaa.com, shows travel tips and driving routes across the country with the nearest stops for lodging, restaurants, gas stations and more. GasBuddy.com lets you find the nearest, cheapest gas stations in cities nationwide.

Avoid food fights
If you’re driving, bring a cooler and blue ice that you can refreeze. If you’re staying in a hotel, try booking one with a kitchenette or complimentary breakfast. If the room has a fridge, a stash of fruit, cereals and breakfast snacks can be a huge savings over eating out every morning. Whether it’s in a new city or a foreign country, the local grocery store often yields affordable foodie finds, including local breads, coffees, wines and baked goods. And loading up at a supermarket salad bar can be just as filling—not to mention healthier—than the nearby fast-food joint. For an alternative to expensive dinners, look for happy-hour deals that offer small plates at enticing prices. Or eat your bigger meal of the day at lunch, rather than off the pricier dinner menu.

Backyard getaway
Taking a “staycation” may sound trite, but vacationing in your hometown can be a refreshing, low-cost way to get away without going far. Check your local newspaper and online listings for free fairs, outdoor events and low-cost shows. Local visitor bureaus have free travel guides, often with discount cards. Or explore your local trails, bike paths and waterfronts. Plan a series of weekend outings to state or national parks at www.parks.ca.gov, where daily parking rates start at $8 and overnight camping at $35. Involve the kids, suggests Jones. Have them look up free things they’d like to see or do in your region.

In these times, splurging on a vacation can be tempting but financially disastrous. “Even though it may feel good at the time, you risk the financial security of your family if you use up all your savings on a vacation,” said Jones. Instead, seek the fun-but-affordable vacation.

(c) 2010, Sacramento Bee

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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