Families can still vacation without breaking the bank

Summer vacations are an American tradition, but now there's a new bugaboo crimping our style: high gasoline prices. The price of filling the tank can make a summer trip considerably more expensive in a time of economic uncertainty.

Maybe there isn't a way to reduce gasoline prices, but certainly there are ways to keep down the cost of a summer vacation. Some of them include travel closer to home, take a package tour, downscale your choice of lodgings and restaurants, look for deals.

Here are six suggested vacations that will give you a lot of bang for your buck.

Washington, D.C.

Just in time for summer vacationers, the nation's capital has come up with a wallet-stretching promotion called "Staying Power,'' good until Sept. 1.

Stay three nights including a Thursday or Sunday night at a participating hotel and get 30 percent off your entire stay, with rates starting at less than $100 a night. Other "Staying Power'' suggestions: Take a baseball outing at Nationals Park, above, for as little as $5 per seat. Ride the DC Circulator for $1 each. Take meals at classic D.C. places like Ben's Chili Bowl, Eastern Market, California Tortilla and Five Guys for less than $10 per person.

Best of all, admission is free to the capital's wonderful Smithsonian museums, its great memorials, the U.S. Capitol and many public concerts. Click on www.washington.org for promotion details or call toll-free 1-800-422-8644.

Mountain country

Get cool high in the mountains of western North Carolina. Outdoor lovers can hike, fish, tube and river raft. Sightseers can enjoy great vistas, take a scenic train ride and explore waterfalls. Looking for culture? Take in an outdoor drama or summer theater, listen to real country music or go shopping for mountain crafts. Just for fun, dig for rubies and other precious stones at one of the many gem mines.

Best way to enjoy the mountains is to book a cottage for a week, use it as your base. For instance, Mountain Brook Cottages On Cowee Mountain, 9 miles south of Dillsboro, has 12 fully equipped units. Prices start at $90 a night with a discount of 10 percent for stays of six nights or longer, and owners Michele and Gus will even clean your fish for you. Call (828) 586-4329 or go to www.mountainbrook.com for more information. Many other cottage rentals are available; call up "rental cabins western north carolina'' on your browser. For general information about western North Carolina, visit www.visitnc.com or call toll-free 1-800-847-4863.

Club Med

Club Med Sandpiper in Port St. Lucie, above, offers a Florida Residents Special starting at $99 per adult per night with children ages 2 to 15 $60 each, or $318 per night for a family of four. A minimum stay of two nights is required. The price includes lodging, all meals and snacks, all beverages (including alcoholic), Mini Club Med for kids, tennis, group sports lessons and nightly entertainment. Golf is on-site at an extra cost. The special is good until Oct. 24. Call toll-free 1-888-932-2582 or go to www.clubmed.us.

New England tour

If you like visiting pretty towns, historic sites and great seafood, you can spend a week traveling around New England for less than $2,500, including round-trip air fare from Florida for two, one-week car rental, gasoline and all lodging and dining. I know, because my wife and I did just that in late May.

We toured five states, visited charming towns in the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts, explored the seaside towns of Portsmouth, N.H., and Kennebunkport, Maine, took a steam train and river excursion in Essex, Conn., and cased one-of-a-kind shops in a couple of picture-perfect Vermont villages.

We stayed in chain motels at AAA or AARP rates as low as $69 per night, breakfast included. We drove 838 miles, paid $130 for gasoline. We dined mostly in inexpensive family restaurants, but twice enjoyed pricey lobster meals.

Costs in New England's summer high season no doubt will be higher than what we experienced, but with careful advance planning and an eye for economy, a car-touring vacation there or elsewhere is still possible without draining your vacation budget.

Cruising

An easy and reasonably priced vacation for Tampa Bay area residents starts at the cruise port in Tampa. From there two Carnival Cruise Line ships offer four-, five- and seven-night cruises into the Caribbean this summer. Four-night cruises on the Carnival Inspiration visit Cozumel and start at $479 per person, double occupancy, for an inside cabin; five-nighters visit Grand Cayman and Cozumel and start at $549. Seven-night sailings on the Carnival Legend visit Grand Cayman, Cozumel, Belize and Isla Roatan and start at $949. To all prices, add fuel surcharge of $7 per person per day and cruise fees ranging from $35 to $75. Price includes lodging, meals, most onboard activities and entertainment. Cost of shore excursions, drinks and certain services aboard is extra. Outside cabins are priced higher. Call toll-free 1-800-227-6482 or go to www.carnival.com.

Island fun

All-inclusive resorts, for which one pays one price upfront for all services, abound in the Caribbean. Among them is Grand Pineapple Beach Resorts, a new brand for the budget-minded created by Sandals Resorts. At its Antigua property, summer rates start at $223 per night for a family of four, based on a seven-night stay. Included are lodging, meals and snacks, beverages (including alcoholic), nonmotorized water sports and nightly entertainment. Call toll-free 1-877-846-3290 or go to www.grandpineapplebeachresort.com to learn more. The cost of air travel to and from this island or any other is extra, of course.

Jay Clarke, the former travel editor of the Miami Herald, is a freelance writer based in Coral Gables.

Families can still vacation without breaking the bank 06/05/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 5, 2008 12:31pm]

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