Save on family lodging

Families with children see double when it comes to lodging: two rooms, two baths, two desks, two closets. And when they get hit with the bill, they may see red.

In a double-occupancy world, where deals abound in the off-season and dry up during the summer and holidays, it can be tough for families to find affordable vacation digs.

But not impossible.

For advice, we turned to two moms with extra expertise: Darcy Jacobs, executive editor of Family Circle magazine, which regularly covers travel, and Pauline Frommer, creator of Pauline Frommer's Travel Guides, a new series aimed at adult budget travelers.

Like parents, they didn't always agree.

Think outside the hotel box, said Frommer, mother of a 10-year-old and a 6-year-old. "Do condos instead, which often can be less expensive and give you more room," she said.

But Jacobs, whose children are 10 and 4, said that given the tough economy and recent rate drops, "You should not discount hotels as an option."

Depending on your family's needs and interests, you might find that vacation homes, RVs or camping are better values than either hotels or condos.

A look at some options:

Hotels: Even with free meals for children, free breakfasts for adults and 50 percent off the second room, which the Ritz-Carlton Chicago recently offered for spring break, super-luxe digs may remain out of reach for many families. (The starting rate for that deal was $395 per night.)

But drop down a tier or two, and you might be pleasantly surprised.

"There are a lot of upscale hotels where you can stay for $120 or $150 per night," Jacobs said.

Many innkeepers, caught with empty rooms, are cutting rates and adding extras such as free meals and parking, she said.

Even in Hawaii, "which had been incredibly expensive" and where "you used to see $350 without blinking," she said, prices have tumbled.

For instance, the Hilton Waikoloa Village, a Big Island resort crammed with kid-friendly activities, recently offered rooms for less than $200 for the summer, or about $100 less than usual.

At resort locations, major chains such as Marriott, Hyatt and Loews also ensure that your offspring won't be bored, and these days, they might spring for breakfast and other extras, Jacobs said.

All-suite chains, such as Embassy Suites Hotels, mentioned by Jacobs, and Microtel Inns & Suites, mentioned by Frommer, are sweet spots for families. Besides offering two-room suites, divided rooms and pull-out sofas, these moderately priced hotels, also popular with business travelers, may include free breakfasts and local phone calls.

Jacobs and Frommer are big on hotel rewards programs, and not just to earn free stays. Just by joining, you can get room upgrades and clout at the front desk, which you shouldn't be shy about using, Jacobs said.

"You should call up places and ask, 'What else can you do for me?' " she said. "It's a traveler's market."

All-inclusive resorts that include robust children's and teen programs in the price, such as Club Med, can be good values for active families, she added, less so if the clan just chills around the pool or on the beach.

Condos and vacation rental homes: Room to roam and kitchens to prepare meals, which Frommer called "a lifesaver" for budget-wise families, are the advantages of these options. "There are more condos on Maui than hotel rooms," she said, and given the mortgage crisis, owners are ready to cut deals.

For more savings, share costs by renting a big house with another family; you'll probably get laundry facilities too, saving time and money.

Web sites such as www. rentalo.com and www.zonder.com, where owners offer condos and homes for rent to vacationers, serve up some reasonable rates. The cautious might want to book through a local real estate or rental agency, Frommer said, which may be better able to solve problems on-site and move you elsewhere if you dislike your lodgings.

RVs and camping: Ready to rough it? Tent campers are the ultimate penny-pinchers, fixing their own meals and sometimes barely breaking single digits to rent a campsite. Park cabins can be thrifty, too.

For a little more luxury, try an RV.

Frommer just got back from touring the Grand Canyon, Sedona and other Arizona sites in an RV with her husband and their two children.

Paying less than $50 a night to park their 32-foot RV at resorts, they enjoyed swimming pools, free toys and even a lending library.

What more could you want?

Better gas mileage would be nice, Jacobs said.

"It's a tradeoff," she said, "in that it's expensive to rent an RV, and they go through a lot of gas."

But in the end, you get off the beaten path without sacrificing much comfort.

"It's an adventure," Jacobs said.

Which, really, is why families leave home in the first place.

Save on family lodging 05/16/09 [Last modified: Monday, May 25, 2009 6:22pm]

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