How to keep your vacation budget in line

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Whether you're driving, flying or hanging at home, the summer travel season has begun. 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 that 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 percent -- 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, recommends Mr. Jones. 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.

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 $55 to $60 a night.

Another option is renting a vacation home with family or friends from sites like VacationRentals.com or Vacation Rentals by Owner (www.vrbo.com), 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.

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 it 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.



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