15 Tips for Planning Affordable School Holiday Family Vacations

By Nancy Schretter, Editor

If you're just starting to think about making your family's travel plans during the upcoming school holidays, you're not alone. According to researchers, most families still schedule their vacations during school holiday periods, although some are opting to take their children out of school to travel during off-peak times. If you're looking for family travel bargains or ways to make your family's vacation as hassle-free as possible, here are fifteen tips for saving time, cutting costs, and making great memories on your family's next trip.

1. Know your budget - and how far you're willing to stretch it for a good last minute deal. Realize that last minute travel planning during school holiday periods generally doesn't necessarily yield great bargains, but you might get a good value if you're willing to do a lot of research. If you find an appealing resort vacation option that is a bit out of your reach, consider staying for a shorter period rather than opting for a sub-optimal spot. Also, being willing to try something new or different can result in a good value during peak school vacation times. In addition to the usual warm weather beach destinations, cruises and ski trips, consider money saving options such as city-based sightseeing trips, resorts within driving distance, trips to college towns, or staying at a family-oriented bed & breakfast. Newly opened resorts and off-peak destinations, such the northern coast of Florida, as well as Georgia and South Carolina, also may yield deals during these school holiday periods.

2. Sit down with your family and determine your preferences. The best family vacations are not necessarily the most expensive ones. They usually are trips that revolve around family interests or vacations where each member of the family gets to do at least one thing they really want to do. When you have your family meeting, outline a few general options that fit your budget and might be fun (i.e. "We could go skiing at a resort a few hours away, or we could go on a 3-night family cruise, or we could go to a resort where there would be lots of sports, activities, and a great indoor swimming pool.") We've found this to be extremely helpful in putting together a trip with elements everyone can enjoy. Be prepared to discuss budgets, expectations, and how you can work with the dollars available to plan a memorable family vacation. For spring break periods, be aware of which destinations attract large crowds of college students and choose your vacation spot carefully if you would like to avoid this scene.

3. Let family members do some of the research. Kids are often Internet research gurus, and they certainly want to have fun on their next vacation. If your kids are old enough, write down the results from your family meeting and enlist their research help. Make sure to give them general budget information, possible trip dates, destination ideas, important criteria for your vacation destination, and any other information that might be helpful. Once you find some potential vacation options, check out sites like TripAdvisor.com, WheretoStay.com, Cruisemates.com and CruiseCritic.com for "been there - done that" reviews.

4. Enlist some help. If you are the independent type who likes to pull together your entire vacation on your own, call some air consolidators who may be able to help you find a good airfare deal. If you don't want to do your own legwork, contact a great travel agent, ski tour operator, or cruise-only specialist. These professionals are particularly important when you're looking for a package deal or need to pull together airfares and lodging at the last minute. Instead of picking up the phone and saying, "I want to go somewhere for the upcoming school break," tell them about your budget and the preferences you came up with at your family meeting. That will help the agent locate the options that best meet your needs.

5. Search the Internet for savings. Online websites are full of deals, so make sure to shop around. Take a look at sites such as: www.travelzoo.com, www.skyauction.com, www.vacationstogo.com, www.cruise-compete.com, www.frommers.com, www.smartertravel.com, and www.resortvacationstogo.com -- all of which can help locate possible last-minute vacation options and save you money. Last year, we scored a great last minute spring break cruise deal using Vacations To Go. The Family Travel Network's Hot Deals area is also a good source for last minute bargains.

6. Learn to play the airfare game. Airlines typically have sales a few weeks before holidays and often offer deep discounts on remaining seats. If you opt for this travel strategy, you will likely end up with a very short stay and flights with less than optimal connections. If there is a fare war, those discounts are often blacked-out during holiday periods and require a Saturday night stay. You could try to work around those. Here's a tip: check Travelocity's Low Fare Finder by marking "my dates are flexible" Search for flights and fares. It's a great way to find the best price between two city pairs if you don't have firm travel dates. Expedia and Orbitz are other good bets. Also, make sure to check the websites of some of the low-cost airlines such as Southwest, Jet Blue, Spirit and others. They may have some reasonably priced options available for you, and their fares are generally not listed on the major booking engine sites. In addition, consider driving to an alternative airport - especially if it is served by a low-fare airline. A one-hour drive can often deliver savings of several hundred dollars per ticket, making your dream family vacation suddenly affordable.

7. Reserve your rental car as far in advance as possible - and be careful about which rental car company you choose. Several years ago, I booked a last-minute peak-period family vacation to the Keys during a time when the airlines offered their deep discounts on selected flights. We got tickets to Ft. Lauderdale - lucked out and got 3 nights of accommodations at a Key West resort - but the rental car was a problem. We finally were able to make a reservation through one of the off-airport chains. When we arrived that morning, however, we saw over 50 people waiting in front of the check-in counters ... and no cars. We waited in line for over 4 hours, with more and more people arriving by the minute. Many of these people were on packages and had prepaid vouchers for their cars. While we were finally able to rent a car through another agency, the people with prepaid vouchers had to endure agonizingly long waits for cars to become available. As a result of this lesson, I learned that rental car reservations should be made before airline tickets are purchased to avoid being stranded. Check out www.hotwire.com, another good source of low-rate rental cars.

8. Don't give up if the resort of your choice doesn't have space. Think creatively. Call the Visitor's Bureau or the Chamber of Commerce for names of rental agents in the area and check online as well. Perhaps some condominiums that might be available through local rental groups. ResortQuest is a one-stop shop with condominium rental agencies in a wide variety of vacation destinations across the United States. Wimco is an excellent choice for villa and vacation home rentals in Europe and the Caribbean. Others can easily be found by typing the name of your destination and "vacation rental" into your favorite search engine. Also, consider such destinations as Salt Lake City, where a large number of downtown hotels are located within reasonable driving distance to the slopes. Some of these city-hotels have low occupancy levels over the weekends and may be offering some great deals.

9. Consider renting directly from an owner. If you're finding that everything is either sold out or out of your price range, don't give up. Go directly to the owner instead. Many highly desirable resort communities contain condominiums, villas, and vacation homes that are rented by their owners. Rates for these properties can be up to 40-50% less than those charged by nearby hotels. In fact, some Marriott and Westin resorts contain timeshare properties that may often be rented directly from the owners for the holidays. The Vacation Rentals By Owner website contains 110,000 listings of properties across the country and around the world. Other good websites to check include HomeAway.com and 10Kvacationrentals.com. If your dream rental is still out of your price range, consider bringing along some friends and splitting the cost. Taking your vacation with another family with children around the same age as your own provides built-in playmates for your kids, as well as additional hands to help with the cooking and chores.

10. Be persistent. If your first choices are filled, request to be put on the waiting list. If they don't maintain a waiting list, ask if there is a certain time period when final deposits are due. Many resorts require final payments 30-45 days in advance of arrival, and some cancellations are likely to occur around those time periods. These are particularly good times to call if you are planning a short two- to four-night getaway which may not meet the resort's minimum stay requirements. As school break periods get closer, resorts will be seeking to fill occupancy gaps and may relax their minimum stay requirements.

11. If you're going to a popular resort or taking a cruise for your vacation, make your activity reservations as far in advance as possible. Many large resorts, such as The Greenbrier in West Virginia and The Homestead in Virginia, accept dinner and activity reservations at the time of booking. If you want one of the prime family dining slots between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m., reserve it early. Likewise, if you have your heart set on any special activities, such as children's programs, carriage rides, spa appointments or tee times, book these in advance as well. The same early booking advice applies if you're taking a cruise. Complete your check-in online if possible, and make shore excursion reservations in advance to avoid delays and disappointments. To save money, or if ship shore excursions are full, consider independent tour operators such as ShoreTrips and others. You can find additional names and reviews of independent shore excursion operators on the destination message boards of Cruise Critic and CruiseMates.

12. School breaks are one of the most crowded times for ski resorts, so plan accordingly. Purchase your lift tickets in advance (at least that's one line you'll get to skip), and try to plan your days' ski times and meal times to avoid the crowds. Many hotels and condominiums have concierge services who can help guests make reservations. Use their help, and make sure to call for the resort's vacation planning guide or other materials before you come. Many resorts offer these on their websites as well, along with schedules of events and activities. If not, call the concierge or guest services to see what help they can provide. Call the resort in advance to inquire about child care, ski school programs, and equipment rentals. Advance planning will make your vacation a much more enjoyable one.

13. If you're staying in a condominium, buy your groceries before you get to the resort. Supermarkets located slopeside or at major resort destinations often charge considerably higher prices than stores several miles out of town. You'll save money both by cooking your own meals and by purchasing your groceries in advance.

14. Search for special packages and compare costs. Some resorts offer family packages, "kids eat free" specials, or other offers during the holidays, so make sure to take a look at resort and hotel chain websites to find these deals. For ski trips, try to choose a resort offering "kids ski free" programs. At some areas, two kids as old as twelve ski free with a paying adult, while at others, children 5-6 years of age ski free with paying adults.

15. If low-cost airfares aren't available, consider family-friendly resorts, city hotels, B&Bs, and ski destinations within driving distance. In years past, local family-friendly resorts and other vacation options close to home were most likely to still have last-minute availability. This may be different this year due to high airfares and gas prices, but last-minute cancellations can happen. If the resort of your choice is full, try to be flexible with your dates, put your name on the cancellation list, look for condominiums or bed and breakfast options in the area, and scour the direct-to-owner websites for possibilities.

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