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Cheap family travel

Venturing out with the kids? It pays to book early, shop for bargains, watch for freebies and consider a hostel stay.

May 03, 2009|Jane Engle, Chris Erskine, Anne Harnagel and Catharine Hamm

Families traveling with children face special challenges. Some tips on how to cope:

Get the hotel to clear out your room's mini-bar or lock it: Otherwise, every time junior opens the door, you may get dinged for a drink.

Ask for a mini-refrigerator: You can store breakfast fixings and restaurant leftovers.

Get on a list: Whether it's a hotel, airline or cruise line, people who sign up for frequent-guest or frequent-flier programs and e-mail alerts get the deals first. Just by belonging to a loyalty program, you can get respect at the front desk, including upgrades.

Watch for freebies: Breakfast, resort credits, kids-eat-free and other specials can subtract hundreds from your vacation budget.

Book early: Last-minute deals are great for people who can go off-season or don't much care whether they get two rooms or four berths or two beds. As a family, that's probably not you. To get what you want, when you want it, at an affordable price, plan ahead.

Check out free attractions: In Washington, D.C., entry is free at more than a dozen Smithsonian Institution facilities, including the National Zoo, National Air and Space Museum and National Museum of Natural History. In London, most major museums and art galleries, including the British Museum, are free to visit. Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo is also a worthy freebie.

Look for something new to do at old familiar places: Liven up a visit to family with a side trip to a park or attraction you've not seen before. The newly updated book "Off the Beaten Path," which also contains maps, has scores of ideas (Modoc National Wildlife Refuge or Mojave River Valley Museum, anyone?) and tells whether you can expect an admission charge.

Book a package: With airfare, hotel and rental car wrapped together, you can shave costs. The reason? The sellers don't have to disclose who gave the discount, so they can keep advertising higher rates to the general public.

Travel midweek to resort locations: Rooms that go for hundreds on weekends often sit vacant on weekdays, discounted by 20% or more.

Stay in business destinations on the weekends: When the road warriors go home, hotel prices sometimes drop, making them affordable, although often slightly off the beaten path.

Consider a hostel: These budget, dormlike accommodations aren't just for starving students anymore. Many now offer family rooms; some even have private baths. Check out the options at Hostelling International USA,

Take the train: Sleeping accommodations aren't cheap, but you can avoid them by snoozing in your seat or, better yet, taking day trips. Prices are often less than airfare. Try taking Amtrak's Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to San Francisco, via Oakland. Stay at a hotel a couple of days, then head back down. You can do the same on Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner, disembarking at San Luis Obispo.

Consider "attractions cards:" One company, Smart Destinations (, lets you buy one card with dozens of attractions (Go Card) or one card with three attractions (Explorer Pass). They're available for most major cities and can be purchased online.

Look for coupon codes. For attractions, Google the name of the place and "coupon code" or "discount." That tactic recently uncovered a two-for-one admission (now expired) at Washington's National Museum of Crime & Punishment that saved nearly $20 off the adult admission price.

Check bargain e-mail newsletters: offers great bargain advice, of course, but look also at some of the more broadly focused websites such as, which periodically lists travel specials.

Watch free football: Football teams open camps in July, and practices are usually free and open to the public. Check websites for practice times.

Look to work: Discounted tickets for admission to theme parks, museums, movie theaters and other attractions are often available through your workplace.

Eat before you leave: By feeding the kids you can minimize trips to overpriced theme park snack bars and restaurants. If you can bring food from home, pack your own lunches, drinks, etc.


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