FAMILY TRAVEL: ONE LAST SUMMER FLING

Jennifer Foley of Annapolis, Md., knows her days of summer are numbered. This week she and her 8-year-old daughter Jacqueline are taking a trip to Houston. A few days later her entire family--three kids, one husband--will drive to New York. On the itinerary: the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty and dinner in Chinatown. "It's great to travel this time of year," says Foley, a 40-year-old lawyer, citing lower airfare. "Like many mothers, I'm thinking: 'Where did summer go?' "

And where have you gone? If your children have yet to collect enough stories about the latest museums and monuments, there's still time to book one last family getaway. The travel industry is certainly doing its part by rolling out a new batch of deals on hotels and flights. "Since there's a lag in the market after the kids go back to school, pricing gets aggressive at the end of summer," says Nathan Van Prooyen, director of e-commerce at lastminutetravel.com. Here's what to do to cash in:

Set your sites. If you're booking now, you don't have a lot of time. Searching for flights on last-minute travel sites is a good option. But experts say a better idea on short notice is to book your flight and room together. (As of last week, a three-night stay in Orlando, Fla., on a flight from Chicago, was $233 per person at hotwire.com.) Once synonymous with retired folks on tour buses, packages have suddenly become the hot ticket. Why? As more hotels stick to published rates because of price guarantees (their way of fighting off competition from discount sites), it's getting harder to find that bargain suite. But a package, which doesn't itemize costs, allows chains to secretly mark down their rooms. Last month even American Airlines (aa.com) added an option that lets you book a last-minute flight with a hotel (a weekend trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco is about $200 per person). But if you still insist on keeping your flight and hotel separate, then try cheap flights.com. You plug in your destination (travel must be flexible), and it scoops up the best sales from other Web sites. Then you travel around the deal. We found a cheap August flight from Los Angeles to Honolulu for about $300.

Overseas, please. Nigel Smith, a 41-year-old maintenance engineer, has a 9-year-old daughter who's about to start the fourth grade. She'll be spending her last week of summer in the Bahamas. "We're going to relax and do absolutely nothing," he says. "Not too many people go there this time of year, so it'll be quieter." The trade-off is that it's hurricane season but, says Smith, "I can think of worse places to get stuck."

You and your family might also be tempted to flee the States. But where would you head with so little time left? Travel experts say the easy answer is to find a few open slots on a cruise, where they'll do the planning for you. Last-minute deals are still available on Expedia.com--a five-night trip to the Caribbean starts at $259 a person (it leaves on Aug. 29). "The Disney and Carnival cruise lines really cater to families [offering special activities for various age groups]," says Kari Swartz, the site's product manager for leisure travel.

Must-see TV. But there are still plenty of alternatives for landlubbers. "I think kids have a renewed appreciation for big cities," says Rudy Maxa, host of a public-television series on travel. He recently took his fiancee's daughter on a trip to New York and was surprised at a top destination on her list: Trump Tower, home of "The Apprentice." Maxa says "television has made an icon" of metropolitan spots like New Orleans, Chicago and Seattle. (Note to out-of-touch parents: they all hosted "The Real World.") Combine their must-see destinations with more cultural outings, like an art exhibit or a show. Then you'll all get fired... up.

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