Here comes the summer of our discontent. Economic pessimism and high prices on gas and food have Americans in a sour mood and curtailing their vacation plans, though they probably need those stress-busting breathers more than ever. Just ask Amy and Adam Geurden of Hollandtown, Wisc., parents of Eric, 6, Holly, 3, and Jake, 2. "We were going to take lots of weekends and short trips with the kids," says Amy. "We were going to go to the Wisconsin Dells, the Bay Beach Amusement Park in Green Bay, to Chicago and Door County." Then Amy did the math: 17 miles per gallon in the Chevy Suburban and $4 a gallon gas. Now the Guerdens are planning a "staycation" around the backyard swimming pool instead. "I'm really disappointed," she says.
So is almost everyone else. Almost 60 percent of Americans are cutting back their vacation plans because of gas prices. That's sad, because vacations are so good for you when you're feeling miserable. Here's how to squeeze in a little bit of travel fun without breaking the bank.
Location, location, location. Don't go so far away. "Everyone has places they've always wanted to go in their home state and region," says Tim Leffel, author of "Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune" (Travelers' Tales). "This might be the best summer ever to do that." Draw a circle on the map at 200 miles around your house, and choose a vacation spot within the circle. Alternatively, you can head way out of your circle. Instead of driving to the beach that's 400 miles away, fly to one of the Caribbean resort spots in Latin America for about the same amount of money. They've got off-season rates in the summer and have currencies pegged to the dollar, so they're not getting pricey like the euro countries. Leffel likes the beaches in Honduras, where prices are "cheap, cheap, cheap": a top hotel room and gourmet dinner will come in under $100. He's got more places and prices on his cheap destinations blog.
Getting there. Budget exactly how much you'll spend on gas by entering your destination and your car into the calculator at the American Automobile Association Web site. A family can save significantly by squeezing into the smaller car, or even renting a fuel-efficient car. (Hertz is offering a free tank of gas with a car rental, through the end of June.) Embrace all of those fuel-saving behaviors, like driving under the speed limit and keeping tires properly inflated. And check gasbuddy.com or your GPS system to find the cheapest prices on gas along your way. Fill up early in the morning or late at night, when cool air makes the gasoline more dense, and you'll get more for the money. Alternatively, leave the car at home. Competitive pricing on long-distance buses and decent train fares are making mass transit a solid choice for the summer of 2008. Companies like BoltBus and MegaBus offer some seats as low as a dollar. Plus, it's an adventure.
Creative lodging. Hotels are cutting deals this summer, and frequent travelers swear by the rates they get on Priceline.com and Hotwire.com. Before booking through a hotel Web site or 800 number, call the individual hotel directly and ask for their best rate. Pull out everything you've got—AAA membership, senior status, company affiliations, even your job title—to see if they've got a discount for you. Or seek unusual lodging: Kids love camping, and with all the RVs garaged because of high fuel costs, the campgrounds might be quieter than usual. You can arrange to swap homes with a like-minded family who lives where you want to travel. (Try homeswap.com or intervacusa.com). Or follow the time-honored tradition of freeloading off friends.
Saving along the way. It's the little things that will drain your vacation budget, so control them. Travel with a cooler, some ice, your favorite snacks and drinks. You can stop at grocery stores instead of fast-food chains and buy supplies for two meals a day. Make lunch your fancy restaurant meal. Bring your own bottle of bourbon (in the trunk, not the front seat) and have a drink in the hotel room before you go to dinner. Use coupons for attractions, and if you're staying put in a city, buy a book of passes (citypass.com) or restaurant discounts (entertainment.com). Plan museum visits in advance, so you can catch their free or reduced-price days. And skip the souvenirs: nobody really wants those shot glasses and snow globes anyway.