From a reader in Arizona, "Can you help me? Last year was hard on my family moneywise. Each year we take a week vacation to Disney, Colorado, or the California coast. This year, money is tight and our plan is to skip the vacation and stay home. My husband wants to still go, but we definitely can't afford it. Looking for ideas for a cheaper vacation that's cooler than 110 in the summer. Thanks. J."
Great question. The first thing I might suggest is to check and see how cheap you can get reservations at your favorite destinations. Booking online takes a certain talent and it's worth honing your skills to search out deals. The hospitality industry has really taken a beating in this recession and even ocean front accommodations are being heavily discounted. Another way to nab some special deals that knock off anywhere from 20-35% of your vacation bill is to try to book your trips in the shoulder seasons. Plan your vacation right around when the kids get out of school or at the very end of the summer. You would be surprised how motivated some independent motel owners are during these off-peak seasons.
But if you really want a good cheap vacation, you live within driving distance of some of the best National Parks this country has to offer. Maybe you've already had your fill of the Grand Canyon and it is pretty darn hot in the summer especially below the rim. But there are some other great places that aren't much further out like Zion National Park (lots of shade in the canyons) and Bryce Canyon in Utah, which at an elevation of 9,000 feet, is very temperate even in August. If you're willing to drive a little further, you can't beat the scenery of Yosemite which also has campsites at higher elevations that usually don't require reservations. If you want to avoid the summer crowds, try Sequoia National Park and neighboring Kings Canyon where you can see some of the largest trees in the world while enjoying weather that rarely gets above 80 degrees.
Camping is dirt cheap and some of these national parks offer up some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. Buy a used tent and some camping gear off of Craigslist and you'll be set for an ultra cheap adventure. National Parks are a bargain, subsidized by the U.S. taxpayer. Entrance fees typically are $20 but if someone in your party is 62 or older, they can get lifetime access for ten dollars. If you want to see more than one park, think about getting an annual pass for a mere $80.
Of course, there are fees for camping but they are laughable. Your senior companion will nab you a prime spot for $10 a night and if you aren't traveling with them, it shouldn't cost more than $20 in most parks. Find some friends and set up two tents and a whole week will set you back anywhere from $35 to $70. Add in your gas and your whole trip might cost you $200 driving from Arizona. While your food cost will increase your bill, you would have eaten anyway at virtually the same cost.
Not quite into roughing it? There are campsites in some of the major National Parks that are pretty comfy with showers, pools, and even fixed tents. You can always rent a camper or RV although this will set you back a bit. But the cost would still be a fraction of the cost for a week of peak season lodging at Disney.
The best thing about camping in a park is that you can probably have two vacations for half the price of a single trip to the California coast.
For those of you on the East Coast, you can beat the summer heat by heading to Acadia National Park which is right on the ocean and always has temperate summer climate.
- The most desirable spots in parks like Yosemite fill up fast. Typically, spots fill up in minutes 5 months in advance when they are released. Click Schedule to see when to book.
- There is a bit of upfront expense with camping buying gear, but if you can snag a good used deal and some $20 sleeping bags, it really isn't that much.
- The more popular parks have lots of free activities for the kids and even when they do charge, the fees are nominal.
- Bring all your own food and drink as the parks can be a bit pricey especially for perishable items. The only thing you should have to buy at the park is ice.
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