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By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 6/19/2007 6:52:26 PM ET 2007-06-19T22:52:26

Planning a vacation this summer? You very well might be, considering that the weather’s fabulous, the kids are out of school and you’re probably due for a much-needed break.

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That said, you might want to hold off on taking your trip until September or October if you can. Rates for everything from accommodations to airfares are generally higher during the peak summer months when absolutely everybody wants to travel.

Summertime may be your main window to get away from it all, though, especially if you have school-aged children. If so, the following tips can help you save big bucks and also devise a strategy to handle any lingering credit-card debt that may follow you home.

1. Know what to expect. Especially if you’re footing the bill for a whole family of travelers, it’s important to get a fairly accurate picture of what you’re likely to spend before you go, not after the fact when the credit-card bill arrives in the mail. Come up with a rough tally of expenses for transportation, meals, accommodations and activities – and then be realistic by adding on some extra money as a buffer. Ask yourself: Do you have enough money saved up to cover the more generous travel budget?

2. Consider Plan B. If you can tell that you simply can’t afford this trip, try this: Go online and do a more thorough search for cheaper accommodations and transportation. Remember sites such as Priceline.com and Hotwire.com that allow you to choose areas of town and types of accommodations where you’d like to stay, as opposed to specific hotels; you can find deep discounts this way. Such sites also can help you find great rental-car deals. For flights, check the major aggregator sites — such as Orbitz.com, Travelocity.com and Expedia.com — and then trying the airlines’ Web sites directly for even lower prices with fewer fees. You also can get an idea of whether flights from your city might drop in price in future weeks by visiting Farecast.com.

3. Get creative. Bill Hampel, chief economist for the Credit Union National Association, provides this suggestion for would-be travelers on a tight budget: Knock a night or two off of the trip and see whether you can afford it then. Even if the vacation is a tiny bit shorter, you could still enjoy the benefits of spending time together as a family this summer.

4. Look into package deals. Do some sleuthing on travel Web sites and in your local newspaper’s Sunday travel section for packages that include the cost of flights, accommodation, tours and rental cars. All-inclusive resorts also offer good fixed-price deals that cover just about everything, including meals. You often can find surprisingly reasonable all-inclusive offers for destinations in Mexico, Costa Rica, Hawaii and other popular spots. And if a family reunion or other event involving multiple people is in your future, check out group-booking sites such as Groople.com. Your pack can coordinate a resort stay or a cruise that meets everybody’s needs.

5. Swap homes and save. Home-swap networks allow you to trade homes with people who live where you want to vacation. You can literally save thousands of dollars on a two-week vacation by eliminating hotel costs. To learn more, do a quick Google search for the words “home swap” or “home exchange.”

6. Don’t dismiss youth hostels. People of all ages can stay at hostels, which charge as little as $20 per bed per night. By booking early, families can rent large private rooms at hostels for a fraction of the price of a hotel. You can learn more about hostelling here and decide whether or not it’s right for you.

7. Steer clear of tourist traps. Whatever it is you may need while you’re away — from aspirin to disposable cameras to batteries — it will cost much less at a local supermarket or drug store than it will in your hotel gift shop. Another idea: Before you leave home, buy some inexpensive souvenirs for your children and stow them in your suitcase. When they clamor for toys and other items at the theme park, promise them that they have surprises waiting for them back at the hotel.

8. Save on breakfast and dinner. If you’re traveling with kids, opt for a hotel or hostel that offers a free continental breakfast to guests, or accommodations that come equipped with a refrigerator where you can store easy-to-eat items. To avoid big dinner bills, eat late lunches or early dinners off less-expensive lunch or early-bird menus.

9. Make good use of coupons. Pick up coupons for area attractions, tours and restaurants in your hotel lobby or at the visitors’ center where you’re staying, and scour the local newspapers for promotions. You’d be surprised how many two-for-the-price-of-one deals are out there. And remember, you can always apply this tip in your hometown and save right in your own backyard.

10. Decide how to deal with debt. Hampel of the Credit Union National Association notes that a vacation might be so important for your family that you may decide it’s worth it to take on a little bit of debt. If you do end up with travel-related debt — either by design or by accident — the trick is not to let that debt hang around for months on a high-interest credit card. To pay off your credit-card balance in full, Hampel suggests using your savings in combination with money from a home equity line of credit or a small closed-end loan from your bank or credit union. Then over the next three months or so, you can concentrate on paying back the loan or the line of credit, which are bound to have lower interest rates than most credit cards.

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