Despite what the calendar says, it seems we've turned the corner into summer. The pool in my town is open, the kids are itching to get to camp, and more often than not, we're cooking dinner on the grill.
We also have vacation on the brain. My family is lucky; we live within a short drive of a few nice beaches, so we're still planning to make the trip this year, despite the strain of high gas prices. But many people don't have that luxury, and are instead sticking close to home and enjoying what's been coined a "staycation."
In a recent study by Better Homes and Gardens, nearly half of respondents said they'd be spending less this year on vacations and travel, a finding that was reinforced by the low travel numbers on Memorial Day weekend.
If your heart is set on an overseas or cross-country trip, you're likely on the lookout for ways to save, not only on gas, but also on airfare, hotels and even food. We dipped into the brains of a few travel experts to get the latest and greatest ideas for vacationing this summer without coming home to an empty bank account.
"A lot of times, people have a list of things they want to do nearby that they never get around to. There's certainly a good incentive this year to do that," says Tim Leffel, author of "Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune."
Don't get stuck on the idea that you've been there, done that just because you're limited to a 100-mile radius. You likely haven't even scratched the surface, so go into this with a positive attitude. Your first stop should be the Web site of your town, or of the place you're interested in visiting.
"Every city has a convention and visitors bureau or chamber of commerce, and almost all of them have Web sites that post information about the destination, specials and travel packages," says Anne Banas, executive editor of SmarterTravel.com. Another option: If you live near your state's border, you've likely seen a visitor's center. Stop in one day and ask for ideas, and you'll no doubt leave with a fresh perspective on your area and a handful of pamphlets. And don't forget to ask friends, neighbors and co-workers for their favorite local vacation spots.
Look for gas rebate cards and other deals
The fact that people are traveling a little less this year could work to your advantage, predicts Banas.
"A lot of hotel providers and theme parks are starting to panic a little, and I'm starting to see a lot of discounts. I think this summer might be a great summer for good deals, and that can offset some of the cost of gas." Gas rebate cards are being doled out mainly by hotels looking to fill their rooms.
I did a quick Google search and turned up an inn in Virginia Beach offering a $25 gas card with an overnight stay, and a couple of Best Western outlets offering the same. Others are touting deals where kids stay or eat free. With a little more frequency, these savings can really add up in the long run. There's one caveat: Compare prices with others in the same area and quality range to be sure that the hotel hasn't jacked its rates up to compensate for the promotions.
If you know you want to get out of the house for a week, but you don't have your heart set on any specifics, you can save a bundle by using online tools. Web sites like Orbitz and Expedia regularly feature package deals, and you can sign up for an alert service at airfarewatchdog.com that will send you a weekly e-mail with reduced ticket prices out of your local airport. Others, such as Travelocity and Kayak.com, will allow you to input the amount you want to pay for airfare, and then send you an alert e-mail when they find a ticket price below that amount. "That's useful because a lot of times, if you have a few places you're thinking of going and a good price comes in for one, you can grab it and the decision is made," says Leffel.
Also, if you can stay open as far as the dates you plan to travel, leaving and returning midweek is almost always going to cost less.
Consider a swap
If you saw the movie "The Holiday," you know exactly what I'm talking about. Web sites like homeexchange.com allow you to create a profile for your home, and then search for houses or apartments in areas you'd like to visit.
If you find something you like, you contact the owner and see if they'd be interested in swapping for a week or two. The annual membership fee is about $100, well worth it when you consider the amount you'll save by forgoing a hotel, and it's generally very safe.
"I'm sure problems pop up from time to time, but there's an element of trust there, because you're in their house, too. I have friends who do it all the time and think it's fantastic," says Leffel. If you're worried about leaving your house in someone else's hands, he advises setting up the exchange so you also swap deposits just in case, then return them once you find your home unscathed. And of course it's never a bad idea to lock up any real valuables in a safe or safe-deposit box at the bank.
With reporting by Arielle McGowen.
Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at Money Magazine and serves as AOL’s official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC’s TODAY Show and is also a columnist for Life Magazine. She is the author of four books, including 2004’s “Pay it Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day” (Portfolio). To find out more, visit her Web site, .