As the economic recession lingers -- and forecasts look bleak well into the months ahead -- many of us need a vacation from our real lives more than ever before.
Of course, this is also a time when you want your dollar to work extra hard for you.
So how do you travel in a recession, and where can you cut costs without forfeiting that holiday feeling?
Food for the Road: Nothing empties your wallet faster than dining out three times a day and stopping for additional snacks when you feel the craving. By being well-organized and thinking ahead, you can reduce these costs considerably.
I typically carry a picnic basket on any trip stocked with mini cereals, sandwiches for lunch, fruit and other healthy snacks. These are items that seldom make it back to my pantry, and by carrying with me a few staples like milk, bread, cheese and tomatoes, I can ensure my packed lunches last more than a day.
Case in point: On a recent trip, I calculated that between breakfast, lunch and dinner for a family of five at the buffet, I'd be spending $232 a day before paying for accommodations. By doing some advance grocery shopping and stocking the mini-fridge with basic supplies, we ate breakfast and lunch on our own, heading off to a local restaurant only once a day for dinner. This way, the daily bill for food came down to a much more manageable $75.
Inn-ing It: Hotels are predictable -- a fact that's sometimes a comfort, but also sometimes a bore. For a different take on accommodations that are frequently less expensive and much more personal, consider staying at an inn or a bed-and-breakfast.
Of course, you'll want to do your homework first, by browsing through their Web sites, at the very least, and ensuring that your bed-for-the-night is not the one freshly vacated by the owner's college-aged kid. But pick the right place and you'll find yourself in a warm home with hosts who love conversing with newcomers and recommending their favorite city haunts.
If you do chose a hotel, try to pick one that includes a continental or sit-down breakfast.
Freebies & Coupon Clippers: Washington, D.C., is a terrific place to explore on a budget because many of its major attractions -- including the Smithsonian Museums and the National Monuments -- offer free admission. Check out the newly opened National Museum of Crime and Punishment on your next visit, and visit the Lillian and Albert Small Jewish Museum (also no admission fee) of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington.
Before you go to D.C. -- or anywhere, for that matter -- call the Convention & Visitors' Bureau for an information packet.
Those bundles of promotional material often contain coupons you wouldn't ordinarily find to attractions you want to visit anyway. In Atlantic City, N.J., for example, the visitor packet, which can be obtained by calling 1-888-AC-VISIT (or log on to: www. atlanticcitynj.com) contains coupons for the aquarium, for Steel Pier and for Lucy the Elephant, among other attractions.
It's easy to scoff at coupons, but when you're standing at a ticket booth and forking out greenbacks, they're useful items to have on hand.
Forget Weekends: Remember that weekends are the busiest times to travel, and times when you are most likely to find high occupancy -- and, consequently, higher rates -- at hotels and attractions. Consider starting and ending your vacation during the week. By being more flexible on your travel dates and times, you can save dollars that get zapped as fast as you can say "weekend."
Unpack the Old Tent: If you haven't seen your camping gear for years, perhaps it's time to haul it out of the garage and consider a back-to-nature vacation. National parks are incredibly budget-friendly, and for an $80 National Parks Pass, you can buy yourself unlimited, year-long access to the national parks, as well as the educational ranger programs they offer children.
The Haggle Leverage: If you are going to stay in a hotel, don't leave home without your negotiation skills. With fewer heads in beds thanks to the recession, hotels are more willing to bargain than they have been in times past. If the front manager won't change the room rate, he or she might at the very least throw in a free breakfast, parking or other credits.