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Bargain shopping lowers cost, heightens enjoyment


No one ever said having kids was cheap. But on vacation, they seem to cost even more. A lot more.

Those extra burgers, fancy drinks with umbrellas, $18 souvenir T-shirts and theme-park admissions inevitably will show up on next month's credit card bill to wreck the most carefully honed budget. That's not counting the unexpected car repairs, emergency room visits, new cooler bought halfway across Wyoming or the four pay-per-view movies the kids watched in the hotel room the day it rained nonstop.

This year, a typical family of two adults and two kids traveling by car will spend an average $221.80 per day of travel for meals, lodging and auto costs, reports the American Automobile Association. That's $6.50 more than last year and the biggest hike in four years. Those traveling by plane will spend considerably more. A tip from AAA: The cheapest vacations are to be had in the Midwest; be prepared to pay dearly for lodging out West -- more than $90 a night.

But before deciding to stay home and pitch a tent in the back yard, consider these ideas for keeping the costs down on vacation this summer.

Rule 1: Book as early as possible to get the best deal. Invest in a couple of long-distance calls to see if any discounted rates are available in the spot you want to stay. Never accept the first rate offered, advises Nancy Dunnan, co-author of "Travel Smarts: Getting the Most for your Travel Dollar" (Globe-Pequot, $12.95).

Rule 2: Everywhere you go, ask about family plans, packages or deals. There are lots out there -- if you know about them. Motor clubs offer discounts to members. So do some credit cards. Even cities have them. Boston, for one, has the Boston Family-Friendly Pass, which provides a variety of discount coupons to area attractions as well as hotel packages designed for families (call [800] 888-5515).

Across the country, the travel industry has cooked up plenty of family-friendly deals, but they may not volunteer information about them unless specifically asked.

Days Inn, for example, is touting its Family Travel Club, which will provide members (who have paid $9.95 to join) discounts on rooms, meals and attractions. (Call [800] 505-4FTC for participating locations.)

Loews L'Enfant Plaza Hotel in Washington is offering rooms at $129 a night plus a coupon good for 25 percent off the price of all hotel food. Other Loews are offering enticements ranging from free tickets to the San Diego Zoo to a 10 percent discount on shopping at Bloomingdale's in New York (call [800] 23-LOEWS).

Delta Airlines, meanwhile, is offering kids (up to age 12) who join the Fantastic Flyer Program a 20 percent discount coupon on fares for four family members (call [800] 392-KIDS).

Rent a car from Hertz while staying at the Holiday Inn and get a free child car seat for four days as well (call Hertz at [800] 654-2210 or Holiday Inn at [800] HOLIDAY).

Rule 3: Plan lots of picnics. Indoor ones too. Opt for cereal and milk in the room for breakfast and have lunch at a park. We traveled across the West last summer with a cooler in our trunk. We ate more healthfully and cheaply -- and the kids could chase butterflies or climb trees while my husband and I ate in peace.

Rule 4: Consider out-of-season locales, suggests Ms. Dunnan. The ski resort or Caribbean hideaway that was out of reach last winter may be more affordable than you think now. It may not be booked either.

Rule 5: Get the kids in the money-saving spirit. Before heading out, talk to grade schoolers and teens about how much money there is to spend on the trip and on souvenirs. If they want to go on that extra snorkeling excursion, let them use their birthday money or allowance to do it. The same goes for extra souvenirs.

If they gripe about scrimping, explain that by saving on meals, they'll have enough money later for a pay-per-view movie or the video arcade. They won't complain anymore.

Parents shouldn't either when the trip costs more than they'd planned. After all, splurging is part of the fun.

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