Visiting an amusement park during the summer can be a fun family getaway, but make sure you're not needlessly overpaying for those rides on roller coasters and water slides.
An admission ticket to a regional amusement park often costs $40 to $50. That means a family of four could easily spend $300 on a one-day trip when all costs are tallied, said Tim O'Brien, author of The Amusement Park Guide.
The choices you make before you go and while you're there will determine how much you save and how much fun you'll have, he said.
"You have to do a little homework," O'Brien said. "The planning starts at home and continues even as you walk through the front gate."
We'll focus on local and regional parks and sidestep the Disney parks, which are topics in themselves. You can save money and avoid crowds, which is fundamental to getting the best value for your money. The less time you spend in lines, the more time you spend on rides.
Some of these tips also could apply to trips to the zoo, museum and aquarium.
Never pay retail
Frankly, the listed admission prices are for suckers or people who just don't care about wasting money. They're like a new car's sticker price that nobody actually expects you to pay. In fact, some parks are raising rates only to boast that they're offering bigger discounts, knowing some consumers are more influenced by the discount than the actual price.
Use a coupon
If you can't find a coupon to save money off admission price, you're probably not trying hard enough. Many parks will give you a discount just for going to their Web sites. Other places to look are on soft drink cans, in the newspaper, AAA, your warehouse club and at your employer's human-resources office.
First check out all the latest promotions on the park's Web site and then phone the park. Ask the guest relations person about any discounts and promotions the park is offering.
For example, Six Flags, owner of 13 theme parks, last month offered $15 off a full-price admission ticket simply for showing a receipt from a recent gasoline purchase.
While on the phone, inquire about how crowded the park is likely to be on the day you want to go and whether any special events, such as parades, music concerts, corporate picnics or fireworks are happening that day. You may decide to alter your plans to attend on a Sunday instead of Saturday, for example.
Recruit some friends
Most parks offer group rates, some for as few as 10 people. If you plan a trip to a park with a few neighbors, you could not only get the group rate but also save on parking if you carpool with a large vehicle or two.
Time it right
The best time of day to arrive and avoid crowds is morning, when the gates open. Another time to try is after 5 p.m., when you could qualify for a cheap late-day pass.
"If you only want to come in and ride two or three coasters, it's a great deal," O'Brien said. The best days of the week to go are Tuesdays through Thursdays to avoid weekend crowds. And the best time of the year is September, followed by early April, O'Brien said.
Even Labor Day weekend might not be bad because most families are in back-to-school mode and have had their summer fun already, he said.
It's a good idea to avoid the overpriced and often poor-quality food at an amusement park. Parks won't let you bring in your own food, but they will let you go back to the car, where you can have a cooler of food and drinks waiting.
In fact, many parks offer picnic grounds near the parking lot, so try to land a parking spot near the picnic area, O'Brien said.
Inside the park, you may be able to bring a bottle to refill at water fountains. Some parks offer souvenir cups with free refills.
Gregory Karp writes for the Morning Call in Allentown, Pa.