Whether you're driving, flying or hanging at home, the summer travel season has begun. And it can quickly become a budget-buster.
"It's easy to underestimate the cost of a vacation," said Dave Jones, president of the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies, adding that there's a lot of pent-up craving for a vacation coming out of this recession. But the last thing anyone needs, he said, is "a one-week vacation that takes one year to pay off."
When glitzy theme parks charge gazillions and cheap airfares are harder to come by, maxing out a credit card can happen all too quickly.
The average family of four will spend $4,000 on a vacation this summer, according to a recent American Express survey of 2,000 U.S. consumers. Only half of those surveyed -- 51 percent -- planned to take a summer getaway, but the vast majority said they're devising strategies to cut costs while traveling.
Here are some how-to tips:
Know what it costs
Don't get blindsided by the daily parking-lunch-souvenir-drinks-dinner-nightlife routine. If you haven't set aside vacation savings, try planning a trip you can pay off completely within three months, recommends Jones. That way, you're not dipping into your emergency reserves or overloading credit cards.
For a family of four, traveling by car will almost always be cheaper than flying. But distances and logistics don't always make that possible.
If you're making airline reservations, take note that planes are flying fuller and filling up faster. If your travel time is flexible, booking flights during off-peak hours or midweek can be a money-saver.
Beyond the box
Look for alternatives to pricey hotel rooms: vacation cabins, staying with friends or family, bed-and-breakfast inns, even a local hostel.
For instance, if you're visiting Seattle near the University of Washington campus, a single room at the European-style College Inn -- breakfast included, bathroom down the hall -- is only $55 to $60 a night.
Another option is renting a vacation home with family or friends from sites like VacationRentals.com or Vacation Rentals By Owner (www.vrbo.com), which lists homes, condos, apartments and cabins. If you're a B&B enthusiast, sites like BedandBreakfast.com let you sign up for free, weekly e-mail alerts for last-minute, discounted B&B rooms.
Gas up and go
Sites like www.traffic.com show you real-time traffic congestion and give estimates on your arrival time at destinations within major cities. The AAA website, www.csaa.com, shows travel tips and driving routes across the country with the nearest stops for lodging, restaurants, gas stations and more. GasBuddy.com lets you find the nearest, cheapest gas stations in cities nationwide.
Avoid food fights
If you're driving, bring a cooler and blue ice that you can refreeze. If you're staying in a hotel, try booking one with a kitchenette or complimentary breakfast. If it has a fridge, a stash of fruit, cereals and breakfast snacks can be a huge savings over eating out every morning.
Whether it's in a new city or a foreign country, the local grocery store often yields affordable foodie finds, including local breads, coffees, wines and baked goods. And loading up at a supermarket salad bar can be just as filling -- not to mention healthier -- than the nearby fast-food joint.
For an alternative to expensive dinners, look for happy-hour deals that offer small plates at enticing prices. Or eat your bigger meal of the day at lunch, rather than off the pricier dinner menu.
Taking a "staycation" may sound trite, but vacationing in your hometown can be a refreshing, low-cost way to get away without going far.
Check your local newspaper and online listings for free fairs, outdoor events and low-cost shows. Local visitors bureaus have free travel guides, often with discount cards. Or explore your local trails, bike paths and waterfronts.
Plan a series of weekend outings to state or national parks.
Involve the kids, suggests Jones. Have them look up free things they'd like to see or do in your region: The winner for a given day is the youngster who finds "the most fun thing to do" that's the cheapest.
In these times, splurging on a vacation can be tempting, but financially disastrous. "Even though it may feel good at the time, you risk the financial security of your family if you use up all your savings on a vacation," said Jones.
Instead, seek the fun-but-affordable vacation.
Saving on gasoline expenses while vacationing
Gas prices likely aren't going to drop this summer.
Here are some ways to curb your car's gasoline consumption:
1. Avoid high speeds
As your vehicle speed increases, so does the aerodynamic drag. Driving 62 mph vs. 75 mph will reduce fuel consumption about 15 percent.
2. Don't hit the gas ... or brakes
Anticipate traffic ahead and accelerate/brake slowly and steadily; your fuel economy can increase by as much as 20 percent.
3. Stay inflated
Keep tire air pressure at manufacturer's recommended levels. A single tire, underinflated by 2 PSI, increases fuel consumption 1 percent.
4. Use air conditioning sparingly
Air conditioning puts an extra load on the engine, increasing fuel consumption.
5. Close the windows
Open windows, especially at highway speeds, increase drag and decrease fuel economy by up to 10 percent.
6. Get it serviced
Regular maintenance helps eliminate poor fuel economy due to dirty air filters, old spark plugs or low fluid levels.
7. Use cruise control
If your vehicle is equipped, use cruise control to save gas by maintaining a constant speed over long distances.
8. Lighten up
A heavier car puts a drag on mpg; pack lightly.
9. Avoid long idles
If you'll be stopped for more than one minute, shut off the engine. Restarting uses less fuel than letting it idle.
10. Buy a gas-sipper
If you're shopping for a new vehicle, check fuel-efficiency ratings. A small manual-transmission vehicle usually has the best fuel economy.
HITTING THE ROAD
Eighty percent of those surveyed in April by American Express say they're stretching their travel dollars this summer. Here's how:
-- Driving instead of flying: 33 percent
-- Planning a shorter stay: 30 percent
-- Spending less on activities: 27 percent
-- Hunting for hotel/airfare deals: 24 percent
-- Downgrading accommodations: 12 percent