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Updated on October 10, 2010



I have been on vacations that cost a lot of money. I returned from them broke and depressed. Learn from my mistakes. Probably the most expensive trip I ever took was to Key West. I think we spent a couple of thousand dollars in less than a week. All we did was eat and buy some inexpensive trinkets at a tourist shop. Although the water was extremely clean-looking, I cannot honestly remember anything else about the trip.

Another trip I took was a drive to Tennessee from Florida. I will never forget the beauty of the sun rising over the mountain setting. Although I was only there for less than a day (I was helping someone deliver motorcycle parts, and they were in a hurry to get back), I loved the time I spent there. I would have loved to stay in a cabin and spend more time exploring the things a person can do there, like white-water rafting (which I did later in North Carolina) or camping. I did go to a garage sale, and I picked up some pretty cool things, like an ashtray shaped like a well, which I brought back and gave to my grandfather, who loved it.

My point is that some of the best vacations are those spur-of-the-moment, inexpensive day trips. These are those times you just pack the kids (or your partner) and a cooler with at least one meal in the car, pick a direction and head that way. You see what you see along the way and stop wherever the wind blows you. You can spend longer periods of time at this, but you don't have to have a long and drawn-out, expensive trip to have a good time.

At one point, my husband bought annual passes to Disney, and we went there a lot during that time period. Many of the people we encountered were spending a small fortune on packages that included meal plans, and expensive hotel stays. Although the passes seemed extremely expensive to a middle-class family, we were able to cut other corners that made the trips more affordable. Calling ahead and booking cheaper hotel rooms, packing small cooler bags and hanging them on the strollers we brought (also a money-saver), and bringing plastic ponchos purchased at home for rainy days saved us a lot. We checked around to see which restaurants had the least expensive meals and bought one meal a day at those restaurants. The rest of the meals we either brought or had in surrounding restaurants.

For a nice beach vacation, you can search online yellow pages for hotels near the zip code you wish to visit, and then book the hotel ahead. Most of the hotels in the surrounding areas are close enough to the beach that you can drive there without paying the expensive rates of the beachside hotels. When calling to book ahead, you can ask how far it is to the beach and then make the decision as to whether or not you want to go that far. It is always nice to be in a hotel with a pool. You may just decide you don't want to go all the way to the sandy beach at all, anyway.

Other nice vacations include the western region of North Carolina. In this area, you can do things like visit the American Indian attractions and go camping, hiking, and thrift shopping for next to nothing. You can also go white-water rafting (PAY ATTENTION IN THE WATER SAFETY CLASSES THEY MAKE YOU TAKE). Although it is sometimes pricey, they usually have a daycare center in these places, and you can have a break from the kids and a commune with nature all at the same time. See my article on Hurricane Delirium for a true story on one of our family vacations there.  And I just LOVED the roadside produce stands with homemade butter, jellies, eggs, honey and other keepsakes that make great gifts.

Colorado Springs was beautiful, too. Although easily rivaled by the Smokey Mountains and the Appalachian Trail, I will never forget the beauty of Pike's Peak (although watch out for altitude if you are a drinker), Garden of the Gods, and Seven Falls.

Vermont can be fun if you like skiing. If you don't know how to ski, you can go to a ski lodge and take classes. Some are more expensive than others. You would have to call ahead and price those out first as well as hotels (and the distance from the hotel to the ski lodges). I have been rescued by the ski patrol there a couple of times, too. Be careful not to get on the wrong trail at some of those places. I actually saw a moose that was bigger than the house it was standing next to. But the scenery in New England is somewhat unique, and some people like it better than the western mountain ranges.

Probably the cheapest and best vacations can be taken right in your hometown and the surrounding cities. There are usually state parks with hiking trails, if not beaches and other area attractions. Contact your local Parks and Recreation authority to get more information. Just being in a natural setting close to home can be enough to recharge your batteries sometimes. If you have a local zoo, you can get annual passes, which are cheaper than the daily passes. Children will have a blast there, too.

If all else fails, go shopping. You don't have to actually spend that much. I learned this from my grandfather, who grew up during the depression. You can get as much joy out of finding a great bargain on a clearance shelf and window-shopping, as you can get from expensive and depressing shopping trips.

For long trips with children, be sure to have DVD players, handheld games, coloring pages and other little activities to keep them occupied that they can do in a moving car. Singing songs with them helps break up the monotony, too. Long trips can be frustrating for some young children, while others enjoy the change of pace. Try to gauge your child's reaction and act accordingly to make their trip as pleasant as possible.

You don't have to spend a fortune to have a good time, and if you spend less, you feel better about going and you can also go more often on little short trips. Some people prefer this for various reasons (health, condition of vehicle, etc.). And doing this can also be cheaper in the long run because the more often you go on little trips to surrounding areas, you can get to know which ones are more affordable and plan accordingly.


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