NEW YORK -- The average American family expects to spend $3,155 on its summer vacation this year, according to a survey by consumer counseling group Myvesta.org.
But that's just the beginning if the family puts its expenses on a credit card and carries over a big balance month after month. The Rockville, Md., group calculates that if you make only a minimum payment (about $63 a month) on a card that carries a 17 percent interest rate, you'll end up paying for that vacation for the next 33 years -- including some $6,800 in interest.
It doesn't have to be that way.
"Vacations provide an important break from everyday life," said Myvesta.org president Steve Rhode. "But going into debt to pay for it can make your everyday life even more difficult."
His suggestion: Plan ahead.
"I talk to people all the time who say, 'I've promised the kids I'd take them to Disneyland.' Then summer comes and they find they can't afford to do it and have to renege or put a pile of money on their credit cards," Rhode said. "Well, there's another way to do it."
He suggests parents make vacation planning a family project. Work together to gather information from Web sites, from the library, from local chambers of commerce, from travel agents. Figure out what the trip is going to cost. Then have the entire family pitch in to save one-twelfth of the total every month.
"One year of planning, and next year you're going on your dream vacation -- for cash," he says.
There are a lot of tricks to holding down costs, travel experts point out. You can travel off-season. You can go camping in state parks instead of flying to an expensive city abroad. You can house swap.
This year, the downturn in business travel because of the weak economy means there are more deals for consumers -- if you shop and if you bargain, said Bill McGee, editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter.
"A number of cities have been particularly hard hit, including Boston, New York and San Francisco," McGee said. "Try shopping there first."
He recommends families call a hotel they're interested in booking and do some negotiating.
"They may be willing to give you a reduced room rate," McGee said. "And it's not just that. See if they'll include free parking, breakfast, access to their health club. Ask for those things even if they won't budge on the (room) rate."
He also points out that "there are a lot of opportunities for good prices when you look beyond the chains," for example at bed-and-breakfast operations, lodges in state or national parks and privately owned motels.
McGee also recommends families check out the Web sites of convention and visitors bureaus. They often highlight fun sites to see in big cities or on "theme trips," such as a drive in search of fall foliage.
Families that want to fly to their destinations should "do a lot of price comparison to get the best deal," McGee said. That means checking out Web sites such as Travelocity, Expedia and Priceline; watching newspaper and magazine ads for special offers, and calling travel agents.
A lot of Internet sites have ideas for moneysaving travel.
If you punch in your Zip code at the site for the AAA (formerly the American Automobile Association), you'll get ideas for quick getaways in nearby cities and towns. You can find the site at www.aaa.com.
The American Society of Travel Agents, www.astanet.com, offers "hot spots," which are popular travel destinations depending on the season. Information on hotels, shopping and night life is included.
The National Park Service runs ParkNet at www.nps.gov. Each park has its own information page with maps, a list of recreational facilities -- and activities to keep kids occupied.
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