12 Grand Family Vacations for Under a Grand

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That's right, vacations costing less than $1000 for four people

It is summer in the year 2000. Times are good and travel is booming. But things don't always seem so peachy for a family of four or more. Multiply the costs of travel by a figure higher than one or two, and what seems a slight burden to a single person or couple becomes one big nut to crack for parents with children. That's why I've scoured the vacation field to find super-inexpensive trips and activities that can fit the financial needs of a small group. How little can a cost-conscious, budget-heeding family of four spend for an active, enjoyable four-to-seven-night vacation? I say $1,000. And that's a total of $1,000 for all four persons, including everything other than the transportation needed to reach the vacation site. While that rock-bottom expenditure may sometimes purchase only four nights--though often it covers a full seven--it buys a vital and rewarding vacation full of memories and learning for mom, pop, and the kids. Here are twelve travel ideas for the middle-class family:

Summer on the Winter Slopes

Comes the warm weather, and the priciest ski resorts in America convert into rangy sites for family-friendly hiking, mountain biking, swimming, and practicing your golf swing or tennis serve, at a mere fraction of the prices they charge in winter. Many also have first-rate kids' camps that enable parents to enjoy some couples' time. Six-night Family Getaway packages at Steamboat Resort in western Colorado for a family of four include lodging, rodeo admission, two days of kids' Adventure Club, and a gondola ride, all for under $1,000 (800/922-2722 or access steamboat-ski.com). Keystone Resort's Mountain Passport package is even less. For under $650, a family of four can stay and play for a week just 90 minutes from Denver (800/404-3535 or keystoneresort.com). Northstar-at-Tahoe in California touts a stay-and-golf-or-mountain-bike deal that starts at roughly $100 a night for a family, including some free daycamp time (800/GO-NORTH or skinorthstar.com).

Families on Farms

Young children especially will enjoy a stay on an old-fashioned farm, where they can gather eggs, learn to fish, and feed the goats. Parents will savor the hearty meals they don't have to cook and the relaxed pace far from the city. Many of the farm families at the following locations have been welcoming guests for decades. Green Acres Farm Bed and Breakfast in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, in the heart of the Amish countryside, is surrounded by streams, great biking roads, and even has a trampoline and playhouse for the kids. The charge: $85 a night for a family of four, including a big breakfast (717/653-4028 or thegreenacresfarm.com). The Inn at East Hill Farm in Troy, New Hampshire, is as much resort as farm, supplying three meals a day, square dances, magic shows, baby animals galore, an outdoor pool and pond, an indoor pool for rainy days, and a children's program complete with crafts and story time. Rates for a family of four with two preschoolers average just over $200 a day, including meals and activities ( 800/242-6495 or east-hill-farm.com). Bluffdale Vacation Farm, outside of Eldred, Illinois, in the Illinois River Valley, boasts 320 acres for horseback riding and boating. Rates average under $250 a day for a family of four, including activities and meals (217/983-2854 or bluffdale@irtc.net).

History Made Fun

Colonial Williamsburg, America's largest outdoor living history museums, is a serious place full of colorful drama that the kids won't be in a hurry to leave. They can help make bricks barefoot, bid at an auction, be a guest at a ball, play a game of lawn bowling, meet eighteenth-century colonials at the market, argue politics with Tom Jefferson, and make small talk with George Washington. Nearby are two other first-rate living history museums--Jamestown Settlement, where children learn the truth about the relationship between John Smith and Pocahontas, and Yorktown Victory Center, where they can visit a Continental Army encampment. A Revolutionary Fun Package covers four nights' lodging and unlimited five-day admission to Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown, Yorktown, Busch Gardens Williamsburg, and Water Country U.S.A. Prices average $815 for a family of four (800/211-7169).

A Condo for Your Clan

Whether you want to go to the Ozarks, Orlando, or the Lake Erie Islands of Ohio, you can save big bucks renting a spacious, multi-room condo where you can cook some meals for the gang and throw in a load of laundry on the way to the pool or the tennis court. ResortQuest International and Condominium Travel Associates both have plenty of summer deals in the hottest vacation spots for under $100 a night. How about a two-bedroom condo on Sanibel Island overlooking the ocean, and complete with pool and tennis courts, for $700 a week? Call ResortQuest (877-588-5800 or resortquest.com). Or in Orlando, Condominium Travel Associates can set you up for $99 a night at a first-class one-bedroom condo right near Disney Village (800/492-6636 or condotravel.com).

Reunion Central

YMCA of the Rockies runs resorts at Snow Mountain Ranch and Estes Park Center in Colorado, and so many families use them for reunions that there's an entire staff to help organize activities, which include horseback riding, mini-golf, crafts, and hiking. There are children's day camps at both locations.

At YMCA of the Rockies, a family of four can stay for a week, waking up to mountain vistas, for under $500. And all-you-can-eat bargain meals - $9 for dinner, $5.50 for kids - are available daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Call Snow Mountain Ranch (970/887-2152, Estes Park Center at 970/586-3341, or access ymcarockies.org). If you're too far from the Rockies, check with your alumni association or local YMCA to see if they're offering family camps of this sort.

Wilderness Adventures, Family-style

Far from the world of video games, computers, cell phones, and TV, Gunflint Northwoods Outfitters in Grand Marais, Minnesota, can set you up on a five-day, four-night canoe trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (over 1,000 clear water lakes) with everything you need from maps to first aid kit, food, and cooking gear, for just over $1,000 for a family of four. Their Canoer Cabin packages are even cheaper, allowing you to sleep in a bunk house and canoe around the wilderness area during the day (800/328-3325 or gunflintoutfitters.com). The Appalachian Mountain Club's Pinkham Notch Lodge in New Hampshire offers family backpacking, rock climbing, and canoeing workshops as well as the chance to head out on your own in the White Mountains after a hearty breakfast, returning in time for supper. Rates start at under $150 per night for a family of four, including meals (603/466-2727 or outdoors.org). For a splurge priced beyond our usual limits, Bill Dvorak Rafting and Kayak Expeditions offers several kinds of family deals on raft trips in Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah. A family of four can raft for four days in Little Gore Canyon on the Colorado River for $1,680 (800/824-3795 or dvorakexpeditions.com; kids go free on some trips).

RV'ing with the Kids

For trips to every kind of attraction in the United States, a rented motor home is both your lodging and means of transportation. You'll save big on meals and the kids will find new friends at night in the campground. Figure on paying $700 and up to rent the motor home for the week, plus $20 a night for campground fees. Pop-up tent campers can be as low as $200 a week. Find coast-to-coast rental outlets and advice on what to rent at the Recreation Vehicle Rental Association website (rvra.org). The largest national rental chain is Cruise America (800/327-7799 or cruiseamerica.com).

Down memory lane: A multitude of old-fashioned resorts from New England to California have been catering to the same families for generations. They're not fancy (no cable TV or video games), but they provide plenty of opportunities for fun-jumping off floats, playing softball, and relaxing with a game of checkers under the stars. Loch Lyme Lodge has been welcoming guests on its waterfront in Lyme, New Hampshire, since 1918. A family of four can stay, play, and eat at Loch Lyme for a week for about $1,200. Or you can rent a cabin without meals for $500-$750 (800/423-2141 or email: lochlymelodge@valley.net). Hill's Resort in Priest Lake, Idaho, has been run by the same family since 1946. Hike, swim or bike all day, cuddle up at a beach bonfire at night. Cabins (there are several large ones ideal for two families to share) start at $700 a week. Call 208-443-2551 or access hillsresort.com. Camp Richardson Resort opened in the 1920s and has 38 cabins spread along 150 acres on the shores of Lake Tahoe. Here's where you'll hone either your water skiing or mountain biking skills. And there's a full service marina for everything from kayaks to powerboats. Many cabins rent for $650 a week (800/544-1801 or camprichardson.com). Jekyll Island Club Hotel resort is six miles off the coast of Georgia, and a national historic landmark, with a private beach club, golf, and miles of shoreline made for shelling, sunning, and swimming, as well as horse-drawn carriage rides. Five-night family packages include rooms in the beautiful old hotel, kids' activities, and full use of the resort for $665 (Call 800/535-9547 or jekyllclub.com).

If You Don't Mind the Heat

Head to Florida, Las Vegas, or Arizona for great summer deals at resorts that may be too pricey in other seasons. The kids will love the nine-acre water park at The Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort in Phoenix, Arizona, complete with miniature golf, a lazy river channel for tubing, 130-foot slippery slide, and sports pools; parents will love the all-suite accommodations, the fine golf course at a nearby sister resort, and guided hikes into the adjacent mountains. (There's also a Coyote Day Camp.) Nightly summer rates start at $89 per family. Camp is extra. And ask about the Family Fun Package (800/747-7111 or pointhilton.com). Hawk's Cay Resort in the Florida Keys has resident dolphins and a learn-to-sail program. A four-day Family Island Explorer Package starts at $615, including breakfast and all kids' meals, welcome gift, and some activities. That would be $975 for a family of four for five nights (800/432-2242 or hawkscay.com). Stay at Circus Circus in Las Vegas for $49 a night per family room midweek and the kids will keep cool in The Adventuredome, the country's biggest indoor theme park. One of Sin City's newest hotels, Mandalay Bay Resort, features an 11-acre water playground with a wave pool, and rooms for up to four people start in summer at $99 a night. (For Circus Circus, which also has an RV park, call 800/634-3450 or circuscircus-lasvegas.com; Mandalay Bay, 877-632-7000 or mandalaybay.com.)

Cruising Cheap

Besides all you can eat and non-stop activities for everyone, cruises are fine vacation bets for families because you don't have to play social director or arbitrate arguments over what to eat or where to go. Premier Cruise Line, which is refurbishing its ships and reconfiguring cabins to make them roomier for families, likely has the best family deal going this summer - a seven-day cruise and land package that includes three days at Universal Studios, visits to the Kennedy Space Center and Wet 'n Wild Orlando, and a four-day cruise, all for $499 per adult and $99 per child (800/990-7770, or premiercruises.com). Call World Wide Cruises, one of the industry's largest cruise discount brokers, for family packages on other lines, like Carnival (800/882-9000 or cruises.com).

Theme Park Fun

Though Orlando, with its $50 per adult theme-park admissions (once tax is included), doesn't fit into our budget formula for a full week's stay, you can find excellent bargain arrangements in other theme park locations. Families can stay in the Wisconsin Dells, famed for its water parks, starting at $149 per night at the Treasure Island Waterpark Resort and also get free use of Family Land's 35-acre water park and the 55,000-square-foot Bay of Dreams water park. The nearby Flamingo Motel & Suites, where rooms average $100 a night, throws in a free ticket per room for Noah's Ark, billed as the country's largest water park. (For these and other Dells deals, call 800/223-3557 or wisdells.com.) At Cedar Point, Ohio, home of 14 heart-stopping roller coasters--more than any other park--and adjacent Soak City water park, get a two-night stay-and-play deal for the family for about $250 (419-627-2350 or cedarpoint.com). Branson, Missouri resorts also tout packages that enable a family to get two days for the price of one at Silver Dollar City theme park. Hotels start at $50 a night. Call the Branson Area Chamber of Commerce (800/214-3661 or bransonchamber.com).

Luxury Camping

Let's assume you crave getting back to nature but don't want to do all the work of putting up the tent and cooking the meals. Find some cheap summer flights to St. Thomas (the U.S. Virgin Islands), and you can check into Maho Bay Camps eco-resort on the beach-ringed island of St. John (a short ferry ride away), where you stay in roomy tent cottages built on platforms overlooking the sea and beaches, with spotless bathhouses nearby. The weather is terrific in summer and kids stay free. Fully equipped family tents with everything from bed linens, towels, and ice cooler to propane stove cost $70 a night. And the outdoor restaurant may be the best bargain on the island (800/392-9004 or maho.org).

Or, camp along the California coast 55 miles south of San Francisco at Costanoa Coastal Lodge and Camp Pescadero, California, surrounded by thousands of acres of wilderness. The bathhouses have saunas and you can get maid service at some tents. There's plenty of hiking, naturalist-led tide pool tours, organized daily kids' activities such as fireside storytellers, and nearby mountain biking, water sports, and a monarch butterfly preserve. Rates (if you bring your own sleeping bags) start at $60 a night, with four beds in the tent and complimentary breakfast (800/738-7477, 650/879-1100, or costanoa.com).

State park lodges and cabins are also affordable family bets when you don't want to pitch your own tent. Try Custer State Park in South Dakota, where you're 20 minutes from Mount Rushmore and you can take a Jeep ride through a huge buffalo herd, go horseback riding, experience a chuck wagon cookout, fish, or kayak. Cabins start at $75 a night (800/658-3530 or custerresorts.com). Lake Cumberland State Resort Park in Jamestown, Kentucky, is another good bet if your gang likes to boat, fish, or horseback ride. There's golf nearby and even a big indoor pool complex. Cottages start at under $90 a night, lodge rooms that sleep four even less (800/325-1709).

Rules for a Smart Family Travel Bargain 

Whether it's a beach cottage, megaresort, or cruise ship, ask if there are any special family discounts. A second room for half price? Free breakfast?

Grab those freebies  Many vacation spots now offer coupon books on area attractions. Check with the local convention and visitors bureau before you leave home, or visit its web site.

Don't leave home without a cooler You'll save big bucks on meals if you can have picnic lunches or breakfast in your room.

Use souvenir smarts At the start of the trip, give the kids a souvenir budget and stick to it! Let them supplement with their own money. Suggest they start a collection of post cards, pins, or patches rather than buy a souvenir at every stop.

Join forces Vacation with another family and you'll save big on renting a condo or beach house. Another plus: you can split food costs and childcare chores. Even better, you've got built-in playmates for the kids!

Be flexible By shifting your dates slightly, you might be able to save hundreds of dollars on accommodations and airfare. It is always cheaper to fly mid-week, to stay in city hotels on weekends, and to book resorts during the week.

Avoid room service And hotel laundries. Stock up on pop and snacks at the nearest market. If you don't want to do laundry yourself, drop the dirty duds at the nearest laundry that offers wash-and-fold service. It's usually a bargain.

Ask the locals They'll steer you to favorite amusements and attractions that don't require admission fees-like the town's coolest playground or beach, a tour of the local cookie factory or hotel kitchen. The kids might even learn something.

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