10 Best Bargain-Priced Family Vacations

Family Sequoia National ParkFamily Sequoia National Park
Jorg Hackemann/Dreamstime

A family in Sequoia National Park

A top authority on travel for parents with kids lays out her best low-cost options for the coming months

For our readers with kids (those fortunate folks!), Budget Travel has asked America's foremost expert on family travel to select what she regards as the top budget-priced family vacations for the year ahead. She's responded not simply with names but with prices, addresses, and phone numbers for snaring a reservation without further ado. At the start of a new year, it's appropriate that we should select prize-winning family vacations available throughout the year, in every season. Though we may highlight an especially low price available only during one season, each of the vacations we've described below is offered at reasonable rates in all 12 months.

Our choices fall into 10 basic categories and number around 30 different specific programs, resorts, or facilities. The envelope, please, and the winners are...

1. Family camps 

They are a way to have some fun in the woods, watch the leaves change colors, and later, play in the snow without paying for a pricey ski condo. There are kids' activities, meals available, and plenty of wildlife. And in summer there are plenty of affordable packages, too.

The YMCA of the Rockies' Snow Mountain Ranch in Winter Park, Colorado, has 5,100 pristine acres near world-class ski resorts; room for 2,500 people in lodges and cabins; organized activities for children three and older; miles of hiking, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing trails; an indoor pool and gym, even a climbing wall; and horseback riding in summer. Rates for a two-bedroom cabin start at $126 per night with fully equipped kitchens; lodge rooms as low as $50. The YMCA also runs an even larger resort in Estes Park, Colorado, that is known along with Snow Mountain Ranch for hosting large family reunions. Visit ymcarockies.org or call Snow Mountain Ranch at 970/887-2152; Estes Park at 970-586-3341.

Elsewhere in America, Montecito-Sequoia Lodge is between Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks on Lake Homovalo in California. The lodge has two big stone fireplaces and a deck to take in the view of the Great Western Divide. Stay in a lodge room with private bathroom or a rustic cabin with a wood-burning stove and bathhouse nearby. Stuff to do includes hiking, fishing, canoeing, tennis, and organized kids' activities such as all-day programs in summer and plenty of sing-alongs around the campfire. In winter, tube, sled, cross-country ski, or snowshoe. Packages include meals. Midweek stays in fall (until just before Thanksgiving) start at $180 per night for four in a cabin, including breakfast, dinner, and activities. Book a Thanksgiving package for four nights and five days for under $1,200, including meals, kids' activities, guided hikes, and more. Other winter packages cost less in cabins, slightly more for stays in the lodge. Visit mslodge.com or call 800/227-9900 or 650/967-8612.

2. Dude ranches 

Some of them are open year-round and are just as much fun when the leaves are changing in autumn and snow is falling in winter. Malibu Ranch, in Milford, Pennsylvania, is on a thousand acres of forested land in the Poconos just 75 miles from New York City. It's the oldest working dude ranch in the East. The kids can swim in the indoor pool, fish, try pinball, dance, play with Bobo the donkey, and--of course--ride horseback. You can also ski in the winter. Five-day/four-night packages, including meals and riding, average $930 for a family of four. Two-night winter weekend packages for a family of four are $555. Contact 800/862-5428 or malibududeranch.com.

Alternately, you can be a real Texas cowboy at the Flying L Guest Ranch, 40 miles northwest of San Antonio in the spectacular Texas Hill Country. The Flying L has hosted John Wayne and Willie Nelson, among others, and now spreads over 700 acres. There's breakfast and dinner, nightly western entertainment. Swim outdoors year-round, play tennis, golf, or fish in the San Julian Creek. If you don't want to ride, you can traipse miles of hiking trails. All-inclusive rates average $90 per night for adults and $40 for kids and teens. Contact 800/292-5134 or flyingl.com. You can also book these ranches and other affordable adventure trips through Gorp Travel at gorptravel.com or 877/440-4677.

3. Working farms

Younger children love farms where they can gather eggs for their breakfast, milk a cow, feed the goats, or go for a hayride. At The Inn at East Hill Farm in Troy, New Hampshire, they can learn to water-ski in summer; ice-skate in winter; hike in the fall. In winter, there are sleigh rides, cross-country skiing, an indoor pool, and daily kids' activities. Bring the family before Christmas and cut down your own Christmas tree at a nearby farm. Fall rates, including meals and activities, average $78 per night for adults and $58 for kids; slightly higher for winter and summer stays of less than five nights. We know families who return year after year. Learn more at 800/242-6495 or east-hill-farm.com.

4. Hulas and such 

Hawaii can be more affordable than you might think, with off-season packages and bargain airfares. Get every fifth night free mid-April to mid-December with packages starting under $175 per night for one-bedroom Maui condos booked with Destination Resorts Hawaii, the largest condo company in the upscale area of Wailea. There are special car rental, tennis, and golf packages as well as larger units, ideal for family reunions. They'll even buy your groceries for you before you arrive. Contact 800/367-5246 or drhmaui.com. While on Maui between May and November, pay $54.50 (a $20 savings) and take a child free on the Pacific Whale Foundation's ecotrip to watch the dolphins play, and then snorkel at a partially submerged volcanic crater. Naturalists will point out the Hawaiian green sea turtles. Contact 800/942-5311 or pacificwhale.org.

Throughout the fall, pay just $73 a night ($90 in summer), including continental breakfast, at the newly renovated Aston Aloha Surf Hotel in Waikiki. The kids will love the hotel's surfing theme. Kids' Camp costs $40 daily, including lunch and snacks. Call 800/922-7866 or log on to astonhotels.com for deals throughout the Hawaiian Islands. Outrigger's Ohana Hotels (ohana means "family" in Hawaiian) are a block or two from the beach but have rates as low as $69, based on availability. Rooms with kitchenettes start at $119. Book the "Big Kahuna" package for five nights and get a free night, plus some other goodies (800/462-6262, outrigger.com).

California-based Pleasant Hawaiian Holidays has some of the best air/hotel packages around, starting at just over $500 per person from the West Coast for Oahu. There are also good air/hotel deals from Chicago and New York, starting at $767 per person. Ask about added values like free nights, complimentary room upgrades, and food and beverage credits (pleasant.net, 800/242-9244).

5. Mexican beaches 

All-inclusive resorts are always a hit because everyone can do what they want, when they want, and there are plenty of organized activities for the kids as well as other children for yours to pal around with. Usually you can get bargain rates throughout the Caribbean until mid-December and then again from just after Easter all the way to Thanksgiving and beyond. A trip to Mexico can really be a bargain and will give the kids a chance to practice their Spanish and see a different culture.

At Allegro Resorts, kids can stay and play free until December 20 and then again during the summer. All-inclusive rates for a family of four start at $160 per night, including meals, liquor, sports, and kids' activities. Contact 800/858-2258 or allegroresorts.com. Akumal's Club Caribe is one of my favorites, south of Cancon's crowds but smack in the middle of the Yucatan coast, with prime snorkeling, diving, and plenty of Maya ruins to explore. Rates start at under $150 per day, including parents' meals. Costa Azul, an hour north of Puerto Vallarta in San Francisco, Mexico, is a soft-adventure resort ideal for preteens and teenagers where they can swim through caves, trek through jungles, kayak to hidden coves, and learn to surf. Room rates start at under $100 for a family of four. Book Akumal or Costa Azul at Rascals in Paradise, (800/872-7225 or rascalsinparadise.com), where you can also ask about other bargain finds.

6. Cruises

offer the benefits of an all-inclusive vacation with the added plus of being able to explore many new places during one trip. They are especially good bets if the grandparents are coming. There are morning-till-night activities for children as young as three on most major cruise ships and plenty to keep adults busy, no matter what their ages. And, because of increased competition in the industry, cruising has never been more affordable. Even cruises to Alaska and Europe can be had for under $900 per person, less for kids. Carnival Cruises and the Disney Cruise Line are especially popular with budget-minded multigenerational groups. Kids will love the waterslides on Carnival ships and Disney's private island--Castaway Cay--complete with a jungle gym that's anchored in the water. Seven-night cruise packages for fall until just before Christmas, and in late spring, start at $799 for adults and $399 for kids up to age 12 who share a stateroom with two parents. There are also shorter cruises available. Contact 888/325-2500 or disneycruise.com. Check Carnival's Web site at carnival.com for specials under $500 per person per week. Call 888/227-6482. Cruises Only (800/278-4737 or cruisesonly.com) can offer substantial discounts.

7. Go granny 

Grandparents are taking the grandkids on more trips than ever, leaving moms and dads behind. Elderhostel (877/426-8056, elderhostel.org) offers some of the best grandparents-with-grandkids deals anywhere, among them some 140 different intergenerational trips where families can spend a week between Christmas and New Year's Day exploring Yellowstone National Park, or in Minnesota learning about animal-tracking, bird-banding, wolves and deer, weather, and lake ecology (through the ice!). There are year-round programs in the United States, Canada, and abroad--take a Grand Canyon river excursion or a train trip in Louisiana. Packages start at under $500 per person including meals, accommodations, and programs.

8. Breakfast with Mickey Mouse

Every family wants to go to Orlando at least once, and if you plan smart - say a long fall weekend or January after the holidays--you may find a trip to Mouseville more affordable than you might think, with deeply discounted hotel and air deals available. Even better, the crowds won't be nearly as large. After a hard day at the Orlando theme parks, come home to your own pool and plenty of space in a four-bedroom, three-bath house for just $105 a night; three-night minimum. For this and other top deals in Orlando, call Leisure Link International at 888/801-8808 or visit eleisurelink.com.

If it's your first trip and you're planning to concentrate your time within Disney World, stay at one of Disney's own budget-priced properties (All-Star Sports, Music, or Movies Resorts) for as little as $80 per night (less for campsites), entitling you also to use Disney World's free transportation system and thus avoid a car rental. Call 407/934-7639 or visit disneyworld.com.

Finally, grandparents and parents who are 50 or older save big-time at the Holiday Inn Family Suites Resort (877/387-5437, hifamilysuites.com), paying as little in some off-season periods as $89 a night or less. The older you are, the less you shell out for a two-bedroom suite complete with free breakfast (kids eat all their meals free), VCR, and separate TVs and video games for the kids. There are good deals for younger parents too.

9. Giant faces, buffalo, and more 

On a visit to the Badlands of South Dakota, the kids can count all of the different license plates in the parking lot of Mount Rushmore, which just celebrated its 60th anniversary. (Get more Mount Rushmore information at nps.gov/moru or 605/574-2523.) Kids can't climb on the monuments, but Mount Rushmore can still serve as a welcome respite during an interminable cross-country trip or the centerpiece for a family vacation that's certain to please. You can explore caves, pick up rocks blasted from the mountain where the colossal statue of Chief Crazy Horse is a work in progress, join a "dig" at the Mammoth Site where more than 50 giant mammoths were trapped more than 26,000 years ago, and take a Jeep tour through a buffalo herd. Call 800/952-3625 or visit South Dakota's official tourist site at travelsd.com or blackhillsbadlands.com, the site of the Black Hills, Badlands & Lakes Association, which lists 50 "G-rated" family attractions in the region. Stay also at Custer State Park, where besides seeing the buffalo, you can rent an old-fashioned cabin on a lake starting at under $100 a night, go gold-panning, or make animal tracks with the kids at hands-on junior naturalist programs. Contact 800/658-3530 or state.sd.us/sdparks.

10. The time machine 

Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown are absorbing year-round, as historic interpreters dressed in period costumes help thoroughly modern families appreciate what life was life without TVs, computers, or indoor plumbing. In eighteenth-century Williamsburg, you'll find the largest outdoor living history museum. The kids can help weed the garden in spring, make bricks in summer, or attend a slave couple's wedding in winter. Visit in summer and you can also go to Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Water Country USA. Families can book a four-night/five-day stay, including accommodations and unlimited admission for $700 or less. If you go in the winter, you won't have the roller coasters but you will have fewer crowds and can join holiday celebrations. More information at 800/465-5563 or williamsburgfun.com.

Money-saving smarts

1. Alternate pricey attractions with those that are free--a hike in the woods, the best playground in the area, a tour of the local potato-chip factory.

2. Set the souvenir budget before you leave home and stick to it. Suggest the kids start collections along the way-postcards, pins, patches, for example.

3. Always ask when you call for reservations if there are any other discount deals available-kids eat free, a room upgrade, a second room at half price, etc.

Playing hooky

1. Carefully check the calendar to make sure your children won't be missing a school concert, championship soccer game, or dance.

2. As soon as you have your trip tentatively scheduled, inform the teacher. Ask for the work ahead of time and suggestions of how your children can share the experience with their classmates. An oral report when they return? A photo journal?

3. Buy your children journals so they can keep a daily record of what they're seeing and doing.

4. Set aside "homework time" every day so they don't fall behind.

5. Bring some goodies back to share with the class from the region you're visiting.

Get the kids involved

1. Get out a map and talk about where you want to go and what you want to do. Even the four-year-old will have an opinion.

2. Make sure everyone gets at least some of their picks on the itinerary.

3. If the kids are old enough, suggest each one plan a day's activities.

4. Surf the Web with them to find where you want to go, the best deals to get there, and what to do once you've arrived. Often, the kids are the best Web browsers in the family.

5. Consider inviting a friend for an only child or for a sole preteen or teen in the family. He or she will be much happier.

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