Summer travel doesn't have to break the bank. Here are five smart ways to have a great experience your kids will never forget—without leaving you with credit-card bills that make you wish you'd never gone in the first place.
What it is: A B&B on a working farm, where you get to help out as much as you like or just explore the area. This trend first took off in Italy, where they're called agriturismi.
Why it's a great affordable family travel idea: At a farmstay, a room that sleeps four usually goes for around $100 per night—and that includes farm-related activities and breakfast. You can help gather eggs or feed sheep at Leaping Lamb Farm Stay in Alsea, Ore. The daily cost for a family of four starts at $125—and the seventh night is free (877/820-6132, leapinglambfarm.com). A week at the Herds Inn at Hedgebrook Farm in Virginia is $750 (866/783-2681, theherdsinn.com). Working Cows Dairy is a farm near Dothan, Ala., that rents a cottage that sleeps six for $300 per week (334/886-3839, workingcowsdairy.com).
How to find one: Some states have farm associations—including Pennsylvania (888/856-6622, pafarmstay.com) and Vermont (866/348-3276, vtfarms.org)—which make it easy to locate farmstays. Other states—such as California (805/238-3799, agadventures.org)—maintain agritourism sites where you can find farms that rent rooms, as well as ones that only welcome day visitors. And you can always just Google your state's name and "farmstay."
Bear in mind: Not all farmstays are centered around kids, so be sure to inquire.
2. STATE-PARK LODGES
What it is: Our national parks are astounding, but most people don't realize that many state parks have lodges and cabins that you can rent. In South Dakota, you can rent a rustic cabin—there's A/C but no bathroom—that sleeps four for $35 a night or a lodge that sleeps eight for $150 (800/710-2267, sdparks.info). In West Virginia, you can rent a modern cabin that sleeps four for under $100 a night (304/558-2764, wvstateparks.com).
Why it's a great affordable family travel idea: State-park land has been set aside for a reason—it's beautiful. So besides relatively cheap lodging, you get easy-on-the-wallet activities like hiking, fishing, kayaking, biking, and so on. Some even have golf courses! Plus, the rangers usually lead programs and activities designed for children.
How to find one: Go to your state's state-park website (just Google your state name and "state park") and look for "lodging," "accommodations," or "planning your visit."
Bear in mind: The lodging options vary in rusticity: Some include things like linens, and others don't.
3. FAMILY CAMPS
What it is: This is the classic summer-camp experience—you stay in a cabin and eat meals in the dining hall—but for the whole family. A week in a basic cabin for a family of four, including meals, at the YMCA Camp Hi-Rock in Mount Washington, Mass., costs $870 (413/528-1227, camphirock.org). A week at YMCA Camp Sea Gull/Camp Seafarer in North Carolina costs $2,100; a weekend stay is $820 (seagull-seafarer.org). A fancier option is Medomak Camp in Maine, where the average family of four spends $2,700 per week—and that includes all food and activities (866/633-6625, medomakcamp.com).
Why it's a great affordable family travel idea: It's the best way for families to experience the great outdoors without having to worry that the kids will fall off a cliff or get fatally bored. Plus, your kids will get to spend a lot of time with other kids. Too often, families think they need to spend every minute together, when we all need a break sometimes.
How to find one: The only real roundup I know is one we did (search "family camps" at BudgetTravel.com). Of course, you might also Google your state and "family camp."
Bear in mind: This isn't for parents who don't want to be surrounded by kids. Also, some camps have religious affiliations; find out in advance how religious the experience is.
4. SKI RESORTS IN SUMMER
What it is: Ski resorts have learned how to make the most of what used to be the off-season. Besides outdoor activities such as hiking, biking, rafting, and swimming, the resorts host festivals and concerts, as well as arrange kid-centric activities like Frisbee golf, outdoor movies, and arts-and-crafts sessions.
Why it's a great affordable family travel idea: You don't have to stay at the main lodge; condos are a great value—and perfect for families (because they often have more than one bedroom, plus a kitchen). Smuggler's Notch in Vermont is running a special right now for 25 percent off a summer-vacation package—meaning you can get a one-bedroom suite that sleeps four for about $200 a night (800/419-4615, smuggs.com). But the best deals are often at condos and other vacation rentals: On HomeAway.com, a vacation-rental site, I found condos in Vail, Colo., that sleep four for $150 per night—with access to a swimming pool and tennis courts. Steamboat, Colo., has three great options: Storm Meadows Club Condominiums ($175 per night, with access to a pool, tennis courts, and a fitness center), Rabbit Ears Motel (a room with two queens is $159 per night, with A/C, a fridge, and a microwave), and Rockies Condominiums (a two-bedroom, two-bath condo is $158 per night). They can all be booked via Steamboat (800/922-2722, steamboat.com).
How to find one: The ski resorts near your home probably have a slate of summer deals and activities.
Bear in mind: Some resorts also have kids' clubs, so your kids can spend a chunk of the day hanging out with other kids while the adults do their own thing.
5. GO WHERE IT'S HOT
What it is: Just like ski resorts, hot-weather destinations such as southern Arizona and the Palm Springs area of California run deals in the summer. And kids don't really mind the extreme heat, as long as there's a pool.
Why it's a great affordable family travel idea: There are two main options. The first one is full-service resorts: Two summers ago, I got a big room at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess in Arizona for $100 a night. The resort was packed with families, because that's a great rate for a AAA five-diamond resort. On the plus side, you get all sorts of activities (slip 'n slides, fireside s'mores, and nightly movies by the pool); on the minus side, you have to pay for some of them (and all meals, and parking, and more). The best place to find these deals is on the resorts' own websites; look for resorts' Web-only rates. Also, it's worth searching kayak.com and travelzoo.com. The other option is to rent a condo or time-share at a condo resort: You'll have to plan your own activities, but the savings are substantial (and you get more space, including a kitchen). Also, there's usually a pool and perhaps other amenities, such as tennis courts and a fitness room.
How to find one: In Palm Springs, McLean Company Rentals has condos that sleep four starting at $150 per night (800/777-4606, ps4rent.com). There are even deals in nondesert hot spots. Vacation rental site zonder.com has town homes in Orlando that sleep four for $161 per night. And you get access to the pool, fitness center, movie theater, kids' play area, and game room.
Bear in mind: Drink lots of water! When it's hot and dry, you don't even notice yourself sweating, so you have to drink, drink, drink!