Duane Hoffmann / msnbc.com
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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/23/2008 6:54:32 PM ET 2008-07-23T22:54:32

Well, gang, we've made it to the mid-point of the summer travel season. For folks who already scaled back or canceled vacation plans due to rising gas prices, airline fare hikes or the deeply dipping dollar, it's already a miserable summer.

I've been there and it stinks.

But for you glass-half-full types eyeing the August calendar and still holding out hope for some sort of summer vacation, there's still time to have fun.  You may just need to be more flexible and a bit more creative than usual.

So get out that "souvenir" pen you took home from that last hotel stay and get ready to jot down a few tips for salvaging a miserable summer.

Re-evaluate expectations
First, ditch those images of two-week beachfront vacations and lavish month-long tours of Europe. There's not much time left for that sort of thing this summer. Besides, I suspect the only people who actually get to take trips like that anymore are characters in books or Hollywood films.

The rest of us probably have a just a week or a few days to whoop it up, and vacation budgets are far from flush. A recent Travelzoo survey found that four in five Americans believe the era of affordable travel is behind us. It also revealed that, in return for discounted airfare, many folks would be willing to stand rather than sit on the airplane and to give up their in-flight restroom privileges. Really!

Given the sorry, smelly state of many airplane restrooms, it's a fair bet many passengers have already stopped using the in-flight lavs. But that's a topic for another column.

Fly anyway — and start your vacation at the airport
If you were hoping to fly somewhere this summer, don't let all that news about fare hikes, fuel surcharges and schedule cutbacks keep you from at least checking airline and travel Web sites. Experts predict some airlines will still roll out end-of-summer sales, so if you really want to jet off somewhere, be ready to grab a reasonable-looking fare as soon as you see it. And practice packing light so you can avoid the new checked-baggage fees.

Once at the airport, remember that you're likely to encounter long lines and plenty of delays. That's why, along with your boarding pass, snacks, reading matter, back-up phone numbers and extra dollop of patience, it's a good idea to pack a printout of the shops, restaurants and amenities at each airport you're scheduled to visit. And don't just hang out by the gate: in Denver, San Francisco, Miami, San Diego, Seattle, Atlanta, Austin and elsewhere, you'll find top notch art and history exhibits right at the airport. You can start the cultural part of your vacation before you ever leave town.

Be a guest — not a pest
One upside of rising gas prices and a down economy is your friends may offer you their guestroom or couch when you tell them how hard you're working to stretch your vacation budget. But be mindful of being tagged as a moocher. In a survey by the travel Web site IgoUgo this past May, 25 percent of the respondents admitted that they stay with friends and family just for the free room — not because they want to hang out with their hosts.

If you've ever had a moocher in your midst, you know how uncomfortable and irritating that can be. So it's a good idea to learn how to be a well-mannered houseguest — especially if you want to be invited back.

We've covered it before, but let's review:

  • Don't show up unannounced and don't overstay your welcome.
  • Pick up after yourself and don't expect to be waited on by your hosts.
  • Bring a gift, make a meal, take out the dog, clean up the kitchen and pay for a group activity or dinner out.
  • Make your visit a special occasion.
  • Follow the house rules: No smoking, no drinking, and no cussing? Play along.
  • Fess up and replace anything you break or any special foods or liquor that you polish off.
  • When you get home, send a thank-you note or a gift that you know will be appreciated and used (especially important if you were just mooching).

Vacation, staycation or daycation?
Of course “staycations,” (the new term for spending your vacation days at home) are no longer something to be embarrassed about. However, I prefer “daycations:” low-cost adventures that take you to activities and attractions in your own city, but let you sleep in your own bed at the end of the day.

Some low-cost daycations on my summer list include:

Visiting a museum during Bank of America's monthly Museums on Us weekend, when anyone with that bank's check, ATM or credit card gets free admission at more than 70 museums around the country. The next free weekend is Aug. 2nd and 3rd.

Buying a CityPass (they're on sale in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Hollywood, Houston, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Southern California and Toronto), and (finally) hitting a bunch of the popular high-ticket attractions in my city at a big discount. Hiking through a few city parks and ending up very hungry at a restaurant participating in the local version of New York City's Restaurant Week Summer 2008, which is going on through Aug. 1, excluding weekends. In New York, 200 restaurants are offering three-course set lunches for under $24.07 and dinners for $35. Other cities have summer restaurant weeks as well. For example: Restaurant Week Boston (Lunch: $20.08/Dinner: $33.08) runs Aug. 10-22 , excluding weekends, and Washington, D.C.'s Summer Restaurant Week (Lunch: $20.08/Dinner: $35.08) takes place Aug. 11-17. 

Sound like fun? Give it a try. If you string enough of these low-cost “daycations” together, you may actually end up with something we used to call ... a vacation.

Happy salvaged summer!

Harriet Baskas writes msnbc.com's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the “Stuck at the Airport” blog, a contributor to National Public Radio and a columnist for USATODAY.com.

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