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Strategies for trimming summer vacation costs

Shannon Filippelli wants to take her two kids back to Cape Cod this summer. But she's not sure if her family can afford their traditional week at the beach.
Family Finance Vacations
The rental on Nags Head beach, N.C., where the Kegelman family vacationed.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Shannon Filippelli wants to take her two kids back to Cape Cod this summer. But she's not sure if her family can afford their traditional week at the beach.

"As we started looking at rental properties, we were really surprised to see that prices haven't gone down," said the mom from Belchertown, Mass, who works part time for a marketing agency. She couldn't find even a cottage for less than $2,000 a week.

Families across the country are trying to find a way to swing a summer vacation in difficult times. It's a challenge, but with a little creativity and compromise, many are finding ways to make it happen.

Here are some of the tactics that can help:

Avoid the crowds and be prepared to bargain

With her husband, Keith, working a commission-based sales job, Filippelli is worried about making an expensive commitment. She tried to talk down some of the asking prices, but had no luck. "Negotiating didn't even seem to be an option," she said.

She might want to try again.

Part of the problem may have been that cut-rate prices can be harder to find at particularly popular destinations like Cape Cod or the Jersey Shore. But the recession is pressuring property owners to lower rates, said Christine Karpinski, director of the property owner community for, which operates vacation rental Web sites.

There's been an increase of would-be travelers haggling on price, Karpinski said. The fact that more properties remain unrented than is typical for this time of year may help their cause.

"In the past, if you didn't book something by January, February, maybe into March, you were out of luck for having dibs on any of the best places," Karpinski said. This year, she expects more last-minute deals.

Owners may be reluctant to cut rates sharply, but Karpinski said it's worth asking for discounts — some owners reduce prices for members of the military or first responders like cops and firefighters. Others are willing to rent for less than a full week.

She also suggested looking in off-the-beaten path locations, which can cost far less, and to look at off peak-times — think, either early or late summer.

Consider shorter trips and the great outdoors

Danny and Tracey Kofke love to travel. But with Tracey now a stay-at-home mom raising their two young daughters, $500 a day in Europe or New York City is not in the cards.

That doesn't mean they're going to stay in their backyard. They can't afford a big trip, so they're planning several shorter getaways within driving distance of their Hoschton, Ga., home.

That includes day trips to nearby state parks, a weekend visiting an uncle in Alabama, and a trek to Gatlinburg, Tenn., outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Danny, a special education teacher, said he'll teach a summer school session to raise extra cash — about $1,000 total — to pay for vacation. The trips obviously won't be lavish. "The kids are at the age where going to McDonald's will make them happy," he said. And the family is likely to spend time doing things like hiking and exploring the park that don't require a lot of cash. "We can set that precedent that you don't necessarily have to spend a lot of money to have a good time."

National parks and recreation areas can be bargain destinations, and with the global recession weakening foreign tourism, they are expected to be less crowded this year. Many parks are free, and entrance fees top out at $25. For frequent visitors, a $80 National Parks and Federal Recreation Lands Pass will cover fees for a full year at all parks.

Lodging inside parks can range from affordable cabins to pricey hotels. At most big parks, towns like Gatlinburg on the boundaries typically offer a range of accommodations that can fit any budget.

It's also easy to find low-cost campsites in or near most parks. Kyle McCarthy, editor of the Web site, said camping can be a daunting prospect for the uninitiated, but noted many private campgrounds now rent spots where tents are already set up, or have cabins that offer a similar experience without the hassle.

Another trick is to look for state parks near national parks, where cabins or cottages often rent for less. Some state park systems, like Oregon's, offer unique alternatives like yurts, wooden structures covered with canvas, that rent for $35 to $39 per night.

Economize as a family

A few years ago, Lanny Grossman's extended family gathered for a reunion at a Virginia golf resort. When talk started about getting together again this summer, some family members wanted another resort trip.

But resort rooms cost upwards of $200 per night, and every meal would be eaten at a restaurant. With 15 adults and 5 children expected, the tab would have been enormous.

Then someone suggested sharing a house in Virginia Beach.

The idea of everyone staying under one roof wasn't popular with all the cousins at first. "Once the people that were opposed to it realized the economic implications, they were easily swayed," said Grossman, a New Yorker who works in public relations.

They booked a week in June at a house that sleeps 20 people — and has its own pool — for $6,500. "We're going to go to Costco," he said, "and we'll be making family style dinners.

Some family members were concerned about the privacy implications of sharing a house for a week, but Grossman said everyone ultimately got on board because of the savings and family time.

"We'll still go and play golf during the day," Grossman added. "We can choose from a variety of courses instead of one course."

Adapt traditions to the times

A big beach house on North Carolina's Outer Banks — or two or three, depending on the size of the crowd — has been the tradition for Karen and Dan Kegelman's family for a dozen years. But this year, some were concerned about possible layoffs and couldn't commit to spending up to $10,000, just on the week's house rental.

It was a big disappointment for Karen, a paralegal who looked forward to a week at the beach in the luxury of a swank oceanside home with amenities like big whirlpool bathtubs, not the sort of place she and her high school math teacher husband could normally afford. "You can pretend for a week that this is where you live," she mused. "It's like staying in a four-star hotel."

Disappointment didn't deter her for long. "I said, 'I need to see the ocean and what are we going to do to salvage this?'" the Wilmington, Del., resident recalled. She did some searching on, contacted some other family members and came up with a plan.

Instead of vacationing with her husband's siblings, this year vacation will be spent with 10 people from her side of the family. They'll be closer to home — Fenwick Island, Del. — which will save on gas and tolls. And they'll stay in a townhouse that cost $4,000 for the week, rather than a more private, and more expensive, beach house. "It doesn't shout luxury," she admitted. But she's looking forward to a different experience.