Cutting Corners

    How long has it been since your last family vacation?
    Times are tough. Jobs are scarce, and money even more so. On the other hand, vacations are a great way to bond with the family and build memories. So how do you get away without spending an outrageous amount of money?
    Plan, plan, plan! My dad is always saying, "Fail to plan, plan to fail," and I agree with him when it comes to vacation. Spur-of-the-moment "Lets go to Vegas!" trips only work for TV characters, the exceptionally rich, and those who already live in the Vegas suburbs.
    Decide where you're going well in advance and set a limit for how much you're allowed to spend on the entire trip, so you can save up for it. Or, if you don't want to wait as long and don't mind a simpler trip, set the limit first and then find a place that suits it. Research the area you want to visit and figure out what you want to do there, or research what you want to do and pick a place to do it.
    Compare costs such as driving versus flying, and try to schedule your travel time not on a weekend. Everyone drives on the weekend, so you'll waste gas in traffic jams if you're driving. However, if you buy plane tickets a month or two out and you're okay with an early morning or late night flight during the week, you can generally get better deals.
    Plan out each day, and each activity's cost, and then have plenty of spending money on top of that for souvenirs or ice cream. My parents controlled whatever they could, from schedule to accommodations, so most of our family vacations went pretty smoothly, allowing for the antics of three rambunctious boys and a well-intentioned-but-accident-prone girl.
    You don't have to drive 20-some hours to Florida to go to Disney World. Be open to other ideas. My family's most frequent trips were to state parks. We hiked, biked, kayaked, and swam all over the place. State parks cost less than theme parks, and they are a healthier, more relaxing alternative. You'll be physically active, you don't have to deal with wild crowds (unless you bring them with you; we never could keep my older brothers on the paths), and you'll be able to control what you eat, as I advise bringing lunch with you. Frankly, you should bring or cook your own food on any trip. Car rides are much better with dozens of homemade banana-nut muffins.
    If you're visiting a friend or relative in the area, ask them to show you around. Chances are, they'll know what you'll want to see in their area better than Google. I visited a friend in New Mexico last year, and he and his family gave me a much better introduction to Albuquerque than any travel guide could. And I stayed with them for free.
    If your budget is really tight, don't sweat! Take some spending money and go a couple hours one way for an overnight in a bed and breakfast somewhere. Talk to the people running the bed and breakfast and ask what you should see. Chances are they'll tell you about a quaint town nearby. Walk around it, learn about its history, and shop in cute little hole-in-the-wall places where you'll get unique souvenirs.
    Vacations aren't about how much you spend; they're about doing something a little different with the person or people who mean the most to you. With a little planning and a little common sense, this year's vacation could be your family's favorite!