11 Rules for a Cheap Summer Vacation

Plan a memorable and relaxing week by taking advantage of this year’s deals and steals.

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After years of staycations and frugal road trips, Americans appear ready to spend a little more on summer fun—as long as they're still landing good deals. Top destinations include countries that have slashed their prices, domestic cities considered less desirable to foreign tourists, and old-fashioned, multi-family beach houses.

"People are a little more comfortable this year spending money for vacation, but they're still holding onto their wallets," says Katherine Liola, an Ameriprise financial advisor. Last year, families stayed home to explore their own cities, use their local pool, or go camping; this year, they're more likely to plan trips away from home with money-savvy components, such as minimizing upgrades and sharing rentals with friends, she says.

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If you're still looking for the perfect summer getaway, here are 11 strategies to consider:

Collaborate with friends. Liola recommends renting a large beach house with a group of friends to split the cost. Since beach (and lake) houses can often accommodate multiple families, this method often reduces the cost significantly, she says.

Pay for the trip in advance. Saving up for a vacation ahead of time is the best way to make sure it doesn't end up on a credit card, says Liola. She urges her clients to make a plan for the following year at the end of each summer, when all the costs of an August getaway are still fresh in their minds. "Whatever the amount is, they should save on a monthly basis throughout the year, so come summer, they've already saved up for the vacation and just have to factor in gas prices," she says.

Think PIGS. It's not the most flattering acronym, but it's the one analysts have settled on to describe the European countries struggling most with debt. The term stands for Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain, all of which are being dragged down by national debt. The upside for American tourists is that fewer business travelers means more opportunities for visitors to score cut-rate deals on hotels and packages, says Chris McGinnis, travel expert and editor of Best Western's Youmustbetrippin.com blog.

Still, McGinnis adds, transatlantic flights are expensive right now, usually starting at around $1,000, and the U.S. dollar is weak. But anyone thirsting for Europe can find the best deals in those four countries.

Escape inland. Popular coastal cities such as New York, Miami, and San Francisco are charging the most right now, partly because they are full of foreign tourists taking advantage of the weak American dollar. That means hotels and resorts can raise their prices. Americans looking to avoid those crowds and get better deals should look to cities more often overlooked by foreigners, such as Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas, and Denver, says McGinnis. He suggests looking for hotels around big convention centers, which are usually empty during the summer and desperate for guests. Plus, they usually feature pools, gyms, and big breakfasts.

Find a promo. Since resorts and hotels know Americans are still hesitant to part with their cash, they're sweetening deals with discounts and deals. AAA members, for example, can get 20 percent discounts at Best Western International, and 10 percent off at Hyatt hotels and resorts. AARP also negotiates discounts for members with tour providers, hotels, and car rental companies.

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Don't forget about cruises. Like other all-inclusive packages, cruises help travelers anticipate costs and allow them to pay for meals and lodging together. They also give passengers the freedom to be more active and take advantage of the many programs and tours offered in ports, or be more relaxed and spend time at the pool or spa.

Make it a working holiday. Volunteering for part of the trip and staying in a resort for the remainder of it can be a way to cut costs and contribute to local communities, says Liola. Opportunities range from building houses to visiting hospices. (Seniors can find domestic volunteer opportunities through the government site www.seniorcorps.gov.) Families with young children can also combine trips with visits that tie into school-year lessons, such as local Civil War battlefields or former presidents' homes.