Archive for Sunday, June 27, 2004

Comment: Vacationing at home can be cheap, but fun

June 27, 2004

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In the early 1980s, vacationing meant packing a pup tent on the back of my Harley and riding to Idaho from my home in Minneapolis. There was no itinerary. I camped where I happened to be as it got dark.

With a family, vacations now are usually more scripted. But a few weeks ago, my mother and I wandered for days on an 800-mile drive home from visiting relatives in Indiana. It was just like the old days, and it was great.

We got maps and guidebooks at welcome centers when we crossed into Ohio and Pennsylvania, and we made plans on the fly -- a visit to Wilbur Wright's birthplace, to a couple of Frank Lloyd Wright houses and the Gettysburg battlefield.

We ate wherever we happened to be and hunted down a motel each night. No reservations, no schedule, no hurry -- just living off the land.

With school ended and summer officially here, it's time for my annual pitch for the low-cost, low-stress vacation. Sure, it's worth spending a bundle on a big trip overseas or across the country for something really special. But the keep-it-simple vacation has a lot going for it, too.

A big benefit of vacationing is simply not having to work, and you don't need to spend a lot of money to enjoy that. A vacation also is time to spend with people you like, and if they happen to be in your household, you don't have to spend a bundle on that, either.

The cheapest vacation: staying home. When my wife and son and I do this, we treat it like a real vacation. We don't do home improvements, and we pay the bills and get the chores done ahead of time, just as we would if we were going away.

Fact is, there are lots of things to do within a few hours of home that we don't have time for during the rest of the year. And the town pool is just as nice as anything we'd find at an expensive resort.

Why spend a bundle on a fancy tennis vacation when there are good courts scattered all over town?

The low-cost, stay-at-home vacation is more appealing if you've avoided cultivating expensive tastes. Fortunately, I get restless in fancy restaurants and would really prefer a steak from the grill. I'm pretty happy riding a bicycle or drifting down the Delaware in my canoe. I could get through the rest of my life quite happily without a single evening at the opera.

You get the picture.

Granted, there are real benefits to getting away. Obviously, you're not going to see the Grand Canyon or the Tower of London by hanging around home.

If you do travel, there are lots of ways to trim costs without ruining a trip. Assuming you're going to be doing things, a room is just a place to sleep and hang your clothes. Why pay for a view if you'll only be there at night?

I've stayed in a lot of perfectly nice low-cost motels. Sometimes they don't provide shampoo or an ironing board, but are those really worth another $40 a day?

It pays to hunt for good deals on Web sites such as www.travelocity.com, www.expedia.com and www.orbitz.com. But the cheapest accommodations don't always appear on those sites, especially if they're not part of a chain. So it's worth checking the Yellow Pages, at www.yellowpages.com.

Some travelers grumble about the lousy food on low-cost airlines -- assuming there is food. Yeah, it's terrible. But most airports have decent sandwich stands, and I just take my own meals on board. I'm not going to spend hundreds more for a first-class seat or an upscale airline, just to get a better lunch.

I've had good luck getting cheap, last-minute airline tickets on Priceline, at travel.priceline.com. Last year, I flew to Oklahoma twice for a third the price offered by the airline. There's another cheap-flight service at www.hotwire.com.

By the way, check your airline's Web site before ordering through one of these services. Sometimes the airlines offer the best deals on their own sites.

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