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Vacationing on a Downsized Budget

Not only is August the premiere month for Season 2 of Downsized, it’s also the last month of summer break. If your financial landscape looks anything similar to the Bruces’, you may have thought a vacation wasn’t in the cards this year. However, in the “new normal” post-Recession economy, being budget-smart doesn’t mean giving up the fun stuff — it just requires some clever planning. From Downsized mom Laura Bruce, the staff and a few of our travel expert friends, here are top tips to help you vacation well on a downsized budget.

Share, swap and barter

You’ve got a green thumb. Your friend’s friend has a cabin in the Adirondacks that’s sorely in need of landscaping. Or maybe your big-city cousin is in need of a pet sitter while she + hubby go visit their in-laws. Have you any idea what pet sitters in the city cost? Or landscape artists in the Adirondacks? It’s quite possible that your friend/cousin/co-worker’s friend would much prefer to work out a barter/trade agreement with you, where both sides get something they need.

In the pre-Internet days, any arrangements and mutually beneficial barter deals had to come from within social circles: work, family, church, school. These days, the pool of possibility is much wider. Laura tipped us off to a great resource: a bartering group called Value Card Alliance, where members build points through providing a service, and then trade with thousands of other people in the network—many of whom have vacation rentals to barter.

It’s always off-peak time somewhere!

Because summer is when school lets out, we tend to think it’s high season for all destinations. Not true. Places that get extremely hot in the summer time (think Arizona, Palm Springs, and many parts of the Caribbean and South Florida) consider this to be a “shoulder” season, with non-peak rates for lodging and activities. Even in those places where it is high season, you can get good rates by booking non-peak days or times.

Bill Miller, an SVP at, suggests booking air travel on a Saturday, the lull day between business travel and weekend getaway rushes… or mid-day on a Wednesday, since most business travelers prefer to travel in the morning or evening.

Think outside the box (the big-box hotel, that is).

Yeah, in a perfect world, we’d all like to stay at the Waldorf in Manhattan and dine on room service. But these days, almost nobody can afford that — and even people who could are looking at alternatives like, where you can swap your home with someone else’s for a mutually accepted time period; or, a vacation-rental site where owners negotiate directly with would-be renters.

There are also an increasing number of creative alternatives to the traditional hotel, including “floatels” (inexpensive houseboats, seen in Echo Bay, Lake Mead and on the opposite coast at Rockaway, Queens), “pod hotels” like Yotel that just opened in Manhattan, and Amish Country farm stays.

Make it about the journey, not the destination.

For kids with a sense of adventure, the whole notion of being on the road, seeing new sights out the window, and dozing waking up every morning in a brand-new place will hold tremendous excitement — even if the brand-new place is a rest stop off the state turnpike. Kids don’t mind piling into a cramped sleeper car on a train, or having a grand luncheon of turkey jerky and Sun Chips rather than a healthy mid-day meal. In that way, they can be a lot easier to please than adults. So don’t look at the road as a necessary evil to reach some ultimate vacation endpoint. It could be the ultimate family vacation, all on its own.

Our favorite resource for planning memorable, quirky, off-the-beaten-path roadtrips is, a scenic byways resource created by the United States Federal Highway Administration. And if you prefer to take a train, Amtrak is the standby in the USA, VIA Rail in Canada.

Get the whole family involved.

So your 10-year-old thinks she has all the answers? Your teenagers aren’t satisfied with anything you plan? Believe it or not, these common — and often annoying — kiddie traits can actually work to your budget-fixing advantage.  Sheri Wallace of suggests giving each family member a vacation day to plan exactly as they want to — the caveat being, they have to stick within the budget. Not only will this keep them occupying, but if your children have a competitive streak, they may wind up working extra hard to plan the “best” day — and save you the extra buck.

Pay one up-front price… and stick with it.

Whether it be a cruise, a guest ranch with board included, or a sun-and-fun all-inclusive resort in Mexico, all-inclusives are a favorite way to travel as a family because you’re paying upfront for meals and most activities. You can always find cut-rate deals on all-inclusive hotels on the big travel booking engines, but specialty sites like, and assertively seek out and constantly update exclusive offers and deep discounts in their specific niche.

Use social media to find + score deals

Between travel aggregators like Travelzoo, group buying sites like, and flash sale sites like Vacationist, there are more travel bargains than ever on the Internet these days. In fact, it can be hard to keep track of them. One way to do so is simply to follow your favorites’ Twitter feeds or Facebook fan pages, where “social media managers” are usually tasked with posting all the relevant steals and deals. Another way, if you’re traveling to a major metropolitan destinations, is though, a site that aggregates deals, city-by-city, from 25+ sites including GiltCity and Groupon.

Get on the (mailing) lists

If you’re browsing and you don’t find an itinerary within your means, give the sellers a chance to come back and negotiate. Sign up for a few newsletters, put in your preferences, and within a week or two, the perfect deal may land in your inbox. A key to successful budget traveling is simply knowing what options are out there. Another key is holding out for the deal that you want — and then jumping on it the minute you see it.

Escape in your own town

Maybe, even with all these tricks and leads and resources, a real getaway is really beyond your reach right now. That doesn’t mean you can’t make it a memorable summer though. Think back to the day when you were a kid and you used to camp out in the backyard, or spend hours in the neighborhood park. Now expand on that idea. What’s in your big backyard? Is there a river 15 miles away, with camp sites and barbecue grills? Or a trio of museums you’ve always planned to take the kids to? The term “staycation” may have been overused lately, but the concept — finding new and fun things to do in your very own hometown— is a favorite of ours. Travel experts suggest browsing your town’s Convention & Visitors Bureau site or downloading free city-guide apps from the iTunes store as a way to discover hidden riches in your own town. To see how much fun you can have stay-cationing, just watch Episode 8 of the first season of Downsized, when our very own Bruce family spent a memorable day at the lake.

Lena Katz is a travel expert on the upcoming WE tv show “I Do Over” and the author of the Travel Temptations book series, published by Globe Pequot in 2008. A travel expert for and senior travel correspondent for , she also appears frequently on ABC, E! Channel, MSNBC and various print outlets ranging from Brides Magazine to the LA Times.