Enjoy that family summer break without busting the budget

The "staycation" is likely to be pitched to the curb this summer much like a worn-out pair of flip-flops.

Yes, the price of gas isn't exactly where we'd like it. Yes, we're still worried how far home prices could fall — and how much of our net worth will disappear. Yes, the economy seems better ...

Even so, many of us stayed home last year, the year before and the year before that, too.

We need a vacation in 2011.

"It's been a stressful, almost three years and I think right now people are feeling the need to actually get away," said Marilyn Capelli Dimitroff, president of Capelli Financial Services in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

We need a holiday, but please let's not turn it into summer bill-a-day.

Do some planning, consider what you can really afford to spend for a week — and save money wherever you go.

Here's how to turn a vacation into a save-cation with discounts:

Pack the suitcase, grab some sunscreen and a hat but don't forget a spending plan — and the gift cards.

Save money on vacation by using tricks you learned during "staycations."

During one day off this year, my son and I planned where we would go and what we would do based simply on our batch of gift cards and gift certificates.

We hit the McDonald's for lunch — using gift cards but no cash or other plastic.

We hit Target for a little shopping trip — spending about 75 cents of my money on top of $50 in gift cards.

We saw a kid's movie using a Groupon gift certificate that my niece had given to us for Christmas. That coupon covered the movie, popcorn and two pops, too.

Sure, we could not indulge in whims of the moment. I only looked around Kohl's that day because we didn't have any gift cards there.

But we had fun — and ended up amazed at how little we had to hand out in cash. And we will be certain to pack more McDonald's gift cards that we had received for Christmas to take on vacation, too.

— Revisit a favorite spot.

It sounds a little strange to do the same old thing. But you might know the restaurants, hotels or parks where you can save money if you've already spent time in that area, according to a tip by the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards.

One friend discovered a weekly special that's not on the menu at a fancy restaurant. But the locals know about that special — so my friend goes back every trip and probably spends half of what a typical dinner would cost.

— Discover new, less-expensive spots close to home.

I saw one list for money-saving tips this year that suggests that you camp in your own backyard. OK, but that's a "staycation," isn't it?

Why not, as my friend suggests, find yourself within walking distance of a lake for as little as $15 a night at a rustic campsite? Or spend $65 a night for a cabin or cottage at a state forest campground.

— Rethink what you really need on vacation.

My husband and I figured out a way to save $200 for a trip this summer by renting a car for three days, instead of the full week.

We'll be able to use less-expensive transportation for part of that trip. Sure, it will be a little less convenient, but we'd rather save the money.

Another strategy: Stay home one night — instead of being on the road for six nights — to save some cash.

— Be flexible — and willing to think of other options.

Most of us know you can save money on airfare if you're willing to play around with when you fly. But pay attention to the days you'd stay in a hotel — and the services you'd use, too.

Do you need to pay for Internet access at a hotel if there's free Wi-Fi at a quick-food chain down the block?

Can you book a better rate for a room during the week than on weekends? Are there less-expensive public parking options?

Can you get tickets for a museum or zoo — and breakfast — thrown into a package to bring down the costs?

— Get the senior discount.

Never be afraid to compare discounts — or admit your age if you can save a buck.

If you're a baby boomer who has just retired, though, pay attention to how often you go on vacation. It's too tempting to agree to every trip that friends or family suggest, said Marilyn Capelli Dimitroff, president of Capelli Financial Services in Bloomfield Hills. She has seen retirees get into trouble by vacationing too often.

— Shop at home.

One of the easiest ways to run up bills is to make one or two trips to the mall — or even some discount stores. Cross shopping off the list as one of the things to do on vacation. Cut — or eliminate — casino time, too.

— Look for natural — and free — wonders.

Some towns across the country have beautiful spots. Over the years, we've watched harbor seals on a beach in La Jolla, Calif., let our son run through a special fountain in Vero Beach, Fla., and walked around some great parks and beaches. All for free.

Sure, we had to pay to get to those spots. But once you fly to California, no one says every minute has to be spent pulling out cash or plastic.

Susan Tompor is the personal finance columnist for the Detroit Free Press.

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