Budget-friendly vacation ideas grandchildren love

Travel with your grandchildren on a shoestring

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If you’re fretting about affording a fancy vacation with your grandchildren, you’re not alone. A recent online Harris poll of U.S. residents age 60 and older from the MetLife Mature Market Institute reports that 82 percent are spending less on nonessentials like dining out and vacations.

Traveling with your grandchildren doesn’t have to break your budget. Think about some of your favorite family-travel memories growing up. Chances are, what you remember has very little to do with how much money your parents and grandparents spent. Instead, it’s the snapshots of shared experiences, laughter, and discovery that still resonate.

Also, remember the “hotel pool principle.” No matter what you spend on a swanky getaway, the kids always have some of their best times playing in the pool. Whether that pool is in an upscale resort or a budget motor inn doesn’t matter a bit. It’s all about being together and having fun; the setting is just icing on the cake.

Here are a few strategies to make your vacation dollars go farther.

Set up base camp in second-tier cities. Try Pasadena, Calif., instead of Los Angeles; St. Petersburg, Fla., instead of Tampa; and Flagstaff, Ariz., instead of Phoenix. These destinations offer access to top-tier attractions without A-list rates.

Do your homework. Visit destination websites for value packages, discount tickets, downloadable coupons, and CityPass multi-attraction offers.

Nature is always on sale. Camping is a great way to unplug and spend quality family time. Rates at both state parks and private campgrounds can’t be beat.

Day trips count. Planning a handful of day-long getaways instead of one big trip broadens your experience without the expense of airfare and hotel stays.

Look for deals. Even fancy resorts offer value packages, especially on the weekends when business travelers leave town, or off-season. Don’t be shy about asking for discounts or the latest deal. Particularly now, with the economy in a nosedive, many hotels and attractions are sweetening the pot to pull in customers.

These five destinations combine value with activities for all ages. Get creative, and remember, getting there is half the fun.

1. Think Outside the Mouse

Florida never fails to delight with its warm winter temperatures, but the many theme parks in Orlando can be expensive for you and tiring for the little ones. Beyond Disney, there’s baseball at Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex, home to the Atlanta Braves spring training games and the minor league Orlando Rays. As abundant as thrill rides are in major amusement parks, Orlando area nature parks can include swimming, hiking, and a chance to get up close to Florida wildlife, a neat alternative to theme parks at a fraction of the cost. Check the Orlando website for discount tickets to many area attractions and hotel deals.

2. Visit the First Family’s Neighborhood

Washington, D.C. is an ideal multigenerational destination. Between the grandeur of the national monuments, the diversity of the Smithsonian complex (don’t miss the National Air and Space Museum) and the outdoor splendor of the National Zoo, our nation’s capitol has all the bases covered. An added bonus: There are scores of free attractions in the area. Here are a few more suggestions for free things to do in D.C.

3. Head off the Beaten Path

Thanks to its 7,000-foot altitude, low humidity, and high desert terrain, Flagstaff, Ariz., boasts mild weather conditions perfect for outdoor activity. Hike, bike, or drive through the diverse landscape of Coconino National Forest — from mountain peaks, to pine-covered plateau and the Red Rocks of Sedona. Located 85 miles from the Grand Canyon, Flag (as its known to the locals) is close enough for a day trip but lets you avoid the crowds and expensive hotels at the South Rim. While everybody might not be up to a rigorous hike, you’ll all enjoy the spectacular IMAX feature, Grand Canyon: The Hidden Secrets, at the National Geographic Visitor Center, just two miles south of the national park entrance.

4. Help Some Furry Friends

Why not combine your getaway with giving back? Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, sprawls over more than 33,000 glorious red rocky acres in Angel Canyon. It’s within easy driving distance of the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks, and Lake Powell. But Best Friends is a tourist attraction all by itself, drawing some 25,000 people a year to tour the sanctuary (free!) and volunteer to work with the 2,000 or so dogs, cats, birds, goats, sheep, horses, pot-bellied pigs, bunnies and the few odd raptors in residence. Stay onsite from $86 a night, or at one of the many budget motels in Kanab in Kane County.

5. Join the Club

The Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) offers weeklong family camps and family weekends in New England, ideal opportunities for grandparents and grandchildren to have fun together. Activities throughout the 12 chapters vary by season; they include guided walks, naturalist programs, visiting an apple orchard, or taking a haunted evening hike. You just might pick up a few new outdoor skills, like fly fishing, right alongside your grandson or granddaughter. To get discounted rates, pay $75 for an annual AMC membership, but prices are still low. Weekends start at $142 for adults and $92 for children younger than 12, including two nights’ accommodations in a private bunkroom with shared bath, dinners and breakfasts, and guided programs and instruction.

Read more about a trip to the nation’s capital, Tracking Dinosaurs in Utah, and popular parks to visit. We’ve also got tips for saving gas with these Fall Weekend Getaways.