Getting A Bargain This Summer

So what if June's nearly gone. Relax. It's not too late to snare a summer vacation deal. In fact, you're in good company. More than half of family travelers don't plan more than a month before taking off, reports the Travel Industry Association in a new survey. Twenty percent plan just a week ahead!

Here's how you can still get out of town with the kids this summer without busting the budget.

1. DON'T BE SHY. Whether it's a dude ranch, beach cottage or cruise ship, ask if there are any discounts for last-minute bookings. Often you have the best luck if you call direct. ``Maybe they've had a cancellation. Maybe they'll figure they'd rather sell the space now at a discount rather than not at all,'' explains Dave Wiggins, whose American Wilderness Experience company represents dozens of western ranches and outfitters.

Wiggins, for one, just knocked off $100 per person on a six-day multi-sport Colorado trip his company offers that has big teen appeal. It's now $875 for adults, slightly less for kids, and includes mountain biking, hiking, rock climbing and riding. Call 800-444-0099 or www.awetrips.com.

2. CLICK YOUR MOUSE. The Web is particularly useful for finding last-minute travel deals and, increasingly, family-friendly packages. Start with your favorite resort, hotel chain or airline to see what unadvertised specials it is touting. AOL's Family Travel Network lists dozens of right-now-just-for-summer packages. So do the big travel sites like www.1Travel.com (check ``specialty travel'' for family deals), www.Expedia.com, www.Travelocity.com and, if you're looking for a vacation condo, www.Resortquest.com.

3. BE THE FIRST ON YOUR BLOCK. A brand-new resort or one that's just been renovated may offer a special deal to entice your family to come check it out. Chances are, it won't be completely booked, either. ``Ask about introductory deals when you call. It's always negotiable in the beginning,'' suggests Rob Delemeter, whose company has just opened Costanoa Lodge and Camp an hour south of San Francisco along the Pacific Coast and next to thousands of acres of hiking trails. You can get room service to your tent. Rates start at $65 a night. Call 800-738-7477 or www.costanoa.com.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Four Seasons Las Vegas is offering an introductory family special through the summer that includes room rates starting at $150, complimentary breakfast for mom and dad, a second room at half price, kids' welcome gift, and free use of the Mandalay Bay water park next door. Call The Four Seasons at 877-632-5000 or www.FourSeasons.com.

4. THINK SNOW -- even in July. You'll find plenty of outdoor action -- fishing, hiking, tennis and golf -- sometimes at bargain prices, as traditional ski resorts retool themselves as year-round family-vacation destinations.

The best part: ``You don't need to worry about the crowds here. We're rarely booked solid,'' said Myra Stratton, a spokesman for Stratton Mountain Resort in Vermont where kids can go to day camp free when parents sign on for tennis or golf lessons. The Family Adventure Packages -- including luxe lodging, gondola rides (take your mountain bike up and ride down), rock climbing wall, skate area and the inside family fun zone -- start at under $100 a night for a family. Call 800-787-2886 or www.stratton.com.

Four-night family packages in Winter Park, Colo., right near Rocky Mountain National Park start at just over $1,000 for a family of four, including lodging, river rafting, the oh-so-long alpine slide and a night at the rodeo where the kids will love watching the junior wranglers compete. Condo rentals start at under $80 a night. Call 800-729-5813 or www.skiwinterpark.com.

5. HIT THE TROPICS. Many consider summer to be family season in the Caribbean because so many families opt to vacation when the weather is still balmy and prices deeply discounted. Here's your chance to live like the other half in a ritzy resort while trade winds help keep you cool. Even in never-cheap Hawaii, there are summer deals. too. Bargain air fares may make one of these trips possible.

The all-inclusive Odyssey St. Lucia, which recently completed a $5 million renovation, is touting rates of $284 a night for a family of four (with kids under 12), including meals and drinks, parents' and kids' activities. Call 800-777-1250 (no Web site).

A dozen Aruba resorts, meanwhile, have banded together to offer the One Cool Family Vacation program, which promises kids under 12 free breakfasts and hotel activities as well as discounts for the family on island attractions -- even free diving for a teen accompanied by mom or dad. Call 800-TO-ARUBA or www.family.aruba.com.

Book a condo for five nights and pay for four at the Aston Kaanapali Shores on Maui, where there's only a nominal $5 daily charge for kids' camp, complete with hula lessons. Rates start at $216 per night. Call 800-922-7866 or www.aston-hotels.com.

Opt for the family fun five-night package at Outrigger's Kiahuna Plantation Resort on Kauai and get two rooms plus family-size breakfast and goodies baskets for $1,200. Call 800-688-7444 or www.outrigger.com.

6. GRAB THOSE FREEBIES. Many vacation spots now throw in free breakfast, kids' activities or discounts on area attractions for families in cities as well as at resorts. Ask for them when you call.

The San Diego Visitors Bureau, for example, offers a free super savings book that includes discount coupons for major area attractions such as Sea World and the zoo as well as area hotels and restaurants. Call 619-236-1212 to request the super savings book. Visit the Web site at www.sandiego.org for more information.

If you're hankering for a Western river adventure, Bill Dvorak Kayaking and Rafting Expeditions offer family discounts and even some gentle, kids-ride-free, multi-day trips all during the summer. Call 800-824-3795 or www.dvorakexpeditions.com

Don't forget the sunscreen and the camera.

(c) 1999, Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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