10 Ways to Turn a Cheap Vacation Into a First-Class Getaway

Geoff Williams

You deserve a summer vacation. You plan on taking one. You also plan on spending a small fortune.

Vacations aren't cheap. American Express's annual online vacation survey (of 1,500 adults, conducted in April) indicated that Americans will spend an average of $1,246 per person this year on their summer vacation. Last month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a nearly 6 percent increase in airline ticket prices. Meanwhile, theme park tickets have also risen. The cost of having fun just keeps going up.

So if you're planning to embark on a vacation, you'll probably spend more than you want to -- there's little way around that. But there are plenty of ways to make your vacation cheaper so you can travel farther for your money. Here are some ideas:

Camp. Instead of spending a chunk of your vacation budget at a hotel, pack a tent and sleeping bag. "In fact, rent a cabin or a cool yurt. It is way cheaper than going to a hotel. And then you can just pack up and get on the road to your destination," says Andrea Garcia, who works in marketing in Union City, New Jersey, and has camped throughout the Northeast and in Europe on vacations.

She adds: "Most national parks offer incentives for the adventurous to take the option of camping on their grounds. There are [promotion] codes that you can look for if you subscribe to their newsletters or just dig around. Saving 25 percent on camping or up to 35 percent on a cabin is a great option for those who have budgets."

[See: The 10 Most Visited National Parks.]

Campsites can cost $25 to $30 per night. Garcia says she has paid as little as $7 for a site, although remember that if you're new to camping, the money you save on hotels may be spent on camping equipment.

Pack your own food. Take a cooler on your trip, and fill it with snacks and no-cook meals. "While part of the fun of vacations might be dining out, the costs can add up ... If you bring snacks and a meal or two, or better yet have the ability to make quick, simple meals where you're staying, you can save money," says Ray Advani, who has a personal finance blog, Squirrelers.com.

Eat at a hospital. Haralee Weintraub of Portland, Oregon, and CEO of Haralee.com, an online clothing retailer, says if you're on a multistate road trip, and you want to consume something healthier than fast food but dine on fare that's cheaper than at a sit-down family restaurant, "follow the signs to 'hospital' and go for a lunch break. Surprisingly, hospitals have really upgraded their food and kept prices down. Usually, there is a cafeteria or cafe with lots of choices."

Be choosy about souvenirs. Not that you shouldn't buy them, but the tourist traps are "charging you five to 10 times an item's true value and sell cheaply made items," says Laura Berger, who runs a consulting company in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and is a frequent world traveler. She suggests going off the beaten path and shopping where the locals do. "I have earrings, shirts and art from all over the world that people regularly fawn over because I paid a reasonable price for a rare gem that no one can get in their home country," she says.

Don't automatically opt for guided tours. Self-guiding your tour and going on an adventure can pay off. Berger says: "Whenever we are on a cruise that stops at Grand Cayman, we watch our shipmates pay over $100 per person for tours, while we take a $5 public bus down 7 Mile Beach and have a calm, spectacular walk back to the ship, stopping to get sun, swim and eat along the way."

But consider bus tours. Robbin Watson, a media relations manager in San Diego who travels frequently, says she recommends day passes for double-decker hop on/hop off buses.

"Even though it's a bit touristy, normally a ticket is only about $30, and it saves you money on taxis and other forms of public transportation, all the while being able to see all the city's biggest attractions," she says.

[Read: 13 Tips for Sniffing Out the Best Deals on Hotels .]

Ride as the locals do. Consider taking public transportation to save money. "Whenever practical, even on business, I take public transportation," says Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and founder of Atmosphere Research Group in San Francisco. "For example, this past Monday, I took the AirTrain from [John F. Kennedy International] Airport to Jamaica station, and from there the subway into Manhattan. Total cost: $7.50. A taxi would have been $65 or more."

Utilize technology. Everyone knows you can find travel deals online. But if you want look beyond the big guns like Travelzoo.com, Kayak.com and Priceline.com, here are a few websites that may be flying under your radar:

-- getinvisiblehand.com: This site promises to get you the lowest price on shopping, flights, hotels and rental cars.

-- Zalyn.com: This site specializes in finding rental car coupons and discerning which are the best for the company you're using.

-- Befrugal.com/tools/fly-or-drive-calculator: This tool is designed to help you decide if it's cheaper to fly or drive to a particular destination.

Don't park at the airport. If you're going to fly somewhere and need a place to leave your car, it's cheaper to park near the airport instead of at the airport, where the prices tend to be, well, pricey. But if you don't have off-airport parking websites memorized, here are a few: discountparkandride.com, parkrideflyusa.com and airportparkingreservations.com. You may not find your airport at all of these sites, but you'll probably find it at one of them. You can also expect a free shuttle ride to take you to the airport.

[See: Best Places to Visit in the USA.]

Travel at off-peak times. That means staying in hotels during the weekdays and not the weekends, if possible, and being willing to leave for the airport early to catch a flight at 6 a.m. According to PriceofTravel.com, the best time to purchase an airline ticket is three to seven weeks before your flight. Just recognize that if you schedule a flight around dawn and are utterly exhausted by the time you arrive at your destination, you might waste a lot of time and money in your efforts to save cash. The off-time is the off-time for a reason.

Sure, you could save even more on hotels, beach cottages, beds and breakfasts, airfare and rental cars if you take your vacation at any time other than summer, but where's the fun in that? Just remember to do some planning so you can stay within your budget. You want to remember your vacation in the years ahead from your memories and photos -- not because you're still paying it off on your credit cards.