Family VacationGas prices are hitting four bucks, airfares are sky-high, the economy is crashing to the ground, and the kids are bleating, “When are we going on vacation?” With a recession looming, many folks are scaling back their vacation plans this summer. But we all need a break (remember the sage wisdom of Madonna and the Go-Gos!), and vacations can be terrific bonding times for families. So here are some tips on how to save money on family vacations.

1) Hunt for deals on the internet… and the old-fashioned way.

Everyone probably knows about the major sites for discount hotels and plane tickets (Expedia, Hotels.com, cheaptickets.com are three reliable ones). Start there for big-ticket items, but once you know where you want to stay, also do a Google search for “discounts –hotel x” or even “discount code-hotel x.” I found a 15% discount for a hotel in NYC this way!

Once you’ve done all you can with the internet, get off the computer and on the phone. Call the hotel/airline/theater. There are two reasons for this: first, sometimes the hotel/airline/theater itself simply offers lower prices than those published anywhere on the internet. Second, once you have a human being on the other end of the line, you can see if they’re open to price reduction. Which brings me to #2:

2) View all prices as negotiable.

Why? Because they are! Once you get a human being on the phone, see if you can get a discount. I know we’ve been trained to feel this is tacky, and I draw the line at doing this in person. But there’s no harm in asking politely over the phone, and the results can be startling. Recently, we had plans to take our one-year-old daughter to a children’s theater production of Goodnight, Moon (a musical, no less!). The tickets were fifteen bucks, and the fine print online said that all children one or over were required to buy tickets. Our daughter is exactly one, won’t be using a seat, and will probably sleep (and hopefully not scream) through the event. I called the box office, explained our situation, and offered to donate $20 (a tax deduction!) to the theater if they would allow my daughter to get in free. Deal! I also negotiated a free night at a hotel in NYC, since they were not able to accommodate my request for a crib. Always be polite, accept ‘no’ for an answer, but give it a whirl.

3) Consider a vacation close to home… or even in your hometown.

This is easier if your hometown is Paris, rather than Podunk, but kids really just like going SOMEWHERE, to do something out of the ordinary. If you eliminate transportation and hotel costs by going local, you’ll have more money to spend on museums, restaurants, and so on. Have the kids help you research local attractions, and let them pick the one that sounds most interesting to them (you can eliminate amusement parks and other expensive money guzzlers if necessary). Then, make an outing of it; bring snacks, camera, games, and notebooks. Even if it’s a relatively mundane site (the Museum of Hairballs, Lake Not-So-Nice), try to make a big deal out of it. Then, have kids do age-appropriate games, as well as art and writing activities based on their experiences. Here are some terrific tips for how to help your kids engage creatively with a museum or other such experience But be creative; come up with your own ways of extending the fun through poems, art, music, writing, map-making, treasure-hunting, performing…the possibilities are endless.

4) Don’t stay in a hotel. Just don’t.

If you can do the trip in one loooooong day/stay with friends or family/camp out, do so. Hotels are just a big money-suck. I enjoy a glam hotel as much as the next high-maintainence girl, but you know what? You don’t really get to enjoy that spa showerhead with the fifty-nine settings when the kids are with you.

If you do need to pay to stay, consider an lgbtq-owned bed and breakfast (call to make sure they’re kid-friendly, too!) How do you find such a place? Just Google “gay and lesbian bed and breakfast” for whatever region you’re staying in. You’ll get better value for your money, and get a sense of the local queer scene. And support your community!

5) Camp

No, I’m not suggesting that you all dress up as Judy Garland (though that sounds pretty fun to me). Even if you’re not by nature a nature bunny, a camping vacation offers diverse experiences for little money. You can rent most of the equipment (tent, bbq) if you just want to give it a try without committing too much time and money. Camping sites can be found all over the country; many are in or near national parks and other places with tons to do. Here are some tips for how to embark on your first camping adventure en famille. Roughing it will save money, give you time to bond with your family. At the very least, it will make you all appreciate the joy of a soft bed and a pizza.

What other cheap, fun queer family vacation tips do you have?