Plan ahead to cut summer vacation fun costs

Travel savings strategies shouldn't stop once you've secured a decent airfare and hotel rate. What you do at your destination—from dining out to visiting local attractions—can often be cheaper with a little planning.

Take some of your regular smart-shopping strategies on the road, said Trae Bodge, senior lifestyle editor for RetailMeNot.com. For example, if your family favors chain restaurants or has travel plans including a movie or spa day, picking up discounted gift cards is a smart strategy, she said. GiftCardGranny.com aggregates offers from different providers, with discounts ranging as high as 30 percent, depending on the brand.

Comparison shop online to see if you can find promotions for the attractions you want to visit, said Gabe Saglie, senior editor for deal site Travelzoo. Amusement parks in particular tend to offer online-only deals to shoppers who buy before they arrive. For example, at Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, Illinois, single tickets are as much as $20 cheaper online, while Web sales at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, knock $12 off the gate price.

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Other tourist spots, tours and restaurants may have discount vouchers available through local deal sites like Groupon, Amazon Local, Travelzoo and Gilt City. LivingSocial, for example, has 38 percent off deals for a bus tour/paid-museum pass combo in Washington, D.C.

Pedestrians walk near the entrance to Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, Calif.
Getty Images
Pedestrians walk near the entrance to Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, Calif.

Another easy way to cut costs? "Make sure you're aware of all the perks your credit cards are giving you," said Bodge. That might be a waived airline bag fee, a free room upgrade, or the opportunity to redeem points for travel expenses. A 2014 CardHub.com study found that all of the major issuers offer some rental car insurance coverage, a benefit that could help consumers eliminate or reduce that expense.

Put your AAA or AARP cards, if you have them, in your wallet, too, said Bodge. Both include discounts on local entertainment and restaurants. (And of course, travel, if you haven't already booked.)

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You might even want to rethink that hotel rate if it's refundable. "The hotel package is getting a bit of a makeover," said Saglie. Paying a slightly higher package rate could yield savings when its components include better rates on amenities you'd pay for anyway (like breakfast or valet parking), or experiences already on your itinerary (like a baseball game or museum visit). But check the pricing—you're not always getting a break compared with paying a la carte.

At the very least, sign up for the free hotel rewards program. Even brand-new members get free Wi-Fi at chains including Marriott and Intercontinental Hotels Group, while MGM Resorts' M Life program includes discounts to the Las Vegas properties' shows and stores.