Monday, May 19, 2008

Humor Me: Planning a cheapskate vacation

By MATT WIXON

Most people never forget their family vacations. They remember the fun and laughter at an amusement park. They remember the excitement of getting on a plane bound for a faraway place. They remember the great adventures, such as when dad didn't notice the "warning: low clearance" sign on the gas station overhang and knocked the air conditioner off the rented motor home.

Ah, memories. But those memories come at a price. And for many families, especially with gas prices what they are, the price is too steep. So what is a family to do this summer? Is there a way to construct a family vacation that won't deconstruct the retirement account?

Yes, yes, yes. But it does require a little creativity and a healthy dose of imagination. So as you close your wallet, try opening your mind to the exciting ultra-cheap possibilities of a pseudo-traditional getaway.

The Beach Vacation

The sun on your face, the sand between your toes, the calming effect of waves crashing on a Sounds of the Beach compact disc.

It's not quite the Caribbean or Hawaii, but doesn't the water in the blow-up pool feel good? Move your arms and create some waves, stab an umbrella into the sandbox and watch the kids make sand castles. Every 45 minutes, play the theme music to Jaws, blow a whistle and have everyone scramble out of the pool. Now that's excitement.

In the evening, throw some food on the grill and have a luau on your patio. Turn up the music, have a limbo contest, and then watch The Brady Bunch's three-episode Hawaii adventure. Will the Bradys be doomed by the tiki?

Upside: No riptides; sand won't be in your hair for weeks; dogs are
welcome on faux beach.

Downside: Orchid leis don't hold up well in Texas wind; neighbors
may critique your backyard hula.

The Historical Vacation

In Dallas, we've got everything you ever wanted to know about John F. Kennedy. Yes, even beyond "back and to the left." But for historical trips, we just can't compete with destinations like the Liberty Bell in Pennsylvania, the White House in Washington, D.C., and Mount Rushmore in the middle of nowhere - also known as South Dakota.

Yes, the Mount Rushmore likenesses of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt are impressive. But the likenesses of historical figures such as George W. Bush and Frank Sinatra are closer to life -- and Dallas -- at The Palace of Wax in Grand Prairie. What's more interesting to a 12-year-old: carvings of presidents or wax renditions of Britney Spears?

Instead of a trip to the White House, take a trip to the Old Red Courthouse in downtown Dallas. Instead of a trip to the Liberty Bell, how about, uh ... Taco Bell. Admittedly, it's a strange replacement, but here's a history discussion question: Where did the Taco Bell name come from?

Upside: No flight to South Dakota, no tour-group leaders wearing
powdered wigs.

Downside: Wax museum can be spooky; difficulty forging history
lesson from trip to get Cheesy Gordita Crunch.

The Cruise Vacation

Cruises are popular summer getaways, but they can be expensive for a family. And what if, on the first day of your seven-day cruise, your 6-year-old son proves not to be seaworthy. That will be one very long week.

You can save yourself a headache and a lot of money by renting a boat at one of the area lakes. No, there won't be any deep-sea diving or liquor at duty-free prices, and you'll have to provide the onboard entertainment.

But two of a cruise's most popular features are available: gambling and the all-you-can-eat buffet. Just bring along some lottery tickets and a stocked mini fridge. To add romance, set a course for adventure and the television to TV Land's Love Boat.

Upside: No waiting to board, no need for luggage.

Downside: Exotic ports of call limited to "other side of lake."

The Theme Park Vacation

In commercials for Disney World and other theme parks, nobody seems to be at the park except the family in the commercial. But most of the time, the shortest line to be found -- about 15 minutes -- is the one for the bathrooms.

Of course, that's an adult view of theme parks. For children, however, it's hard to imagine an appeasing replacement for these mega-hyped fantasy worlds. But here are some low-cost possibilities:

Instead of Sea World, rent Free Willy and take a trip to the lobster tank at a grocery store. Instead of Disney World, head to the Department of Motor Vehicles, where the cast of characters rivals any theme park for creativity. If your son or daughter wants the theme-park ride experience, have them stand in place for half an hour and then spin until they are dizzy.

OK, so the cheap theme-park ideas probably won't fly with your kids. But maybe if you throw in a $100 gift certificate at a toy store, they won't write about it in their "What I did for my summer vacation" essay.

Upside: Family vacations are all about memories, and your children will never forget this vacation.

Downside: Your children will never let you forget this vacation.

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