NEW YORK (MainStreet)In 2012, Americans estimated they would spend $1,180 per person on summer vacations, according to a survey conducted by American Express. This year, over 1,200 people responded to a similar summer vacations survey by TripAdvisor. 86% said they plan to take a trip this season. 53% of those packing their bags plan to spend the same amount this year, and 25% plan to spend more. But with a little insider knowledge, people paying north of a grand for summer fun could pay a lot less--and so could you. We asked travel, hotel and food service industry experts how they'd save on their own summer vacations. This is what they came up with.
If you've got skills, Christopher Knight Johnson, assistant manager of The Mountain View Inn in Norfolk, Conn., suggests using them to score cheap or free lodging. Many inns, bed and breakfasts, and hotels are members of the International Monetary Systems network, which Johnson says uses "a barter point system instead of standard currency." As a member, you'll trade your skills -- anything from carpentry to accounting -- to participating businesses for points. Once you accumulate enough points, you can use them at places like the Mountain View Inn for free or discounted rooms.
Don't want to barter for a hotel discount? Adjusting your travel dates can also lead to better deals. If your dates are flexible, book your room in the middle of the week when Johnson says managers will "usually negotiate a special rate." Or use a good deal as an excuse to extend your vacation and book a room for several consecutive days. According to Johnson, there is less work turning over the rooms if it's occupied by the same guests, so hotels have motivation to give you a discount for longer stays.
Another way to get room and board while you're on vacation: swap houses with another traveler. Shelley Miller, founder of Home Exchange Expert, says she's done 15 home swaps in 12 years in popular tourist destinations all over the world. Miller suggests joining a home-swapping club to find prospects. Sites like HomeExchange.com, The Vacation Exchange Network and Airbnb can put you in contact with people interested in swapping their home for yours. And since you're going through a club, you won't have to worry about the person stealing your stuff or using your apartment for something sketchy. The clubs verify new applicants.
According to a 2012 Zagat survey, the average meal at a restaurant costs $35.65. Buy three restaurant meals a day, and you'll spend $106.95 daily or $748.65 over a seven-day vacation. Bill Duncan, global head of brand management for Homewood Suites and Homewood Suites 2, suggests starting with a hotel that includes free meals. Duncan says many hotels offer "complimentary breakfast daily," and some hotels like Homewood Suitesoffer light dinner menus where you might score free beer or wine. Once you've got free meals squared away, hit the local grocery store for snack items and other foods you can prepare in your hotel room. If you don't have time or aren't sure where the grocery store is, ask the concierge to do the shopping.
When you do go out to eat, be wary of heavily advertised restaurants. Jake Williamson, a bartender for Slice Pizzeria in New Orleans with a long history in the food service industry, says he's seen far too many vacationers "blow their money on these tourist traps." While it doesn't always happen, some well-known tourist destination restaurants charge more for their food, because they know tourists won't know any better. Instead, Williamson suggests finding the "off-the-beaten-path places," or the ones you don't hear about from your hotel's concierge.
If you're planning to take the kids to an amusement park this summer, Paula Werne, director of communications at Holiday World & Splashin' Safari, suggests skipping the bigger corporate theme parks in favor of small, privately owned ones, which, according to Werne, often are less crowded and less expensive. For example, a dual ticket to Holiday World and Splashin' Safari in Santa Claus, Ind., costs $39.95 for adults and $34.95 for children. Tickets to Six Flags Great America in Chicago are regularly $61.99 for adults and $41.99 for children. That's a savings of $22.04 for adults and $7.04 for kids.
Neil Mulholland, President and CEO of the National Park Foundation, recommends planning a "voluntourism" trip this summer. Volunteering isn't a new thing, as "257,000 volunteers donated 6.78 million hours of their time" in national parks last year, according to Mulholland, but vacation/volunteering hybrids are popular right now. Probably because you get more than just a warm and fuzzy feeling for doing something good; you also get a free all-access pass to wherever you volunteer, saving you money.