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Is 'smart-cation' the new 'stay-cation?'

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Logging thousands of miles across the world as a travel writer, Pauline Frommer is always in-the-know when it comes to researching and booking the best travel deals. Creator of her own award-winning travel guidebooks, Frommer often travels the country sharing her secrets. 

She recently appeared as a featured speaker at the Travel & Adventure Show in Chicago. Here she tells us how to plan an unforgettable and affordable family vacation.

Q: When planning a family vacation (somewhere other than Orlando, Fla.) where are best places to get the most bang for your buck?

Pauline Frommer (PF): The best places are the national parks. You can go to Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and you camp out, which makes your kids so happy. They have wonderful Junior Ranger programs, which are absolutely free, to get kids involved in finding out the mysteries and the interests of the park. In terms of cost, there’s no better value than the national parks.

Second best is probably cruising--IF you have will power once you're on board. People spend a lot of money once they are on the ship but the initial costs are very low. Keep a reign on those kids and don’t let them buy sodas every other minute. If you do that, you can spend little.

I also highly recommend Belize. Last spring, my daughters (ages 9 and 13) and I went to Belize, and I think that was our best family vacation ever. We were repelling down 600 foot walls and swimming into caves. They had such a good time that for a week and a half they did not argue, which was a miracle. It’s not expensive on the ground. It can be if you go to high-end resorts, but you don’t need to. You can go to cute little bed & breakfasts and plan your own adventures and just have a ball. We stayed in this little place called the Parrot Nest Lodge. It was like tree houses...it looked like summer camp. It was all tidy... the people were so nice there and they gave us free inner tubes to float on the river.. and we paid $55 dollars a night there for the four of us. We saw more American families there than in a lot of the places we travel to... it is such an adventures destination and it can be done affordably.

Q: What are the travel trends to be watching for this year now that more families are spending money to travel again?

PF: I think the “stay-cation” is dead, that’s my favorite trend.

Q: You’ve said the “smart-cation” is the new “stay-cation”, what do you mean by that?

PF: Smart-cation is planning a vacation that’s right for your interests that uses all of the tools that are out there now to save money. If you plan your vacation smartly, you can literally shave 30-35 percent off [compared to] somebody who throws their hats in the air and says, 'oh we'll just go here.' Some ways you save are renting an apartment or a condo rather than doing a hotel. People save a good 30% that way, especially families when you factor in the cost of not having to eat every meal at a restaurant.

Follow the sales. Every now and then good sales will pop, especially on Twitter and Facebook; those are the venues to find sales. If you go to some name brands [online travel sites]... and I will not mention who... they will float up the fares from the airlines who give them better commissions. If you go to a site like hipmunk.com or dohop.com, I find their search is much broader and more impartial.

Q: What’s your best advice to take the stress out of planning a family vacation?

PF: It’s funny. They did a study about happiness once and it found that people are happiest when planning their vacations. They are really, really happy during the vacation, and I shouldn’t say this as a travel expert, but there is no evidence that you are happier after the vacation when [you] go back to the daily grind. But I think the planning can be a lot of fun if you allow it to be, if you don’t stress about it. A lot of people spend time planning reading novels about the place they are going or histories or dreaming a lot.

Q: What do you tell people who have never planned a big trip before or don’t think they can afford to travel?

PF: I once heard the biggest worry for Americans when they travel is not budget, it's not terrorism: it's cleanliness. People [are] worried they would go somewhere and it would be dirty. I think that is why people feel they can't travel. They feel if they don’t pay a certain amount, they are going to go to a place that’s substandard and [they] won't enjoy it... but usually that is the absolute opposite of what it actually is. There are wonderful budget accommodations and free tours all over Europe. "You get what you pay for" is the biggest myth in travel!