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By the time our daughter turned 5, we had dragged her all over the country -- to New York and Washington, D.C., in the spring; Seattle and San Francisco in the fall; Anaheim in January, Orlando in October and Palm Beach in May.

We loved going places in the "off-season" and dreaded the day when school schedules would lock us into vacationing at the same time as every other family in the known universe.

We needn't have worried so much. Yes, traveling during the holidays and the height of summer can be a pain. But spring break is more like traveling in early June or late August. Schools stagger their spring breaks, just as they do the start and end of their school years, so traveling isn't as painful -- or expensive -- as we had feared. Less competition means more opportunities to save.

(In case you haven't figured it out by now, this column is directed at families, since college students already know how to have a cheap spring break: fly a no-frills airline to somewhere warm, rent a dumpy motel room with 10 of your buddies, and eat fast food so you can conserve your money for partying. If you're a college student who wants to travel a little more comfortably, though, or to a destination that's not swarming with drunks, you may find some helpful tips below.)


Here are a few ways you can plan a spring break that doesn't break the bank:

Use those travel rewards

Snagging multiple free airline seats to popular destinations often requires planning six or even nine months ahead, but you may still be able to find free flights to destinations off the beaten track. You likely will have a better shot deploying hotel rewards programs for free nights. You can convert many airline miles into hotel points; check out WebFlyer's Mileage Converter for which programs translate. The transfer process can take a few weeks, though, so hop on it.

Liz Weston

Liz Weston

Or consider train travel. Most kids love trains, and sleeper car accommodations include all meals and access to a private lounge on most trips. Rewards in the Continental and Starwood programs can be transferred directly to Amtrak's Guest Rewards, with 15,000 miles or points landing you a two-bunk roomette for an overnight trip. For 20,000, you can get a one-bedroom accommodation, which pairs two bunks with a private bath. Hyatt and Hilton require transferring more points; you'll need 40,000 Hyatt Gold points and 100,000 Hilton Hhonors points to get the roomette.

Visit a national park

Stunning natural beauty, lots of stuff for kids to do (including visitors' centers and Junior Ranger programs) and accommodations, ranging from campgrounds to cabins to historic lodges, that typically won't drain your wallet -- no wonder our national parks are so popular.

That's a problem in the summer, when many national parks are packed.

Stunning natural beauty, lots of stuff for kids to do (including visitors' centers and Junior Ranger programs) and accommodations, ranging from campgrounds to cabins to historic lodges, that typically won't drain your wallet -- no wonder our national parks are so popular.

That's a problem in the summer, when many national parks are packed. You'll still need to plan ahead for the most desired accommodations in springtime, such as the hotels in Yosemite Valley, but in mid-February you could still make April reservations for heated tents at Yosemite's Curry Village or a room at the historic Wawona Hotel a few miles from the valley floor. In warmer locations, camping might be an option.

Or you can seek out some of the least-visited national parks, some of which are good alternatives to their better-known cousins. Consider Canyonlands in Utah instead of Zion or Bryce, for example, or Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California instead of Yellowstone. Other less-trammeled parks to consider include: