Practical steps to cutting family vacation costs

Arnold Fury cut into the steak, then paused momentarily: "You might do just what we are doing now," he said, "and eat the main meal midday." We were dining at a restaurant of Mr. Fury's choice, discussing the pros and cons of traveling today, when I put the question to him: How can we continue to afford an enjoyable vacation given OPEC oil and the continuing price spiral? Specifically, can dining out at something more refined than the hamburger hut remain a part of the American vacation?

As manager of the Mobil Travel Guide, Mr. Fury is equipped to comment on such possibilities. His firm belief is that enjoyable vacations will remain affordable by the average family. Some adaptations will have to be made. But, he insists, "there should be no need to mortgage the house."

Cutting down on the high cost of eating is one of many options. But, dining out is frequently one of the pleasures of vacationing, and it is the Fury contention that no one need eliminate that pleasure altogether.

The midday meal preference is a sound one because lunch and dinner menu selections at a majority of restaurants are almost identical, but the prices are often markedly lower in the day. The servings might be somewhat smaller, but that frequently is more to the traveler's satisfaction anyway.

One couple whose business activities frequently take them traveling together has found luncheon meals can sometimes be as much as 30 percent less expensive than similar selections at night. They keep a jar of their favorite mix of nuts and dried fruit in the car always. "And if ever the servings leave us less than satisfied, a handful of the nuts meets the need," they say.

Personal experience is always the most reliable guide to good moderately priced restaurants. Whether in Baltimore or Brussels, "ask the natives" is the best approach to dining out says Mr. Fury. Other than that he suggests reading the restaurant reviews in local papers and consulting reputable travel guides.

An increasing trend these days is for the restaurant to display its menu in the window or alongside the doorway. Consult those and "see if they are compatible with what you want to spend," says Mr. Fury. If one isn't posted don't be shy about asking to see a menu before being seated, he insists.

Check, too, whether there is a minimum charge. If all you want is a hot drink and a slice of cheesecake, you won't want to part with $5. Even inexpensive coffee shops sometimes require a minimum charge if you sit at a table instead of the counter.

Generally it pays to avoid the "a la carte" menu and opt for the complete meal. But make sure you know what is included in the meal. If vegetables are included, you may not need or want a salad for an additional charge. If desert is not included, you may wish to skip it. An orange, apple, and perhaps a cookie or two back in your hotel room will make an admirable and much cheaper dessert.

When a business traveler in Switzerland found his funds running low he "remained solvent," he says, by cutting his restaurant meals down to one a day. For the rest, "store-bought dried fruit, cheese, crackers, and nuts proved more than satisfying." What was applicable in Switzerland can be applied with equal success in the US or virtually anywhere for that matter.

In this respect, Arnold Fury suggests taking along a small electric hot-water jug to prepare any one of a number of instant hot drinks of your choice from soup to hot chocolate right in your hotel room. It's a lot cheaper than going downstairs to the coffee shop and a whole lot cheaper than room service.

So much for dining economies.There are other options, too, that can cut the vacation budget to a considerable degree.

The way gasoline prices are rising, some predictions suggest that even the more fuel efficient cars will run at $10 a hundred miles in the not-too-distant future. Remember that's gasoline cost alone. So the conventional touring vacation -- this city today, this town tomorrow, this resort the next day -- should be avoided. Go back to Grandma's day, suggests Mr. Fury. Pick a resort area, drive there and stay put, taking in the local attractions and making day trips away from the area using public transportation. It helps to select a centrally located hotel, one that is within easy, perhaps even walking distance of many of the things you wish to see.

You might also consider taking along the family bicycles. Invest in a bike rack if you don't have one. Once you get there cycling around makes much more energy-efficient sense than driving. It can be a whole lot more fun, too.

Obviously, it makes sense to pick a resort within 200 miles of your home base for a drive-there and drive-back-on-one-tank vacation.

Some other money-saving options: Bring all your toilet and beach articles from home. The same applies to sports equipment. Renting a tennis racket, when your own is gathering dust in the cupboard back home, doesn't make sense. On the other hand don't bring along what you will not use. Unnecessary weight adds just as unnecessarily to your car's gas consumption.

Finally drive at 55 m.p.h. Unless yours is a car with an unusually high overdrive, 55 will get you the most miles to the gallon. For the same reason don't drive with all the windows wide open. The extra drag increases gas consumption. It would help to do most of your driving in the early morning or at night when air temperatures will be much cooler.

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