Larry Bleiberg is co-author of "The 100 Best Affordable Vacations," a guide published by National Geographic that can make your next trip possible and memorable. Bleiberg, 48, has his credentials in order: married father of a 16-year-old; a Virginia native with 15 years of travel writing under his belt, mostly at the Dallas Morning News.
We gave him nine reader situations — and asked him to design the best cheap trip.
—We're traveling with tykes
"Camp at a YMCA family camp. They're like when you were a kid — out in woods, cooking marshmallows, hiking, busy all the time with outdoor activities and you can literally relive those day s as a family. There are four huge camps around the country; the most famous is in the Rockies (www.ymcarockies.org). Rooms start at $79 a night in winter and rise with the temperature. It's not gourmet food, but it's good.
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"One mom who went said to me, 'Families do board games there — who does that nowadays?' The whole experience is about bonding and getting away from the madness."
—We're both retired (and getting around is getting harder)
"Road Scholar, which used to be Elderhostel, literally offers learning vacations with experts guiding you in-depth on Gullah culture, Texas history, following the real trail of the Alamo and more. Basically, you stay in perfectly OK hotel or motel rooms. The guides who take you around are experts in their field who can gear the learning to all sorts of levels, whether you want to take hikes or whether you don't. The programming is right there. You may or may not come back with a tan, but you will return with an experience and not just a T-shirt. (Details: www.roadscholar.org/programs/bargains.asp)
"Another choice is the Chautauquas, which have been around for more than a century. They're like a theme park for the mind. The most famous is in Chautauqua, N.Y., but they're also in Boulder, Colo., and Ohio. Go there for lectures from leading experts in an incredible array of fields, from biblical history to economics to Victorian literature. There's constant programming throughout the week.
(Details: www.ciweb.org; www.chautauqua.com, http://lakesideohio.com)
—I'm looking for Mr./Ms. Right
"Are you outdoors-y? The American Hiking Society has what are basically minimal-expense programs: You spend a week in an incredible natural area working on restoring trails. You're working hard, bonding, eating good food and spending time around a campfire. It's not a singles bar, but they attract a lot of people who are on their own. Sites include Olympic National Park, in Washington state, and Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, Kentucky. (Details: www.americanhiking.org)
"If you appreciate humor, go to comedy improv school — Second City's, in Chicago. You don't have to worry about breaking the ice: It's broken the second you arrive. I'm told it's like being on an athletic team, only you're throwing ideas back and forth and off each other. You'll laugh hard and get to know people on your team really well. And after class, you go out to clubs and see pros doing what you're learning."
—It's time to cash in my frequent flier miles
"If you're into the outdoors, I'd send you to Loretto, Mexico, near Cabo on the Baja Peninsula. (You can fly direct to Cabo from Charlotte.) You can do weeklong group kayaking trips that are fully outfitted, and paddle among whales in a marine sanctuary. This will cost you under $1,000 total — a price that beats the all-inclusive resorts in Cabo — and you don't need to be a triathlete. This is something most people in decent shape can do." (Details: www.seakayakadventures.com)
—I'll be dragging teens and kids
"Try the Out 'n' About Treesort, a treehouse B&B resort in Takilma, Ore., where you'll be living like 'Swiss Family Robinson.' It's really nice. There's even a pulley system to get your lug gage up to the treehouses; there are 13 of them, in a forest in the Pacific Northwest. Even the most jaded teen will be blown away by this. Rates during the summer high season start at $120 per night. (Details: www.treehouses.com)
"Onsite, you have zip-lining and some activities. You're near Oregon Caves National Monument, which you can explore, and there's hiking and rafting around the area."
—We're talking about a multigenerational thing
"Build a trip around a state fair — one of the huge ones, like in Minnesota (www.mnstatefair.org) or Texas (www.bigtex.com): These are spectacles. I wouldn't say they have gourmet food, but it's fun food. The entertainment isn't bluegrass from down the block: National and international entertainers take the stage. It's big-production Americana that also has razzmatazz.
"Older folks will like some of the displays — the jam competitions and all that, but some fairs have wine tents. Younger people will go for thrill rides and performances.
"All ages can keep busy, and it's something you can't do in just one afternoon."
—We're foodies — in search of cheap but great eats
"Drive the 'Pie Trail' in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Both have a Scandinavian heritage, and great bakers make incredible pies. I went to the Norske Nook, in Osseo, Wis., where for $2 or $3 you get a slice of sour cream and raisin pie. There's a whole great route you can do: Eat your way toward Duluth! If you need a break for fun stuff, visit the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior."
—I gotta escape this techno-crazed world
"Tumbler Ridge is a mining town — a newer one — in British Columbia. The reason to go: It has the most incredible waterfall you'll ever see. It's as tall as Niagara and is wider. Niagara is spectacular, but Kinuseo Falls in Monkman Provincial Park isn't surrounded by casinos and mini-golf courses. It's in the wilderness — 40 miles from the nearest town but close to dozens of other waterfalls (Details: www.tumblerridge.ca)
—We need something cultural our kids won't choke on
"Spend a night at a museum: Museums across the country have sleep-ins or overnight camping. The programs are usually geared to locals, but in reality anybody can do this — and it's a cheap night.
"One of my favorites, where the 'Night in the Museum' movie was set, is the American Museum of Natural History, in New York. I don't know if Ben Stiller is still running around, but you can sleep on the floor and explore the museum on your own. Going through its Dinosaur Hall by flashlight is super cool. They have special programs about different kinds of animals.
"You can literally sleep under a giant blue whale. (Details: www.amnh.org)
"Kids will remember this trip all their lives.
"By the way, at Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, the best place to sleep on the floor is next to the jellyfish. Because of the way the tank is lit, it's like sleeping next to your own organic lava lamp." (Details: www.montereybayaquarium.org)
ADVICE YOU CAN TRUST
—"The 100 Best Affordable Vacations" by Jane Wooldridge and Larry Bleiberg; National Geographic ($19.95)
The new book title from National Geographic is devoid of stunning photography and is filled with the kind of generic line drawings your PTA uses to decorate fliers.
It's the right way to package "The 100 Best Affordable Vacations," which even has a Ronco-type price: $19.95.
What counts are the words inside.
The 281 pages of tips are by two of the best newspaper travel journalists around: Jane Woodridge and Larry Bleiberg. Both won numerous national awards as travel editors of, respectively, The Miami Herald and The Dallas Morning News.
What you're getting is solid advice from a couple of suitcase warriors who know how to pinch a travel budget without causing pain. The trips they suggest are all set in North America; they've tested all and found them dream-worthy and doable.
Their 100 range from the expected (country-music stops in Nashville, Tenn.) to surprising (the $100-per-night coffee-farm-and-ocean-view-B&B on Hawaii's Big Island). What they suggest can s have cash outlays even at destinations you think you know well.