By Amy Silbernagel McvCaffree and Erika Prins

WHETHER IT IS TO A SNOWY or sunny destination, for a week or just a weekend, February is a good month for getting away from the norm. There are two holidays—Valentine’s Day and the extended President’s Day weekend—and spring is just around the corner. Plus, this is a Leap Year—that’s worth celebrating with a getaway!

We’ve compiled some ideas to make it easier on both your brain and your budget.

PLAN CREATIVELY—SOMEWEBSITES WE LIKE

AWAY.COM helps you choose a vacation destination, based on your specific interests, with customized ideas and recommendations. Get out of your travel rut. Break tradition. If you always go to the same Schweitzer condo year after year, this is for you. While a Schweitzer condo is awesome, you gotta mix it up a bit.

GORP.COM is especially for the OTM crowd to plan a trip focused on hiking, camping and national and state parks both in the U.S. and abroad. (The Inland Northwest seems to have been left out of its database; we’ve submitted a request for them to fix that.) AdventureFinder.com is also helpful.

ONTHESNOW.COM offers an easy-to-navigate rundown of ski resorts you’re considering visiting.

PRICEOFTRAVEL.COM breaks down the average cost of traveling in different cities across the world. Nifty lists.

KAYAK.COM is one of the better-known websites where you can comparison shop with one easy click—whether flights or car rentals or vacation packages.

HOME AWAY FROM HOME

Ditch the typical hotel vacation idea. Think “home away from home” with a living room, kitchen, dining area, multiple bedrooms and more square footage providing a private and relaxing experience—especially if you’re traveling as a family or with a group of friends.

Vacation Rentals By Owner (VRBO.COM), is a database of thousands of rentals in the U.S. and abroad—including urban apartments, condos, bed & breakfast homes, waterfront and mountain cabins, and houses. Simply search by location and see what’s available. A quick glance tells you if the property is pet-friendly or wheelchair-accessible, has reviews available, or accepts credit cards (PayPal is a safe alternative).

Some are listed by either the property owner or a property manager and may include a rental agreement, which might only be as complex as knowing the check-in/check-out times, how to turn on the heat, and what to do with the bedding and towels before departure.

Nightly rates, in some cases, are significantly less than a hotel stay and weekly rates are often available. Be aware of possible cleaning fees and security deposits.

A significant advantage and cost-savings with a vacation rental is the ability to prepare your own meals and eat on your own time, especially if you like to cook. And the simple pleasure of
eating breakfast in your jammies can never
be overrated.

Some disadvantages to using the VRBO website are that not all owners regularly update their online availability calendars and, according to online forums about this site, owners can choose which guest reviews to share. This means negative reviews are not generally available. (However, most VRBO customers who experienced a bad rental deal find a way to publish their reviews online in a different format, such as a personal blog.) Some negative traveler reviews are posted and an “owner response” is typically included.

VRBO does offer to provide a 100% “Carefree Rental Guarantee” for a fee, like in case the owner misrepresented the property, double books, or wrongfully withholds a security deposit.

Another online resource is CRAIGSLIST.COM—each city has a “vacation rentals” feature in the Housing section (for example, spokane.craigslist.org/vac/). Like all postings on Craigslist, you have to be cautious that you’re not being duped and that the property is legit. Follow Craigslist’s personal safety guidelines and the tips for avoiding scams and frauds. It’s more likely to be safe if the property owner has a website for it (or links to a VRBO listing), pictures and a PayPal account for the financial transaction.

Use the search bar at the top of the page to make it easier, since listings are organized by date posted. And if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, check out the “housing swap” listings—you never know what kind of deal you might discover.

BUDGET TRAVEL & BIG SAVINGS

Can’t afford a five-night vacation rental stay? No problem. A little research and planning goes a long way in cutting the cost of your trip—and in the process, your sleuthing might land you some really cool discoveries in places you’d never considered.

STAY WITH FRIENDS—or make new ones. Make travel plans in reverse. Rather than picking a place to go, then looking for a place to stay, build a list of places you could stay for free with friends, family members or that weird Swedish kid who lived with your family for a semester in high school.

Bonus: Maybe you’ll discover a great vacation spot you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. A few nights of free lodging can ease the stress on your wallet enough to splurge on a Bed & Breakfast for a night or two elsewhere in the same region.

COUCHSURFING.ORG: This is a social network site where strangers offer to let you crash on their couch. Weird, huh? But because of this, poor twenty-somethings can travel on a limited budget. The site allows users to display photos and personal information, so you can look for a host or hosts that seem like a good match. To help address possible safety/creepiness concerns, each user has ratings displayed on his or her profile. Points are given for longevity, positive reviews and responding to inquiries.

HOSTELS: Staying in large cities can cost a fortune. If you’re traveling on your own or with a buddy, staying at a hostel can cut lodging costs in half. They’re not as comfortable or luxurious as hotels. Take the cheapest booking and you’ll find yourself sharing a room—and a restroom—with 10-15 strangers. Most hostels also offer private rooms, which are more affordable than hotels and have similar, but more simple, amenities.

Hostels are full of international travelers thrilled to share a meal and tell you all about their lives and travels. Don’t hesitate to make new friends and exchange contact information. Perhaps you’ll find yourself in their home country and in need of a place to stay—or just someone to show you around.

To avoid a negative experience at a hostel, browse reviews at hostelworld.com and look for gobs of complaints of poor service, bed bugs and other unsavory experiences. Keep your belongings secure in a locker while you are away and while you are sleeping.

EAT CHEAP: Budget for daily meals. Pick one meal a day to splurge on and eat cheap for the rest.

Beverages make a huge difference in daily food costs. Consider drinking water for all but one meal per day—grabbing a soda or bottled water three times in a day may eat up the difference between a great dinner out and having to skimp.

Pack snacks. Don’t go overboard on lugging around food, but having something handy means you can take extra time to find an ideal food spot, instead of settling for something out of your price range because you’re starving.

URBANSPOON.COM categorizes restaurant ratings by price and shows locations on a map, making it easy to find a place in your price range nearby.

ASK LOCALS: Much of what’s great about any travel destination, whether exotic or close to home, can’t be found online. Ask a few people where they would recommend spending one day in or around their town. Once you have a list of options, research those a little more closely before planning the day.

CALL AHEAD: Lost reservations, a long wait at the restaurant, a full campsite or closed park can cause frustration, kid chaos and costly last-minute fixes.

In the case of a reservation error, the hostel or hotel desk manager should be willing to call around and find you comparably-priced lodging in the area—but this becomes much more difficult as check-in time nears.

If reservations aren’t possible, as is the case for some campsites and restaurants, have a backup plan ready.

BE FLEXIBLE ABOUT TRAVEL DATES: For hotel bookings and other seasonally-priced reservations, identify the “shoulder season”—the time right before prices jump for the high season.

Before booking, learn whether the attractions you want to see are open during that time. (In remote tourist towns like Wallace, Idaho, museums and attractions close entirely until May or so.)

Prices for bookings and reservations also fluctuate from day to day, with cheaper rates during the middle of the week than on weekends. If possible, plan your vacation for weekdays for cheaper air travel—and look for lodging options that offer discounted weekday rates.

Should the stars align, you could find yourself enjoying all the perks of high-season vacationing at a much lower price.

AMTRAK: Compare airline prices with Amtrak’s—you may save a lot by taking the train. While not everyone is game for boarding a train in the middle of the night and trying to sleep, there is kind of a Jack Kerouac feel to train travel. Unlike driving, time on the train can be restful and enriching—a chance to get a little work done or read a paperback book. (They still make those, you know.)

For a small family, the cost of flying, taking the train or using other public transportation may be less than the cost of gas, the extra day off work and parking costs if you’re traveling to a big city more than half a day’s drive away.

(Tip: Check out VACATIONSBYRAIL.COM, which aggregates rail information including times, routes, prices and specials.)
TAKE PUBLIC TRANSIT: When you’re there—wherever “there” is—weigh time and hassle against cost of different modes of transit. Taking public transportation immerses you in the culture of the place you’re visiting. Taking the subway in New York might sound totally daunting at first, but it’s weird and exhilarating to experience for the first time.

Renting a car may be cheaper if you’re traveling with a family or group, but be sure to do the math. Calculate all the hidden costs of driving—like gas, parking and rental insurance—before deciding it’s the way to go.

If you do plan to travel by train, subway and bus, look into buying a monthly pass or whatever that service’s equivalent might be. Paying for individual fares can add up fast when you’re touring a city or region. Even if the pass is valid for much longer than you’re planning to stay, you could save money by buying one.

LOOK AROUND YOU: In the Inland Northwest, you can drive an hour or two in any direction from Spokane and find geographic diversity, new experiences and world-class resorts.

Wine tasting, backpacking, camping or staying at ski resorts and family-friendly lodges can give you a vacation feel without the cost of traveling far. Take a look at small towns full of history, or visit a state park you haven’t yet explored.
REGIONAL RESORTS AND LODGES – A FEW IDEAS

Although resorts are not cheap, they’re not all outrageously expensive and often include lots of amenities and recreation options. If you’re looking for a one-stop, hassle-free vacation focused on recreation and quality time with loved ones in a beautiful setting, then perhaps it is money well spent. You can minimize stress and maximize the fun. And if you’re traveling with kids and can play where you stay, then maybe it’s a bargain after all.

If a kid thinks vacation starts with the hotel swimming pool, a resort with a massive indoor water park will be epic. Not far away is Silver Mountain Resort (silvermt.com) in Kellogg, Idaho, and in western Washington is Great Wolf Lodge (greatwolf.com/grandmound/waterpark)—located in Grand Mound, Wash., 19 miles south of Olympia.

In Leavenworth, there is a spectrum of resorts. For example, ICICLE VILLAGE RESORT (icicleinn.com) right in town off Highway 2 has both condos (some are listed on VRBO.com) and Best Western hotel rooms. Kid and teen-friendly amenities—including swimming pools, mini golf, sport court and movie theater—will keep a family busy.

Then there is the quiet, rustic-meets-luxury SLEEPING LADY RESORT (sleepinglady.com) located along Icicle Creek with trails for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. (See this month’s Roadtrip feature for more information.)

There is also the even more remote winter escape to MOUNTAIN HOME LODGE (mthome.com). Located nearly four miles from town and 1000’ higher, it provides an extensive winter package that includes gourmet meals, cross-country ski and snowshoe gear for the nearby 20-30 miles of trails, and equipment for the 1,700’ sledding hill. No kids under age 16 allowed, however. (Summer rates begin in mid-March and are about $200 cheaper, depending on the specific room.)

In the Methow Valley, SUN MOUNTAIN LODGE (sunmountainlodge.com) in Winthrop, Wash., is ideally located for nordic skiers and snowshoers in the winter. But as an all-season destination, there is something for all ages all the time here.

And closer to home is ELKINS RESORT on Priest Lake (elkinsresort.com), in Nordman, Idaho. Vacationing here can be surprisingly affordable for families. Cabin rates rival hotel costs and enable families to share a space with separate bedrooms and a central family area. Kitchens in the cedar log cabins allow families to prepare their own meals. Most people bring food for the week from home, says Elkins co-owner Tracy Szybinksi, but the convenience store at Elkins sells staples you might have forgotten to pack.

Everything needed for a great time is provided, saving parents the exhausting task of loading and unloading kids from a car several times a day. And pets are allowed here, saving pet-sitting costs and adding to the fun.

The main lodge, built in the 1920s as a fishing camp, is home to an award-winning restaurant whose menu incorporates local specialties like morel mushrooms and huckleberries. The adjacent bar even specializes in Huckleberry Daiquiris.

Take advantage of reduced winter rates to go snowmobiling and cross-country skiing in the area surrounding the resort. Cabins are open year-round; however, the restaurant and bar close in February and re-open in May. During peak months, families must rent their cabin for a full week. (Reservations must be made by March for summer rentals.)

The remote location offers plenty of outdoor activities—during the summer, there is mountain biking, hiking and every water sport you can think of with equipment to rent on-site. Forty percent of the coastline on Priest Lake remains undeveloped, says Szybinski, so the lake can only get so busy.

Be advised—there are no televisions in the lodges (and there are even a few internet-free cabins!) so you’ll have to brush up on your Yahtzee skills.