Discovering budget vacations

With today’s economy, you might be wavering when it comes to planning the annual family trip. Putting the vacation fund into a savings account or paying off a bill sounds like a better idea. Actually, you can do both. Not only does the unsettling economy have tourist areas creating unique deals to get your vacation buck, but there are many freebies out there. With a little research and driving to your destination, instead of flying, you could actually enjoy the much-needed time away from home and tuck away a little cash for a rainy day.

Here are three destinations that won’t break the bank:
Rock Island offers unconventional stay
Does a week of free accommodations in an 1858 lighthouse on a 912-acre wooded island free from motorized and non-motorized vehicles call to your adventurous side? If so, the Pottawatomic Lighthouse on Rock Island, Wisconsin is your untraditional destination.
So you might ask what’s the catch. To stay in the Lighthouse off the tip of Door County Peninsula in Lake Michigan, you’ll need to become the Lighthouse keeper, aka docent. You’ll need to do a few daily housekeeping tasks and provide free tours to visitors. The brief tours range from 15 minutes to 25 minutes during the hours of 10:00 AM until 4:00 PM. So you’ll need to stay close by. Otherwise, during your downtime, you can enjoy the rock beach, swim in Lake Michigan, hike through the lush forest or bird watch. 
The three-story Lighthouse, furnished to circa 1910, has a summer kitchen with modern conveniences, as well as cookware and such for meal preparations. There are four bedrooms so you can share the Lighthouse and tasks with family or friends. Keep in mind, there is a limit of ten people with a maximum of six adults. For more information, visit the
   Nashville sings with specials
Some families want to fill their vacation days with tourist attractions and activities. And if you have an active family, you know a “go, go, go” schedule can demolish the budget. Plan ahead and check out the area’s bargains. For example, Nashville, about a nine-hour car trip from Pittsburgh, is singing special deals for tourists. The Music City Total Access Attraction Pass admits visitors into four major attractions of their choice plus an additional free admission to the Parthenon all for $50. This pass can save up to $55 per person. (Note: For younger children, check the cost of attractions first. Some venues offer free admission for children under a certain age.) Log on to for more information.
There are free things to do, too. Be sure to grab the kids for a fun stroll along the “Walk of Fame” in front of Country Music Hall of Fame. You’ll see the stars of favorite singers such as Reba McEntire, Vince Gill, Trace Adkins and of course Elvis Presley. During your Music City trip, look for the “Live Music Venue” sign along the sidewalks. The signs designate places where you can hear live music from early afternoon through late night. So if you see a sign, step inside.
Although Nashville is known as Music City, the area isn’t all about music. Kids will love Adventure Science Center’s exclusive Space Chase Gallery where they can try the Moonwalker to get the feeling of walking on the moon. Or they can experience the challenges astronauts face doing extra vehicular activities in EVA. Best of all, make the most out of your hometown museum memberships while away. You can save the $11 per ticket (adults) price at Nashville’s Adventure Science Center by showing your Carnegie Science Center Membership or other museum membership associated with ASTC. Not sure if your membership offers reciprocal free admissions? Look for ASTC on the card or call the membership office for more details. For hours of operation, go to
 Maryland boosts state park fun
Plan a long weekend among the six State Parks located within the Deep Creek, Maryland (Garrett County) area only two hours or so from Pittsburgh. There are more than 2,000 cabins and campsites available for rental. For information, call 1-888-432-2267 or visit 
A must on the family to-do list is Swallow Falls State Park. For a $3.00 per person out-of-state fee, your family can explore the hiking trails, engage in a nature program or spend the day in the watering holes created by the water falls. You’ll find picnic areas, covered pavilions, and a children’s playground nestled in the park. However, the draw for all visitors is the fun created by Muddy Creek Falls, the highest waterfall in Maryland, as well as the smaller waterfalls found throughout the Park. You’ll see kids sliding down smooth rock slides, adults standing under the waterfalls and young and old splashing about in the shallow pools of water. Some say the water fun here is better than a water park. Be sure to take water shoes because the rocks can be a bit slippery. Pack towels, swimsuits, sunscreen and refreshments because once the family is there, the kids will want to say for the entire day. For Park information, go to
Another favorite place is Deep Creek State Park and Department of Natural Resources. Most of the picnic areas in this Park offer a fabulous view of the lake with easy access to the mile-long beach. The Park’s highlight is Deep Creek Discovery Center. Don’t tell the kids this one-of-a-kind venue is educational. There’s a black bear paw print kids can put their hands in or they can see under-water ecology with a peek under a microscope. The Center is filled with hands-on exhibits dedicated to the area’s wildlife, cultural and historical heritage. For additional Discovery Center details, call 301.387.7067.
Vacation wrap up
A little bit of time researching your destination can keep many of your vacation dollars in your pocket. So grab a note boot up your computer and pull on your detective hat to discover deals for your next family trip.
Pittsburgh author Mary Jo Rulnick specializes in home, family and travel.