Heaps of seafood steam on the stove while family members gather in the open kitchen to mix drinks, play card games and dance. Music and laughter spill out of the open windows as the sun sets over the Outer Banks.
My vacations on the beaches off the coast of North Carolina are among my favorite summer travel memories. Large, extended families or a big group of friends can rent one big house and all stay together, a great way to save money and recreate a homelike setting at a vacation destination.
The Outer Banks offers the ocean and history like Kitty Hawk, where the Wright brothers first took flight; one of my favorite sites. You can bike and horseback ride, and the entire family can be together, while allowing everyone to explore his or her own interests and gather together for dinner and evening fun. It's like packing three vacations into one!
Summertime stirs up all kinds of nostalgia: memories of backyard BBQs, family vacations, long days packed with fun and freedom. I love that thrilling feeling of school letting out and conjuring the endless possibilities for summer fun. Even as an adult, I get that itch for summer freedom: taking a break from chores, stress, and work.
As the days turn warmer and stretch longer, and we feel like escaping our day-to-day routine and heading out into the sun, these summer travel tips and tricks will help make this summer's vacation a memory of a lifetime (and an affordable one at that).
How to choose your sizzlin' summer destination
Whether you're vacationing with kids or not, summer travel can come with a lot of pressure to pick the perfect spot. Even though beaches may be the ultimate summer hot spot to many, don't limit yourself! The perfect destination is not the same for every traveler. Think about what change or break you are craving.
If you live by the beach, maybe you want to jet off to a city. Chicago is a great vacation spot, with lakeshore beaches coupled with city offerings. Or maybe the mountains are beckoning! The Tennessee Mountains are a great July destination. I enjoy summer travel most when it means taking a break from your norm. Focus on finding a destination and activities that deviate from your everyday schedule and let that guide you to your perfect vacation.
If you are planning a family trip, summers are a great time to bring history to life. If your child's interest was piqued by a particular subject area in school, why not explore that on your summer travels? Historical sites, museums and national parks are all great vacation destinations. The U.S. National Parks offer great budget-friendly options.
We sometimes forget that some of the most beautiful landscape and natural wonders are right in our own country's backyard! You can snag an annual pass for just $80 -- which includes everyone in your car -- or a lifetime senior pass for only $10; plus, military members get in for free. Many of the parks include activities and amenities, such as camping or boat launching, for a reasonable, additional fee.
Another budget-conscious option for family travel or getaways with the pals is all-inclusive packages. Whether you are traveling abroad, particularly to the Caribbean, or looking to cruise on the open seas, check-out all-inclusive packages, since they can offer great deals and a smart way to save. Plus, booking a trip that includes airfare, hotel, meals and drinks is a great way to stick to your budget and free yourself to worry about having fun rather than dipping into the wallet while you're away.
My favorite places to scout great travel deals are JetBlue Getaways, Priceline and TripAdvisor. TripAdvisor ranks hotels by price and location and includes lots of tips from other travelers, a great way to get a sense for the products and service you're considering. And remember, staying a short block or two away from the beach rather than right on it helps to score an even better price.
How to pack for happy trails
Once you decide on your perfect summer spot, what do you pack to make the most of your trip? I always recommend packing light! Have a plan. Don't pack assuming that you need to cover every possible activity or situation. Bring items that you can use more than once. You can match your favorite pair of pants with different shirts. No need to pack four pairs of pants when one can last you a couple of wears.
For your flight, wear the same outfit traveling to and from your destination to cut down on extra items and time. I always recommend dressing for the plane like you would dress for a movie theater in the middle of summer. It may be hot outside, but it can sometimes get chilly on the airplane, so layers are a must! And, even though I love flip flops when I'm on the beach, I wear slip-on, closed-toe shoes on airplanes for maximum comfort. Pack your flip flops in your carryon bag so you can break them out and slip them on when you arrive at your destination and officially kick off your summer trip!
Also pack your bathing suit in your carry-on so you can make the most of your first day of vacation, and in case you arrive before hotel check-in time. I apply my sunscreen in the morning before I leave home, roll up my bathing suit and store an inexpensive pair of rubber flip-flops in my carry-on. Then, when I arrive at my destination, I head straight to the pool or beach.
Be a traveler, not a tourist
Everyone loves visiting far-off reaches of the globe, but no one wants to be spotted as a tourist. I'm a big fan of dressing in solid-colored clothing for easier blending. Leave those Hawaiian colored shirts at home so you don't stick out while away -- unless you're in Hawaii, of course!
Khaki pants or black jeans are great travel options too, since denim jeans do not necessarily fit in at every setting. Comfortable walking shoes are a must, so you can focus on the beautiful sights and sounds rather than your aching heels.
With all this preparation, you and your family and friends are destined for a trip of a lifetime. Enjoy, and remember to apply that sunscreen and your sense of adventure!
Follow Tracy Christoph on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Wingwoman_Tracy