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Spend summer travel time, money wisely

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A camping trip to a national park combines beautiful scenery with great value.

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Tourism and Leisure

(CNN) -- With rising prices for many travel services, the majority of leisure travelers this summer will be looking for ways to economize, according to the Travel Industry Association of America.

Americans are expected to travel in record numbers this summer -- the TIA expects leisure travel to jump 2.3 percent for an estimated 328 million leisure trips in June, July and August.

Memorial Day travelers are kicking off the season, with AAA estimating that 37.2 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from home during the holiday period.

Savvy travelers will want to make the most of their time as well as their dollars, and travel experts have plenty of tips on saving without scrimping on the fun.

Pauline Frommer of Frommer's travel guides recommends National Park Service sites for a range of affordable destinations that boast breathtaking beauty --Yosemite -- and remarkable history -- Ellis Island.

"You can get in for $15 or for free at some national parks," she said. "You'll camp for $15 a night."

Park attendance has not reached pre-9/11 levels, Frommer said, so visitors are not likely to face stifling crowds, particularly at the lesser-known parks.

Drivers hoping to make the best of high gas prices might want to look at Web sites like gaspricewatch.com and gasbuddy.com for tips on the cheapest gas prices in their areas, Frommer said. The sites are updated by volunteers who enter the best prices.

Fuel efficiency can be increased by driving the speed limit and trying not to overpack or load things on the roof rack, she said.

Group travel

Renting a home can provide savings on lodging and allows vacationers to cut down on food costs by cooking rather than eating out. Frommer said that according to the Vacation Rental Manager's Association, there are 9 percent more rental houses this year than there were last year.

The Travel Channel's Samantha Brown agrees that renting a home is a great way to save, and it's a popular option for two or more families or groups of friends who want to vacation together.

Traveling with a group does require some adjustments, Brown said. Individuals and families may have to compromise in the interest of the group, and it's important to be aware of the expectations and the budgets of the other parties.

"You have to be honest with what your budget is, and both families have to agree on a vacation that fits that budget," she said.

Cruises are a good choice for group travel because they're all-inclusive and you know your up-front costs before the trip, Brown said. They also offer a range of activities, so there's something for everyone.

Brown recommends familytravelnetwork.com and vacationkids.com for tips and deals on group travel. Frommer also advises travelers to surf newspaper and travel Web sites for information and deals.

Calling hotels directly and asking to speak with the manager may also yield deals. The travel industry is expecting a 70 percent occupancy rate at hotels this summer, Frommer said, so there will be some room to make a bargain.

Theme-park strategy

The Internet is the place to start if the kids are set on a theme park visit, said Robert Niles, founder of themeparkinsider.com. Admission prices often range from $40 to $60 per person for the day, and surfing the official park sites and other travel sites may uncover discounts.

"At the very least, even if you don't get a discounted ticket, by buying in advance you'll have that ticket in hand and you won't waste time early in the morning in line when you could be going out onto the rides themselves," Niles said.

Getting to the park about an hour before it opens also cuts down on wait times to get inside.

Visitors can make the most of the time they have in the park by doing some research in advance and deciding what they want to see and do before they arrive in the morning. That way they're not meandering around trying to decide what to do while everyone else is getting in line in front of them.

Sometimes a strategic splurge is money well spent. Niles recommends going for a sit-down meal in the park at lunchtime, when the group is really in need of some rest and air-conditioning.

"And you can get a sit-down [meal] usually much cheaper at lunch than you can at dinner. So why not splurge on the midday meal and then try to economize later in the day?" Niles said.

No matter what kind of summer trip a traveler envisions, a little advance research and planning will go a long way toward making the most out the available time and money.

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