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Best. Summer. Evah. Cheap!

Summer fun

School is almost out. If your family is like mine, you're ending this school year just like you ended the last one -- limping across the finish line like it's the end of a 100-mile ultra-marathon through Death Valley.

My son's school has already wrapped up standardized testing and so, best I can tell, the teachers have stopped teaching.

Fine by me. Now we wake up early and make lunches just to satisfy a days-behind-desk requirement that was apparently thrown off because of the "cold days."

(Here in Florida, we never got any actual snow. School was canceled for several days simply because it was ... cold. And, yes, all of you northern readers are free to laugh. Especially considering that cold, in Florida, means any day with lows below 30.)

But I digress. Summer is now stretching out before us like the drink station at the finish line and we are eagerly making our plans.

Our plans include lots of swimming, a few summer camps and every Vacation Bible School within a 20-mile radius of my house.

And at least one big road trip.

Take an epic road trip.

Military families do a lot of road trips, don't we? We do them because we generally don't live near our extended families and airfare is too expensive.

We do them because previous assignments mean we have friends everywhere and we want to visit them.

We do them because the Must-Do Parent is deployed or TDY or just insanely busy, and we want the days to pass faster.

Whatever the reason, we hit the road. Last summer, with my husband deployed, I took my three kids (then ages 8, 4 and 1) on an epic road trip.

Epic.

We started in Florida and drove all the way to Maine on a month-long, loosely American history-themed driving adventure. (Full disclosure: Only the 8-year-old got to go all the way to Maine. The two little ones got dropped off with their grandparents at the halfway point in Virginia.)

We visited friends along the way, toured historical sites, ran through fountains, ate a disgusting amount of ice cream and spent lots of time just hanging out.

What does epic cost?

Lest you wonder about the cost of such a trip, ours broke down like this:

Gas: $500.

Hotels: $1,050*.

Attractions: $100* (approximately).

Food: $400*.

Souvenirs: $200.

Total = $2250.

*Now let me explain. We only stayed in hotels about half of the time. Instead, we visited friends and relatives along the way, which was a major reason for taking the trip.

Also, a while back I discovered the Priceline phone app. Other booking services probably have similar apps.

The app allows you to bid on hotel rooms, then books the room for you. I learned that after 3 p.m. on the day you plan to check in, hotels will accept ridiculously low offers because it's so late in the day that they're not likely to get a full-rate paying guest anyway.

How to get the lowest price hotel room.

Here's how you get the lowest price on your hotel: Drive into a city early in the day. Cruise around seeing the sites until you find a neighborhood you'd like to stay in. Wait until after 3 p.m. and then use the app to make a reservation.

Don't worry about bidding too low. You want to bid too low. Just keep lowballing your bids until someone accepts one. We got amazing, $400-a-night rooms for just $75.

Only once did we pay (just slightly) more than $100 for a night's stay. That was in Boston. And that room was totally worth it.

Also, in New York City, where hotels are never cheap, we scored a very nice room in this beautiful old hotel, located in a charming and very safe neighborhood, for just $95 a night because we were willing to stay somewhere with a shared bathroom.

Would I have rather had a private bath? Of course. Was it worth $200 more a night to have one? Not at all.

We did look into staying in accommodations on military installations, which usually have very reasonable room rates, but we honestly got better deals, with fewer hassles, using the Priceline app.

Find military family deals on attractions.

As for the attractions, if you haven't already noticed, I'm something of a deal hunter. I quickly discovered that there are many free attractions, particularly historical sites.

Also, each summer, military families can take advantage of Blue Star Museums, a collection of museums nationwide that have agreed to allow military families in for free -- we got to go to the incredible Museum of Natural History in New York for free this way.

Finally, my family already has memberships to a science museum and a zoo. By checking for reciprocal admission agreements here and here, we were able to use our memberships to get into other museums and zoos up and down the East Coast for free.

But we did have to pay full price to go to this dinosaur park. And, as my son would tell you, it was totally worth it.

Beef up your food budget.

As for food, I already budget about $300 per week for my family to eat, so I applied that our roadtrip budget and added about $100 more because we ate out more often.

This is where traveling with kids is kind of nice. They don't have the most discerning tastes.

We tended to have one big (i.e., restaurant) meal each day and tried to stay in hotels that offered free breakfast, where we usually grabbed a couple of apples, bananas and granola bars to take with us.

The other meal and snacks were often picnics, fast food or from street vendors. 

That's it. If you've got the time to travel, a sense of adventure -- and a reliable family vehicle with a good DVD player and wireless headphones, you can can take an affordable, long roadtrip, too. Complete with epic memories.

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Family and Spouse Rebekah Sanderlin

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Contributor

Rebekah Sanderlin is an Army wife, a mother of three and a professional writer. Her work has been published numerous places, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, National Public Radio, CNN, and in Self and Maxim magazines. She currently serves on the advisory boards of the Military Family Advisory Network and Blue Star Families.

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