Planning to head out for a family vacation soon? Here are 10 tips to make your travel smoother, more enjoyable and worry-free.1. Make sure everyone is buckled up. The Texas Department of Transportation’s Click It or Ticket campaign is underway through June 1. Officers across the state will look to ticket unbuckled drivers and passengers in a “zero tolerance” effort to raise safety awareness and prevent fatalities. Although 9 in 10 Texans now wear seat belts, the state had 943 fatalities and 5,383 serious injuries last year in crashes in which drivers or passengers were not buckled up. Wearing a seat belt increases the chances of surviving a serious crash by 45 percent overall and by 60 percent in pickups. 2. Check gas prices. Gas prices are almost exactly the same in Fort Worth-Arlington as they were a year ago, averaging $3.48 a gallon, according to AAA Texas. But our costs are higher here than anywhere else in the state — by as much as 17 cents — so you may do better not filling up at the beginning of your trip. To find the best prices wherever you are, use the website gasbuddy.com or its smartphone app. The information is based on a community of users who note the price, time and date. A search of Fort Worth this week found nine stations under $3.30 a gallon. The overall range was 16 cents, from $3.27 to $3.43. 3. Alternative modes of travel. If you don’t want to be stuck in your car for hours, consider taking Megabus or Greyhound. Megabus, which picks up in Grand Prairie just south of Interstate 30, goes to Austin, San Antonio and Houston from DFW with summer fares starting at just $1. Greyhound Express leaves from Dallas and has advance-purchase fares starting at $13. Both offer express service and free Wi-Fi. 4. Lodging alternatives. If you don’t want a cheesy or pricey hotel, consider the wide variety of alternative offerings, from bed-and-breakfasts ( bedandbreakfast.com) to couch-surfing ( couchsurfing.com). For families, vacation rental properties can generally offer the most room at the best price. Start with Vacation Rental by Owner ( vbro.com) or HomeAway ( HomeAway.com) but don’t be afraid to delve deeper by searching through your browser for your specific destination and “vacation rental property.” For a recent trip to the Hill Country, I dug through HillCountryVacationRentals.com and found the cabin and price I wanted. 5. Trip advice. Cyberspace is full of ideas from other travelers for what to do when you reach your vacation spot. Urban Spoon’s website has restaurant reviews sorted by food type, price and public opinion. TripAdvisor.com lists the top attractions in each city by popularity, along with photos, reviews and tips from visitors who contribute to the site. Besides hotels and flight information, the site has vacation rentals in a format that’s easier to read than most rental sites. Travelpost.com and CitySearch.com are two more places to check out. 6. Deals and coupons. City tourism bureaus are another way to get advice on what to do, and they’re a good place to snag coupons. It works even if you can afford only a “staycation” this year. For example, Arlington’s tourism site, ExperienceArlington.org, has coupons for Six Flags, Hurricane Harbor, the International Bowling Museum and a dozen restaurants. Another way to get good deals is to sign up for Groupon, Living Social, DealMaker and other daily coupon sites for the different places you are visiting. 7. Free stuff. If you don’t have a lot left in your budget after gas, food and lodging, check out www.free-attractions.com, which has a searchable database of free things to do in more than 1,500 cities in all 50 states. The site lists 220 ideas in Texas, from visiting missions in San Antonio to the ferry from Galveston to Port Bolivar. Factory tours in Texas (many free) include everything from bootmakers and ice cream to NASCAR and NASA. Check out www.factorytoursusa.com or www.factorytour.com. 8. State and national parks. The National Park Service offers a variety of free or low-cost historic, cultural and nature events throughout the state, and you don’t have to camp there to take advantage of them. Texas has 13 national parks, 48 national historic landmarks and 20 natural landmarks. Check them out at www.nps.gov. The state also boasts a host of state parks: www.tpwd.state.tx.us. 9. Concerts and events. The Levitt Pavilion in Arlington opens its free concert season this weekend, one of dozens of Texas venues offering concerts, fairs and other events. Check out specific destinations like Austin360.com. For a statewide view, visit TexasOutside.com, which has a full list of summer concerts and a directory of local venues. The site also lists Renaissance fairs, folk festivals, chilifests, and other outdoor festivals and activities. Sign up for a free newsletter with Texas Outside. 10. Texas cruising. It’s not too late to book a cruise this summer. Texas has two ports for cruise ships, at Houston and Galveston. Beginning this year, the Princess and Norwegian cruise lines will sail from the Port of Houston for the Caribbean. Ship lines out of Galveston include Carnival and Royal Caribbean. For pricing, check out the cruise line websites. For reviews specific to your ship, go to CruiseCritic.com or Fodor.com/cruises.
Teresa McUsic’s column appears Saturdays. TMcUsic@SavvyConsumer.net