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Planning an affordable family vacation to San Francisco, Yosemite, Sequoia

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By K.C. Summers
Sunday, December 13, 2009

Who: The Nuyen family of Hollywood, Md., from left: Hang, 50; An, 17; Stephanie, 21; Van, 12; Vinh, 50

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Where: San Francisco, with side trips to Carmel and to Yosemite and Sequoia national parks

Why: Family vacation

When: Two weeks in summer 2010

Budget: $5,000.

"We're interested in museums, music, art, gardens and parks. We would love to find out what sort of festivals and exhibits are occurring in the San Francisco area in June and July. In Yosemite and Sequoia, we'd like to stay in a log cabin at a high altitude."

Ah, the challenges of family travel. By the time the Nuyens multiply the costs for airfare, lodging and meals by five, their vacation budget is likely to evaporate faster than fog over the Golden Gate Bridge. But even in pricey San Francisco, there are ways for families to stretch their travel dollars, so let's see if we can pull this off.

Airfare can eat up a large chunk of any vacation budget, so shop around and keep an eye out for sales, which pop up frequently and can reduce the round-trip fare from Washington to the West Coast to about $250 per person, including fees and taxes. Don't forget to check flights to alternate airports such as Oakland and San Jose. Or consider taking a connecting flight, which will further reduce the tab. Last week, for example, Frontier Airlines was offering a round-trip fare of $220 per person in mid-July from Reagan National to San Francisco, with a stopover in Denver. Total fare for a family of five: $1,102.

A rental car for two weeks can also add up. But since San Francisco is a relatively compact and extremely walkable city, there's no need to waste your money on a car while you're in town. It's easy to get around by foot and public transportation, and you'll enhance your enjoyment of the city greatly. So consolidate your side trips into the second week of your visit. A full-size car should cost less than $300 a week; check Kayak.com or Priceline.com for aggregated rates.

Lodging is the real budget-breaker for a family of five, with double rooms costing upward of $400 a night in desirable neighborhoods such as Union Square -- and you'll need two rooms, or a suite, to fit your gang. But there are some bargains out there, if you have time to troll the discount sites. The 95-room Beresford Arms, for example (701 Post St., 800-533-6533, http://www.beresford.com/arms), is three blocks from Union Square and gets raves from TripAdvisor readers for its family-friendly amenities. A suite with two queen beds goes for $189 a night in mid-July; add $15 for a rollaway bed and the five of you should fit nicely. Rates include free WiFi, breakfast and afternoon wine and tea. That's a good deal by San Francisco standards, but a week runs $1,428, not including taxes. Still painful.

Here's a better option: Consider renting a vacation home through Craigslist or a company such as Vacation Rentals by Owner (http://www.vrbo.com), which lets you lease directly from property owners. For example, a self-described "Super Cute 1910 Cottage in San Francisco's Hottest Hip Hood, Inner Mission" sleeps up to six, with two bedrooms and a convertible bed.

The wisteria-covered cottage, which does indeed look darling (it's No. 258990 on the Web site), costs $950 a week and features a full kitchen, a washer and dryer, and a private back garden. An added advantage is that you can save big bucks by eating in and avoiding pricey restaurant meals. If you go this route, remember to investigate the property thoroughly by interviewing the owner and checking references, and consider buying insurance (available on the site).


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