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Bargains are a challenge on a West Coast family fling

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

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).

As for what to do during your week in the city, take note of the special events below, but save time for the classics: walking across the Golden Gate Bridge, cafe-hopping in North Beach, climbing Telegraph Hill on the Filbert Street steps, noshing on artisanal cheese in the Ferry Building. And don't forget Alcatraz, which is fun for the boat ride alone but irresistible when you throw in the eerie, atmospheric prison tour. Just be sure to reserve well in advance, since tours sell out fast in summer (http://www.alcatrazcruises.com).

Culturally speaking, the blockbuster exhibit of the season will be "Birth of Impressionism: Masterpieces From the Musee d'Orsay," running from May 22 to Sept. 6 at the de Young Museum . Each exhibition features about 100 paintings from the Musee d'Orsay's permanent collection, including C├ęzanne, Degas, Gauguin, Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Rousseau, Seurat, Sisley, Toulouse-Lautrec, van Gogh and Vuillard. Tickets go on sale March 15; details at http://www.deyoungmuseum.org.

The Asian Art Museum (415-581-3500, http://www.asianart.org) has an interesting exhibit on Shanghai running from Feb. 12 to Sept. 5, with paintings, furniture, rugs, posters, fashion, movie clips and contemporary art and video installations. The family also might enjoy "Extreme Mammals: The Biggest, Smallest and Most Amazing Mammals of All Time" at the California Academy of Sciences, running from April 3 to Sept. 12 and featuring fossils and reconstructions alongside recent specimens and live animals (415-379-8000, http://www.calacademy.org). For more goings-on: San Francisco tourism, 415-391-2000, http://www.onlyinsanfrancisco.com.

Yosemite and Sequoia national parks. After a week in town, time to hit Yosemite, one of the most spectacular wilderness settings in the United States. Plan on about a four-hour drive from San Francisco, and bring duds for horseback riding, rafting, rock climbing, hiking, fishing and more.

Talk about sticker shock: Rooms at the park's historic Ahwahnee hotel go for about $460 a pop. Oh well, the tent cabins and lodges sound like more fun, anyway. All of the high-altitude cabins have already been reserved by travelers who participated in an earlier lottery, but take heart: Kenny Karst, a spokesman for DNC Parks & Resorts, the park's lodging concessionaire, says cancellations are not uncommon, so check back frequently. And even if you don't snag a cabin in the High Sierras, Karst points out that Curry Village, a lower camp, sits at a not-unimpressive 4,000 feet and is nestled in the shadows of Glacier Point and Half Dome. It features 71 cabins (57 with private bath, 14 that share a shower building and restrooms) as well as 408 tent cabins; all cabins sleep five people. Rates are $140 per night for cabins with bathrooms, $101 for cabins without, and $92 for tent cabins, not including tax. Reservations: 801-559-4949, http://www.yosemitepark.com.

It's another four hours south to Sequoia, the second-oldest national park in the United States and home to the world's largest trees. I had no luck finding availability in the canvas High Sierra cabins in July, but park officials said to keep trying, as vacancies do open up. The on-site Wuksachi Lodge, which features a full-service restaurant, has rooms starting at about $194 a night. Or perhaps this is the time to try a B&B. BedandBreakfast.com (800-GO-B-AND-B, http://www.bedandbreakfast.com) lists several options in the nearby town of Three Rivers, with rooms starting at $85 a night.

Carmel. If you want to incorporate the adorable Carmel-by-the-Sea into your drive back to San Francisco, it's about five hours from Three Rivers.

Bargains do not abound. A suite at the Comfort Inn Carmel by the Sea (831-622-7090, http://www.carmelcomfortinn.com), for example, goes for $350 a night, not including taxes. The B&B route may save you some bucks. In any event, lots to do here: the Carmel Mission, Cannery Row, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Fisherman's Wharf, not to mention shopping the town's many boutiques and galleries. Info: Carmel Chamber of Commerce, http://www.carmelcalifornia.org.

San Francisco is about a 2 1/2 -hour drive north. For your last night, forgo the charming inns and save money by staying in a hotel near the airport. On Expedia, for example, a room sleeping five at the Days Inn International Airport West goes for about $70, not including taxes.

Cost. Assuming one week in San Francisco, five nights at national parks, one night in Carmel and a final night in San Francisco, the tally for transportation and lodgings comes to about $3,500, not including lodging taxes (a hefty 14 percent for hotels). That doesn't leave much for gas, attractions and incidentals, not to mention meals. But who needs food when you're vacationing in one of the most glorious settings in the country?

Interested in having us help plan your trip? Go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/goingourway.

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