Can you afford a vacation this year? If you think not, perhaps you should think again.

A while back, I took a year's leave from my job and circled the globe carrying only a light backpack. My funds were strictly limited, which meant I had to count my pennies carefully. The trip was a grand adventure, but it also proved to be a lesson in frugality that demonstrated, to my satisfaction anyway, that travel doesn't have to be expensive to be fun. Even when money is tight, as it is in today's nervous economy, you can probably afford a vacation -- if you keep a good grip on costs.

The glum news, of course, is that international air fares are soaring because of the continuing high cost of fuel as a result of the Iraqi crisis. At the same time, the value of the dollar has plunged in many countries of Europe and Asia, a factor that makes hotels and restaurants more expensive for transoceanic travelers. But don't scratch these destinations from your plans if you really want to go; instead, look for ways to cut costs. You might, for example, make the trip between now and May while cheaper off-season air fares and hotel rates are in effect.

There also is good news on the travel front. The world's cruise lines currently have a surplus of cabins because of all the new ships that have been built, so the lines are offering sharp discounts to attract passengers, and good bargains in four- to seven-day cruises should be available in the months ahead.

Much the same situation faces the U.S. lodging industry. New hotels, motels and resorts have opened up faster than there are travelers to fill them. As a result, many properties are offering all kinds of special rates to bring in guests. When booking a room, always ask about discounts and packages. Sometimes you get a better deal if you call a hotel directly rather than using the chain's toll-free reservation number.

The real secret to vacationing in tough times is to scale down expectations and keep to a predetermined budget. If golf is a passion, for example, skip the deluxe resort in Florida or the Caribbean for a spring week in Myrtle Beach, S.C., a popular beach community of moderately priced hotels and more than 60 golf courses. Instead of taking two weeks, cut back to one. Try cross-country instead of downhill skiing this seasonto save on hefty lift-ticket prices. And don't spend more than you had planned.

Suzuki, which manufactures motorcycles, suggests that Americans can save money by taking a vacation close to home on the back of a new Suzuki "Bandit." It's the "best way to become part of the land while you travel," says the company. Admittedly, it's also an extreme method of cutting back, but you get the idea.

Curbing vacation costs requires good planning, and you should be aware of the options. Most vacation expenses fall into four categories: transportation, lodging, food and recreation. Sometimes you can save on all four. The cheapest vacation, surely, is to ride in the family car to Grandmother's house -- only two or three hour's away, if you are lucky -- where you are lodged and fed for free. The only cost for recreation may be treating Grandmother to a night at the movies.

Oh, you had something a bit more exciting in mind? Consider scrimping in one category to be able to splurge in another. For example, a family of four might endure fast food for four days to afford the admission fees into Disney World in Orlando. A four-day ticket -- good for the Magic Kingdom, Epcot Center and Disney-MGM Studios -- is $109.85 per person for visitors 10 and older and $87.65 for ages 3 to 9. The total for a couple with two children under 10 comes to $395, a hefty cost for recreation.

Vacation travel has become an almost essential part of the good life for many Americans, and it is not easily given up -- even when the individual or family budget requires belt-tightening. With this is mind, we have compiled a list of 40 ways to save on a vacation this year, whether you stick close to home or wander farther afield.

10 Basic Principles of Budget Travel Drive if you can. For families especially, transportation costs are cut to a minimum when you travel in your own vehicle. Budget-minded skiers should consider driving to a New England resort this winter rather than flying to Europe or the Rockies. In the summer, head for a beach or mountain playground within a half day's drive. A bonus: When you arrive in your own car, you don't have to rent one to get around.

Go off season. If the sunny Caribbean tempts, put off the trip until hotel prices drop substantially, beginning in mid-April. Last fall I paid $85 a night for a room and full buffet breakfast at a very good hotel on the island of St. Lucia. During winter high season, the same room is $186 a night, plus $12 for the breakfast. The service charge and taxes also are proportionately higher in winter.

Scale back expectations. Instead of staying at a fancy resort hotel in Hawaii, check into a moderately priced bed-and-breakfast inn. Rates for two at the Westin Kauai, a luxury-class hotel on the beach, range from $195 to $400 a night. A room for two with private bath at a B&B -- a few minutes' drive from the beach -- generally runs from $45 to $80 a night, and breakfast is included. If you spend most of your time exploring the island, where you stay isn't all that important anyway.

Keep alert to bargains. Airline fare wars erupt suddenly, and if you are paying attention you may catch a bargain that makes an impossible trip affordable. For a brief time, most U.S. carriers were offering two tickets for the price of one to many U.S. destinations this winter. Airlines announce their ticket sales in ads in major newspapers. Be on the lookout for them -- and I emphasize this strongly. I once spotted an airline's special introductory air fare to Hawaii that enabled good friends to honeymoon on Kauai.

Be flexible. This can be difficult when career couples are trying to arrange simultaneous vacation periods that coincide with a school holiday. But flexibility in your schedule makes it easier to take a spur-of-the-moment vacation if a cheap air fare or hotel package becomes available. In addition, by being willing to shift departure dates by one or two days, you may qualify for a cheaper air fare.

Stay with relatives and friends. And, indeed, with the friends of relatives and friends -- in this country or abroad. Lodging is a big cost of any trip, and you are ahead of the game every night you stay free in someone else's house. Don't expect most people to put up with you for your entire vacation, but you should get a warm welcome if you are passing through for only a night or two.

Take a shorter vacation. A typical traveler on a week's vacation hurries out of town on Friday night and doesn't return until Sunday night nine days later. Every day you are away, however, adds to the cost of the trip. If you are a skier, consider five days on the slopes instead of seven or eight to take advantage of lower weekday lift-ticket prices. Winter Park, a large ski resort just west of Denver, is offering a "Winter Park Lite" vacation -- four nights lodging and a three-day lift ticket for $299 per person (double occupancy). For reservations: 800-453-2525.

Always ask for discounts. Chances are, nobody is going to mention them unless you do. A prime example is bargain weekend rates at many big-city hotels. Reservations clerks often quote the regular rate unless you specifically request the weekend rate, which may be up to 50 percent cheaper and include a freebie such as a bottle of wine, a cocktail in the hotel lounge or complimentary parking. Here and abroad, seniors get discounts on air and rail fares, lodgings and admission fees. Youngsters and students also qualify for a variety of special travel rates.

Go where the recreation is free, or almost. This eliminates Disney World, alpine skiing, golfing, tennis, horseback riding and scuba diving. So what's left? Woodland or mountain hikes in a national park. Lazy days on a public beach. Back-road bicycling. Bird-watching in a wildlife refuge. An afternoon in a museum. Visits to America's historical monuments and battlefield parks. The cost of entertainment is an important factor in a family's vacation budget.

Beware of the extras. Little costs add up quickly, and you should try to avoid them where possible. Take a shuttle bus into town from the airport instead of a taxi. Don't be tempted by room service or high-priced drinks in the mini-bar in your room. Eat breakfast at a local cafe away from your hotel. Fill the tank of the rental car before you return it. Beware of hefty service charges when exchanging currency abroad. Use a pay phone in the lobby of your hotel instead of the room phone to eliminate surcharges.

10 Great Bargains in Vacation Travel

Camping. A satisfactory tent can be purchased for the cost of about two nights' lodging, and for the rest of your trip you pay only a modest campground fee -- usually less than $10 a night. You are rarely more than a short drive from a campsite anywhere in this country. The choices range from developed drive-in sites at a beach or beside a mountain lake (with nearby toilet and shower) to primitive spots with no facilities that you can reach only on foot. Food costs are modest, and most recreational activities, such as hiking and bicycling, are free.

Budget hotels. The Hyatts, Westins and Marriotts are appealing, but when money is scarce think in terms of such no-frills lodgings as Days Inns, Fairfield Inns, Hampton Inns and La Quinta Motor Inns. Sure, many of them are planted in ugly commercial tracts alongside busy highways. But you also will find a fair share at popular resort areas such as Colonial Williamsburg and Orlando. Days Inns lists 25 locations near Disney World, and no room (for two adults and two children under 12) is more than $49 a night if you book at least 29 days in advance.

Budget destinations. While prices soar elsewhere, many inviting destinations remain relatively affordable. Among the best buys: In Europe, Greece and Turkey -- where the dollar is still strong; in the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic -- which has fine beaches and a rich Spanish colonial history; in Hawaii, the lovely little island of Molokai -- where most of the hotels are modest but the scenery is suburb; and Mexico, except for the country's flashy and expensive beach resorts. Compared to Europe, travel costs remain moderate in Central and South America and New Zealand -- where the dollar holds strong. Higher air fare costs to these destinations are offset by cheaper lodging, dining and entertainment.

America's state and national park and forest lands. Beautiful scenery and plenty of free outdoor activities make the nation's parklands ideal family destinations. Camp or stay in a cabin or lodge within the park or find a motel nearby, and spend your days hiking, fishing, swimming, boating, taking sightseeing drives and relaxing. This is my first choice for an inexpensive but fully rewarding vacation.

Sierra Club hikes. Each year, experienced guides lead more than 300 backpacking trips into America's wilderness areas, and at modest prices. Typically, a seven-day outing costs from $250 to $350 per person, which includes all meals and the use of some equipment. You share in cooking and clean-up chores. Choose a trip close to home to save on transportation costs. Trips are rated easy to strenuous, and a few are open only to families. Contact: Sierra Club, Outing Department, 730 Polk St., San Francisco, Calif. 94109, 415-776-2211.

Youth hostels. Despite the name, hostels are open to adults, too, in many countries -- including the United States. For easy-going travelers, hostels offer big savings on lodging costs. Prices range from $8 to $15 a night per person (although the new hostel in New York City charges $20 a night). In Europe, you can find hostels in city centers and in often scenic settings in the countryside. Some occupy castles and other historic structures. Most hostels here and abroad provide dorm beds, and you are obligated to help sweep up in the morning. Contact: American Youth Hostels, P.O. Box 37613, Washington, D.C. 20013-7613, 202-783-6161.

Dude ranches. For wholesome family fun, few vacations can match a week on a western guest ranch. Amy Grubbs, editor of the Dude Rancher Magazine and Directory, says a week at a moderately priced ranch this summer should cost a family of four about $2,250 to $2,500. The price includes seven nights' lodging, all meals, group riding lessons, trail rides and all ranch activities. For a copy of the directory, which describes 98 ranches in 10 states, send $2 to Dude Ranchers' Association, P.O. Box G471, LaPorte, Colo. 80535. For information: 303-493-7623.

Elderhostel. A year-round study program for travelers age 60 and older, Elderhostel offers amazing variety at a budget price. Typically, participants make use of university campus lodgings while attending week-long courses on historical, cultural and scientific subjects. Classes are offered in three dozen countries and many U.S. states. In late March, "Funny Business: A Look at Political and Editorial Cartooning" is the topic at St. Petersburg Junior College in Florida. The cost is $265 per person for six nights' lodging, all meals and five days of classes. Contact: Elderhostel, 80 Boylston St., Suite 400, Boston, Mass. 02116, 617-426-8056.

Weekend getaways in the city. If travel is out of the question, treat yourself to a two-night vacation in downtown Washington (or any nearby big city). Park the youngsters with relatives, and make it a romantic getaway. Weekend hotel prices are substantially less, and you can tour the museums on the Mall for free. The rate on Friday and Saturday at the JW Marriott, close to the Mall, is $119 a night, which includes breakfast and use of the hotel's fitness center and indoor pool. (The weekday rate for two is $209 a night without breakfast.)

Drives. "Driving for pleasure is the most popular form of outdoor recreation," says F. Dale Robertson, chief of the U.S. Forest Service. A motor trip also can be an inexpensive vacation, if you stick to modest lodgings and restaurants. Plan an itinerary that takes in interesting historical sites and lots of beautiful countryside. And pack along a copy of "National Forest Scenic Byways" by Beverly Magley (Falcon Press, $9.95), one of the most useful guidebooks published last year.

10 Useful Resources for the Budget Traveler

Rebate travel agencies: A no-frills operation for travelers who know when and where they want to fly or what tour or cruise they want to join. You phone in with the specifics, and the agency quotes you the lowest price. For this service, the agency charges a fee, but it then rebates its sales commission to the client. Travel Avenue of Chicago, a leading rebater, charges a fee of $8 per person to handle the sale of a domestic airline ticket, and it returns a 7 percent to 12 percent commission, depending on the airline. Rebates can be more substantial on high-price package tours, cruises and international air fares. Contact: Travel Avenue, 800-333-3335.

Consolidators: Their specialty is selling international air fares at a bargain. Through a quirk in international fare regulations, they are able to obtain seats in volume at fares not available to ordinary travelers. You can ask most travel agents to book a consolidator fare or check the international air fare ads in Sunday newspaper travel sections. Consolidator tickets carry restrictions, and you may travel on unfamiliar airlines.

Last-minute travel clubs: They offer discounts on tour packages and cruises to travelers able to depart on short notice. One of the oldest is Moment's Notice of New York, which specializes in travel to Mexico and the Caribbean. For an annual membership fee, you get access to a recorded "hot line" describing upcoming trips at 15 percent to 60 percent off the original price. The usual fee is $45, but through January it has been reduced to $19.95. Contact: Moment's Notice, 212-486-0500.

Discount cruise agencies: One of the biggest is The Cruise Line of Miami, which offers discounted rates on cruise ships throughout the world. The firm buys cabin space at bulk rates and passes the savings to customers. Space remains plentiful on ships calling on Caribbean and Mexican ports this winter, says spokesman Don Lansky, and the savings are "unprecedented." In a push to get early bookings, some cruise lines this month are offering two-for-one promotions for cruises later this year in the Mediterranean Sea, Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. Contact: The Cruise Line, 800-777-0707.

Half-price lodging clubs: Travelers pay an annual membership fee, which entitles them to half-price lodging at selected hotels. A leader in the field is Quest, which lists 1,600 participating hotels in all states but Alaska as well as in Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Europe and Australia. The hotels rate two to five stars in the Mobil Travel Guide, and 75 percent impose no blackout period. The fee is $99. Contact: Quest, 800-325-2400.

European city passes: Many European cities sell special tourist passes. Some are good for reduced admission to public museums and historic buildings and others provide unlimited travel on local bus and rail lines at a savings. They can mean big savings for determined sightseers. Check for what's available this year with the country's national tourism office in New York before you go.

Budget travel guides: Although written for college-age travelers on a limited budget, the "Let's Go" series of annual guides offers good advice to anyone looking for inexpensive lodgings and dining. Among the editions, published by the Harvard Student Agencies, are "Let's Go Europe," "Let's Go USA" and "Let's Go Mexico," which sell for $12.95 each. The Lonely Planet series, which offers numerous guides to Africa, Asia, Australia and Latin America, also provides advice for bare-bones budgets.

Bed-and-breakfast reservation services: There are dozens of such services in the United States, and they generally represent homeowners who are not in the full-time inn business but occasionally take in paying guests in a spare room or two. The accommodations are screened for suitability, and rates are modest. State tourism offices can provide names and details of local services. Among them is Bed & Breakfast -- Rocky Mountains, which lists 100 homes in 35 cities in Colorado, Utah and New Mexico. Lodgings include ski chalets, cottages, ranches and mansions at rates for two that range from $65 to $175 a night during the winter ski season. Contact: B&B -- Rocky Mountains, 800-825-0225.

Campus Travel Service: Every summer, some 700 colleges and universities in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand make campus dormitories available to travelers at rates of about $12 to $24 a night per person. The Campus Travel Service of Laguna Beach, Calif., has compiled a list of participating campuses in its annual "U.S. and Worldwide Accommodations Guide." To obtain a copy, send $11.95 to Campus Travel Service, P.O. Box 5007, Laguna Beach, Calif. 92652. For information: 714-720-3729.

Tour packages: If price is important, independent travelers headed for a resort destination should look into packages that combine air fare, lodging and perhaps a rental car or transfers from the airport. Packages are put together by tour operators booking in volume, and generally they are cheaper than what you might pay if you tried to do it on your own. At times, some airlines offer car rentals and lower hotel rates in Europe as part of the transatlantic fare. Consult a travel agent for a selection of packages.

10 Good Deals for Right Now

Winter in Williamsburg: Kingsmill, a 2,900-acre golf and tennis resort just outside Williamsburg, is offering three nights' lodging for the price of two nights from now through March 12. Rates begin at $85 a night (for the first two nights) for a double room; a one-bedroom suite with kitchen is $122 a night. The price includes a discount on golf fees at the resort's two 18-hole courses as well as complimentary use of a nine-hole course, tennis courts and fitness center with indoor swimming pool. Shuttle bus service to Colonial Williamsburg also is complimentary. For reservations: 800-832-5665.

London for less: The five Rank Hotels in London, all four- and five-star properties, are offering big winter savings through the end of March. They are the Athenaeum, Gloucester, Royal Garden, Royal Lancaster and White House. A room for two in the White House at Regents Park, the least expensive of the five hotels, is $105 a night -- a rate guaranteed in U.S. dollars. The customary rate is 118 British pounds or about $225. The special "More London for Less" price includes a full English breakfast. There is a minimum two-night stay, and you book and pay at least 30 days in advance. For reservations: 800-223-5560.

Rambles in France: A series of five-day self-drive packages has been assembled by the French Experience, a New York tour company. Each package is $298 per person (double), and it includes car rental for five days (and 22 percent tax) and lodging for four nights in bed-and-breakfast accommodations in three separate locations. The mini-tours, dubbed "Regional Rambles," are offered in Normandy, the countryside outside Paris, the Riviera, Provence, the Dordogne and the Alps. Contact: French Experience, 370 Lexington Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017, 212-986-1115.

European splurge: Inter-Continental Hotels, a luxury-class chain, has dropped the mid-winter price of rooms in 21 of its European hotels from 30 percent to 50 percent. The special "European Spectacular" packages are available from now through Feb. 28. Rates are guaranteed in U.S. dollars, and the price includes a full American breakfast for two, daily English-language newspaper, welcome drink, a "Welcome City Pack" with maps and all taxes and service charges. Rates begin at $109 a night in Luxembourg, Munich and Wiesbaden and climb to $209 at the Hotel Inter-Continental London. For reservations: 800-327-0200.

Capital fling: If you've got the urge to get out of the house but don't want to go far, consider a Washington getaway. Through Feb. 28, the Sheraton City Centre Hotel & Towers at 1143 New Hampshire Ave. NW is offering a rate of $99 a night. To get it, you must contact the hotel directly and ask for the "special introductory rate." It is not available through Sheraton's toll-free number. Until Jan. 31, the "best value" weekend rate is $69 a night. Both rates are subject to availability. For reservations: 202-775-0800.

Taste of Britain: Trafalgar Tours, a major European tour operator, is offering a winter week in the British countryside for a rate that begins at $749 per person (double). On the "Taste of Britain" itinerary are two nights in London and motor-coach travel to Coventry, York, Richmond, Edinburgh, the Lake District, Liverpool, Chester and Stoke-on-Trent, site of the Wedgwood Pottery Center. The price, available for travel through March 15, includes air fare from New York or Newark on Virgin Atlantic, six nights in first-class hotels, continental breakfasts and two dinners. Flights depart Saturdays. Consult a travel agent or write for a tour catalogue to Trafalgar Tours, 11 East 26th St., New York, N.Y 10010.

Clipping coupons in Florida: Alamo Rent A Car is distributing free coupon booklets to its Florida customers, good for discounts at dozens of commercial attractions. The coupons remain in effect for the next 16 months, until April 30, 1992. Among the discounts is 10 percent off one- and two-day passes to Universal Studios Florida in Orlando for up to six people. The regular one-day pass at the movie theme park is $29 for adults and $23 for children ages 3 to 12. A family of four could save more than $10 using the coupon.

Winter in the Adirondacks: For a cozy New England winter, check into the Sagamore, an Omni resort on a 70-acre island in Lake George on the edge of New York's Adirondack Mountains. Through April 30, the weekend rate for two on the Sagamore Getaway package is $65 a night, and children stay free when sharing their parents' room. A meal plan for breakfast and dinner is optional at $40 person. Winter activities on the island or nearby include cross-country skiing, downhill skiing at Gore Mountain, sledding, ice skating and ice fishing. The Sagamore also offers indoor tennis and racquetball, a fitness center and a heated indoor swimming pool. For reservations: 800-358-3585.

Europe for less: Yet another hotel chain is offering winter discounts in Europe at up to 55 percent off regular prices. Pullman International Hotels, which operates 212 hotels in 132 cities, has established a guaranteed rate for two people of $89 or $109 per night (depending on the hotel) through Feb. 28. The $89 rate is in effect at the chain's Altea hotels in Belgium, France and Portugal. The $109 rate applies to Pullman hotels in Paris, London, Rome, Venice, Vienna, Frankfurt, Antwerp, Brussels, Cannes, Lyon, Marseille, Amsterdam, Madrid and Geneva. For reservations: Mondotels, 800-847-4249.

Afloat in the Caribbean: For an appealingly offbeat cruise, consider two weeks aboard the island-hopping Amazing Grace. The former British Navy vessel is the supply ship for the Windjammer Barefoot Cruises fleet in the Caribbean. On the first Saturday of every month, it departs Freeport in the Bahamas for a two-week voyage south through the Caribbean islands to Grenada, stopping en route to rendezvous with the fleet. On the third Saturday, it departs Grenada for the return to Freeport. The ship carries 98 passengers, and the rate for two weeks in either direction begins at $850 per person (double) on the Main Deck. An Admiral Deck cabin is $1,625 per person. For information: Windjammer Barefoot Cruises, P.O. Box 120, Miami Beach, Fla. 33119-0120, 305-534-7447.