Park Perks: Affording the Great Outdoors

America has a love affair with its national parks, and rightly so. They preserve some of the most beautiful scenery in the country, and often inexpensively. Camping is possible at most and, for those who prefer a roof overhead, there are other bargains. Even the activities -- hiking, fishing, climbing and boating -- tend to be inexpensive. One caveat, however: Book as early as possible; lodgings can fill up months in advance for the summer season.

* Shenandoah National Park, Virginia: The park closest to home is laced with interesting trails, many of them leading to shady rocks at the foot of a waterfall. Cabins for two at Skyland Lodge on the Skyline Drive begin at $37.50 a night. A cabin with two beds is $46.50; a cabin with two bedrooms for four is $60.50. If you want a grand view, the rate is $73.50 for two people. 703-999-2211.

* Yosemite National Park, California: Yosemite's fans consider the park the most beautiful place in the world, even when summer crowds fill narrow Yosemite Valley. The scenery is spectacular, the waterfalls majestic and the price is quite good. At Camp Curry, a village of room-size canvas tents with wood floors, cots with bedding and electricity, the rate for a tent for two is $28.50 a night. Add $2 for each child through age 12 and $4 for ages 13 and older. Shower and toilet facilities are nearby. Also in the valley are cabins, a lodge and the luxurious Ahwahnee Hotel, where the top rate is $421 a night. 209-252-4848.

* Grand Canyon National Park, South Rim, Arizona: Many visitors take in the views of the mile-deep canyon at midday and then depart. To see the canyon at its best -- at dawn and dusk, when the colors are most intense -- you should plan to stay overnight or for several days. Trails lead along the rim or down to the Colorado River. At Bright Angel Lodge on the rim, a cabin for two without bath is $33 a night. A cabin for four without bath at Maswik Lodge, a couple of blocks back from the rim, is $40. Plusher accommodations on the rim are in lodges and the historic El Tovar Hotel, where the top rate is $222 a night. 602-638-2401.

* Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah: The canyon is a fantastical world of spires, hoodoos, arches and other odd geological formations all lavishly splashed in reds, pinks and oranges. You can explore on escorted trail rides or on your own afoot. A room for two in Bryce Canyon Lodge is $59.15 a night. A deluxe cabin is $69.90. Children 12 and under stay free; add $5 for anyone 13 and older. 801-586-7686.

* Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming: Old Faithful is the geyser everyone knows. But Yellowstone is a geothermal wonderland, the biggest of its kind in the world, where fields of geysers spout regularly and vast mud holes bubble ominously. A cabin without bath at Old Faithful Lodge, Roosevelt Lodge and Mammoth Hot Springs begins at about $20 a night for two people. Children 11 and under stay free, and the rate is $7 for age 12 and older. A cabin with bath ranges from $40 to $55 for two. The most expensive accommodations are at Lake Yellowstone Hotel, where a room is $89 to $99 a night for two. 307-344-7311.

* Glacier National Park, Montana: On back-country trails, hikers wear jingle bells so they won't surprise the grizzlies. But don't let the wildlife frighten you away. Glacier preserves a stunning array of glacially carved lakes set at the base of a rugged ridge of mountain peaks. Cabins without bath at Swiftcurrent Motor Inn begin at $21 a night for two, and a two-bedroom cabin without bath for four people is $29. Motel units with bath are $55 to $61 for two. At Lake McDonald Lodge, cabins for two are $50 to $86 a night. At nicely situated Many Glacier Hotel, a room is $74 to $135 for two. In all cases, children under 12 stay free; add $3 to $6 for age 12 and older, depending on the facility. Until mid-May, 602-248-6000; from mid-May to mid-September, 406-226-5551.

* Mount Rainier National Park, Washington: Glacier has the name, but you will see far more impressive glaciers on the slopes of 14,410-foot-high Mount Rainier, and they are easier to get to. A number of hiking trails climb from the visitor center above the tree line to summer fields of wildflowers and close-up views of the giant ice flows. At the gorgeously rustic Paradise Inn, a room for two without bath is $50 a night; with bath, $70. Add $9 for each child over age 2. 206-569-2275. Checking In on Budget Motels

"Charming" is a compliment seldom applied to America's budget motels. The secret of their huge success, instead, has been in providing reliably clean, modern rooms at an affordable price -- a good way, in a tight economy, to save on vacation costs.

Although found mostly along busy interstates, many budget motels have opened countrywide in popular resort destinations. We've picked 10 such areas and phoned for summer rates at a budget hotel in each. Don't look for scenic views from your window or a beach within walking distance. But most have swimming pools, and you only have to drive a few minutes to enjoy the same attractions as the folks in the high-priced luxury hotels.

* Williamsburg, Va.: Colonial Williamsburg, Yorktown Battlefield, Jamestown National Historic Site and Busch Gardens are attractions enough for a week's stay. At the Hampton Inn, rates are $69 a night. 804-220-0880.

* Jackson, Wyo.: Although Jackson is a sophisticated resort with good shops and restaurants, it hasn't yet lost its Old West heritage. The bustling little town sits on the southern edge of Grand Teton National Park, and you can make it your headquarters for a day trip to Yellowstone National Park -- about an hour's drive north. Plenty of hiking by day, and you can do the Western two-step at night in Jackson's cowboy bars. At the Super 8, rates are $60.88 plus $5 for each child over 12. 307-733-6833.

* Orlando, Fla.: Disney World is the big draw, as America's most popular family vacation spot. Days Inns lists 25 properties in Orlando. If you book 29 days in advance on a "super saver" package, you can get a suite for $49. 800-325-2525.

* Hilton Head Island, S.C.: Long beaches and an array of golf courses provide diversity in this lush island retreat. At the Fairfield Inn, rates are $61.95. 803-842-4800.

* Deadwood, S.D.: Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane were citizens of this onetime bawdy gold rush town. From its dusty streets, explore the beautiful Black Hills, Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Badlands National Park, Wind Cave National Park and the world's largest indoor hot springs pool at Hot Springs. At the Super 8 Lodge, rooms are $66, plus $6 for each additional child. 605-578-2535.

* Las Vegas, Nev.: Gambling tables lure the grownups in America's capital of glitz. But Las Vegas has made it a point to provide plenty of fun for the youngsters too. For starters, you are never very far from a huge swimming pool or a towering waterslide. At the Comfort Inn, rates are $62. 702-366-0456.

* Natchez, Miss.: For romantics, Natchez is a look at the Old South of Greek Revival mansions (several of them open to the public), manicured gardens and shady trees. An hour's drive north is Vicksburg, site of one of Gen. U.S. Grant's important Civil War victories. It is commemorated in Vicksburg National Military Park. At Days Inn, rates are $29 if you book 29 days in advance. 800-325-2525.

* Durango, Colo.: Go rafting for a day on the Animas River, ride the historic Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad through deep mountain canyons and tour the fascinating Indian cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park. Budget Host Travel Inn rooms run $54 plus $4 for each child over age 5. 303-247-0593.

* Key West, Fla.: America's tropical hideaway, raffish Key West offers swimming, sailing, deep-sea fishing and plenty of leisure under a hot summer sun. At the Econo Lodge, you pay $56.50 for an inland view and $66.50 for a view of the Gulf of Mexico. 305-294-5511.

* Santa Fe, N.M.: Old pink adobe buildings dating back to 1610 front Santa Fe's historic Plaza, giving the city a distinctive Southwestern look. Art and Indian crafts galleries line its streets, and only a short drive away are high mountain trails, Pueblo Indian reservations and the ancient ruins of Bandelier and Pecos national monuments. At Motel 6, rooms run $32.95 through April 1. Summer rates have not yet been set. 505-473-1380.

Prices quoted are for a room for two for one night this summer. Except where noted, children under 18 stay free in their parents' room. -- James T. Yenckel Beaches: Hot Times for Cool Prices

Many people spell summer vacation B-E-A-C-H. We've rounded up six beach communities from Delaware south to Florida to give an idea of what a family of four might pay for beach lodging -- including cottages, condos, a golf and tennis resort and a beach-front hotel -- this summer. Rental agents say the best deals get snapped up quickly by vacationers who book early, and now is not too soon to make plans.

Costs can be dramatically affected by when you go. July and August are the high season in the northern Atlantic states, of course, but in southern Florida summer actually is the low season and bargains are plentiful. And, of course, lodgings even a block or two back from the beach drop considerably in price.

Among the possibilities:

* Rehoboth Beach/Dewey Beach, Del.: Even in July and August, good buys are available, such as a modest two-bedroom apartment a block from the ocean in Dewey Beach: $550 to $600 a week (Saturday to Saturday). At a modern, beach-front high-rise in Rehoboth Beach, a two-bedroom condo ranges from $860 to $1,500 a week. A three-bedroom house in Rehoboth, about six blocks from the beach, begins at $700 to $750 a week. Anderson-Stokes/Long & Foster, 800-272-2828.

* Ocean City, Md.: The least expensive lodgings are bayside and may entail a drive to the beach. Other good buys are "ocean block" accommodations, which have no ocean views but are only a short hike from the surf. If a sea view is important, it will cost you: Ocean-front condos have the highest rates. Another consideration: Rates are highest between July 6 and 24. For example, a two-bedroom town house at bayside during mid-July begins at $545 a week; in June, it's about $350. A two-bedroom condo in the "ocean block" begins at $770 a week in high season, but runs $395 in June and $350 after mid-September. Shoreline Properties, 800-492-5832.

* Virginia Beach, Va.: The Holiday Inn-Oceanside is a 12-story, mid-priced hotel in the heart of Virginia Beach's busy Atlantic Avenue hotel strip. A room for two with two double beds is $125 a night, and children under age 19 stay free with their parents. 804-491-1500.

* Outer Banks, N.C.: If you want to start at the top, a good, four-bedroom home on the ocean (two families could share) can be found for $1,500 to $1,700 a week near Kitty Hawk. A more-modest two-bedroom ocean-front cottage runs about $900 to $1,000 a week. Pick a place back from the ocean, and a four-bedroom house goes for $875 to $900. Resort Realty, 800-458-3830.

* Kiawah Island Resort, S.C.: Kiawah is a sprawling, self-contained island resort complex with three 18-hole golf courses, multiple swimming pools and tennis courts and a magnificent dune-lined beach that stretches for miles. Most lodgings are in two-story villa and town-house clusters on the beach, near the beach or adjacent to the golf courses or tennis courts (least expensive). A two-bedroom town house with an inland view and a fair hike to the beach begins at $959 a week; nearer the ocean, the price is $1,395; and with an ocean view, it is $1,694. Kiawah Island Resort, 800-845-2471.

* Fort Meyers Beach, Fla.: On Florida's sultry southern Gulf Coast, summer is the nominal low season, but rates can be even cheaper in October and November. During the summer, a one-bedroom condo in a beachfront high-rise with pool and Jacuzzi is $95 to $110 a night. A two-bedroom condo is $115 to $195 a night. In September and October, the same one-bedroom condo drops to $85 to $100 a night. Travel Resources, 800-327-5039.

Prices quoted are from beach rental offices chosen at random. You may want to contact other rental firms for more possibilities. Most have free brochures describing the places they represent. State and municipal tourism offices list rental agents.

House Swapping: Going Places While Trading Places

For many people, there's no place like home, even if it's not their own. House swapping is a relatively inexpensive way to have a vacation and a house-sitter at the same time. And the deals often include the family car for the trip's duration. But it takes flexibility and patience to find the best swap available. To avoid unpleasant surprises, participants should ask for color photographs of the residence, research the area where they'll be staying and set guidelines for the upkeep of their property, such as lawn-mowing and car maintenance.

The following agencies will either arrange an exchange or send catalogues with lists of potential swappers.

Vacation Exchange Club is the country's largest swapping network, with more than 10,000 members in about 50 countries. There are two annual catalogues; swappers are listed in only one, but receive both. It's up to subscribers to contact one another. In August, the agency will publish an additional U.S.-only catalogue.

Registration is $50 ($12 more to include a photo of your property); an extra fee will be charged for the U.S.-only book. For more information: Vacation Exchange Club, P.O. Box 820, Haleiwa, Hawaii 96712, 800-638-3841.

Better Homes & Travel serves as matchmaker for its subscribers. After paying a $50 registration fee, swappers fill out a questionnaire and submit it with a photo of their residence. The agency tries to match the request with someone else's. There's a $150-to-$600 closing fee once a swap is negotiated, depending on the length of stay, type of residence and location. Last year, the agency negotiated more than 65 swaps.

The firm represents swappers in Switzerland, Italy, France, England, Spain and the United States, among other countries. If a swap isn't arranged, the registration fee can be applied toward a rental property. For more information: Better Homes & Travel, 185 Park Row, Box 268, New York, N.Y. 10038-0272, 212-349-5340.

Intervac U.S./International Home Exchange has a total of 8,300 listings in its three yearly publications. The agency represents swappers from 36 countries, although most reside in the United States and England. The cost to be listed in one catalogue is $45 a year ($40 for senior citizens), with a $12 postage fee; it costs another $10 to include a photo of your property. Swappers are listed in one catalogue but receive all three.

For more information: Intervac U.S., P.O. Box 590504, San Francisco, Calif. 94159, 415-435-3497.