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April showers bring May flowers. Or…April’s tax refund brings family fun! A (somewhat) unexpected check in the mail presents a great opportunity to quickly plan a vacation and surprise your family. Or if last-minute travel is not your thing, you can apply the extra cash to a bigger trip later in the year. Either way, it’s nice to know that your vacation money is coming from a tax check and not taking a bite out of your usual monthly budget.

If you do use your precious tax refund to pay for travel, you’ll want to be sure that you’re stretching the dollars as far as possible. Traveling in the off season can be your best chance to save a buck or two. May is considered off season in many locales — and it’s perfect timing if you want to immediately put your tax money to use. But if you decide to plan far ahead, book your flight and hotel reservations even earlier than you think is necessary–months ahead if possible. This could save you money and also will ensure availability.

Depending on which destination you choose, you’ll find ways to be cost efficient and get the most out of your tax refund. Here are some suggestions for great family destinations, along with money-saving tips.

SAN FRANCISCO

SAN FRANCISCOSan Francisco is a popular place to travel in the off season because the temperature stays mostly the same year round. There is no need to go during the more popular periods of the year, because the city is equally beautiful all the time! “High” season, the busiest time, occurs from May to October. You will encounter far lighter crowds from November to January. Unlike other locations that have warmer weather, San Francisco is not a huge holiday destination. So holiday hotel rates are not inflated. The San Francisco Bay area is a bustling, beautiful destination, with sweeping vistas and plenty of coastal activities. New in 2014, the Bayview Rise is an illuminated mural located at Pier 92. Painted on a grain elevator and silos, the mural uses color and light to accomplish an effect known as “illumination animation,” which makes the image appear as though it is moving. The most iconic structure of the Bay area, the Golden Gate Bridge is quite majestic to behold. If you get the chance, which you likely will, witness the eerie beauty of the bridge shrouded in fog.

DISNEY WORLD

DISNEY WORLDAn obvious popular destination for families, Disney World also can be quite a burden on the wallet. But you’ll save money if you go during the low season–for the Orlando area, that’s May, September, November to early December, and January. (Prices are especially low in September, but that’s hurricane season, which can mean a lot of rain in Orlando.) You’ll also benefit from smaller crowds during the off season. Waiting in line for rides and restaurants can eat up a lot of your day and can be exhausting! Staying on site at Disney resorts may seem more expensive than staying at the neighboring Orlando hotels, but keep in mind that if you stay elsewhere, you might be restricted by their shuttle schedules and/or need to rent a car. Plus, if you stay at a Disney resort, you can take advantage of Magic Hours. This is when a park opens an hour earlier and stays open three hours later for Disney Resort guests only. So find a few different lodging options and compare the benefits and prices.

CARIBBEAN CRUISE

CARIBBEAN CRUISEAnother vacation destination where costs can vary due to weather is a Caribbean cruise. Cruise ships can be threatened by storms, but almost never seriously. These ships are equipped to accommodate hundreds, if not thousands, of people very safely. Choosing to take a cruise during hurricane season, which lasts from June through November, may be the cheapest and easiest way to save on your floating vacation! Again, planning ahead here is important, to get the type of room you want and to get a good deal. But it’s also true that cruise tickets can be cheap in the days leading up to departure. So if that tax check arrives in the mail and you think your family is up for a spur-of-the-moment cruise, go for it! You might want to take a more long-term planning approach if that’s more than your family can handle.

PARK CITY, UTAH

Located near Salt Lake City, Park City, Utah, is a beautiful destination coveted by skiers in the winter months and known for hosting the Sundance Film Festival in January. It doesn’t matter what time of year you visit Park City, however, because it is one of the most gorgeous destinations in the country — year round! In warmer weather, visitors enjoy hiking, biking and other outdoor pursuits. And no matter when you visit, you can experience the array of dining and nightlife options and the thriving art community. The famous Kimball Arts Festival, held each August, features more than 200 artists and 30 live bands, and even includes the Kimball Kids’ Corner. That’s a lot of entertainment for one family! Park City has lodging options for every budget, and there are many special deals during ski season and in summer.

SWAP HOUSES

SWAP HOUSESSwapping houses with a friend could save you a lot of money on your vacation. If you know someone who lives in or close to a place you’d like to travel, and if you think they might want to visit your town, see if you can coordinate a few days or a week when you can trade houses. This not only saves the money you would spend on hotels, which can be expensive, it also gives you the option of preparing your own food. And we all know that restaurants can take a big bite out of your travel budget. If you eliminate lodging costs and cut down on the expense of eating out, you will have more money to spend on flights or gas, must-see attractions, shopping and other trip costs. Also, many people prefer the comfort of staying in a home over some of the inconveniences of hotel living. For example, you’ll have free laundry at your disposal and, possibly, a nice yard to relax in after a busy day of sightseeing.

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