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Back from vacation: Not cheap but still frugal

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I'm back from a weeklong vacation to Boston and the coast of Maine and wanted to confess up front: It wasn't cheap.

Some of the big-ticket items: plane fare for three, a rental car, restaurant meals, and hotel stays in a big city and a resort area. And that just covers the basics.

Once you're in cool places like Boston and Bar Harbor, you want to see and do, which all costs money.

Enough to send a frugal columnist into a frenzy.

I'm joking, of course. With a lot of planning, we saved a bundle. And what we did spend, we had set aside in advance. (Well worth the coupon clipping.)

Here are some of the more thrifty highlights:

*Several months in advance, we were on the lookout for cheaper plane fares, hotel rooms and rental cars. By being flexible with our timing, we saved on the airfare. Using a discount hotel booking service, we stayed in way nicer hotel rooms than we would have ordinarily booked. And a corporate discount through my husband's employer shaved nearly a $100 off our rental car.

*We splurged on one meal a day....in both dollars and calories. That way we could eat our Maine lobster guilt-free.

Our second meal was typically fast-food or a less-expensive local spot. Breakfasts were either free with the hotel or a breakfast bar on the go.

*We walked. And walked some more.

We could have paid upwards of $30 apiece to hop on and off a trolley to view the Freedom Trail sites in Boston, but we opted to walk the five-mile roundtrip. We saved at least $90 and got a free workout. (Full disclosure: That sounds more impressive now - a week later - than it did that afternoon when we limped back to our hotel room. On a cooler day, I would do it again, but, honestly, I might spring for the trolley ride when the temperature is over 90.)

*We took advantage of all the freebies.

Bar Harbor had a free trolley service, saving us time and money and the hassle of looking for a spot. We stopped at several national parks, where tours were either free or very reasonably priced.

And we soaked up the local ambience wherever we were, listening to musicians in Boston Garden, testing the water in the wading pool at Boston Common, wandering through old burial grounds in Concord, Mass., and walking along the waterfront in Salem, Mass.

On July 11, the hottest day of our trip, we scored free slushies all day long. Not only is Boston full of historic sites, we discovered it's home to untold numbers of 7-11 stores. So as we trudged our way along the Freedom Trail, we took full advantage of the free slushies the convenience store gives away every year.

*As a family, we chose one big-ticket activity to do. That way, we were all invested in the choice.

On this trip, we decided to go whale watching, something none of us had ever done. At nearly $60 a ticket, it was definitely not cheap but it ended up being the highlight of our trip.

*We put our daughter in charge of her own souvenirs.

You'd be amazed at how careful kids can be with money when it's their own! Too old now for trinkets, she opted for two t-shirts at $7.50 each.

I got my souvenir in the first few moments of our trip as we were walking out of the airport in Boston. A set of Sunday coupon inserts lying abandoned on an airport bench. Priceless.

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