Getting free gas, free golf, free s’mores and more this summer

A morning ride at Colorado's Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch.

By Eileen Ogintz
Tribune Media Services

Free gas anyone?

Not quite. But the higher gas prices go — and the more we rethink summer vacation plans as a result — the more hotels, resorts, cities and towns across the country are rolling out the welcome mat with rebates and credits all designed to help fill your gas tank and ease the sticker shock that comes with it, as the price of gas climbs to $4.07 a gallon on average. That is $1.09 a gallon more than a year ago, according to AAA.

And if they’re not offering free gas, they’re offering all kinds of other freebies large and smalls, from upgrades, the Sheraton Chicago Hotel (www.sheratonchicago.com), will put you on the Club level with all those free drinks, snacks and breakfasts and also throw in free parking, to free movies and popcorn, boutique Personality Hotels in San Francisco (www.personalityhotels.com), where rates start at $139, and hotel credits for the new airline fees for checked bags. (Kimpton Hotels, www.kimptonhotels.com , and hotels on Amelia Island (www.ameliaisland.org/freebags), off Florida’s northeast coast, offer either room credits or access to special services. (How about a private guide to Yellowstone? Check out Jackson Hole’s Eco Hotel Terra (www.hotelterrajacksonhole.com(, where they discount the pricey rooms by a fourth, if you stay four nights.)

The Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, www.chesapeakebay.hyatt.com, will throw in a free s’mores kit or yoga class with the gas card (and an extra $50 card if you are driving a hybrid, while the Hyatt Grand Champions Resort near Palm Springs (www.hyattgrandchampions.com), not only offers rates starting at $99 a night but also discount cards good for 25 percent off meals, spa and discounts at Camp Hyatt. Sonesta Resorts, (www.sonesta.com/aaa), meanwhile, will feed two of your kids free (from the kids’ menu) and take 20 percent off your room rate, as long as you’ve got an AAA card.

Honestly, I’ve never seen so many deals, especially to places that are “high season” in summer. For example, if your kids are begging to go to the San Diego Zoo or to the SoCaL beaches, check out the array of “Cash for Gas” deals at www.sandiego.org that include a $300 resort credit for those driving and staying four or more nights at the historic (and luxe) Hotel del Coronado (www.hoteldel.com). There are plenty of gas rebate deals at moderately priced hotels too, as well as at resorts across Colorado (www.colorado.com/traveldeals). ResortQuest Colorado (resortquest.com) will fill your tank entirely through October — up to $100. Book a one-bedroom or larger condo and get a refund on arrival for a full tank of gas, as long as you can show your receipt. If you’ve got a hybrid, they’ll give you an extra $10 — to thank you for your environmental awareness.

Even dude ranches and bed and breakfasts are getting into the act. Go to Colorado’s Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch (www.sylvandale.com) and the resort will give you up to $200 to pay for gas home, as long as you have your gas receipts. Book a Bed and Breakfast for two nights at www.bedandbreakfast.com this summer (and yes, many love to host kids) and get a $50 rebate check. The bad news: For the first time this decade, AAA estimates a decline in the number of Americans traveling during the Fourth of July holiday travel period — down 550,000 from last year, though more than 40 million Americans still plan to get away — at least 50 miles from home.

The good news: Whatever you do this summer, you shouldn’t have to pay the rack rate — not even close.

Here’s your chance to take your tween on the links with you — and you both golf for free. Get your pick of some 450 courses, as long as you spend a three-day weekend at a Hilton Garden Inn (www.HGI.com/GOLF). (Pay for your stay with your American Express card and they throw in a free golf cart.)

Book two nights at a New York City luxury hotel this summer and get a third night free. Come during Restaurant Week — July 21-25, July 28-Aug. 1 — and eat dinner at top NYC restaurants for just $35. (Visit www.nycvisit.com.) If Baltimore (www.baltimore.org) — and its terrific ballpark and aquarium — is more your style, there’s a third-night free deal too, as well as an array of online coupons to sweeten the pot.

Consider the train. No worries about gas then. No wonder Amtrak reports that ridership has increased by 11 percent over the same time last year. Another plus: kids up to age 15 travel for half-price every day.

Canada’s VIA Rail (www.viarail.ca) says kids under 12 can travel free and grandparents, as long as they are 60, can bring along a companion for free.

And then there is the Grand Canyon Railway (www.thetrain.com), which offers a different way to get to the park and includes round-trip train from Williams, Ariz., a night of lodging, breakfast and dinner for just $43 for kids 12 and under, $159 for the grown-ups.

Clearly, we’ll go where the value is — if we go at all. According to Matt Towson, spokesman for the Discover U.S. Spending Monitor, which surveys a random sampling of 15,000 people about their spending intentions every month, “15 percent of consumers look to cut their vacation plans first in the wake of high gas prices. … Forty-nine percent are planning to spend less in the months ahead on major personal purchases like a vacation.”

Towson adds that a month ago, 59 percent of consumers were changing their vacation plans due to high gas prices. As of June 18, that number has grown to 62 percent. “Based on what we have seen in the Monitor results,” he said, “there has been no indication that consumers will be changing their behavior in the coming weeks.”

Already TravelZoo.com is reporting that a majority of Americans will stay home this Fourth of July rather than take a vacation — a 5 percent increase.

That means the travel industry will try even harder to tempt you to leave home with more and better deals. Check out the deals at www.travelstimulus.bookit.com/ , which offer half-price gas or free flight credits: Take the kids to certain Club Meds (www.clubmed.us) for a few days and you’ll pay just $111 a night per adult and half that for kids.

For the first time in 69 years, the owners of the Lakeside Inn Resort in Whitehall, Mich., (http://www.lakesideinn.net/) are offering significantly discounted rates and a $25 gas card to a Shell station — for every night of your stay. “We’re all in this economy together,” said owners Todd and Jodi Groessl. “We’ll do what it takes.”

Let’s hope that’s enough.

(c) 2008 EILEEN OGINTZ DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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