Cheap is good, but free is better -- especially when it comes to family vacation deals. Truth is, if you know where to look, you'll discover that there really is such a thing as a free lunch -- and deals that let you stay free, ski free and even cruise free. Here are seven freebies to help you plan an affordable winter getaway with the kids.
- "Third night free." Google that phrase and you'll instantly unearth over 400,000 ways to get 33 percent more bang out of your buck on a long-weekend escape. Like snagging luxury for less? Scoop a free night at one of the plush member properties in the Sofitel Luxury Hotels or Starwood Preferred Guest groups. The latter includes Westin, Le Meridien, Aloft, St. Regis and W Hotels nationwide. For a wider selection of properties for all budgets, check out Priceline's Hotel Freebies page.
- Wallet-friendly pricing is nothing new at Holiday Inn, where the "kids eat free" concept was pioneered in 1993. Nearly 20 years later, kids 12 and under still eat free at nearly 900 Holiday Inn properties throughout the Americas.
- In the mood for a city break? Mitigate the higher cost of lodging and meals by filling your days with free fun. A good place to find no-cost activities is the website of the city's tourism organization, whether you're heading to D.C., Dallas, Phoenix, or New York City.
- Children ages 17 and under can sail free on Disney Cruise Line this winter on departures out of Galveston, Texas. Up to two kids may travel free when sharing the same stateroom with two full-fare guests. The offer is good on most 6- and 8-night sailings from Galveston between January 12 and March 1, 2013. The offer does not include government taxes and fees, which total $52 to $84 per person.
- Nothing brings joy to snow-loving families like a resort that lets kids ski free. Buy an adult ski lift ticket for five or more days at Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and you'll get a free child lift ticket (for kids 12 and under) for the same number of days. Other resorts offering "kids ski free" deals include (for kids 10 and under) Big Sky Resort, in Montana, and (for kids 17 and under) Cataloochee Ski Area, in North Carolina
- Don't live within driving distance of a ski area? Look for "kids fly free" deals that provide complimentary air tickets for kids when you purchase a family ski vacation. Book a four-night stay with Crested Butte's Friends and Family Fly Free promotion, and every third plane ticket is free. (For maximum savings, invite your extended family.)
- Like the Great Outdoors? Mark your calendar for January 21, because admission to U.S. National Parks is free on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Or, better yet, make plans to spend any winter weekend exploring one of the 265 national parks in America that never charge admission.
Suzanne Rowan Kelleher is a family travel expert at MiniTime.com, a vacation-planning site with reviews of kid-friendly hotels, restaurants and attractions.