When summer vacation hits and schools let out, kids breathe a sigh of relief. But us parents? Not so much.We should be rejoicing—finally we’ve got a window of a couple of months for a meaningful family trip—but instead we’re stressed out trying to manage the summer vacation calendar. Everyone in the family is on a different schedule (one kid’s in camp, another’s got a part-time summer job), and suddenly carving out a week or two for a vacation together is tough, especially when one kid needs to be back by early August for football practice.

Summertime is tricky also because vacation spots are so popular that plans need to be nailed down well in advance; otherwise you risk paying peak prices and finding no rooms available. Yet what’s summer without a spontaneous getaway or two?

Here are a few tips to help you take charge of your summer vacation calendar and maximize your travel timing, dollar, and enjoyment:

* Pre-book travel that involves airline tickets and popular destinations.
If you were hoping to get a room at Legoland California Hotel in July, it’s already too late. Any trips that involve a national park or a summer festival, book immediately—and avoid these booking mistakes.

* Allow yourself spontaneity via road trips.
For last-minute escapes, think vacations you can drive to. There are almost always plenty of motels with available rooms, and road trips allow you to play it by ear, get lost on back roads, and embrace quirky surprises.

* For long-weekend getaways, remember that Saturday-to-Tuesday is cheapest.
It’s cheaper to fly Saturday morning and return Tuesday night than to fly Thursday morning and return Sunday night. You’re still taking the same amount of time off from work (two days), whether you’re taking Thursday and Friday or Monday and Tuesday.

* Tack extra days onto holiday weekends.
Plan to fly or drive at relatively low-traffic times—meaning, right before or after the holiday crush. July 4th falls on a Monday this year, which means many people will be traveling on the Friday before and the Tuesday after, so consider leaving on Thursday, June 30 (or earlier), and returning on Wednesday, July 6 (or later).

* Sign up for low-fare alerts for dates when you might want to fly.
Sites that notify you when fares drop include Airfarewatchdog, FareCompare, TripAdvisor Flights, and Yapta.

* For U.S. beach trips, think northeast in June and southeast in August.
Kids in the northeast U.S. stay in school through most of June, whereas schools in the southeast let out in early June, making that month a good time for southeast families to find shoulder-season rates at northeast resorts (think Cape Cod or DownEast Maine). In August it’s the reverse: Southeast kids are back in school by early to mid-August, making the latter half of August a good time for northeast families to find deals at southeast beaches. My family has spent the last half of August in charming towns and resort areas from Charleston, South Carolina, to the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia; these places have been delightfully uncrowded and less hot and humid than New York City in August.

* For city getaways requiring flights, think late August for savings.
The last half of August is when business travel drops significantly, bringing low airfares and affordable hotel rates to those cities that normally draw a lot of business travelers. While a place like New York City can be terribly hot and muggy in August, you may find it doesn’t bother you much, given all the air-conditioned museums, theaters, and restaurants you may spend so much of your time in.

* If you’re still unsure of your summer plans, see what you can book now with no cancellation fee.
Better safe than sorry. Mark in your calendar the date by which you must cancel in order to avoid paying a cancellation fee—and be sure to cancel by that date if your plans change.

* If you’re having no luck using miles or points for airline tickets, try again shortly before your trip.
Award-seat inventory changes from day to day as your desired trip dates approach. Just because seats aren’t available today doesn’t mean they won’t be a few days (or hours) before your flight.