Planning your summer vacation may create more stress than it relieves. With gas prices at record highs, air fares not far behind, and the ever-present cost of food, lodging, and other necessities -- not to mention actual fun things to do -- it's a wonder anyone can afford to take a vacation. But if you're not afraid to rough it, you can save hundreds on your travel costs and get a more interesting experience in the bargain.

Getting under the stars
If your idea of a perfect vacation is sipping pina coladas at a brand hotel like Marriott (NYSE:MAR) or Hilton (NYSE:HLT), both of which are known for providing a luxurious experience in exchange for a higher price per room, then the idea of sleeping in a tent may be a bit of a letdown. But camping is a time-honored way for families to spend vacations together. What you may not know, however, is that campgrounds have come a long way from the days of outhouses and sitting on logs. While you can still find the roughing-it experience if that's what you're looking for, those who don't want to give up all the modern amenities don't have to go without.

For instance, Kampgrounds of America offers more than just clean bathrooms and a hot shower. At many locations, you'll find some of the same perks you'd find at more expensive hotels, including swimming pools, miniature golf courses, game rooms, and wireless Internet connections. And for those who don't feel like pitching a tent, some KOAs have cabins and lodges with full kitchens, air conditioning, and fireplaces.

Even less well-equipped camping sites may surprise you. If you're visiting national parks over the summer, you'll often find modern campgrounds with full bathrooms along with firewood and small general stores. It's a great way to stay close to nature without giving up everything you'd want from a vacation.

Making new friends
Hotels are great for privacy. But if you're looking to interact with other people, most hotels make it hard to meet fellow travelers. That's where hostels can make a big difference.

Modern hostels offer inexpensive indoor lodging for travelers. Often converted from old-style houses or apartment buildings, most hostels offer dormitory-style rooms where between four and six people sleep on bunk beds. If you're traveling on your own, hostels can give you huge savings compared to a hotel room.

On the other hand, if you're traveling with your family, dorm rooms may not sound like a great deal. But many hostels also have private rooms and suites that give couples and families the privacy of a hotel room while also giving them access to the other features hostels offer.

The biggest advantage of hostels is in their common-room layout. One of the missions of Hostelling International USA, the largest network of hostels in the U.S., is to encourage travelers to gain a greater understanding of the world and its people. While bedrooms are small, visitors share full kitchens, dining rooms, and living areas with broad access to books and travel guides, computers, and games. You'll meet travelers from across the world and get to share experiences with those who've already been where you're going. It's refreshing to meet the friendly people who choose to stay at hostels, and your pocketbook will thank you as well.

So when you're planning your summer vacation, don't just assume you'll end up at the same old motel by the side of the interstate. Look into alternatives like campgrounds and hostels and break out of your ordinary vacation rut.

For more helpful advice on making the most of your money, be sure to take a look at our Motley Fool Green Light newsletter. April's issue focused on tackling all the biggest vacation expenses. From helping you plan for major life decisions to saving a few bucks on everyday spending, Motley Fool Green Light gives you practical things you can start doing right away. Try it out with our 30-day trial membership and start saving more money today!

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You'll also find plenty of extra saving tips in our Budgeting and Savings Center, along with what to do with all that extra money you'll have at the end of each month.

Fool contributor Dan Caplinger first camped in his mid-20s, and his life hasn't been the same since. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. You'll never have to rough it with the Fool's disclosure policy.