Who Needs A Fancy Cruise If You've Got Inner Tubes?

We all have that vacation we'd love to take — and then we check the bank account and realize that now might not be the best time. For many, that's especially true this summer.

NPR is trying to bridge the gap between dream vacations and economic-reality vacations by hunting down cheap thrills around the nation. NPR's Tom Goldman found it is more fun at times, and thousands of dollars cheaper, to be in the water, rather than on it.

What's Your 'Cheap Thrill'?

Do you have ideas for how to have fun on your days off where you live, or in a place you've visited? Are there free or low-cost art museums, exhibits, theater outings, recreation opportunities, beaches, dining and lodging or other amusement options that you want to let your fellow Americans know about? Tell us here, and we'll add some of your submissions to our map.

When I inquired about a round-trip cruise from Seattle to Alaska, I was told my ship would have a swimming pool, bowling alleys, saunas, Jacuzzis, a full spa and an exercise room, programs for the kiddies, nightclubs for the adults — a swingin' time on the dance floor, for sure. And at night we would retire to our ocean-view stateroom with balcony. I pulled out my checkbook.

... And then I put it away when the booking agent told me the total would be $3,954.12.

Truck-tire inner tubes, on the other hand, are $12.50 each.

The air to fill them up: free.

Tubing on an Oregon river: priceless.

And, in the summer of 2009, price-less (or close to it) is what we're after.

Sections of Oregon's Clackamas River are excellent training areas for beginners. There are many small drops, usually with eddies close by. The rapids are clean, and have good runouts. The scenery is uncluttered, even though some areas have housing on the river's edge.

Another advantage of a "Cheap Thrills" vacation: The kids can take their friends. So, my two children, their friend and I wade out into the chilly Clackamas River and prepare to plop down in our black inner tubes.

At that moment, I admit, I can't stop thinking about certain advantages of that spendy vacation — like our departure from Seattle, easing into a main deck chaise longue as the mighty cruise ship heads north.

The payoffs, however, are many once you begin to catch the current.

As we drift under a beautiful bridge, I think about life lessons and how they relate to rivers: going with the flow, not fighting the current.

These are things you're not likely to think about in a cruise ship bowling alley.

And as the current on the Clackamas quickens, and the first rapids approach, I think about perhaps the most important life lesson: Lift your butt, so you don't scrape the bottom. Ride the wild river! Yeehaw!

At this point, satisfied after a successful rapids run, warmed by the summer sunshine and cooled by the river, the nearly $4,000 cruise comes in a distant second.

If we were on an Alaskan cruise, there would be day programs for the children and we could go bowling on the boat. All of that stuff. But does that sound better than this?

"Yeah!" shout the children.

But farther down the river, I get the answer I want in their screams of enjoyment.

We'll try to get to Alaska eventually. And maybe we'll take the tubes.

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