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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

If you're not super rich, it's likely you've got that vacation you'd just love to take, and then you check the bank account and realize maybe not now. It's especially true this summer. So NPR is helping us out here. We are hunting down some cheap thrills.

If you're dreaming of floating comfortably across a body of water, NPR's Tom Goldman found it can be more fun and thousands of dollars cheaper to be in the water rather than on it.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Unidentified Woman #1: Thank you for calling. To book a new cruise, please press one.

(Soundbite of touch tone)

Unidentified Woman #1: Cruise sales department. May I help you?

TOM GOLDMAN: Hi. I wanted to ask some questions about an Alaskan cruise, please.

Unidentified Woman #1: Sure. And which cruise where you looking at?

GOLDMAN: It'd be a round trip from Seattle.

Unidentified Woman #1: From Seattle. Okay.

GOLDMAN: My ship, I was told, would have a swimming pool, bowling alleys, saunas, Jacuzzis, a full spa, an exercise room, programs for the kiddies, nightclubs for the adults - hey, a swingin' time for sure on the dance floor and in our ocean view stateroom with balcony. So I pulled out my checkbook.

Unidentified Woman #1: The total would be $3,954.12.

GOLDMAN: And put it away. Okay, let's fill them. Truck tire inner tubes: $12.50 each; air to fill them up: free; tubing on an Oregon river: priceless, which in the summer of 2009 is just what we're after, price-less.

Okay, tubers, are you ready?

Unidentified Woman #2: Yes.

GOLDMAN: Good. You seem very enthusiastic. Now, I want to read you something out of the guidebook. Remember this as we're going down. This stretch of the Clackamas River is an excellent training area for beginners. There are many small, class two drops, usually with eddies close by. The rapids are clean and have good runouts. That sound good to you guys?

Unidentified Woman #3: Yeah.

Unidentified Woman #2: Yeah.

GOLDMAN: Let's go tubing.

Unidentified Woman #3: Yahoo.

GOLDMAN: Another advantage of a cheap thrills vacation? Kids can take 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 lounge as the mighty cruise ship heads north because did I mention it was the chilly Clackamas River?

Oh, oh, the lower back. The lower back, that's painful.

Unidentified Woman #4: (Unintelligible)�

Unidentified Man: Let's go.

Unidentified Woman #4: �once you get used to it.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, once you get used to it. Hold on.

Unidentified Woman #4: (Unintelligible).

GOLDMAN: But the payoffs, and there are many, begin once you catch the current.

Yes, we're going under a beautiful bridge now, and we're just floating, just floating, and thinking about life lessons on a river: going with the flow, not fighting the current, things you're not going to think about in a cruise ship bowling alley.

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. Back is arched. Ride the wild river, yeeha. Stay straight. Avoid rocks at all costs. Here come some good little lays up and down, up and down, lift the recorder.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GOLDMAN: So far, so good. The children made it through. That's the important thing.

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

So let me ask you something: If we were on an Alaskan cruise, they would have, like, day programs for the children, and you could go bowling on the boat, all that kind of stuff. Does that sound better than this?

Unidentified Woman #4: Yeah.

GOLDMAN: Wrong answer, children.

(Soundbite of screaming)

Farther down the river, I get the answer I want.

(Soundbite of screaming)

GOLDMAN: We'll try to get to Alaska, and maybe we'll take the tubes.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

BRAND: Our Cheap Thrills series continues tomorrow on MORNING EDITION with a trip to see the Red Sox - not the Boston Red Sox, though. That would be way too expensive.

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