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Get out of Town

Helpful hints for cutting back on vacation costs without reducing your fun


What's not to like about January in Cincinnati?

The snow whitewashes the landscape into a winter wonderland, giving you something to look at while the car in front of you travels at approximately 2 mph. The long, dark nights provide ample time to cuddle by the fire with your sweetie, your final refuge from the cold wind outside.

But if the joys of our town's meteorological tendencies leave you feeling cold, you can always pack up for a few days and take a vacation. With holiday bills finding their way to your front door, here's our advice for taking a vacation that's big on fun, even when you're low on cash.

The first step to getting away is getting away, and, unless you're channeling Kerouac, you're going to need to make plans for travel and lodging. A travel agent can sell you a package that meets your needs and your budget (see sidebar), but the Internet has taught peoo be their own travel agents - hunting down deals and comparing amenities like a seasoned pro.

Expedia, Inc. claims the title of the "world's leading online travel service," as well as the fourth largest travel agency in the nation. The site allows customers to search and browse for a number of vacation needs, including flights, hotels, cars, cruises and even activities. For those who don't want to bother with making multiple purchases, Expedia offers a variety of vacation packages through its Classic Custom Vacations.

One of the nice things about Orbitz is its "Customer Care Team," a group of people that, from a "command center," monitors travel conditions for customers and sends the data to the customers' electronic devices (the info is also available through a toll-free number). The site offers flights, hotels, cars, cruises and vacation packages.

Every travel agent has an intimate knowledge of something called Sabre, a reservation system that enables professionals access to information that would take consumers a lifetime to accumulate. With Travelocity, Sabre brought its reputation for travel expertise to anybody with an Internet connection. Travelocity offers flights, hotels, cars, cruises and vacation packages, but it also offers rail travel and "Last Minute Deals," travel specials that can be booked from 14 days to three hours before departure.

Priceline is different from the preceding Web sites in that buyers don't actually choose what they're getting - instead, they input their needs and the price they want to pay, and Priceline makes a purchase on their behalf and then tells the buyer the results. If choosing exact details for your hotel, airline, rental car company, vacation package, or cruise line is important, then Priceline probably isn't for you, but for the more adventurous shopper, there are deals to be had here.

The bulk of your vacation budget will be tied up in travel and lodging, but having fun on your vacation can drain your bank account quickly.

For starters, dining costs can be a killer. Instead of eating out three times a day, plan to prepare some meals in your room. Try to book a room with a kitchen or kitchenette and make a grocery run at the beginning of your trip. When you do dine out, ask at the front desk if the hotel has any coupons for local eateries.

Popular vacation destinations offer countless methods of amusement, most of which are pretty expensive. But there are ways to offset these costs. Start with what you have - are you a zoo member or a museum member? Many memberships are accepted at similar organizations nationwide. If you're going to someplace such as Orlando, consider taking one of the many timeshare tours that offer free tickets to local attractions in exchange for an hour and a half of your time.

Finally, remember that they're called "tourist traps" for a reason - be choosy with how you're spending your money. Souvenirs are fun, but set a budget for theme-park T-shirts and plastic keepsakes before you even leave.

Travel agents know a thing or two about vacations, and AAA is one of the highest regarded travel agencies in the nation. Sandra Guille, local PR coordinator for AAA, offers the following tips for travelers.

"Consider planning your vacation at least a year ahead of time - if you are thinking about taking a warm vacation during the holidays, book now for Christmas 2005. For summer/spring break vacations, mark your calendar for early to late fall to begin making arrangements."

"If you are a person with frequent flyer miles or AAA benefits, work with a travel agent in person or over the phone to take advantage of discounts or special deals, depending on your destination and time of travel. For example, January is Disney month, and there are exceptional values for families thinking about visiting Disney."

"The key to good vacation planning is flexibility. This means being flexible with departure/arrival dates and times - especially around a major holiday."

"If you are planning a vacation using the Internet, be certain to read the fine print for any restrictions, charges or fees that may be assessed. Also, look carefully for a phone number you can call should your plans change or you have trouble booking the trip online."

Wednesday, January 5, 2005 | CiN Weekly