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Holiday travel: Plan now for the best deal

Whether you're catching the red-eye to see mom and dad, taking the kids to the in-laws or just want to travel over the holiday, you'll get the best deal if you plan now.

"It's still better to book a trip 21 days in advance, so now is the time to make plans," says Doug Stallings, an editor at Fodor's.

To get the best deal on your air fare, it's important to shop around. The Internet makes it easy. Check for online specials from individual airlines, and then visit sites such as Travelocity, Expedia, Orbitz, Bestfares and Smarterliving.

"You can probably do that in half an hour," says Charles McCool, author of Winning the Airfare Game. "You don't have to go crazy."

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Riding rails to relaxation
If you're not in a hurry, why not travel by train? The whole family gets to relax, including the often stressed-out designated driver. And it's tough to top the view.

"You go to sleep looking at fields and you wake up looking at mountains," says Don George, travel editor for Lonely Planet Publications.

And it's a view of America that you can't get from a passenger plane.

"Trains get you places that planes can't get you to," George says. "You can get into little towns in the heart of the country that planes can't get you to. When you fly over and look down you don't really get a good sense of how big and diverse this country is."

The Internet can help you research and plan a getaway by rail. Trainweb is a Web site with rail travel advice and vacation information.

But it's tough to land a super-low fare.

"There's no equivalent of consolidator air fares in the train industry," George says. "It's really hard to find really great deals, but it's worth investigating a couple of choices."

As with air fares, some of the best deals on rail travel can be purchased online. Amtrak offers discounted tickets on a first-come, first-serve basis to online customers. You may also want to check out train fares available through a local travel agent.

Places to go -- other than home
If you won't be visiting relatives, you can still take advantage of low fares and the holiday break.

"Budapest has a lovely Christmas market. Places like Prague and Budapest, which are very expensive during the summer travel season, are very inexpensive during the winter," says Stallings. "Generally, during the winter it's cheaper to travel to places where it's cold -- or at least not warm -- so think north."

Stallings says to get the best hotel deal, plan the timing of your stay according to the type of place you visit.

"Hotels in cities are usually cheaper on the weekends when business travelers aren't staying there, but hotels in resort areas or other places that are popular with leisure travelers are often cheaper during the week," says Stallings.

The same Web sites used for searching flights can help you find the best hotel deals.

Really cheap travel
Even if you're on a skimpy budget, you could still afford to get away. Stallings says to cut costs, plan a vacation close to home.

"There's almost always something interesting to see in your own backyard," Stallings says. "Explore the sites you might not normally visit, like a local museum or holiday festival. Think about places that are within 100 to 200 miles from home, where you can drive in a few hours. Look at the Web site for cities' convention and visitors bureaus. They often highlight local specials you might not read about in your own paper."

Make traveling fun
"The most important thing is to relax," says Stallings. "If you become tense and angry at all the difficulties you might face during a holiday flight, you'll bring out the bad side of everyone."

So to make the most of your holiday travel, keep yourself entertained. Travel with a book or magazine. Bring headphones and listen to music.

"I always recommend people bring something to distract and divert them while standing in line," George says. "You're going to have a long wait."

Stallings also recommends packing a snack.

"Most airlines won't be serving any type of meal on most flights and airport food is often bad and usually horribly overpriced," says Stallings.

For a checklist on smooth holiday travel, check out these holiday travel tips.

-- Updated: Nov. 6, 2003

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