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Want great travel deals? Join the clubs

Driving down the freeways of America or jetting off to Rome may give you a taste of freedom, but the hotel and restaurant prices of dream vacations can make you feel like you're headed to debtor's prison.

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The good news is that price relief can be as easy as a club membership. A slim plastic card from a travel club can get you hefty hotel discounts, free second-night stays, reduced restaurant bills and cheaper museum admissions. If you plan carefully, and travel for more than a day or two a year, you can easily shave 20 percent to 50 percent off your annual travel costs.

Pearl Kagan of Highland Park, Ill., expected to save between $2,000 and $3,000 on her family's vacation through a club membership.

"When we booked our Hawaii trip for last winter at the Maui Hyatt, I found a AAA rate on the hotel's Web site that was over $100 cheaper per room per night," says Kagan. "So we joined AAA to get the room rate."

The membership easily paid for itself.

"Our membership was $53 for a primary membership," Kagan says. "The hotel told us that we only needed one membership for all of the rooms. We're staying for 10 nights and we have at least two rooms -- maybe three. So that $53 saved us a huge amount of money."

Different clubs for different folks
The key, though, is to match your travel style to your club choice. Motel discounts won't help if you like five-star luxury hotels. You can find a club with discounts for bed-and-breakfasts, family-style motels, bicycle riders, eco-friendly travelers, students, seniors and big-city theatergoers.

Another consideration is how often you travel. If you're looking at five days or more annually away from home, a travel club will usually make sense for you. On the other hand, if you stand to save $100 on one night at a hotel with an AARP membership that costs $12.50, that's clearly a steal. Sometimes, the best deal for you will be a general club, like AARP, that throws in travel perks.

How you prefer to get where you're going can help you pick the right club. If you fly, check out the club's air fare discounts. If you drive, you may want a club with a 24-hour customer service line that can find you a hotel near any highway exit in America within a few minutes.

The Encore Discount Travel Club offers an 800 number that you can call to get a discounted room for that night -- perfect for cross-country drivers. For $59.95 a year, you get up to 50 percent off 5,000 hotels around the country, along with a second-night-free program. Discounts at motels like Comfort Inn are usually 30 percent, and Best Westerns grant a 10 percent to 20 percent reduction to Encore members. You'll also get airline savings, rental-car breaks and travel insurance. Sometimes, the club gives new members vouchers for one or two free hotel nights, too.

 
 
Next: "Any school affiliation can save you wads of cash"
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