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15 Hot Tips for Last Minute Family Holiday Vacation Planning

By Nancy Schretter, Editor

If you're just beginning to think about making your family's holiday vacation plans, you aren't alone. According to researchers, more Americans than ever are waiting to make their holiday vacation plans this year. In today's economic climate everyone is looking for ways to make holiday family vacations affordable, so it's no wonder that parents are up late searching the Internet for reasonably priced family vacation options.

If you're looking for holiday travel deals and ways to make your family's holiday vacation as hassle-free as possible, here are fifteen tips for saving time and money on your next family trip.

1. Know your budget - and how far you're willing to stretch it for a great last minute deal. If you find a great resort vacation option that is a bit out of your reach, consider staying for a shorter period rather than opting for a sub-optimal spot. Also, being flexible and willing to try something new or different can result in a good value during the holidays. In addition to the usual warm weather beach destinations and ski trips, consider money saving options such as city-based sightseeing trips (such as San Diego or Washington, D.C.), resorts with indoor pools and waterparks within a reasonable driving distance, destinations that are somewhat off-season (such as Jacksonville, Florida) or a stay at a family-oriented bed & breakfast.

2. Sit down with your family and determine your preferences. The best family vacations aren't necessarily the most expensive ones. They usually are trips that revolve around family interests or vacations where everyone gets to do at least one thing they really want to do. When you have your family meeting, outline a few general options that fit your budget and might be fun (i.e. "We could go skiing at a resort a few hours away, or we could go on a 3-night family cruise, or we could go to a resort where there would be lots of sports, activities, and a great indoor swimming pool.") In addition, think carefully about your resort preferences, such as the need for children's and teens programs, golf courses, elaborate pools and waterparks, and other types of amenities. We've found this to be extremely helpful in putting together a trip with elements everyone can enjoy. Be prepared to discuss budgets, expectations, preferences and how you can work with the dollars available to plan a memorable holiday family vacation.

3. Let family members do some of the research. Kids are often Internet research gurus, and they certainly want to have a great time on their next vacation. If your kids are old enough, write down the results from your family meeting and get their research help. Make sure to give them general budget information, possible trip dates, destination ideas, important criteria for your vacation destination (such as a great beach or average daytime high temperatures), and any other information that might be helpful. Once you find some potential holiday vacation options, check out sites like TripAdvisor.com, WheretoStay.com, VibeAgent.com, CruiseCritic.com and CruiseMates.com for "been there - done that" reviews. If reasonable airfares are impossible to find, consider driving to a location within 6-7 hours of home. This Family Travel Network article provides additional tips and sources for holiday travel savings.

4. Enlist help. If you are the independent type who likes to pull together your entire vacation on your own, call some airfare consolidators who may be able to help you find a good deal. If you don't want to do your own legwork, contact a great travel agent, ski tour operator, or cruise-only specialist. These professionals are particularly important when you're looking for a package deal or need to pull together airfares and lodging at the last minute. In addition, they're often aware of deals that are not available to the general public. Instead of picking up the phone and saying, "I want to go somewhere for the holidays," tell them about your budget and the preferences you came up with at your family meeting. That will help the agent locate the options that best meet your needs. Holiday travel space moves fast, so have a clear idea of what you're looking for and your budget in order to be able to make decisions quickly when some great deals are uncovered.

5. Search the Internet for savings. Online websites are full of deals, so make sure to shop around. Take a look at sites such as: www.travelzoo.com, www.skyauction.com, www.priceline.com, www.vacationstogo.com, www.cruises.com, www.cruise-compete.com, www.lastminute.com, www.frommers.com and www.resortvacationstogo.com -- all of which can help locate possible last-minute holiday vacation options. In addition, take a look at some of the major tour operator sites such as www.CheapCaribbean.com, www.Funjet.com, www.Ski.com, and major airline vacation sites such as www.aavacations.com, www.unitedvacations.com, and others. The bulk air rates and special deals that these operators can provide may make a major difference. In addition, look for special vacation package promotions on Travelocity, Expedia and Orbitz. Some of these can result in savings of several hundred dollars. Make sure to check that all applicable taxes have been added to the price when comparing costs from various vendors -- some sites do not add them until the screen before final booking. This The Family Travel Network article on getting the most out of your family travel budget can also help you find additional resources and tactics for saving money, such as travel auction bidding strategies and club programs.

6. Learn to play the airfare game. Airlines typically have sales a few weeks before holidays and often offer deep discounts on remaining seats. If you opt for this holiday travel strategy, you will likely end up with a very short stay and flights with less than optimal connections. If there is a fare war, those discounts are often blacked-out during holiday periods and require a Saturday night stay. You could try to work around those. The major sites such as Travelocity.com, Expedia and Orbitz are other good bets. Here's a tip: use Travelocity's Low Fare Finder by marking "my dates are flexible" and then search for flights and fares. It's a great way to find the best price between two city pairs if you don't have firm travel dates. Sites like Kayak.com and SideStep.com can also be helpful. In addition, make sure to check the websites of some of the low-cost airlines such as Southwest, Jet Blue, Spirit, AirTran and others. They may have some reasonably priced options available for you and often these fares do not show up on the popular Internet booking sites. In addition, consider driving to an alternative airport -- especially if it is served by a low-fare airline. A one-hour drive can often deliver savings of several hundred dollars per ticket, making your dream holiday family vacation suddenly affordable.

7. Reserve your rental car as far in advance as possible - and be careful about which rental car company you choose. Several years ago, I booked a last-minute holiday family vacation to the Keys when the airlines offered their deep discounts on selected flights. We got tickets to Ft. Lauderdale - lucked out and got 3 nights of accommodations at a Key West resort - but the rental car was a problem. We finally were able to make a reservation through one of the off-airport chains. When we arrived that morning, however, we saw over 50 people waiting in front of the check-in counters ... and no cars. We waited in line for over 4 hours, with more and more people arriving by the minute. Many of these people were on packages and had prepaid vouchers for their cars. While we were finally able to rent a car through another agency, the people with prepaid vouchers had to endure agonizingly long waits for cars to become available. As a result of this lesson, I learned that rental car reservations should be made before airline tickets are purchased to avoid being stranded. Sites such as Hotwire.com can generally deliver excellent savings, but pickings may be slim during the holidays.

8. Don't give up if the resort or destination of your choice doesn't have space. Think creatively. Call the Visitor's Bureau or the Chamber of Commerce for names of rental agents in the area and check online as well. Perhaps some condominiums that might be available through local rental groups. ResortQuest.com is a one-stop shop with condominium rental agencies in a wide variety of vacation destinations across the United States. Wimco is an excellent choice for villa and vacation home rentals in Europe and the Caribbean. Others can easily be found by typing the name of your destination and "vacation rental" into your favorite search engine. Also, consider such destinations as Salt Lake City, where a large number of downtown hotels are located within reasonable driving distance to the slopes. Some of these city-hotels have low occupancy levels during the holidays and may be offering some great deals. Check out the Salt Lake City Visitors Bureau website (www.visitsaltlake.com) for more details.

9. Consider renting directly from an owner. If you're finding that everything is either sold out or out of your price range, don't give up. Go directly to the owner instead. Many highly desirable resort communities contain condominiums, villas, and vacation homes that are rented by their owners. Rates for these properties can be up to 40-50% less than those charged by nearby hotels. In fact, some Marriott and Westin resorts contain timeshare properties that may often be rented directly from the owners for the holidays. The Vacation Rentals By Owner website contains 110,000 listings of properties across the country and around the world, and HomeAway.com is another excellent site with over 118,000 listings worldwide. If your dream rental is still out of your price range, consider bringing along some friends and splitting the cost. Taking your vacation with another family with children around the same age as your own provides built-in playmates for your kids, as well as additional hands to help with the cooking and chores.

10. Be persistent. If your first choices are filled, request to be put on the waiting list. If they don't maintain a waiting list, ask if there is a certain time period when final deposits are due. Many resorts require final payments 30-45 days in advance of arrival, and some cancellations are likely to occur around those time periods. These are particularly good times to call if you are planning a short two- to four-night getaway which may not meet the resort's minimum stay requirements. As the holidays get closer, resorts will be seeking to fill occupancy gaps and may relax their minimum stay requirements.

11. If you're going to a popular resort for the holidays, make your dinner and activity reservations as far in advance as possible. Many large resorts, such as The Greenbrier in West Virginia and The Homestead in Virginia, accept dinner and activity reservations at the time of booking. If you want one of the prime family dining slots between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m., reserve it early. Likewise, if you have your heart set on any special activities, such as children's programs, carriage rides, spa appointments or tee times, book these in advance as well. The same early booking advice applies to holiday cruises. Complete your check-in online if possible, and make shore excursion reservations in advance to avoid delays and disappointments.

12. The holidays are one of the most crowded times for ski resorts, so plan accordingly. Purchase your lift tickets in advance (at least that's one line you'll get to skip), and try to plan your days' ski times and meal times to avoid the crowds. Many hotels and condominiums have concierge services who can help guests make reservations. Use their help, and make sure to call for the resort's vacation planning guide or other materials before you come. Many resorts offer concierge services and vacation guides on their websites as well, along with schedules of events and activities. If not, call the concierge or guest services to see what help they can provide. Call the resort in advance to inquire about child care, ski school programs, and equipment rentals. Advance planning and booking will make your holiday a much more enjoyable one.

13. If you're staying in a condominium, buy your groceries before you get to the resort. Supermarkets located slopeside or at major resort destinations often charge considerably higher prices than stores several miles out of town. You'll save money both by cooking your own meals and by purchasing your groceries in advance.

14. Search for special packages and compare costs. Some resorts offer family packages, "kids eat free" specials, or other offers during the holidays, so make sure to take a look at resort and hotel chain websites to find these deals. For holiday ski trips, try to choose a resort offering "kids ski free" programs. At some areas, two kids as old as twelve ski free with a paying adult, while at others, children 5-6 years of age ski free with paying adults. Sites such as Ski.com are a good source of information on ski deals.

15. If low-cost airfares aren't available, consider family-friendly resorts, B&Bs, and ski destinations within driving distance. In years past, local family-friendly resorts and other vacation options close to home were most likely to still have last-minute availability. This may be different this year due to high airfares and gas prices, but last-minute cancellations can happen. If the resort of your choice is full, try to be flexible with your dates, put your name on the cancellation list, look for condominiums or bed & breakfast options in the area on sites such as www.bedandbreakfast.com, and scour the direct-to-owner websites for possibilities. In addition to resorts and ski destinations, consider visiting a big city or town that may be offering holiday festivals, events, or activities such as First Night. Visit Festivals.com to locate holiday celebrations and First Night festivities in your area.

For additional money-saving holiday vacation planning tips, make sure to read this article on The Family Travel Network.

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