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plane-webRISMEDIA, May 5, 2009-(MCT)-Shop. Shop. Shop. Compare. Compare. Compare. During this seemingly endless recession, it will take time and effort to find the best ways to stretch your travel dollars.

Burdened with worries about job security, depleted retirement funds and a stream of bills, we all need a respite. Whether it’s a weekend getaway or a longer trip, there are ways to make your escape more cost-effective. For instance, you don’t have to travel a thousand miles to have a good time. Consider off-season travel, use discount coupons, and, if you live in a desirable location, think about home-swapping.

More tips and strategies come from experts at AAA, Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, Travel Leaders (formerly Carlson Wagonlit Travel, a nationwide network) and others. For starters, you need to focus on what you want to get out of your trip.

Hotels
It may feel awkward, but you can haggle for a better room rate. Consumer advocates say you can negotiate lower prices for just about anything these days. It’s not that America has become a vast bazaar during the recession, but empty hotel rooms don’t generate income. Some hotels offer one free night if you stay for two or three, but you might save more money by getting a flat 10% or 15% discount on your stay. Again, do the math. Use AAA, AARP or any other discount cards you have to secure the best possible rate. Before you book, also check discounted rates offered by sites such as hotels.com and quickbook.com.

Car rentals
As with hotels, negotiate the best rental rate you can. Ask about special deals. Remember that airport auto rental locations are convenient, but taxes and fees are higher there than at non-airport locations. See if your auto insurance covers rental vehicles. You can save a bundle by not taking the car rental company’s collision damage waiver. Also waive the prepaid gas option, but return the car with a full tank.

Tax-deductible vacations
Volunteer vacations offered by Earthwatch and Habitat for Humanity attract thousands of people who not only want to work on scientific projects or build homes but write off the trip on their taxes.

Be careful though. IRS Publication 526 states that you may claim a deduction only if there is no “significant element of personal pleasure, recreation or vacation in the travel.” Earthwatch advises that under certain circumstances, volunteers can deduct reasonable out-of-pocket expenses, including some costs for transportation to and from the research site.

The word of caution is: “As with all tax matters, consult your personal tax adviser on all issues concerning tax deductibility.”

If no vacation option works for you, consider a staycation. Stay home or find a deal in a local hotel and take advantage of nearby museums, parks, zoos, attractions and neighborhoods that you and the family don’t have time to do throughout the year. State and local tourist offices generally have discount coupons that can save you money.

If you fly
Check as many Internet sources as you can for the best airfares. Aggregators typically will root out the best fares, then lead you to booking at sites such as expedia.com, orbitz.com, priceline.com and travelocity.com. Be sure to check the airline’s website as well to see if you can score an even better Web special.

Consider a consolidator such as Chicago-based cheaptickets.com or 1800flyeurope.com. Consolidators buy blocks of tickets, sometimes offering substantial discounts, but you probably won’t be able to change your arrangements, so be sure before you buy.

Be flexible in your travel dates and times. Often the best fares are available two to four weeks before departure, but there’s no sure-fire formula. Air fare can be dramatically cheaper during the week, so try to avoid flying on the weekends.

Look into combining air, hotel and rental-car needs to see what kind of savings you can garner as well. Expedia, Orbitz, Priceline and Travelocity can save you hundreds of dollars if you book the components together because of the discounts they receive from suppliers.

If you cruise
Although you might find a cruise advertised for as low as $58 a person a day, remember that you’ll be socked with additional charges. Yes, the rate includes your meals (except in specialty restaurants) and entertainment, but you’re paying for an inside cabin. Extras include port charges, drinks, shore excursions, shopping, gaming, tipping – and airfare, if it’s not included in the cruise package.

This is where shopping, comparing and questioning come in. You’ve got to know precisely what you’re buying before you plunk down a credit card. You don’t want post-cruise surprises.

An alternative to a cruise: an all-inclusive beach resort package that includes air, accommodations, meals and other goodies. As with cruises, it pays to deal with a knowledgeable travel agent who can do comparisons and walk you through the monetary minefield.

If you drive
Traditionally, about 80% of Americans use the family car for vacation, the least expensive way to go. With gasoline prices hovering around $2 a gallon, the car is a viable option and gives you enormous flexibility. Pick destinations within easy driving distance – less expensive small towns and cities, nearby resorts and attractions. Choose accommodations that offer free breakfasts. Prepare picnic lunches and save the bigger bucks for dinner. Find restaurants where kids eat free or fix your own food if you opt to stay in an all-suites property that has mini-kitchens. Consider renting a cottage and research your route at aaamaps.com to avoid getting lost.

© 2009, Chicago Tribune.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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