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Holiday destinations that won't break the bank

No matter how you plan, getting home for the holidays can mean long lines, delays, cancellations and especially high prices. Travel journalist Valarie D'elia was invited on the “Today” show to share bargain travel tricks that can save you big bucks. Here are some tips.

Web sites cheapskates can't afford to missExpertflyer.com: Don't count your frequent flyer miles out just yet! This site allows passengers to see what frequent flyer awards are available up to the last minute on five different airlines, including American, Frontier, Qantas, Singapore and Air France. You are privy to what travel agents see on their reservations systems, so you don't have to worry about calling the airlines and being at the mercy of the ticket agent. With your very own eyes, watch as the inventory becomes available. Subscription fee is $4.99 per month.Sign up in mid-December and January, and you'll have first dibs on seats for holiday season 2006, because airlines generally release frequent flyer seats 11 months in advance of flights.

Airfarewatchdog.com: Where to go if you haven't booked your trip home for the holidays. This grass roots, log style site features unadvertised and secret airline sales as well as "fat-finger" fares, mistakes that airlines make that occasionally allow you to book trips for $0! The small staff of four hunts and pecks diligently around the major Internet sites to find cheap fares. If Thanksgiving was any indication, the watchdogs say Christmas and New Year flights may become available on the holiday itself, so those who hold out possibly can make out.

Bumptracker.com: Holidays are prime time for getting bumped. Passengers looking to shop the airlines to get a sense of how much airlines will pay can look at this Web site, which shows how many other passengers have been bumped off certain flights and what, if anything, they were awarded. Bumptracker is only as good as the material submitted by bumpees, but the site also offers tips and tricks and shows a history of what airlines are paying to bump people.

Freebie events in Vegas during the holidays Bellagio Hotel: The Fountains of BellagioThe largest musical fountain system in the world celebrates the holiday season with a special repertoire of holiday music. Now through early January, holiday songs including "Sleigh Ride," "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year" and "Santa Baby."

Circus Circus: Santa under the Big Top Children of all ages can greet Santa and Mrs. Claus at one of the most exciting resorts in Las Vegas — Circus Circus. Santa will be on hand to hear holiday wishes and spread Christmas cheer. Look for Santa on the promenade level next to the Adventuredome from noon to 9 pm. December 2 through 4, December 9 through 11 and December 16 through 24.

Nicaragua From a political hotbed to a tourism hot spot — this Central American destination between Costa Rica and Honduras is one of the newest and safest, yes, safest spots on the map for travelers. It's "contra" to everything you might think. The civil war between the Sandinistas and the Contra rebels ended 20 years ago, and savvy travelers know that this is THE place for history, beaches and big, big bargains. Hotels cost a third of what you would expect and meals are a steal. Hospedajes, guesthouses, can cost as little as $4.50 a night. The volcanic Pacific Coast is the area where tourists visit, including Managua and the colonial towns of Leon and Granada. The Caribbean coast is mostly off limits to travelers because of drug-running, and the northern reaches are still littered with land mines. Starting Dec. 15, there will be a new non-stop AA flight daily from Atlanta to Managua. Travelers can travel independently or take a best of Nicaragua guided tour, such as the one offered by taratours.com (8 days/7 nights, daily departures. Price is $1,987 per person, based on double occupancy. Includes airfare from Miami, guides, hotels and some meals. Call 1-800-SEE-NICA or www.visit-nicaragua.com for more information.)

Colorado Family Ski Vacations
Steamboat Springs, COYou'll have to take the kids out of school for this one because children 12 and under can fly free to Steamboat Springs, CO, and stay free at a Steamboat hotel when parents book a United Vacations, American Airlines or Northwest air-and-hotel package. One child flies free per paying adult, and kids stay free in their parents' room; certain packages include free skiing as well. This offer is good for travel from now through December 23 on United and again after the holidays through Feb. 16 when AA and Northwest join United in the promotion. Sample rates for adults, including round-trip airfare from Chicago on United, three-nights' accommodations, and a two-day lift ticket, are:

  • $514 per adult at the Holiday Inn Steamboat Springs
  • $594 per adult at the Sheraton Steamboat Resort & Conference Center
  • $599 per adult at the Lodge at Steamboat

Available now through Dec. 23rd and again Jan. 2 through Feb. 16. For more info on the Kids Fly Free packages, visit steamboat.com.

Crested Butte, CO
Crested Butte, Colorado also joins the "Kids Fly Free" bandwagon after the New Year with American Airlines into Gunnison Airport. Prices for the "Kids Fly Free" packages are based on two adults and two children being part of the travel party and don't include tax. For midweek flights only and subject to availability. Packages start at $899 per adult and $103 per child, 12 and under, and include four nights' lodging in a two-bedroom condo, three days of lift tickets, airfare from the lower 48, and roundtrip transfers from the Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport.
Call the Gunnison-Crested Butte Tourism Association's official reservation center at (800) 814-8893 or GunnisonCrestedButte.com.

Kú, Anguilla The same team that guides nearby Cap Juluca, the "Today" show's destination wedding location last year, has now introduced Kú, a lower budget sister. This place had the same cachet but with white sandy beaches for less. There are 27 beachfront suites, situated on Shoal Bay East, on the northeast coast of Anguilla, which is eight miles from St. Martin. Lowest daily rate is $295 for an ocean/garden view suite. Kids under 7 are free when staying in the same room as the folks. Kú also offers packages for the New Year, available Jan. 3 through March 31. Rates for the seven-nightLove at Kú range from $2,270 to $3,850, and from $1,205 to $2,110 for the four-nightEscape to Kú, depending on time of year and type of accommodation.

Love at Kú includes accommodation for two, Continental breakfast daily and four dinners for two (drinks not included), a bottle of wine on arrival, a one-hour massage for two, sunset cruise, one-day car rental, welcome rum beverage, accommodation tax, service charge and arrival and departure taxi transfers. Package rates per couple range from $3,180 to $3,850, Jan. 3 through March 31 and from $2,270 to $2,540, April 1 through Dec. 14, 2006, depending on type of accommodation.

For a short getaway,Escape to Kú includes double accommodation, two dinners for two (drinks not included), a bottle of wine on arrival, sunset cruise, welcome rum beverage, accommodation tax, service charge and arrival and departure taxi transfers. From Jan. 3 through March 31, per couple package rates range from $1,725 to $2,110 and from April 1 through Dec. 14, 2006, $1,205 to $1,360, depending on accommodation. A maximum of two children under the age of 7 are free when staying in the same suite as their parents. Older children are $170 each and adults $410 or $505, depending on the season.

Air-conditioned suites feature an oceanfront or ocean view balcony, dining and living room with pullout couch in most suites, full kitchen, bedroom and bathroom. White and pale aqua walls and white tile floors form an understated backdrop for white furnishings and fabrics. All suites have a television, radio, DVD/CD player, ceiling fans and safe.

For reservations and more information, call Kú, 1-800-869-5827 or 1-264-497-2011; e-mail ku@anguillanet.com or, visit the Web site, KuAnguilla.com.

Cheapskate tools and trends Holiday Home Exchanges You can look for a job or post a toaster, a baby gate, furniture — just about anything is for sale on craigslist.com, the umbrella name for 190 community classifieds sites now available in all 50 U.S. states, and 35 countries. A very popular and growing listing is housing swaps, where people advertise their very own homes, looking to exchange them for vacation homes all over the world. Best of all, you post it for free, unlike homelink.com or intervac.com which charge a listing fee. One caveat, make sure that your homeowners’ insurance will cover you for a mishap in your home. Also, be sure to investigate the integrity of those you are swapping with. Another site, rentalo.com, is a search engine for rental properties worldwide and hooks up travelers directly with home or villa owner.

Cruising at the last minute Cruise lines don't like to publicize it, but some, such as Carnival, allow you to show up at the pier with your luggage and ID and get on a cruise for cheap. There are many homeports located around the perimeter of the country, meaning passengers are just a drive away from a Caribbean cruise this holiday season. This can be risky because there are no guarantees, but it's worth it if you can be flexible. Sometimes you are better off just calling the cruise line a day ahead to see what last-minute discounts are being offered.

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