End-of-year tune-up tips for savvy travelers

 Passengers walk to their departure gates in LaGuardia Airport as they travel on the day before Thanksgiving on November 21, 2012 in New York, United States.
Joe Raedle / Today

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By Harriet Baskas

Even the savviest traveler can use a few new tricks each year, whether on the road for business or leisure.

Flying frugally
Before the end of the year, take inventory of your frequent flier miles. Claim credit for any missing miles and decide if you can top off—with an extra flight, hotel stay or mile-generating purchase—accounts where you are close to getting elite status perks for the following year.

When shopping for new flight reservations, sign up for fare alerts, enlist helpers such as Kayak's price forecasting tool and remember the "24-hour reservation requirement" put into effect in January 2012 by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The rule requires carriers to hold a flight reservation for 24 hours without payment, or allow a reservation to be canceled within 24 hours without penalty if the reservation is made one week or more ahead of the flight's departure date.

"If you see an airfare you're comfortable with, book it," said Kayak spokeswoman Maria Katime. You can continue your research and, if you find something better, go back and cancel.

Reasonable rental cars
When it comes to cars, reserve once you know your dates and have done some shopping, but recheck prices closer to the time of travel. "Prices can drop last-minute, depending on the actual availability of cars versus what the companies anticipate," said travel expert Carol Pucci, who saved more than $100 with this method on the Big Island of Hawaii. Just make sure you don't pre-pay, she said.

To make sure a rental car company doesn't charge you for scrapes, scratches or dings already on the car you're issued, "take pictures of the car before you drive it away and when you return it," said Joe Brancatelli, publisher of the business travel website Joe Sent Me.

"Rental firms are getting extremely aggressive about these charges and since the cars in the fleet are older these days than they used to be, there's more of a chance you'll be given a car with a ding and/or scratches," he said.

Honing in on hotel deals
Sign up for the frequent stay program of any hotel you visit to take advantage of free perks that can include complimentary breakfast, free Wi-Fi and welcome amenities such as cheese plates and bottles of wine for even the first-time guest.

Research room rates and hotel property reviews online, but as a final step, call the hotel you've chosen. "Once I narrow down my hotel choice, I call the hotel to see if they have any better offers then what I see online," said Rob Connors, assistant vice president of marketing for National Car Rental. "Your membership in a club or association might get you an added discount, and many times hotels offer special rates for suppliers calling on nearby companies."

Boarding the bus
"Bus travelers typically save 50 to 55 percent versus the train and 55 to 73 percent versus flying," said Joe Schwieterman, a professor at DePaul University in Chicago who studies transportation.

"The 'sweet spot' for bus travel involves trips between 125 and 300 miles. Driving can be tedious, but air travel is often not cost effective," he said.

And for the best deals, you book 30-45 days in advance, said Megabus spokesman Mike Alvich.

Smarter destination choices
You may not have much choice where business trips take you, but you can save money on leisure trips and avoid crowds by heading for South Africa, Shanghai, Uruguay, Portugal or some of the other "best-value" destinations on Lonely Planet's Best Travel 2015 list. 

Choosing "almost-as-good" alternatives to classic experiences in more expensive cities can also save cash.

"European cities are stuffed full of amazing historic buildings and churches that can be seen and explored for free without the crowds of big-name things," said Lonely Planet's editorial director, Tom Hall. "Gorilla trekking might be an unforgettable experience in East Africa, but looking out for chimpanzees and smaller primates can be much more fun and is certainly easier on the wallet."

—Harriet Baskas is the author of seven books, including "Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can't or Won't Show You," and the Stuck at the Airport blog. Follow her on Twitter at @hbaskasFollow Road Warrior at @CNBCtravel.