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Ho-ho-holiday tips from family travel experts

If your family is heading anywhere this holiday season, one thing you can count on is that you’ll have many traveling companions. If the last six weeks of 2007 are anything like we’ve seen in the past few years, we can look forward to packed flights, security pile-ups, airport congestion, take-off and landing delays, and steep prices.
/ Source: Wejustgotback.com

If your family is heading anywhere this holiday season, one thing you can count on is that you’ll have many traveling companions. If the last six weeks of 2007 are anything like we’ve seen in the past few years, we can look forward to packed flights, security pile-ups, airport congestion, take-off and landing delays, and steep prices. The good news is that there’s a lot you can do to minimize the downsides of traveling during the busiest season. Here’s some excellent advice for those of us without flying reindeer.

Book now. Peak season isn’t the time to hold out for a sweet last-minute deal. “I never recommend that a family wait because they could be shut out of the best hotels and non-stop flights,” says Lauren Goldenberg, owner of , a travel agency specializing in family vacations. “There are no amazing airfare deals during the busiest travel weeks of the year. People need to look instead for good overall value and be open to the places that offer the best combination of air, hotel, recreation, and so on.”

Be flexible with dates. “When families want to save money,” says Goldenberg, “we encourage them to leave a day or two before or after a school break and that can often help bring down costs.” This suggestion is backed up by the online travel seller Priceline.com, which has created a nifty holiday calendar highlighting the by factoring in historical data on airfares and passenger loads. Indeed, moving your travel dates one or two days forward or back can make a big difference on both price and comfort. Unsurprisingly, the weekends before and after Thanksgiving and Christmas promise the double whammy of crowded planes and high prices. Conversely, if you’re willing to travel on a holiday itself—Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day—you might snag an emptier flight at a better price.

Play dead. In the travel industry, a week immediately following a holiday period—such as right after Thanksgiving or right after New Year’s—is known as a “dead week.” If your dates are flexible and you can time your vacation to coincide with a dead week, “you can save big money,” says Rebekah Mahnken, President and CEO of , an authorized Disney vacation planner. Mahnken points out that Disney has a deal on the table right now that can save a family hundreds of dollars. When you book a stay at Walt Disney World between January 1 and March 15, 2008, you can snag free upgrades on your park tickets, including the Park Hopper and Water Park Fun & More options.

Find a shoulder. Think of it as Travel Physics 101: For every destination that’s in high season, there’s another place in low season. A popular money-saving trick is to simply target off-season destinations. For an affordable Thanksgiving getaway, says Goldenberg, “consider the tropics, where it’s shoulder season. And cruises continue to be an excellent value overall.” You might also take advantage of one of the many early-bird ski deals available right now.

Fly early and non-stop. Airport delays tend to pile up as the day wears on, creating afternoon logjams. Opting for an early-morning and, preferably, non-stop flight is your best defense against getting stuck in airport hell.

Buy insurance. During busy travel periods, there’s a greater risk that something will go wrong. Lost luggage or a cancelled flight is far less aggravating when you know that you’ll be recompensated. Travel insurance is relatively cheap and easy to buy online. We like , whose handy comparison grid makes it easy to evaluate policies from dozens of providers.

Use a travel agent. Think of your travel agent like a trusted concierge—someone who knows the industry and can make first-hand recommendations and offer time- and money-saving tips. Hunting down the lowest airfare during a peak flying season can be incredibly frustrating and time-consuming. A good agent will not only do the legwork for you, she’ll also do the follow-up. Says Goldenberg, “As agents, we recheck airfares and can often get our clients vouchers for future travel if the fares come down.” Adds Mahnken, “Many agents will even proactively apply discounts that come out after you book, so you are essentially price protected. The key is to ask questions about services and costs upfront.”