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4 tips for surviving holiday travel

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Posted: Thursday, November 21, 2013 11:09 am | Updated: 5:37 pm, Fri Nov 22, 2013.

The Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays are a time when many people travel to visit family or take a vacation while kids are out of school, and many employers slow down for the holidays. As a result, the holidays have become notorious for travel delays, crowds and peak pricing.

Whether you are planning a trip to Grandma's house or getting away from it all, here are tips to help make holiday travel easier and less expensive this year.

1. Use the right site

Travelers have many online resources to choose from when planning holiday travel. Kayak.com collects rates on hotels, flights and cars from hundreds of sites and allows you to compare side-by-side with other popular travel sites. Airfarewatchdog.com will help you find deals on air flights. Yapta.com can get you get a refund if the cost of your flight goes down after you book.

2. Avoid peak dates

Thanksgiving weekend and the week between Christmas and New Year's Day are the busiest — and most expensive — times to fly just about anywhere. This is peak season for popular destinations such as Florida, Hawaii, New York City and Disney parks. If your schedule is flexible, save money and skip the crowds by scheduling your trip for the first three weeks of December or the last three weeks of January.

The cost savings can be significant. For example:

According to expedia.com, the average price of a Las Vegas hotel Dec. 1-4 is $76 per night. The average price Dec. 29 - Jan. 1 is $260 per night. A seven-night Western Caribbean cruise departing Dec. 1 starts at $279 per person, while the base price for the same cruise leaving Dec. 29 is $749. Rates are lower and crowds are lighter for travelers who are willing to book flights on Thanksgiving Day or on Christmas Day. Rates can vary from city to city throughout the season. When searching for flights, check rates for alternate airports and search for one-way rates instead of round-trip to see day-to-day differences.

3. It's always the off-season somewhere

If work or school schedules require that you schedule your winter vacation during peak times, consider a less popular destination. Many major national parks are open year-round, and their beauty is enhanced by winter weather. Consider a snowmobile tour in Yellowstone, a ranger-led snowshoe hike in Bryce Canyon or soak up the sun in Arches, where winter weather is often mild and hotel rates are low.

The week between Christmas and the New Year may also be a good time to go to the theater and visit museums in a big city like San Francisco or Washington, D.C. — or even downtown Salt Lake City, which will have open rooms due to the downturn in business travel that week.

4. Make a backup plan

Winter weather can be unpredictable. Whether you are driving or flying to your holiday destination, keep your options open when the snowflakes fly. If driving, leave early for your destination and adjust speed for changing road conditions. Pack coats, blankets and emergency supplies in your car in case you become stranded. Postpone your drive when the weather is treacherous. Arriving late, but safe, is better than not arriving at all.

If your flight is cancelled, Wendy Perrin of Conde Nast Traveler offers several tips for stranded travelers. They include:

When booking, avoid connecting through cold-weather hubs. If your airline's phone lines are jammed, use Skype to call one of its international reservation offices. Don't rely on an agent to find your best options. Use flightstats.com to look up alternate flights and alternate destinations before you call. Consider joining the airline's club for the day. You'll escape the terminal and may find an agent who is able to give you better service. If weather prevents you from getting to your destination, consider taking a flight to a warmer destination with clear weather, even if it is not exactly on the way. From there, you may be able to get a flight to your final destination more quickly. The holidays are a happy time when families come together and special memories are made. If you plan your travel well, and keep Plan B in your back pocket for when things go wrong, the holiday season really can be the most wonderful time of the year.

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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