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Great Escapes (on the Cheap)

Before you nix that family trip, go on a little fact-finding tour. There are deals to be had -- the secret is knowing where to look.

By Laura Manske

Find the Lowest Fares

There are so many travel Web sites it can be hard to know where to start your search. But each one has different strengths, so focus on the features that are most relevant to your family's vacation needs.

Airfare Watchdogs

Farecompare.com sends e-mail alerts a few hours before price reductions are loaded onto the airlines' reservations systems. Choose when you want to be notified -- for example, if a fare goes below a certain amount. The site also has pop-up charts showing you when travel is cheapest on a specific route. Travelocity.com keeps tabs on airfares with FareWatcher Plus: Select up to 10 destinations and get an e-mail when prices drop. And Yapta.com (Your Amazing Personal Travel Assistant) tracks prices -- and notifies you if the ticket you've already purchased falls in price. The site explains how to contact the airline for a refund -- and may make the request for you. Even if you have to pay a penalty, it could save you money.

See for Free

Many convention and visitors bureaus arrange "greeter" tours: Friendly residents guide visitors around the hometown they love. You pay only for the greeter's transportation costs (gas or subway) during the show-and-tell. Contact the local bureau prior to your arrival.

Flexibility Will Get You Far

Priceline.com and Hotwire.com dig up lower fares -- for air, car, and even four-star hotels -- but they don't reveal the lodging's identity, specific airline, or exact route (which can include stopovers) until you've booked. While that may be too many unknowns for some people, Hotwire has two useful spin-off features that savvy travelers love: Trip Starter, which pinpoints the best times to travel to your destination, and Travel Value Index, a list of the worthiest spots based on low rates, discounts, affordability, and range of activities.

Hotels: Get with the Program

Accommodations are the most significant place to save travel dollars. While airlines will eliminate flights to cut costs, hotels will do almost anything to fill rooms. National hotel chains may be your best bet for good deals, so check their Web sites for promotions -- and always ask about added value, like free breakfast, parking, or WiFi. And sign up for no-cost loyalty clubs to receive complimentary room upgrades -- even if you don't plan to revisit the chain anytime soon.

Time Travel

More Travel Tips

Beware of hidden fees. Expect to pay extra for oversize or heavy luggage (50-plus pounds), and more than one checked bag (some airlines even make you pay for your first checked bag). Other amenities that used to be free -- food, soda, juice, and even water; aisle and bulkhead seats; supervision for children flying unaccompanied by an adult; and pet carriage -- can quickly add up. To see how much flying will cost you, go to kayak.com/airline-fees.

Car Rental Caution

Airport-based counters may charge up to 10 percent more than city outlets. So if your hotel provides shuttle service from the airport, take it -- and rent the vehicle in town. Also compare daily versus weekly rates. While it seems counterintuitive, it may actually cost less to book a car for a full week rather than the four days you need it (then return the car early). Don't forget to ask your hotel if it charges a daily parking fee.

Take the A Train: Amtrak

Riding Amtrak can often be cheaper than flying, especially for those traveling along the East Coast. The Amtrak Adirondack heads from New York City to Montreal, starting at $62 per adult (kids, 2 to 15, travel for about half the price of an adult) and $186 for a family of four one way, versus an average airfare of $400 per person. Amtrak also offers discounts for military, senior citizens, students, and AAA members.

Originally published in the April 17, 2009, issue of Family Circle magazine.

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