Tips for Planning Last-Minute Holiday Vacations

The holidays are just around the corner. You've been busy, but it's now started to creep into the corners of your mind that you have absolutely no vacation plans for that wonderfully festive period between December 20 - January 7th. When you call your favorite resort, you find they've been sold out for weeks.

Welcome to last-minute holiday vacation planning! Some people find it horrific, but here at the Family Travel Network, we think it's fun. Demented, huh? Well, maybe ... but we can also offer you a number of tips for planning a great family vacation - even at the last minute.

* Know your budget - and how far you're willing to stretch it for a great last-minute deal. Realize that last-minute holiday planning does not generally deliver great bargains, but you might be able to get a good value if you're willing to do a lot of research. Take a look at sites like www.travelzoo.com, www.mytravelco.com, www.skyauction.com, and www.vacationstogo.com, all of which tend to offer holiday vacation bargain options. If you find a great resort option that is a bit out of your reach, consider staying for a shorter period rather than opting for a sub-optimal spot. Your want to make great holiday memories ... not bad ones!

* Sit down with your family and figure out preferences. If you're having a family meeting, outline a few general options that might be fun (i.e. "We could go skiing at a resort a few hours away, or we could go to a family-oriented resort where there would be lots of sports, activities, and a great indoor swimming pool."). We've found this to be extremely helpful in putting together a trip with elements everyone can enjoy. Be prepared to talk about budgets, and talk about how you can work with the dollars available to plan a great trip.

* Enlist some help. If you are the independent type who likes to pull together everything on your own, call some good consolidators who may be able to help you with airfares. The Independent Traveler (www.independenttraveler.com) features a great list of consolidators. Consolidators If you don't want to do your own legwork, contact a great travel agent , ski tour operator, or cruise-only specialist. These people are particularly important when you're looking for a package deal or need to pull together airfares and lodging. Instead of picking up the phone and saying, "I want to go somewhere for the holidays", tell them about your budget and the preferences you came up with at your family meeting. That will help the agent in ferreting out options which meet your needs.

* If you're still looking for airfares, you have a few options at this point. Airlines typically have sales a few weeks before Christmas, and often offer deep discounts on remaining seats. If you do that, you will likely end up with a very short stay and flights with less than optimal connections. If there is a fare war, those discounts are often blacked-out during holiday periods and require a Saturday night stay. You could try to work around those. Here's a tip: check with the airlines for fares that allow Friday or Saturday returns. Delta Airlines often offers some options that allow you to depart Monday -Wednesday and return as early as Thursday - with no Saturday night stay. Check Travelocity's Low Fare Finder (www.travelocity.com) by marking "my dates are flexible" Search for flights and fares . It's a great way to find the best price between two city pairs if you don't have firm travel dates. Expedia (www.expedia.com) and Orbitz (www.orbitz.com) are other good bets. Also, take a look at some of the low-cost airlines. They may have some reasonably-priced options available for you.

* If you're flying to a popular destination, don't forget to reserve your rental car as far in advance as possible. Likewise, be careful who you rent from. Two years ago, we booked a last-minute holiday vacation to the Keys when the airlines offered their deep discounts on selected flights. We got tickets to Ft. Lauderdale - lucked out and got 3 nights of accommodations at a Key West resort - but the rental car was a problem. We finally were able to make a reservation through one of the off-airport chains. When we arrived that morning, however, we saw over 50 people waiting in front of the check-in counters ... and no cars. We waited for over 4 hours, with more and more people arriving by the minute. Many of these people were on packages and had pre-paid vouchers for their cars. While we were finally able to rent a car through another agency, the people with pre-paid vouchers had to wait for hours as cars trickled in.

* If your holiday vacation choice is a destination, don't give up if the resort you've called doesn't have space. Think creatively. Call the Visitor's Bureau or the Chamber of Commerce for names of rental agents in the area. Perhaps there are some condominiums that might be available. These often fill after some of the more widely-known options. In addition, if you're considering a ski destination, purchase one of the ski magazines and look at the classifieds in the back. These can put you in touch with rental agents and owners who may have last-minute availability during the holiday period. Also, consider such destinations as Salt Lake City, which has downtown hotels located within reasonable driving distance from the slopes. Most of these city-hotels have low occupancy levels during the holidays, and may be offering some great deals. Check out the Salt Lake Vistors Bureau website (www.visitsaltlake.com) for more details. Salt Lake CVB - Still Room at the Inn

* Be persistent. If your first choices are filled, ask to be put on the waiting list. If they don't maintain a waiting list, ask if there is a certain time period when final deposits are due. Many resorts require final payments 30-45 days in advance of arrival, and some cancellations are likely to occur around those periods. These are particularly good times to call if you are seeking a short-term stay which may be less than the resort's minimum requirements. As the holidays get closer, resorts will be seeking to fill occupancy gaps and may relax their minimum stay requirements.

* If you're going to a popular resort for the holidays, make your dinner and activity reservations before you arrive. Many large resorts, such as The Greenbrier in West Virginia and The Homestead in Virginia, accept dinner and activity reservations far in advance. If you want one of the prime family dining slots at 6:30 or 7 p.m., book it early. Likewise, if you have your heart set on any special activities, such as horseback riding, golf or tennis, book these times in advance as well.

* The holidays are one of the most crowded times for ski resorts, so plan accordingly. Purchase your lift tickets in advance (at least that's one line you'll get to skip), and try to plan your days' ski times and meal times to avoid the crowds. Many hotels and condominiums have concierge services who can help guests make reservations. Use their help, and make sure to call for the resort's vacation planning guide or other materials before you come. Many resorts offer these on their websites as well, along with schedules of events and activities. If not, call the concierge or guest services to see what help they can provide.

* If you're staying in a condominium, buy your groceries before you get to the resort. Supermarkets located slopeside or at major resort destinations often charge considerably higher prices than stores several miles out of town. You'll save money both by cooking your own meals and by purchasing your groceries in advance.

* For holiday ski trips, try to choose a resort offering "kids ski free" programs. At some areas, two kids as old as twelve ski free with a paying adult. This can save you megabucks on the price of your ski vacation! At other areas, children 5-6 years of age ski free with paying adults. While you're at it, call the resort in advance to inquire about child care, ski school programs, and equipment rentals. Advance planning will make your holiday a much more enjoyable one. Check out places like Snowbird which are offering specials during the holiday period Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort - Hot Deals .

* If low-cost airfares aren't available, consider family-friendly resorts, B&Bs, and ski destinations within driving distance. There are so many great holiday options - and those close to home are most likely to still have availability. There are loads of options still waiting for you. In addition, consider visiting a big city or town that may be offering holiday festivals, events, or activities such as First Night. Christmas Holiday family events-- Travel with Kids Christmas holiday events .

For some more great deals, don't miss the Family Travel Network's Hot Deals area http://www.familytravelnetwork.com/newhotdeals . You'll find great bargains there!

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