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Making travel affordable

Try to plan ahead and stay flexible

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Associated Press / May 18, 2006

The cost of travel has been going up all year, making it difficult -- but not impossible -- to find summer bargains.

The US travel industry is enjoying greater pricing power in large part because it has succeeded in minimizing the supply of airline seats, hotel rooms, and rental cars at a time when demand is rising. Fliers are also paying more as airlines pass along their soaring jet-fuel expenses.

The sweetest deals may already have been snapped up, travel experts said, though it is still possible to save a few bucks by planning ahead and remaining flexible.

Guidebook author Pauline Frommer said that while travel websites are an effortless way to search thousands of rooms and rates, it is also worthwhile to try to negotiate an even better deal over the phone, particularly with smaller hotels.

''Sometimes it will work," she said. ''Just make sure you're not taking 'No' from somebody who doesn't have the authority to say 'Yes."'

But probably the best strategy is to ''look at the places that aren't as popular in summer," such as the Caribbean, Mexico, and Australia.

Dick Spencer of Nashville understands this. He and his wife have visited St. Croix, in the US Virgin Islands, many times during summer and plan to return this year.

However, even to St. Croix, Spencer found that airfares were noticeably higher this year, and that the least expensive tickets may require flying in a less-roomy 50-seat regional jet.

Still, lodging is significantly cheaper in summer throughout the Caribbean.

Spencer books flights through the carriers rather than third-party websites because in his experience the service is usually better if there is some kind of mix-up or an itinerary needs changing. And Spencer said he prefers to start and end his vacations on Wednesdays ''both because of the lower number of travelers and because the fares are generally less."

For those hitting the road in their cars, the fuel burden will be hefty.

The Hooymans of Appleton, Wis., recently took a 10-day road trip through the Southwest. They added up gasoline and hotel receipts and decided it would have been better to just fly to Albuquerque.

''We could have gotten there quicker and seen more things," Pamella Hooyman said.

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