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'Dark' Days a Bright Spot for Holiday Vacations

NEW YORK ( MainStreet) -- Savvy travelers know it's always darkest before the best January deals.

These next few weeks of January are known as "dark weeks" in the travel industry. It's when many potential vacationers have had the will to travel stripped from them by holiday trips in which 51% of travelers surveyed by TripAdvisor (TRIP) said they expected to be stressed out by the experience. Combine that stress with the cost of those trips -- estimated at $2,636 per family of four, according to the American Express (AXP) Spending and Savings Tracker -- the average $707 Consumer Reports says Americans spent on holiday gifts this year and the lack of vacation days accrued by many American workers this early in the year and you get a nation of happy homebodies.

Travel during January's dark weeks is minimal, but so are prices

If the empty hotel rooms, vacant airports and generally thin tourists crowds aren't enough evidence of that early year slowdown, consider the numbers. About 53.7 million passengers took trips aboard U.S. airlines last January. That's up more than 1 million passengers from January 2010, but still well below the 58.6 million passengers who caught holiday flights a month earlier in December and woefully shy of the 69.8 million who fly during peak season in July.

There is only one month in which travelers get around less, and the 50.1 million brave souls who hit the skies in February pay for their trips in terrible weather and interminable delays.

"The first two weeks of January tend to be really great times to travel," says Anne Banas, editor of Smarter Travel. "People are so exhausted from the holidays and have spent so much money that it tends to be a dead time."

That dead time can lead to some desperate measures. Hotels.com just concluded a two-day sale offering customers 50% off hotel rooms for stays through Feb. 7, including $65 rooms in Washington, D.C., $73 nights in Chicago and $80 stays in Barcelona. Southwest (LUV) and recent acquisition AirTran are trying to woo air travelers with round-trip airfares including a $258 package from Seattle to Atlanta and a $118 fare from Charlotte to Orlando for flights from Jan. 13 through mid-May if booked by tomorrow. Alaskan Airlines' (ALK) Frontier, meanwhile, has flights from Houston to Denver for $90 round-trip for trips between now and March 7 for those who book before Jan. 12.

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