BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (MainStreet) -- Past the midway point of the year and with summer vacation likely booked or already spent, now's the time to be shoring up your end-of-the-year travel plans. Die-hard planners will have long gotten their start with award bookings for airlines and hotels that are likely already gobbled up for key days that include the three days between Dec. 25 and Jan. 1. For those getting a later start, here are some key tips for planning your end-of-year getaways before it's too late.

Award ticket junkies
However unscientific, we find the American (Stock Quote: AMR) Advantage program to offer the best availability for award flights. It has an online booking system that's straightforward and consumer friendly. Sure, the miles on the credit card partnerships offered through Citibank (Stock Quote: C) don't add up as fast when compared with the Delta (Stock Quote: DAL) SkyMiles or Chase (Stock Quote: JPM) United (Stock Quote: UAL) cards that offer up to three miles per dollar spent on select purchases, but we found its saver awards easier to unearth, especially during the holiday period, with an online system that shows you all class categories on a single screen.

Early bird gets the deal
Virtually everyone wants to go on holiday from Dec. 23 to Jan. 2, especially those looking for a ski getaway or beach vacation. If you have the flexibility, consider traveling as early as Dec. 20 to enjoy better airline and hotel rates -- they can be 50% to 75% cheaper the week directly before Christmas. If going for snow, look to Canada for the best early season conditions, especially in Banff or Whistler. If beach-bound in early December, great deals can be had even on St. Bart's, when the island is far more enjoyable and accessible for mere financial mortals.

Avoid prepayment
While most people think there's no difference in booking through sites such as Expedia (Stock Quote: EXPE) or Tablet Hotels and directly through a hotel, online booking engines are increasingly requiring more costumers to prepay hotel stays, especially during the peak holiday season. Sometimes you can avoid this by booking through hotels directly either via telephone or online, securing your holiday room with a mere credit card guarantee and charges paid upon hotel arrival. The extra legwork means you'll get the best rate now without any out-of-pocket expenses until December, with the option to cancel 72 to 24 hours before arrival depending on individual cancellation policies.

Don't forget the car
The end of the year is when we many frequent the South American circuit, where cities such as Rio and Sao Paulo are best covered without a car. But in towns such as Punta del Este, a car is essential, and so in demand that several rental car companies actually use private cars of area residents to bolster their high-season fleet. An entry-level rental car at Punta del Este Airport can easily cost $250 a day and up during the holiday week for mediocre, entry-level cars often with manual transition and manual windows. Bring down the price by reserving as early as possible, even if a trip is still in the planning stages, especially since most rental car agencies don't even ask for a credit card guarantee to make a booking.

Hotel vs. vacation home rental
Even if booking a single room over the holidays, the spike in room rates and minimum-night room requirements in resorts such as Aspen and Maui may make staying in a vacation rental a more affordable option even for couples and solo travelers. AK Villas or Luxury Retreats offer fancier options, while VRBO is likely the most economical way. VRBO users can check out inventory in select destinations with a live calendar of available properties as well as pricing and travel guidance from actual homeowners. It doesn't handle the actual bookings, which are processed by the homeowner and allow for direct negotiation with owners who may be willing to discount rates for those traveling in smaller parties if asked.

Consider fractional ownership
If you're using Luxury Retreats or VRBO often, maybe now is the time to consider a fractional ownership? Resident clubs such as those with Abercrombie & Kent are offering up to a $20,000 travel award credit for people signing up before Sept. 30. Exclusive Resorts offers customizable memberships ranging from 10 to 60 days per year that include some of the world's top luxury properties, and holiday availabilities are far more manageable than a hotel, especially when traveling with larger groups and family.

Christmas in the city
Those looking for the best travel deals over the Christmas holiday will find cities such as Paris, London and New York to be a bargain hunter's paradise. Once-in-a-lifetime stays and hotel splurges at such properties as the Ritz or Plaza come with offseason rates and incomparable amenities to preoccupy you while much of the surrounding city hushes in holiday celebration. While most of the U.S. closes only for the Dec. 25 holiday, Europe runs on a limited schedule from Dec. 24 to Jan. 1, with unpredictable closings at public museums, stores and restaurants that can be a buzz kill for those looking to explore a new city.

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