5 Holiday Vacations Good for Your Budget

BOSTON ( MainStreet) -- Holiday travel and vacation planning in October is like holiday shopping in October: It's early, but worth it later.

While most holiday travelers pack airports and hit the highways to visit family, as the American Express ( AXP) Spending and Saving Tracker says 64% did last year, there's still a segment that uses Thanksgiving, the winter holidays and the paid time off that accompanies them as excuses to get away. In fact, 2% of holiday travelers last year decided to hit the road to flee their families.

Unlike early holiday shopping, however, there isn't a Black Friday or Cyber Monday for travelers who wait.

"My recommendation to people is to look early," says Anne Banas, editor of SmarterTravel. "One of my favorite tips for booking airfare is to benchmark fares, get a sense of what they are and sign up for an alert so when a price drops you know you're paying less."

The ideal time to start booking for Thanksgiving is during the first two weeks in October, Banas says. It's not ideal to start trolling for fares on Kayak and Microsoft's ( MSFT) Bing Travel after that, and you'll be pressed for time, but you can still get it done.

"For Christmas, you definitely have a little bit more time," Banas says. "The thing is, Christmas this year is on a Sunday, so people will be maximizing that weekend for travel and going out that Thursday and Friday and coming back that Monday."

The key, Banas says, is to be flexible and keep your options open. She recommends using travel sites such as Orbitz ( OWW) or Expedia ( EXPE) to find fares within a few days of peak flying dates and consider off-peak destinations. The Caribbean, for example, is at the tail-end of hurricane season around Thanksgiving, but can make a great holiday getaway for travelers willing to take a chance.

"The Caribbean is a great place to go that time of year because peak season usually starts around the holidays and goes through March," Banas says. "If you go away for Thanksgiving you can find great deals -- and it gets quieter in November, and you can have the island to yourself."

With help from SmarterTravel and the folks at travel-deal site Go-Today, we came up with five holiday vacation destinations that won't take too much turkey off the table or too many presents under the tree:

Thanksgiving cost (four hotel nights plus airfare): $799
Christmas cost (six hotel nights plus airfare): $1,099
Paris doesn't particularly care about where some boatload of uptight Puritans ended up nearly 400 years ago or whether some meager meal in Massachusetts or Virginia was the first "Thanksgiving." Just drink your apertif and look at the pretty lights.

Late November is right at the start of Western Europe's off-peak season and presents a great opportunity for a discounted stroll through St. Germain or slightly chill boat ride up the Seine. Go-Today offers a four-day Paris Pass to the Louvre, Musee d'Orsay, Eiffel Tower and other Paris institutions as an upgrade, along with two-day sightseeing tour of the Left Bank, Ecole Militaire and other sites. If travelers managed to snag that $799 Thanksgiving air-and-hotel price, they may as well stand firm on their frugality and explore the city themselves.

The premium on the Christmas package is at least understandable given the city's penchant for lighting up especially bright for the holiday. A giant Christmas market fills the holiday light-lined Champs-Elysees, Notre Dame places a stunningly decorated tree in its main plaza and the Eiffel Tower hosts an ice rink for the season. If you can't be home for the holidays, you may as well be enjoying hot chocolate, crepes and Christmas lights here.

Thanksgiving cost (four hotel nights plus airfare): $799
Christmas cost (six hotel nights plus airfare): $1,099
The Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Senate -- all reminders Rome had centuries of history beneath its belt by the time the first Thanksgiving celebration took place.

Thanksgiving visitors can see all of it on an optional half-day bus tour of the city's ancient sites that includes special access to the Colosseum and amphitheater. A two-day, hop-on hop-off bus tour accomplishes the same end while making sure tourists don't overlook well-worn sights including the Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps. If all of that touring makes travelers hungry and homesick for Thanksgiving dinner, the package also offers an optional cooking class that takes would-be Italian gourmets out of the city to Mazzano Romano to shop for fresh ingredients and prepare a four-course meal.

Those who opt to spend the extra $300 on a Christmas trip can rest assured that the cradle of Catholicism knows a thing or two about marking the holiday. A towering Christmas tree goes up in St. Peter's Square and giant television screens are trucked in for the Pope's midnight Mass. The Baroque square in Piazza Navona is transformed into a huge Christmas village with a merry-go-round, stands selling candies and decorations and Babbo Natale -- known stateside as Santa Claus. Most impressive, however, are the ubiquitous life-sized nativity scenes in piazzas and churches throughout the city.

Thanksgiving cost (four hotel nights plus airfare): $799
If you're getting away for Thanksgiving, you may as well go to the place the Puritans were fleeing.

With easily the most options of all the Thanksgiving travel packages, London offers travelers a chance to take a lunch cruise on the Thames, a spin on the giant London Eye Ferris wheel, a look at the crown jewels and torture devices in the Tower of London or a pint or two with some fries and curry with a London Pub Passport. The most extensive option, however, provides a private tour of the Tower of London before it opens, a viewing of the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, a cruise on the Thames, a stop at Westminster Abbey, a tour of St. Paul's Cathedral, a pop-in at the Royal Albert Hall and, finally, full tea at Harrods.

A cheap trip to London during the winter holidays, however, is about as realistic as Harrods closing for December. As evidenced by Love Actually and other London-based holiday films, the city really knows how to do Christmas. Unfortunately, the world is well aware of this and the holiday crowds at Rockefeller Center look like friendly little gatherings compared with the throngs around the shops and Christmas markets in London.

Thanksgiving cost (four hotel nights plus airfare): $949
Christmas cost (six hotel nights plus airfare): $999
It gets mighty chilly in Prague during November, so be thankful for warm mulled wine stands beside the Charles Bridge, hot klobasa sausages in Wenceslas Square and soul-warming plates of goulash just about anywhere.

Though a bit brisk, November is actually a great time to wander through Old Town, hunt down any one of Franz Kafka's several houses in the city or tour Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral while less hardy travelers wait for warmer weather. With Czech hockey superstar Jaromir Jagr returning to the states to play for the Philadelphia Flyers, it's a great time to drop into his Jagr's bar and restaurant on Wenceslas Square on the way to the National Museum, order a pint of Gambrinus or Staropramen and take in a game while checking out the items left at the bar by great Czech players such as former Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Dominik Hasek.

Even better, just wait about a month until the Old Town and Wenceslas Square are turned into a Christmas market filled with more than 160 stands, including those arranged in the shape of a star in Old Town Square with a giant Christmas tree in the center. Merchants sell handmade toys and Bohemian crystal, dole out treats such as honey gingerbread and, closer to Christmas, carry around buckets of live carp for the Czechs' traditional Christmas Eve dinner. Even when the average high temperature scarcely reaches 45 degrees, it's a heartwarming scene.

Central European Christmas Markets
Christmas cost (nine hotel nights plus airfare): $1,499
Why settle for just one beautiful Central European city and Christmas market when you can see three?

This trip offers three nights apiece in Prague, Munich and Vienna and trips by rail between the cities. Prague's Christmas credentials, already listed, have nothing on Vienna's Christkindlmarkt and its 700 years of history. Roughly 140 stalls line the Rathausplatz in front of city hall to sell wooden toys, beeswax candles, candied fruit, gingerbread men and cotton candy. Schonbrunn Palace, the Hapsburgs' former summer home, also hosts a market that pours plenty of Vienna's Christmas punsch, a mix of warm fruit juice and wine or schnapps.

Munich's own Christkindlmarkt more than holds its own, dating back to the 14th century and featuring more than 100 stands surrounding a 100-foot Christmas tree. Bavarian choirs sing carols, craftsmen in the Kipper Markt sell hand-carved wooden nativity sets and warm, tasty treats including gingerbread, sausages, potato pancakes and baked apples abound.

"It's very off-season for Europe, but it's also a time of year where there are a lot of Christmas markets, which are really getting popular," Banas says. "The more well known ones are in Germany and France, but you can even go to Estonia and see a great market."

-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.