9 Ways to Save on Winter Travel

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (MainStreet) -- By mid-October many people find themselves desperately trying to shore up year-end and holiday travel plans. Others, who shall go unnamed, have long since booked their winter getaways and are most likely already planning for spring and summer travel.

With the holiday season just around the corner, it may indeed be too late to score the early bird travel deals. But there are still a few sure-fire tips that can lessen the financial load and perhaps save a bundle on end-of-year travel:
It may be too late to score early bird travel deals, but there are still ways to save on a holiday trip.

One-way mileage redemptions
Most people approach frequent-flier award bookings with an all-or-nothing attitude, trying to find only the round-trip award fares that become all but impossible during prime weekend travel in the holiday season. Unbeknownst to many, programs such as AAdvantage by American Airlines and United ( UAL) MileagePlus have allowed customers to book standard one-way and saver fares without being penalized in years past with higher redemption levels for one-way travel. The option allows travelers to mix and match frequent-flier programs without penalty, as well as to combine a one-way domestic award on an easier-to-find midweek departure with a paid return fare on airlines such as Virgin America, Southwest ( LUV) and JetBlue ( JBLU) that make one-way travelers pay extra.

Consider less-expensive hot spots
For those considering a weeklong sojourn in St. Barts or ski weekend in Aspen, Colo., you'll likely be paying top dollar and perhaps even double on everything from car rental to hotel rooms from late December through the first week of January. If you're looking to cut financial corners this year, consider less-hyped nearby ski destination such as Breckenridge in Colorado or Lake Tahoe in California, which offer luxury properties on par with Aspen but with far better price tags and availability. As for the Caribbean, try Nevis and St. Kitts or perhaps Anguila for a good substitute for St. Barts with prices that are more like the St. Barts of a decade ago.

Stay home for the actual holiday
Spending holidays away from home isn't always all it's cracked up to be. Christmas morning is often in an understaffed hotel where you paid far too much, room service is slow and rooms ooze a sterility that's far from festive. As for New Years' Eve, you're likely not going to be with the friends that make a celebration so fun and instead will likely spend at least part of the night in an overpriced restaurant of prix-fixe meals where the celebration feels forced. Travelers also often forget that if you're in a place such as Buenos Aires or Rio, cities can shut down during the holiday week with little shopping, closed museums and scaled-back sanitation services that mean a smelly city come Jan. 2.

City getaways
If you absolutely must travel over a holiday such as Christmas and want a five-star roost, consider a domestic U.S. or Northern European city where rates often dip during the end of December -- meaning great deals even at such properties as the Westin Paris, San Francisco's Mandarin Oriental and the Mondrian in Miami. To work around local holiday closings, make sure you book into a property big enough to keep you entertained even if you don't go anywhere, meaning it has has a good spa, worthy eatery and lively bar should the surrounding city resemble too much of a ghost town come Christmas Eve.

A four-day deal
It's called a minimum-night requirement -- those pesky hotel rules that require guests stay two or even seven nights just to check in. Several hotels, including The Little Nell in Aspen, require a three-night minimum stay on winter weekends, pricey when you consider room rates are above $750 even when it's not a holiday. But the hotel is offering a promotion in which guests pay for three nights and get the fourth free from Dec. 1 to April 14, based on availability. Several Four Seasons Resorts properties also offer "free night" promotions during select weeks this winter, making the third or fourth night free on select dates thru mid-April.

Hotel ski packages
Anyone whose had to pay the bill on a winter ski trip has been a likely victim of sticker shock -- from ski rentals to lift tickets and transportation to the actual slopes, it all costs. But ski resorts such as Alberta, Canada's The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise offer Ski & Play Packages throughout winter that offer room rates only around $30 to $90 more per night per room but with upgraded accommodations, two adult ski passes per day, a $100 daily resort credit and group transportation from the hotel to the actual lifts. Given that the price of lift tickets at Lake Louise Ski Area average above $70 this year, the savings can be considerable.

Book the car now
Many people wait until the last minute to book their rental car, thinking it makes no difference whether they reserve a week or a year in advance. As a rule, you should always book your car around the same time you book your airline ticket, allowing for the best rates and widest availability should you be in need of a high-occupancy SUV in the snow or a showy sports car at the beach. Most car companies allow you to reserve your car even without a credit card to secure the rate, meaning there's little risk of being charged a cancellation fee and really no downside to booking in advance -- aside from having to shake yourself out of your laziness.

Hotel alternatives
For families or even just a couple, hotels tend to be one of the priciest parts of the vacation. For those looking to tighten travel budgets, consider hotel alternatives such as VRBO, HomeExchange and AirBnB, which can save a bundle (as well as be a separate travel experience all its own). These travel Web sites are constantly adding condos and homes to vacation destinations such as Punta del Este and Beaver Creek with no penalty for last-minute planners.

Read the fine print
Even for travel professionals, the ever-changing fine print at hotels and restaurants, especially around holidays, can be difficult to work around or even remember. With many properties taking full payment upon booking, be sure to read the fine print for cancellation polices to see if there's a 30-day, seven-day or even 24-hour notice required to avoid penalties. If you've passed the deadline, talk to the hotel directly; it's your best possibility for walking away from a reservation without a less-than-festive charge.

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Michael Martin is the managing editor of JetSetReport.com, a luxury travel and lifestyle guide based in Los Angeles and London. His work has appeared in InStyle, Blackbook, Elle, U.K.'s Red magazine and on ITV and the BBC.

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