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Vacation Packages

Some people’s idea of a great vacation is to throw the map out the window and just get in the car and go. For most, though, it requires research and planning to find affordable vacation deals that promise a fun and safe time away from home. Purchasing a vacation package helps you do the homework on your destination getaway and often means you're getting a better deal.

Choosing a vacation destination

It may seem like the easiest question to answer, but according to many travel agents, it’s a stumbling block for many vacationers. Deciding where to spend your time depends on many factors, including:

• Who's going? Is it just you, you and a friend, or your entire family with kids? You might need to swap that legendary Las Vegas trip for Disney World pretty quickly.

• What does relaxing mean to you? Would you rather hike in the quiet of nature and away from people, or lounge on the beach and read a book in between cocktails? Maybe you would rather shop and visit museums in a big city.

• How much time and money can you spend? If you have less than a week and you're on a tight budget, then maybe this isn’t the year to visit the Great Wall of China. Remember, you don’t want to stress about these things while on vacation. Pick somewhere that’s comfortable and won't break the bank.

• Once you choose a locale to visit, check its tourism website for packages that include lodging, travel and attractions, or a combination. After you check in at your hotel, call or visit the local tourism office or visitors center. If your package includes attractions, that’s great. But the area may have more to offer, and the tourism office is the best place to find these adventures, as well as deals.

Airplanes, cars and public transit

Consider how you will arrive at your destination, and how you will get around once you're there. Depending on how many people you travel with and what your calendar allows, it could be cheaper to fly or drive. Taxis, rental cars, public transit and shoe leather are all good options for traversing the area.

Booking flights

There are many tricks for finding cheap airline tickets. Some consumer groups suggest purchasing tickets on Tuesdays, checking to see whether prices fall within 24 hours of purchase, and flying on Wednesdays, when airlines usually have more seats that they need to fill.

Taking red-eye flights can save money, as well as connecting flights in a city that is running specials. Sign up for price-watch emails to stay in the loop when flight prices drop.

Rental cars

Rental cars can help you get to and around your destination. Even if you plan to drive to save money, renting a car helps reduce wear on your own vehicle.

If you’re flying to your destination, don’t rent a vehicle at the airport. You'll pay a higher price there because of zoning laws and airport taxes. Take a shuttle or taxi to your hotel and rent a car from a nearby business to get a better price. Also, look for car rental specials.

Public transit

Unless you live in Chicago, New York City or another area with a large public transportation system, stepping into the subway might seem foreign. However, it’s often the quickest and most affordable way to travel around a city.

Rather than purchasing single-ride tickets, see how much you can save if you buy a pass for a few days or a week.

Using a travel agent

If you want to find the best deals and plan your trip well, consider hiring a travel agent to do the work for you.

It’s a travel agent’s job to know about the attractions available at each destination, which days the attractions are open and how to save on admission. Travel agents also foster special relationships with transportation and lodging companies, which can help you get a better deal.

Hiring a travel agent can add to the initial cost of your vacation, but they can save you money in the long run. Travel agencies also establish connections with various destinations, and can help you resolve any problems that arise.

On average, travel agents charge $36 to book a flight, which is the most common service requested, according to the American Society of Travel Agents. They typically charge more, however, for researching extended or elaborate vacations, and that can cost about $200. For the security of knowing your Parisian stay won’t go awry, it might be worth the price.

Also, if you plan to eat at popular restaurants, it’s a good idea to make reservations in advance. A travel agent can help with this, or you can do it yourself by calling the restaurant or making reservations online.

You can find highly rated travel agents under the Travel Agencies category on Angie's List. Want to see how many travel agents service your area, and find other related info? Search for your city here and look under Travel Agencies.

Avoid travel scams

Everyone wants to get a steal, but make sure you don't get robbed. The Federal Trade Commission advises travelers to watch out for these common vacation scams:

• Always get specific information. Don't accept vague descriptions of your accomodations, such as "five-star" or "luxury" hotels and cruise ships. Get the names of places you might stay before you pay.

• An International Driving Permit isn't a substitute for your state-issued driver's license, and it must be issued by a qualified company. IDPs are simply a translation of your driver's license, which must be valid. They are intended to accompany your driver's license when you travel in countries where English isn't the primary language. Some unlicensed websites and in-person scammers will try to sell IDPs for hundreds of dollars, but the American Automotive Association (AAA) and similar organizations offer IDPs for about $20.

• Avoid purchasing time-share properties, which usually come with high maintenance costs and resale difficulties. Often, companies will prey on those trying to sell a time-share by requiring money up-front, then not following through on promises.

• Be skeptical of out-of-the-blue phone calls informing you that you won a free vacation. Sometimes these "free" vacations require you to pay a fee. Sometimes they will ask for your credit card number or other personal information, saying they need to verify your identity. Never give this information to an unsolicited caller.

• Exclusive vacation clubs often come with high fees and aren't worth the expense. Be wary of salespeople who need you to buy now or miss your chance.

Vacation packages often include lodging and meals, usually at a restaurant inside the hotel or inn. Some also include admission to local attractions. It’s important to know exactly what your package includes ahead of time. Be sure to bring a copy of your receipt with all of the package information and confirmation numbers along with you.