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Booking summer vacations at the last minute might not pay off this year

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It's already time to start planning for summer vacation trips. But last year's game plan may not work so well. • A year ago, consumers spooked by the economic crash stayed home or took short, cheap trips by car. Airlines reacted by offering one sale after another. Many travelers — if they had the cash — played chicken with the airlines and won. • Now, airlines have the upper hand. Procrastination likely won't pay off, say travel experts, as more people return to the market and find fewer cheap airline tickets. "I'd strongly recommend against it,'' said Bryan Saltzburg, general manager of initiatives for the online travel agency TripAdvisor. • Here's what experts say you'll face in shopping for air fares, hotels and rental cars for that summer trip:

Airlines: Carriers have trimmed flights and swapped large planes for smaller ones. As vacation travelers lose their jitters over the economy and buy more tickets, the result is predictable: higher fares. The average price of the cheapest domestic ticket for the two weeks ending March 22 was up 12 percent from a year earlier, said Bob Harrell of Harrell Associates. His New York firm tracks fares on 300 routes in the United States. He expects the upward trend to continue through summer. You shouldn't buy a ticket more than three months ahead of a flight, when airlines start discounting seats, said Rick Seaney of the Web site Farecompare.com. Pull the trigger when you see a reasonable price. This year, that should be between $200 and $300 for a domestic round-trip ticket, more for cross-country flights, says Saltzburg. Be aware of airline fees. Most carriers charge $25 for the first checked bag and $35 for the second — $120 total for a round trip. Southwest allows two free bags, JetBlue Airways checks one free and charges $30 for the second.

Hotels: Lodging remains the best bargain in travel. Nationally, room rates tumbled nearly 9 percent in 2009 and should drop this year, said Duane Vinson, vice president of Smith Travel Research. "They were in survival mode, cutting rates and trying to keep their heads above water,'' he said. "It was large convention hotels, downtown hotels, suburban and ones off the interstate exit ramps.'' Smith forecasts that the average daily rate this year will hit $94.39, down nearly 3 percent from last year. Phoenix and Houston offer some of the best deals, said Vinson.

Rental cars: One of the few travel products that raised prices in 2009. Companies slashed fleets by as much as 25 percent, selling into a strong market for used cars. Consumers faced prices they'd never seen — $105 a day for a midsize car, more than $430 a week for a compact, said Neil Abrams of Abrams Consulting Group, which publishes a survey of rental car rates. Prices should rise 5 percent this year from 2009, he said, as companies keep fleets lean amid modest increases in rentals. "Book early or you run the risk of being locked out,'' Abrams said.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

Booking summer vacations at the last minute might not pay off this year 03/30/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 31, 2010 12:52pm]

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