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Unused vacation days? Here are some last minute travel ideas

We really stink at vacations. • The average American will end this year with at least three unused vacation days — and half of us will have taken no vacation at all. And even when we do go, too many of us are checking our work email while we are supposed to be relaxing. And don't even get us started on how few vacation days Americans even have available compared to other civilized countries. • We never were very good about taking a break and it's getting worse, thanks to job anxieties and an always-on mindset. As we head into the last month of the year, we offer some ways to avoid being one of those people leaving time on the table. And we offer tips on how to use this time to talk to your family about planning some time off in 2017. • If you are one of those Americans in danger of leaving 3.2 days of unused vacation time behind before the year is out, here are some last-minute travel ideas for December:

Florida theme parks

Christmas week is mobbed at Florida attractions, but there is a sweet spot in the first two weeks of December when Florida's theme parks are loaded up with holiday decorations and shows, but the tourists aren't here yet. While the weather is cool and crowds are light, here's what you will find:

Walt Disney World: The Magic Kingdom has a special parade and holiday fireworks show and Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party, a separate-ticket event on select nights. Over at Epcot, five new marketplaces explore what the holidays taste like around the globe. The popular Candlelight Processional uses celebrity narrators (Meredith Vieira Dec. 13-15, Scandal's Joe Morton Dec. 19-21) to tell the Christmas story accompanied by a 50-piece orchestra and choir.

Busch Gardens: Rudolph has joined Busch Gardens Christmas Town this year, which opened Nov. 25 and runs on select nights through Dec. 31. The park is decked out in 2 million lights and kids can take photos with Rudolph, Clarice, Yukon Cornelius and Bumble as scenes of the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer come to life.

Universal Studios: The Macy's Holiday Parade fills the streets of Universal Studios every evening now through Jan. 1, with the same kind of huge balloons seen in the famous New York parade on Thanksgiving Day. Mannheim Steamroller will have concerts there this weekend as well as Dec. 10-11 and 17-18.

Cruise ship deals

The Internet is a terrific resource and travel agencies regularly receive offers from cruise lines trying to fill ships on voyages about to leave. You're very likely to find plenty of variety in the Caribbean during the first week or two of December and the first two weeks of January during travel lulls, according to the website Cruise Critic. "Some years, there are surprise bargains on normally popular itineraries," the site notes. But keep in mind the best cabins have already been snapped up, so you might end up next to the engine room.

Airline deals

Travel analysts from Expedia said early booking gets the best savings for Thanksgiving travel, but they found much better deals for last-minute travelers in December. But be mindful that the deals found on airlines are easier to find for one or two people. It's much harder to find last-minute deals for the whole family to travel, said Suzanne Kelleher, family travel expert at About.com.

Internet tools

Let the computer do the hunting for you. Some of Kelleher's favorite tools for last-minute travel include:

• The free Hotels Tonight app lets you book up to a week out and get a good deal when hotels have unsold rooms.

• Fares fluctuate throughout the day, so use airfare tracker tools like Airfarewatchdog.com and you will get emailed airfare alerts.

• The car rental site AutoSlash is like price protection for your rental. If a better deal comes up, it will send you an alert to re-price your rental. "I have never been on a trip where I haven't gotten at least two alerts of price reductions," Kelleher said, "and the savings can be 35-40 percent."

How Floridians can beat the crowds

Now is the time to plan for vacation next year, and living in Florida creates a few opportunities to zig when the rest of the country zags.

The whole Eastern seaboard is looking at Florida for spring break, so Floridians should take advantage and go in the opposite direction, said Suzanne Kelleher, family travel expert at About.com.

Springtime in New York is lovely. Or check the national parks, which will be mobbed in the summer.

For your summer vacation, note how different Florida's school schedule is than the Northeast and Midwest. Florida kids get out in late May and go back in early August, "a perfect sweet spot for Florida families to travel," said Kelleher, who writes about family vacation planning for travelwithkids.about.com.

Plan a family vacation somewhere like Vermont's Tyler Place Family Resort, she said. It's an all-inclusive family resort that has been operating since the 1930s with robust kids programs.

"It opens Memorial Day weekend and there is a really sweet window from Memorial Day until the third or fourth week in June when Northern families cannot go because their kids are still in school," Kelleher said.

Consider Yellowstone National Park or the Grand Canyon, which have peak crowds in the summer. All the national parks have programs designed for the season, no matter when you go.

"No matter where you go you will probably get a better deal because it's not high season yet, but everything will be open."

How millennials are changing the face of travel

Millennials value their time and that is changing the travel industry, but they also are being blamed for the erosion of vacation time. They are taking shorter vacations, but they value experiences. And they are going back to travel agents.

The travel agent was a job we thought the Internet had killed. But now with such an overload of sites and sources, people are tired of spending whole days or weeks researching the best rates. And it turns out it's a myth that travel agents cost more. They make their money off commissions, not clients.

According to research from the American Society of Travel Agents, millennials are more likely to use an agent than any demographic group of older travelers.

"Once millennials start making money, they're willing to spend to receive personalized treatment from a travel agent," said Andrew Sheivachman of the travel news and research outfit Skift. "They're also tired of the hassle of do-it-yourself online travel booking."

Millennials travel differently than their parents, and time is a big part of it.

"People don't take a whole week or two in the summer, instead they tack on a day or two to a weekend," said Suzanne Kelleher, family travel expert at about.com.

And that could be because they are afraid to take too much time off at once.

Nearly half — 48 percent — of the millennials surveyed in a recent study said it is a good thing to be seen as a "work martyr" by the boss, that they are irreplaceable. That number far outpaces Gen X (39 percent) and Baby Boomers (32 percent). The report issued earlier this year from Project: Time Off, an organization started by the U.S. Travel Association to change American work attitudes, said increased work pressures and the "always-on" mindset have eroded support for vacation.

As a result, many Americans increasingly abandon their vacation days. It's estimated that 55 percent of working Americans didn't use all of their vacation days in 2015.

A possible bright spot is that millennials value experiences as more important than gifts. Compared to their parents and grandparents, millennial Christmas shoppers this year will spend a greater portion of their holiday shopping budget on travel and entertainment, a survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers found.

They will spend 52 percent of their holiday budget on experiences this season, while adults older than 35 will allocate 61 percent of their budget to gifts, PwC found.

Their comfort with technology means travel agents and destinations need robust websites to attract their attention, and personal recommendations and reviews are more important than ever, said Jason Clampet, co-founder of Skift, the travel research site.

That's why Airbnb is rolling out a new way of planning entire trips with locally sourced guides, Clampet said. The site will have hundreds of unique tours of cities, like a ramen tour of Tokyo or a tour of Miami's muralists.

If it succeeds it would marry all these trends by letting a traveler pick a city and let the company book accommodations, meals, transportation and a local host to show you around town. It would be paired with an app with a detailed local-sourced guidebook.

"I think the idea is you get to know a place like a local," said Clampet, who saw a beta version of the Airbnb site. It could be just what millennials look for.

Airbnb has been disrupting the travel industry since its founding in 2008 by changing with the shifts in consumer behavior. It connects people to unique travel experiences, at any price point.

"There's been a lot of demand for all-inclusive trips because people take shorter trips," Clampet said. "If you only have three days in a place, personal recommendations are important. At the same time, we can easily know more about destination than ever before."

Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at swynne@tampabay.com. Follow @SharonKWn.

Unused vacation days? Here are some last minute travel ideas 11/30/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 30, 2016 9:13am]
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