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Try a new trip this holiday season

Have all of your end-of-the-year holiday plans made? Are they so much of the same old, same old that you're already feeling the postcelebration blues?

Cheer up, because you can still make relatively cheap reservations to plenty of places for late-December vacations. And if you are feeling lucky, you can even wait awhile to see if rates drop significantly after Thanksgiving.

But if you can't put off opening holidays gifts, here are suggestions for trips you can book now:

Why not spend the holidays on a 12-day cruise around Australia and New Zealand for $79 a day?

Sound too exotic or require more time than you have? Then head for a weekend in Philadelphia, where you can watch the festive Mummers Parade and get two nights in your choice of nearly 60 hotels for rates starting at $129.

Or you could fasten your seat belt for the 100-minute nonstop flight to New Orleans during December's "Papa Noel" celebration. Watch chefs give free cooking demonstrations, attend free seasonal music performances, indulge in a Creole holiday meal and choose from nearly 100 hotels that have discounted their rates.

If New Orleans seems like too much hustle-bustle, you can have a Victorian-style cottage or a three-bedroom house to yourself at Steinhatchee Landing Resort, on 35 wooded acres west of Gainesville. If holidays mean a family reunion, do what former President Jimmy Carter did and bring your clan to Steinhatchee.

The point is, you don't have to settle for a routine holiday, nor do you have to shell out big bucks to try something different. Discounts are available because the travel industry is struggling with a loss of business caused by a declining economy.

And the discounts are likely to get larger.

Though fear of flying generated by the terrorist attacks of 9/11 has largely passed, many Americans now are concerned that war with Iraq looms. Financially pressed airline executives shudder when they remember the decline in travel during the Persian Gulf War more than a decade ago.

Consequently, "There are still more (personnel) cutbacks coming at United, American Airlines and Delta," says Tom Parsons, a month shy of his 20th anniversary studying the airline business. "Come January (with no more holiday travel), what's on the table for the airlines?"

Occasionally interrupting our interview to answer another ringing phone in his Dallas office, Parsons told me last week that the first three months of 2003 "could be golden opportunities for cheap air fares _ super cheap _ to the Caribbean, Europe, even Hawaii. We are likely to see consistent coast-to-coast fares of $200."

Parsons' research also shows that airlines are likely to discount seats for this December's holiday travel as soon as the typical Thanksgiving traffic boost has passed.

In Floridians' favor, he noted, is that when we fly, we are going against the flow _ that is, we are leaving the state that so many others are headed to, or we are returning when the visitors are leaving. That means we should find seats available by being flexible as to travel dates and airlines.

This year, Christmas and New Year's Day fall on Wednesdays, which means many travelers are likely to stay in Florida into the following weekend. "Jan. 5, the Sunday after New Year's Day, should be the worst travel day of the holiday period," Parsons said.

So Floridians should try to time their travel out of the state and back to be on the relatively empty planes the visitors have used. This may mean not returning from your Christmas vacation until, say, Monday, Dec. 30; there should be a good selection of low-priced seats.

How to find them? Increasingly, travelers are consulting Web sites for information and reservations. To check for discounts and package deals, visit the sites operated by your preferred destination, airline or cruise company.

Also, read the Travel section ads _ marketing executives know that the Web-savvy are still a minority of travelers _ and consult a travel agent, who may have special prices.

Parsons' own 5-year-old site, www.bestfares.com, books airline seats, cruise cabins and hotel rooms at compelling discounts. But he has about 150,000 members who pay $60 a year to get steeper discounts.

To celebrate his 20th anniversary (he began by chronicling frequent flier news and promotions), he is cutting $20 from the fee throughout December.

"The top three other sites are Orbitz, Travelocity and Expedia," he acknowledged. "Visit these four sites on a routine basis" if you are considering travel. "On any given day, any of the four can have the best price. And consult Hotels.com, too" for rooms at more than 6,500 properties around the world.

Here are the details to get more information on the vacation ideas mentioned above, plus a couple of more suggestions for celebrating your holiday away from home:

The cruise from Sydney, Australia, to Auckland, New Zealand, is aboard the premium-category Regal Princess, a 1,590-passenger vessel. The ship leaves Sydney on Dec. 12.

World Wide Cruises Inc., a cruise-only travel agency in Fort Lauderdale, is selling inside cabins (no porthole) for as little as $704; outside cabins start at $1,004. Added to these fares are port taxes of $195 per person and government fees of $46.64.

For more information, call World Wide toll-free at 1-800-882-9000, or at (954) 720-9000; the Web site is www.wwcruises.com.

If you like the idea of spending the holidays at sea but don't want to pay the $1,514 round-trip air fare to Sydney, how about taking a cruise out of Tampa?

Carnival Cruise Line's Web site (www.carnival.com) is offering seven days on the 2,052-passenger Inspiration, out of Tampa, starting at $849 for an ocean-view cabin. That does not include port taxes or government fees. This trip leaves Dec. 22.

(Also sailing from Tampa are Celebrity, Royal Caribbean and Holland America vessels, but I could not find comparably cheap rates for holiday travel.)

The Philadelphia "Sleep-Over" package sells rooms in more than 60 hotels for one night and provides the second night free, for check-ins on Fridays or Saturdays, through March. Included in the offer are special trolley passes, audiotape walking tours and hotel parking.

The Mummers Parade, with the elaborately costumed groups traditionally strutting and strumming instruments on Jan. 1, this season will be repeated Wednesdays through Saturdays, Nov. 29 through Dec. 28. For more information on the hotel plan, go to www.gophila.com.

BestFares.com last week was offering a $160 round-trip plane ticket to Philadelphia, excluding federal taxes and airport fees.

New Orleans' Papa Noel festival fills the city all month with free concerts in St. Louis Cathedral, daily cooking demonstrations by notable chefs, the seasonal Reveillon evening meal and discounted hotel rates.

For instance, you can book a night in a B&B in the trendy St. Charles area for $79. Or treat yourself to the celebrated Windsor Court, named this month by readers of Conde Nast Traveler as one of the top 20 hotels in North America. Rooms there next month start at $175, about 33 percent off the basic rate.

For a brochure full of details, an events calendar and even sample menus, visit www.christmasneworleans.com or call toll-free 1-800-673-5725. Hotel reservations can be booked on the Web or by calling toll-free 1-800-749-5679.

New Orleans is a special treat for Tampa Bay area residents because we can reach it via nonstop jet at truly cheap rates.

Southwest Airlines has a promotional fare of just $126, with six nonstop departures a day from Tampa International most days of the week. Passengers would need to book that fare online at least 21 days before the flight. A 14-day advance purchase fare is $148.

You can fly to the Crescent City on other airlines, too. For instance, Delta can get you there and back for $151, but that requires a change of planes _ in Atlanta, of course. And that lengthens your one-way trip to nearly three times as long as the direct flight on Southwest.

As for the quiet charm of Steinhatchee Landing, the resort's buildings were designed to resemble a late-1800s Florida village. The 30 "cottages" are mainly Victorian or Cracker in style. There also are a few contemporary houses.

Located 3 miles from the Gulf of Mexico and just west of U.S. 19, the resort is like a quiet neighborhood dropped among the pines and oaks by the Steinhatchee River.

Guests can bring or rent bicycles and canoes, go swimming in the large pool, hold barbecues or cook in their own kitchens, or relax in the hot tub. There is even a petting zoo with goats, ducks and chickens.

Every cottage has a screened porch, full kitchen, microwave, tableware, a VCR and stereo system, and an outdoor charcoal grill. There is also a fine restaurant on the property and a couple of down-home eateries out on Highway 51, which provides access to the property.

Rates run from $120 a night on weekends to $307.50 for the three-bedroom house _ split three ways, that is just $102.50 a night. And if you stay at Steinhatchee at least two nights this year, you get two nights free in 2003.

For more information, go to the Web site www.steinhatcheelanding.com or call (352) 498-3513; fax to (352) 498-2346.

Ski resorts in the Colorado Rockies are reporting 5 feet of snowfall just as most resorts open for the season. At Winter Park, about 70 miles west of Denver, you can buy four nights' lodging and get the fifth night free in the upscale Diamonds West collection of accommodations. These include houses, condos and cabins that sleep from six to 20. Go to the Web site www.skiwinterpark.com or call toll-free 1-800-979-0332 for details and prices on the lodging choices.

The resort also is offering sales online of a four-day lift ticket for $119; the rate around the holiday season averages closer to $55 a day, so this is a savings of about 46 percent. This offer is likely to be withdrawn in the coming week.

And on Travelocity, I found a round-trip ticket last week on Frontier Airlines, nonstop from Tampa to Denver, for $262. From the city, you can take the popular Ski Train for $45 one-way right to the resort.

On the other end of winter travel, how about leaving the country for a Caribbean isle, but one not too far away, or too expensive?

For $639, you can fly round-trip from Tampa International to Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. For $460 more, you can stay four nights in a three-star resort on its own tiny island, Nanny Cay Resort.

It has 42 rooms and was renovated in 2001. Nanny Cay offers watersports, tennis and air-conditioned rooms facing the Caribbean Sea or tropical gardens. Each bedroom has either a balcony or patio, one or two double beds, plus a kitchenette.

Consult Orbitz (www.orbitz.com) for both plane and hotel reservations.

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