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Summer vacation plans
5 Tips: Get a jump-start on planning your summer vacation.
By Gerri Willis, CNN/Money contributing columnist


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - During the winter doldrums, we all tend to hibernate a little bit. But now is the ideal time to start thinking about your summer vacation.

In today's top 5 tips we're going to give you the tools you'll need to start planning ahead.

1. Think beyond Expedia

If you're like most people, the first place you'll turn to book your summer vacation will be the online agencies like Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity.

But airlines and hotels are now starting to sell themselves on the Internet. In November, JetBlue rolled out JetBlue Getaways as its first vacation package service. Using Getaways, for example, customers will be able to go to Las Vegas and stay at a casino for a discounted rate. And these days you can book your flight car and hotel through Marriott.

But keep in mind you still have to compare price. If you book through an airline, you'll have to use that carrier, and if you book through a hotel, you'll only have the option of staying on their properties. So make sure that your savings will make up for your lack of choice.

2. Getting there

First, the bad news. Airfares are likely to increase at least 10 percent from last summer, according to Tom Parsons of Bestfares.com. And if you don't book your vacation at least two months in advance, you may be paying double for that ticket.

"Even last year the major airlines raised their price twelve times," he says.

And while they may be more expensive than last year, the good news is that discount airlines are expanding their destinations and routes.

JetBlue will be expanding service to the Bahamas and adding routes to Richmond, Virginia. Airtran will be adding service from Atlanta to Seattle from May until September this year. Spirit airlines will be adding new service to Jamaica, St. Thomas and Grand Cayman Islands and Atlanta in February. Southwest just added Denver to its carrier route and the airline will be expanding service to New Orleans in March.

Even Hooters airlines are expanding their routes, he says. "Typically, airlines look for a three to four month window to bring on new service," he said.

3. Get a discount on vacation rentals

Hotel rates are projected to rise over 6 percent this year, so you may want to consider a vacation rental if you're staying more than two or three days. In a vacation rental, you can get an entire house. And the discounts may even be better.

Make sure you ask about a discount if you're staying more than seven nights, says Tony Lopes of OwnerDirect.com, an online service agency that pairs renters with vacation homes. If it's in the high season for that area, you can probably get a 5 to 10 percent discount. If you're in the low season, you may be able to get 15 to 20 percent off your price.

You may be able to barter your talents for a discount too. For example, if you're a photographer or a writer, you might offer to take photos or write a description of the vacation rental. If you tell the rental owner that you'll provide referrals to your friends, he/she may also give you a small break in your tab according to Lopes.

The prime time for booking for summer vacation is right around now. "You should give yourself four to six months to get the best selections," he says.

And if you're new to the vacation rental market, you may decide to use a full service agency that can match you up with properties, make the arrangements and help settle disputes if they arise. But be prepared to pay a fee of about 10 percent. Check out web sites like www.ownerdirect.com. If you like the idea of a vacation home, but want to do all the legwork yourself, check out www.vacationhomes.com or www.vamoose.com.

4. Do your hotel homework

Hotel prices in big cities are out of control this year. The average room in New York City costs almost $200 a night, up 10 percent since this time last year, according to Smith Travel Research. Rooms also are getting expensive in Miami and Washington, D.C., where rates are up 12 percent.

This summer, you'll want to make sure you do your homework. Check out www.quickbook.com. You'll be able to find special deals, read about other people's experiences and check out what the hotel has to offer, like its proximity to shopping or transportation.

You can also go to www.travel.yahoo.com and click on your destination city and read reviews from other customers. Another good web site here is www.travelpost.com. And if you just want to read up on the best and worst hotels, referred to as "hotel heaven" and "hotel hell," check out www.hotelchatter.com.

5. Take to the seas

Today cruise discounters, cruise-only booking sites, booking sites and last-minute web sites are all fighting for your cruising dollars. And since cruise lines are all about loyalty and customer service, you'll probably have more leverage if you're dissatisfied.

This year there will be more cruises and travel deals in Hawaii, Mexico and the Caribbean, says Dawn Gillis of the Leisure Travel Company NLG. And more ships will leave from the Northeast coast.

As with anything, you have to do your homework, so get in the know about deals early. Check out www.comparecruises.com to search by price, activity or destination.

____________________________

Gerri Willis is a personal finance editor for CNN Business News and the host for Open House. E-mail comments to 5tips@cnn.comTop of page

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Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer.

Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved.

Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved.

Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2014 and/or its affiliates.