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Your best summer vacation
5 Tips: Start making your plans early for the best rates.
March 11, 2005: 2:54 PM EST
By Gerri Willis, CNN/Money contributing columnist

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Baby, it's cold outside. Just when we think it's going to warm up, Mother Nature sends us another Canadian Clipper or a Nor'easter.

Of course everyone at the office (except you) has escaped for Spring Break to Florida, the Caribbean or Mexico. Well, their vacation time will soon pass. Yours is still ahead.

Beat your winter blues by planning your best summer vacation now. Here are today's five tips.

1. Ask, why not now?

While it seems early, this is the time to start planning. According to Tom Parsons, CEO at, "You might have to refinance your home if you wait too long [to plan your vacation]."

What's the rush? With the weak dollar, Europeans are booking their summer holidays in the U.S. this year, creating competition for reservations at popular destinations like Cape Cod, Massachusetts; Hilton Head, South Carolina; and the National Parks.

Now is the ideal time to be looking for your flight and hotel. You don't necessarily have to buy yet, but look around. Ideally, you want to have your plans set in stone by May 1st.

However, families looking for rental properties really need to get on the ball, according to Michael Sarka, executive director of the Vacation Rental Managers Association (VRMA).

"This is the season for booking," Sarka says, "If you're looking for the best bargain, you better book won't get a better deal two months from now."

The good news is that prices won't rise too dramatically this year: two-thirds of VRMA members say they will raise their rental fees this year an average of 3.5 percent.

2. Think what not where.

Your family might be a regular on Martha's Vineyard, but its growing popularity might have taken it straight out of your price range. Really, you will have a good time anywhere you go.

Instead of thinking how you'll miss the old familiar, think of new adventure. Find a cheaper beach vacation.

"Summer is a great time to go to Latin America, especially Costa Rica. It's in its green season, lush and beautiful, and can offer really cheap package deals" says Anne Banas, executive editor at

Mexican resorts in Cancun, Acapulco, and Los Cabos dramatically reduce their rates as soon as Easter over. Banas says resorts there offer savings of more than 20 percent over the spring break season.

The northern islands in the Caribbean such as the Bahamas and Jamaica also go on sale after Memorial Day Weekend.

3. Take a boat, not a backpack.

Trips to Europe are not what they used to be. The dollar doesn't go nearly as far as it did a few years ago. Even country-hopping through the "back door" -- that is, staying in small inns in towns off the beaten track -- will still cost more because our dollar is worth fewer euros.

How do you get around that trap? Banas says that many cruises touring Europe will let you pay in dollars instead of euros.

"You can book an all-inclusive cruise in American dollars and pay for anything on the ship in American dollars. You find savings there because you avoid the exchange rate and prices on the cruise are comparable to those in the Caribbean."

In fact, the major lines are expecting European cruises to be so popular, some are transferring boats from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean later this spring.

According to Banas, another cheap way to travel Europe is to visit the Eastern European countries. These countries are not using the euro yet, so your dollars can be more valuable. Trips to the Czech Republic, Romania, Croatia, and Serbia offer amazing European culture at a fraction of the price of their Western neighbors.

4. Think snow and ice.

Well, don't really. But think about where you want to spend your winter vacation: the ski slopes. Posh ski resorts have a lot to offer but can be so expensive in the winter months.

Now is your chance to stay at one. calls summer vacations at the ski resorts an "off-peak bargain." As for families looking to rent a mountain home, Sarka says that renting in Colorado ski towns can offer great value and availability.

Some of the fun perks with ski towns: amazing golf courses, spas, whitewater kayaking and hiking. To find a house that suits your family, check out the state-by-state directory of rental properties on VRMA's Web site or negotiate with an owner directly through Owner Direct Vacation Rentals.

If your family is headed to a National Park this summer: book now. Rick Hoeninghausen, director of Marketing at Yellowstone National Park, says two-thirds of its rooms are already booked for the summer.

Yosemite and the Grand Canyon are also limited, according to Banas, but you can always try Grand Teton, Rocky Mountain, and Glacier, which are not as popular but just as much fun. To book lodging in these parks, check out the management company's Web site.

5. Time it just right.

Long weekends, Labor Day weekend and July Fourth week will kill your pocketbook. You'll also struggle with traffic, crowds and waits. Why not spend those times at home with a backyard barbecue, and take your vacations when no one else does?

"If your dates are flexible, try to avoid peak summer periods such as the end of July and beginning of August in order to find more options and better pricing," says Tony Lopes, manager of Owner Direct Vacation Rentals.

Take your "long-weekend" mid-week and save as much as 20 percent on lodging and find fewer problems making reservations. Make your week-away in early May or mid-September when all the summer crowds and summer rates are not around.

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


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