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Winning Vacation Strategies

Practical Hints From The Travel Experts at USTOA

Picking the right investments for your portfolio...choosing the ideal place to live...plotting the next move on the career ladder...all require developing a winning strategy. So, too does planning a successful vacation.

The experts at the United States Tour Operators Association -- who arrange vacations for more than 10 million people a year -- suggest these practical points to help you plan your perfect vacation.

I. What are those hidden questions you need to ask?

What is and is not included in the price?
Find out if airport transfers, service charges, airport and hotel taxes are included. Also, find out what sightseeing and meals are built into the price.

What features are optional?
Check out optional excursions, meals, or transportation, and find out how much spending money you'll need for these items.

Am I getting the best value for my dollar?
The cheapest tour or vacation package doesn't always give you top value. You might have to pay extra for things that aren't included such as transfers, local sightseeing, etc. Find out about your hotels -- the location, standard and features. If meals are included, what category restaurants, and will you have a choice of menu? On an escorted motorcoach tour ask what type of features the coach has ­ panoramic windows, reclining seats, washroom, high deck seating? If a rental car is included, what size is it, and, if overseas, is it an automatic transmission?

Are my dollars protected?
Find out if the company you're traveling with has a consumer protection plan that will reimburse your deposits and payments in case the company goes out of business. All USTOA member companies, for instance, must participate in the organization's $1 Million Consumer Protection Plan, which reimburses travelers in case the company goes out of business. Also check out trip cancellation insurance, in case you have to change your vacation plans.

Are there penalties if I cancel?
Read the fine print on your travel brochure and documents. Know when payments are due, and what cancellation or late penalties may be incurred.

II. How do you get the most bang for your buck?
Save money by traveling in the "off season"
Ttravel in the "off-season," or shoulder (in-between) season, when you can save anywhere from 10% to 30% on land arrangements, and up to 50% on air fare.

Choose an All-Inclusive Tour
By choosing an all-inclusive tour, you can often realize an average savings of 15% - 20% over the cost of buying the same elements yourself. Because tour operators contract with properties and buy in large increments, they are able to pass the savings on to travelers.

Look for roommate shares
If you're a single traveler, check for roommate shares. It's a convenient way to avoid single supplement charges.

Use a Travel Agent
A good travel agent can save you valuable time and money. He or she has access to special booking systems, and can also sell you vacation packages and tours that are not otherwise available directly to the public.

III. What should you do when your dream destination puts out the "sold-out" sign?
Look for a vacation package or tour
Tour operators contract with hotels and other sightseeing attractions well in advance; and, because they reserve blocks of space, your chances of finding accommodations are far better than when you book on your own.