Finding an affordable last minute holiday getaway

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Native American kids at the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale

By Eileen Ogintz

Tribune Media Services

Finally, some good news for traveling families. If you thought the ever-worsening economy meant you should forgo a holiday or post-holiday getaway with the kids, think again. The reality is that this may be the year to travel.

There have never been so many holiday deals — whether you want to spend a night or two in your favorite city (plenty of deals at historic hotels around the country for under $150 a night, www.historichotels.org), build sandcastles on a beach (condos for under $100 a night in Florida, www.rentalo.com, get a free fifth night, $300 in travelers’ checks, as well as meal, attraction credits and a coupon book packed with other savings in the U.S. Virgin Islands (www.usvigetaway.com/winterescape), where you don’t need a passport) or race your kids down a mountain slope. (Get free lift tickets for the gang at Crested Butte in Colorado, if you fly Delta, plus a fifth night free www.skithewest.com.)

Because hotels, resorts and cruise ships still have so much holiday space — unheard of in past years — they’ve tossed out holiday premium rates and minimum stay requirements and are throwing in all sorts of extras — everything from resort and airline credits to kids-eat-free and even free holiday nights. Of course every deal is different so read the fine print carefully. And don’t be afraid to bargain, suggests Pauline Frommer, author of the 13-book “Pauline Frommer’s Spend Less See More” guide series (www.frommers.com). “Call the manager directly at the hotel and ‘talk turkey,’ Frommer says. “Tell him what you can afford and see if the hotel can accommodate you.”

“The weak economy means there are many opportunities for consumers,” says Dan Sherman of www.ski.com. His tip: Look for ski vacations in or near major airport hubs like Denver or Salt Lake City and be as flexible as you can with your dates, traveling Christmas Day or New Year’s Eve day, for example. That goes for cruise ships too, says Stewart Chiron, cruise industry expert and president of www.cruiseguy.com.

He reports more discounts on Christmas and New Year’s Day sailing in more than two decades — as low as $499 per person on seven-day trips.

(Check www.travelocity.com for more deals.) Just remember, says Travelocity.com’s Amy Ziff, these deals are based on time and availability, “so don’t wait if you see something that’s right for you.” She notes that Travelocity’s most recent data shows a steady decline in holiday airfare over the past several weeks — an average of $53 a ticket. “Book your airfare and hotel together and you’ll get a better price,” adds Marita Hudson Thomas of Cheaptickets.com. Their new site (http://cheaponomy.cheaptickets.com) showcases the cheapest holiday getaways. Hotel rates are nearly 20 percent cheaper this year in Fort Lauderdale over the holidays, Thomas notes. Here are just a few examples of what else you should look for — and ask for — this holiday season:

CHRISTMAS NIGHT FREE whether you are booking a Colorado ski condo, (www.vacationroost.com), Mammoth Mountain ski holiday (www.mammothmountain.com) or The Reefs in Bermuda (www.thereefs.com) on its own pink sand beach. Get a free night plus breakfast and a free room upgrade at the just-renovated Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort (www.scottsdale.hyatt.com), if you stay four nights with the “Three for Free” deal. You can even bring your pet along for an extra fee.

AIR CREDITS: As much as $2,000 for a family of four when you spend a week at the upscale Verandah Resort and Spa in Antigua (www.eliteislandvacations.com) where kids stay, play and eat free. Travel Dec. 27 and Club Med (www.clubmed.us) throws in free airfare and two free days at the resort.

EXTRAS everywhere from Azul Hotels by Karisma in Mexico (www.karismahotels.com) where you can book two massages for $80 and kids stay for half off at the luxe all-inclusive properties. The Westin St. John Resort and Westin Aruba (www.westin.com) throw in a $100 resort credit per day while kids up to age 12 can eat for half price from the adult menu. Vail Resorts (www.snow.com) are giving away $30 a day in dining vouchers per child with three-day packages. Get free kids camp at the newly renovated Boca Raton Resort & Club in Florida (www.BocaResort.com) where until Dec. 26, you can get two rooms for $249 a night.

EUROPE AND BRITAIN ON THE CHEAP.With a significantly stronger dollar than even last summer and $500 round-trip flights, you can take the kids to centuries-old holiday markets in Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic without busting the budget, says Andre Hesselink, CEO of www.Vayama.com, which is dedicated to offering discounted international flights to North Americans. Hesselink notes that children’s fares on international flights are as much as 35 percent less than an adult’s ticket. If you are traveling to visit relatives, tack on a day or two in the nearest city where you’ll find plenty of morning-till-night holiday activities and discounted hotels, especially on the weekends. (Pauline Frommer suggests checking out www.hotelscombined.com.)

If you are in Philadelphia, for example, there’s Franklin Square in the heart of historic Philadelphia (www.historicphiladelphia.com), complete with the Liberty Carousel and Philly Mini-Golf. In Chicago, Daley Plaza is transformed into a German Christkindlmarket (www.christkindlmarket.com) where you can visit the Santa Claus House. See more than 6,000 luminarias along the famous San Antonio Riverwalk (www.heartofsanantonio.com). Opt for just New Year’s weekend. Waterville Valley Resort in New Hampshire (www.visitwatervillevalley.com), for example, is offering a $209 package at an inn for the entire gang where kids ski and stay free. Visit www.firstnight.com for more on family New Year’s celebrations in large and small cities around the country. If you can get away just before the holidays — or right after New Year’s, you’ll save even more.

Smugglers’ Notch Resort in Vermont (www.smuggs.com), for example, has a 50 percent off deal good until Dec. 20 that’s just $234 a night, including lodging, ski school for the kids, and half-off daycare. Kids stay free Dec. 14 through Dec. 23 at the sprawling, Mohonk Mountain House (www.mohonk.com), a National Historic Landmark that is decorated to the nines. I’m not suggesting you spend next month’s mortgage on a holiday trip. I’m saying that whatever your budget, you probably can find a deal that will make you forget about your worries and focus on what’s right in your life — your kids and grandkids — for a few days over the holidays anyway. See you on the beach.

(c) 2008 EILEEN OGINTZ DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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