The Best Bang For Your Holiday Travel Budget
Ready or not, the holidays are quickly approaching. That means travel, but it can also mean higher rates, even in a bad economy. "Holidays and 'deal' in the travel world are oxymorons," says Julie Sturgeon, owner of Curing Cold Feet travel agency in Indianapolis. But if you're looking for a place to celebrate - or just escape until you can put this stressful year behind you - without spending a fortune, we have a few suggestions. (Vacationers are faced with a major financial risk: spending too much money. Find out how to avoid it. See All-Inclusive Vacation Keeps Travelers On Budget.)

IN PICTURES: 8 Easy Ways To Slash Your Holiday Budget

Gulf Shores
Thanks to travelers' fears of the oil spill this summer, the usual traffic has been down in the Gulf Shores, Alabama area, says Sturgeon. "Once people get out of the habit of going to a location, it takes a variety of marketing tricks to remind them you still exist - including deals on accommodations."

Don't limit yourself to hotels - Sturgeon says she's been looking at condos on the beach starting at $679 for a week starting December 24. Bonus: the beaches are clean and open to the public.

Washington, DC
Starting around mid-December, politicians and government employees start fleeing the Beltway to return to their hometowns (or just escape), and the city is low on its usual lobbyist, convention and tourist traffic. Sturgeon has spotted luxury rooms going for $89 a night the week before Christmas. This might be a great chance to check out the museums and historical attractions with fewer crowds. (With a few simple policy additions you can protect your holiday plans from being ruined. To learn more, read Ensure Your Vacation Is Insured.)

Anchorage, Alaska
Yes, it is cold up there in December. But it would be tough to get a more authentic winter wonderland atmosphere, short of heading to the North Pole. And it's a great way to escape from big city crowds. So if you don't mind brisk temperatures, you can get some good rates. Sturgeon says rates vary from $143 a night for the four-star Captain Hook Hotel to $179 for the Hilton.

Cold European Regions
Likewise, snow bunnies who head overseas will enjoy some good deals, says Candyce H. Stapen, PhD, of Great Family Vacations, LLC. If you head to Europe at year's end, you'll find major cities and airlines offering prices lower than summer rates. "Bundle up and visit Stockholm, Prague or Krakow in winter when there are fewer crowds and lower prices," Stapen suggests.

Certain Parts of Florida
Stay far away from the theme parks - Christmas is generally their busiest time of year, meaning you will encounter both crowds and peak rates. But you might be pleasantly surprised at rates in other, quieter parts of the state. Stapen recommends looking into northern Florida around Amelia Island and the Jacksonville, plus Panama Beach - where temperatures hover around 60 degrees during the day, great for walking on the beach.

IN PICTURES: 9 Ways To Trim The Fat From Your Spending

Other People's Homes
The holiday season is primetime for "home trading" services. (Hey, it turned out well for Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz in "The Holiday"!) Sites like HomeExchange.com, LuxeHomeSwap.com and other home swap services have plenty of great options still available for the holidays. Also check out RRBO.com, where you can rent villas and resort timeshares directly from their owners, usually for less than hotel rates. (This popular real estate product has its advantages, but don't expect to make a profit. Check out Timeshares: Dream Vacation Or Money Pit?)

The Bottom Line
If you stay away from tourist areas and are open to off the beaten path destinations, you just may be rewarded with some really great savings this holiday season. A last tip: If you like being spontaneous and are flexible about your plans and destination, keep checking sites like Priceline and PackLate.com. Good deals often pop up at the least minute right before the holidays, especially if airlines and hotels have empty rooms or seats they need to fill quickly.

Find out what happened in financial news this week. Read Water Cooler Finance: G20 Leader Spats And China Fakes It.

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