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50 Smart Travel Tips

You say you want to be a smart traveler? Have we got tips for you!

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We have two predictions for 2006 we know will come true. You will travel somewhere. And you'll hit potholes. As a holiday gift, instead of just giving you one way to improve your travel life, we've got 50!

Airlines

1. Don't panic about fare hikes. They're coming, to the tune of 3 to 6 percent. But bankrupt carriers will always cut prices as a lure. So you don't have to buy summer tickets just yet!

2. But if you see a good fare, nab it. Because really, the trend is up, up, and away.

3. Busy = bargains. Competition from low-fare carriers will keep prices low on popular legs (like New York-L.A. or Chicago-Dallas).

4. Go "meta." A "metasearch" site scours dozens of sites for the best price, then connects you to book. Try farechase.com, kayak.com, mobissimo.com, and Sidestep.com.

5. Always check the airline site. Typically, you'll save $5 to $10 a ticket.

6. Steer clear of troubled li'l carriers. Like Independence Air. They're at the greatest risk of folding. Book only for the near future.

7. Pack lunch. And more. Want a pillow on Air Canada? That'll be $2.

8. Better yet, bring your own. Cocoon's travel pillows ($20-$40) pack into a fist-size bag and come in three sizes, including a new 13-by-17-inch model.

9. Pack light. To keep fuel costs down, airlines are enforcing luggage weight limits--usually 40 to 50 pounds. Go over and you may have to pay $150--if the airline accepts your luggage.

10. Consider an online agent. Dot-com travel agencies like Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity charge a $5 booking fee but now promise that if something goes wrong, they'll make it right--and they've been doing their best.

11. Burn your miles. Got enough for a ticket? Cash out. The uncertainty of some carriers could make frequent-flier points depreciate.

12. Earn points like a pro. Tim Winship and Randy Petersen tell all in Mileage Pro ($19.95, mileageprobook com ), from "double-dipping" (earning airline and hotel points at the same time) to awards for other purchases.

13. Kids still fly free. Alaska Airlines Vacations offers free airfare for ages 2 through 11 on Southern California packages. Book by March 19, travel January 3 through June 28.

Car Rental

14. Call for your car. Rates are edging up. Car rental websites typically have the best prices, but there may be special discounts for callers.

15. For speed, try Orbitz. Just three screens to book a "no sticker shock" car (taxes and fees included, insurance and optional fuel charges not).

16. Don't overinsure. Call your insurer to find out what coverage you have. Better yet, pay with Visa: Any car rented with its card will be covered.

17. Defend against dents. Agencies are cracking down on customers who dent or scratch a car. Examine your car before leaving the lot. When you return it, take pictures as proof of no damage.

18. Pump it yourself. The prepaid option is a rip-off unless you come back on "empty."

19. Go for hot wheels. Hertz's new "Fun Collection" features convertibles like the Mazda Miata as well as SUV s like the Ford Escape XLT Sport.

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