updated 4/6/2007 3:00:48 PM ET 2007-04-06T19:00:48

With the end of tax season in sight, the time is approaching to think about how to spend those refunds. For many of us the answer will be a vacation, whether it's a relaxing trip to a nearby lake or an adventure on the other side of the world. No matter where they decide to go, consumers have to be smart. Packed flights and overbooked hotels can make even a trip to paradise seem like an ordeal.

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As a bit of a pick-me-up from the early-April blues, this week's Five for the Money offers up some summer trip planning tips.

1. Plan ahead. This might not be the best year for spontaneous jaunts. While booking in advance is always smart, it's especially important this summer. Ilene Koenig of Santa Monica (Calif.) travel agency Let's Travel says "the phones started ringing Jan. 2 and haven't stopped." For cruises, she suggests booking between six months and a year in advance, especially for the priciest and least expensive cabins. "The 9/11 jitters are gone," she asserts. She adds that childless travelers who have the option should try to avoid tourism in peak summer months. Instead, plan a trip in the fall or spring when fewer people are on the road and bookings may not have to be made so far in advance.

2. Consider a travel agent. For many travelers the Internet has all but eliminated the need for a travel agent. Nonetheless, the profession isn't going the way of the video store, suggesting that they have something to offer that large clearinghouse Web sites don't. For one thing, a good travel agent may have a strong grasp of the region beyond the chain hotels offered on the Internet. Becky Pruitt of The Travel Agent in Carmel, Ind., says well-connected agencies can offer services tailored to the customer, especially in luxury sales. "If they want to spend the day at a castle or in a vineyard" without a tour bus full of best friends, specialized providers can be useful. Travel Sense allows visitors to find agents by specialty and location.

3. Do your research. Shocking but true — no place is quite like it looks in the movies. Paris is empty in August, and parts of the Caribbean get hit by brutal storms. So travelers should do their research before setting off. Duraid Makhay of Alma Travel in Dearborn, Mich., says many common travel problems can be solved by a little research, such as learning if a public transport system is safe or if a U.S. driver's license is valid in another country. Often travelers don't know what costs are included in their resort vacations, he says. For Web research, Lonely Planet is a good first stop for backpackers. More pampered sorts may prefer Fodor's.

Of course, research won't solve every traveling problem — and some people may not want to abide by a country's customs. "People think that because you're American you can do whatever you want," he says. That sort of presumption can be a recipe for misadventure.

4. Get a passport. Now. Gone are the days when U.S. citizens could treat North America like one large country. In the wake of September 11, the government has cracked down on identification requirements for cross-border travelers. As of January, 2007, U.S. citizens traveling by air between the U.S. and other countries in the Americas need to present a valid passport. This could tighten to include drivers as early as next year.

Sandy Lovick, of Carlson Wagonlit Travel in Maple Grove, Minn., says she has seen customers unable to go on trips because they lacked proper documentation. Passports used to take six to eight weeks to arrive and now they're taking longer, she says, on account of enhanced security measures. First-time applicants need to appear in person at a post office or library that offers passports. Renewals can usually be handled through the mail.

A passport is convenient even for travelers who think they don't need one. On Caribbean cruises, U.S. citizens can still leave the ship without a passport, but if a passenger gets hurt while on foreign soil and needs to fly home, not having a passport can cause complications, Lovick says.

5. Head south. Way south. For tourists who just can't stand the summer heat above the Equator, the Southern Hemisphere beckons in July and August. It's not only a neat idea to ski in July in Argentina or Chile; bargain hunters can also find some good deals by heading south during the summer. Eddie Monaghan of TravelSpark, an agency specializing in travel to southern Africa, says some of the best deals are on luxury safaris and upscale hotels, such as the ritzy Cape Grace in Cape Town, South Africa. And compared with the northern U.S., the winters are usually mild. Unfortunately, travelers shouldn't expect to catch much of a break on airfare. It's not cheap to hop between seasons.

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