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updated 2/17/2009 11:14:01 AM ET 2009-02-17T16:14:01

If you think 2008 was a rough year for the travel industry, you haven't seen anything yet. Even before January was out, 2009 showed record drops in travel and bookings to some of the most historically recession-proof destinations — Las Vegas, anyone? Virtually every sector of the travel industry is facing the worst booking rates in years, and few think the bottom is even in sight, let alone upon us.

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For the traveler, this situation may conspire to create the most spectacular buyer's market in a long time — if you can afford to travel at all, of course. Just take a look at our Bargain Box: free hotel nights at Disney, $100 rates at the most famous hotels from New York to Las Vegas and on to Hawaii, a massive airfare war underway, signs of summer discounting in February ... whew.

The situation may create opportunities for both savings and outstanding trips, but it will bring with it some volatility — flights may be canceled, hotels may eliminate staff or even close, and prices may fluctuate wildly such that what looks like a bargain today may appear more like price-gouging tomorrow.

While you could get away with being a bit of a passive shopper and lazy traveler when things were good, now that things aren't so good it's more important than ever to use smart travel strategies. Here are my tips for the tactics that have been available to folks for a while, but were mostly ignored — and are now essential steps.

1. Check prices after you book your travel
Most reputable travel companies have some kind of pricing guarantee — i.e., if prices plunge after you have made your purchase, but before your travel date, the company will make up some or all of the difference. Airlines can be very problematic in this respect; most also apply their standard change fee, which will usually wipe out most or all of your potential savings. Other outfits, such as hotels, car rental companies, theme parks and some (but not all) cruise lines, are more likely to be accommodating.

2. Consider taking “dream vacations”
The week in Disney, the trip to Hawaii, the Caribbean waterfront resort stay, the “lost weekend” in Vegas — the old “dream vacation” standbys are almost criminally affordable at present. Where to look for the best deals? Try the most tourist-friendly places, where flights and hotels are abundant — and empty. Oceanfront hotels in Hawaii are going for $100 a night; famous four-star hotels in Las Vegas are asking $85-$125 a night; Miami is priced like it's 1975. These are prices you used to get only at motels and geographically challenged hotels, but now you can get them right in the thick of the action.

Similarly, outfitters are offering closeout deals; renting a sailboat in the Caribbean or a staffed villa in Europe is more affordable than ever. If you're planning a trip, don't limit yourself; you may be able to do things you never imagined to be within reach of your travel budget.

3. Upgrade your expectations
Where you usually might settle for the moderately priced hotel a couple blocks off the beach, this year you are going to find oceanview rooms priced identically to their poorer first-floor-parking-lot cousins. When booking, ask for the room rates — and then ask if you can get a better room for the same price.

And don't limit your imagination merely to a better hotel view. For example, think about going island-hopping in Hawaii. Sound extravagant? Not when inter-island flights are priced under $30 — you can't get a rowboat for that! I have two good friends who recently spent a couple of weeks on the Big Island of Hawaii, and both said it was the most affordable trip they have taken in years. Find and follow the deals, and you may be able to travel like a rock star.

4. Book directly
Despite the abundance of competition online — and there will be plenty — 2009 is going to be a year of unadvertised specials. Merely by asking a real person for the best rates, you'll get them in many cases. Whether it's because they're taking the chance that you don't know any better and will book anyway, or their Web sites just can't keep up with the rush of changing discounts, many travel companies can offer prices over the phone that they just can't show everyone on the Web. Book hotels on the phone, purchase theme park tickets on the phone ... do this with anything where a real person might be able to offer you a better deal. (Things like car rentals won't apply here; go for the auction sites in those cases.)

5. Ask about amenities
A few weeks back, I wrote that some travel suppliers were trying to hold their rates steady while piling on the amenities as enticements, including free breakfasts, late check-outs, free spa access and room and cabin upgrades. This is still the case, but as base rates go down, some of these amenities may shrink and even disappear, and you will want to go in with your eyes open if this is the case. Additionally, layoffs are starting to pile up in the travel sector, and services may not be up to snuff as fewer folks try to do more of the work. You'll want to know what to expect before you lock in a booking.

6. Confirm your flights
As suggested above, downsizing will be a serious, well, downside of the economic hard times, and in the worst cases, it could affect your travel dramatically. As route maps contract, you will want to check in with your airline before you travel. In the past few months, the airlines have been spotty about notifying travelers of changes that will affect their bookings, so you will want to look after yourself and make sure your flight still exists before you show up at the airport.

7. Confirm everything
Things could get even worse at hotels; industry analysts predict a rash of hotel closings if business prospects do not improve. Rental car companies also fit the bill; a couple are teetering on the cusp of bankruptcy, and you could arrive at a rental counter to find there is no rental counter. Again, call a few days before your trip to confirm that your reservation is still in order.

8. Book some things as late as possible
For admittedly glum reasons — things are likely going to get worse before they get better — these days I'm booking certain items as late as possible to take advantage of declining prices and last-minute deals. These include car rentals, theme park tickets and non-essential flights, for which I'll be watching the weekend getaway notices.

9. Purchase travel insurance
With so much uncertainty in the air, travel insurance could protect you from many of the problems above. Make sure you read the fine print to be sure you are covered in the event of bankruptcy, flight cancellation or changes, financial default and more.

Also, be sure to buy from a reputable company, since some travel insurers could be going out of business as well, ugh! What is a reputable company? Well, it used to be that AIG fit the bill, but we all know how that went. My advice would be to go with one of the big insurers, as they are more likely to have the resources and backing to stay afloat for longer even under financial duress. The United States Travel Insurance Association's Web site is a good all-around resource. All the companies that are listed as members of the USTIA subscribe to a rigorous code of ethics and are all legitimate, offering policies underwritten by licensed, and therefore highly regulated, insurance companies.

For more information on choosing a travel insurance provider, see Prime Travel Insurance Out of Business: Are Consumers Out of Luck?

Here's hoping things get better sooner rather than later for travel outfits and all of us alike — but until that time, we might as well find the silver lining and "enjoy" the bad times while they last.

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