updated 2/17/2010 4:38:05 PM ET 2010-02-17T21:38:05

As I write this here in the Northeast, the rodent saw his shadow, a snowfall fell the next day and we're headed for a single-digit deep freeze this weekend — all of which are indicators that it is time to distract ourselves with dreams of spring travel.

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Of course, planning a trip these days can induce its own kind of chills — like the one that might run down your spine at the thought of going through the roiling and unpredictable experience of heightened airport security. And there's not much comfort on the airfare front either; a recent surge in business travel has somewhat emboldened the airlines, and while they recently had to retract a proposed fare increase, you can bet that this won't be their last attempt at inching fares back up toward pre-recession levels, especially as the busy summer travel months approach.

But none of this means you should abandon your dream of Paris in the spring (or Easter in Antigua, or May in Morocco...). Read on for nine ways to save both your money and your sanity as you plan your spring travel this year.

1. Beware of spring break
Unless traveling amongst crowds of other people appeals to you, you may want to avoid traveling around spring break this year. Many view the spring break travel rush as mainly affecting routes to and from touristy beach destinations, but it's not just folks looking for Jersey Shore-style antics in warm and party-friendly climates — it's also more placid kids simply heading back to the family abode to enjoy sleeping in and eating some home cooking. And don't count out families with younger kids traveling during "school vacation"; all add up to more folks on the road.

When is spring break? This guide should help out. And if you don't think spring break accounts for a lot of people traveling, this week-by-week, school-by-school guide will change your mind. Whoa.

For this high-volume, high-profile period, fare increases are coming — and coming soon, according to the folks at Bing Travel: Bing Travel predicts 9 percent jump in airfares.

2. If you are traveling for spring break, consider offbeat and "difficult" destinations
The conventional wisdom during an economic downturn is that travelers are most likely to choose less expensive domestic destinations over exotic international destinations, and all-inclusive packages over DIY outposts. As a result, college-friendly beach towns will be packed, while offbeat yoga retreats may be empty. Some traditionally more expensive destinations may have to lower prices as demand drops out; investigate booking away from "easy and affordable" and you may find your ideal exotic destination to be, well, both easy and affordable.

3. Book now for mid-spring
Although I have seen an uptick in fares over the past week or so, the airlines are not yet programming heavily for some of the sweet spots of spring that roll around come late April and early May. There's far less competition then from school kids, families, vacationers and long weekenders; it's mostly just you and a lot of business travelers. Folks traveling on a mission tend to make for more efficient airports and slightly less expensive fares, and the airlines themselves don't have any major holidays on which to hang predatory fares. Book now and you could nab a great deal on a mid-spring trip.

One point made by the Bing folks leads me to recommend that you...

4. Take a broad view of overall trip costs, especially with respect to lodging
As the Bing folks suggest, you may see some budget creep in airfares, but hotel rates are down across the board. As I have mentioned in the past, many folks price out airfares and decide whether to travel from that info; however, for most trips, even a sizeable airfare increase has negligible budget implications when compared to lodging costs.

For example, say you were hoping to pay $500 per person for airfare, but can't find anything less than $650. For a family of four, that's an extra $600, no chump change.

However, if your hotel is offering heavy discounts, free breakfasts or even free nights, you can nick away at that $600 very quickly. I have seen four-star hotels that previously demanded $250 a night selling for $109 a night; over an extra-long weekend, there's your $150 per person right there. If you are traveling alone or in smaller groups, you can make this money back very fast. Rather than living and dying by airfares, my recommendation is to budget your whole trip, including the lodging and rental cars, and then see what you can find.

5. Don't wait for summer, especially in Europe
Even if you want to avoid the spring breakers, you may not want to wait too long. The airlines have already started pushing up fares for international routes; the folks who run our Travel Deals section have already noticed that airfares to Europe are on their way up, particularly for summer — so early spring may be your last chance to get a decent fare on a Europe flight until the fall.

6. Spring security will be no better than winter security has been
Over the past month or so, the number of security breaches both serious and stupid seems to have multiplied to the point that any traveler who does not have a backup plan is risking considerable inconvenience. And the passage through security is as unpredictable as ever. The TSA folks say they like it that way, as it keeps potential terrorists on their heels, but it often appears to observers that the whole spectacle is less organized and thought-out than the parking lot at a Dead show.

For more on this topic, see What's Wrong with Airport Security (and What to Do About It). You will want to expect the worst show, and bring your best game.

7. Manage the exchange rate roller coaster
The dollar has been doing a bit better in Europe the past couple of weeks — down to $1.39 to buy a euro from near-record highs over $1.50 just two months ago — but it's still a roller coaster ride for anyone trying to plan and pay for a trip. For example, in just the past two weeks, rates for the dollar against the euro improved eight cents, and they did the same in the middle of December. There doesn't seem to be a way to know if or when the trend might reverse just as quickly — so travel expenses that look good at today's exchange rate could be better once the weather changes, or could be much worse.

If you had to ask me for a prediction, however, I would guess that the dollar won't get a whole lot stronger against the euro; this week's $1.38 is as low as it has been for a while, and it's hard to see it plummet from there. The same goes for the British pound; at $1.68 in November, it's now down to $1.59.

I read recently about a freelance foreign correspondent who watches the currency market incessantly because the exchange rate on the day he cashes his paycheck dictates how much money he makes. Similarly, a colleague notes that expenses incurred with a strong dollar end up costing a lot of money when reimbursed a few weeks later against a weak dollar.

To avoid this fate, the best way to understand how much your trip is going to cost you is to get all the quotes you can in U.S. dollars — then at least you know what you are going to pay. Note, however, that if exchange rates shift in your favor, you lose out when using this tactic.

8. Look for package deals
Many hotels are really hurting, and you can find truly good deals at excellent hotels. The trick here can be finding the best deals; just this week, I priced out a room at a Doubletree hotel in Boston, and found four prices for the same two-night stay: over $250 a night on the hotel Web site, about $180 on one booking site, $149 on another booking site and finally $109 on the third booking site when I bundled the hotel with an airfare. Guess which one I purchased. Instead of poking around the entire Internet for the best deal, try bundling it up with your airfare instead; you might find rates that are otherwise completely hidden and unavailable.

I found the same thing with my rental car; when I bundled it in with the airfare, the rate was $11 a day — I can't even get rates that low using my most aggressive car rental tactics.

9. Where to go?
Looking for a new destination that fits your style and mood for spring 2010? Check out this cool app from Fodor's. I tried it out on a lark and it gave back some great results; I may have to start planning my spring trip this week.


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