By Features Editor
updated 6/23/2005 1:45:48 PM ET 2005-06-23T17:45:48

Procrastinators beware: the summer travel booking season kicks in six months before the fact, and often enough he who hesitates gets the middle seat. So now that the snow and ice has been melted a good couple weeks, the first flowers are blooming, and the ski season is almost over, it must be time to think about travel in July.

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A constellation of factors will conspire to make this one of the trickiest summers to get good deals and avoid crowds in some time:

* pent-up demand
* high fuel costs
* weak dollar

Pent-Up Demand: They're Going Anyway
I could make a case that a weak dollar, astronomical fuel prices worldwide, and political uncertainty during wartime might keep US travelers at home again this year.

And I would almost certainly be wrong - after three post-9/11 summers of very tentatively returning to the airways, American travelers appear poised to hit the road this summer in record numbers that could even shatter the boom-time records set in summer 2000. In fact, pent-up demand over the past few years may make July the biggest month of travel to Europe in history.

Already in April airlines are reporting passenger loads rivaling 2000, and this trend will continue. Airfares to Europe during the summer are already high; as I'll explain below, your best bet for now might be to sit tight, let the airlines reconsider some of their pricing, and be ready to pounce if a good fare shows up.

Weak Dollar: The Reverse Commute
Typically, it is Americans invading international tourist destinations that characterizes the summer travel crush. This year, with foreign currencies including the euro and yen doing extremely well against the dollar, it may be foreign tourists at North American destinations that will push up demand, prices, and crowds.

The competition may be particularly fierce for hotel rooms. Already hotels in premium, high-profile locations like Hawaii, New York City, Las Vegas, and the major theme parks are reporting abundant hotel bookings by foreign travelers, with overall occupancy rates pushing up toward 90%, according to a study by Smith Travel Research.

Airfares
Due to intense competition led by the discount airlines, domestic airfares should remain relatively affordable all summer. All bets are off on peak weekends, such as July 4 and Labor Day, and certainly airlines will push up fares whenever planes start to fill.

July 4th - Hoo Boy
Expect the July 4th weekend to be one of the biggest and most crowded summer travel weekends in at least a half-decade. The 4th falls on a Monday, so vacation travel will be extremely concentrated as travelers make the most of the three-day weekend. Expect crowds and lines at airport check-in, parking, hotels, theme parks and attractions, and in your aircraft row; it is going to be a wild one.

Travel Where They're Not
Destinations that are increasing in popularity but still offer some respite from the tourist hordes include Eastern Europe, Mexico and Central America, Canada, and in some cases Australia.

Europe: travel to the old standbys of London, Paris, Rome, and the like will be both expensive and crowded. You can avoid crowds and soaring prices by heading for Eastern Europe, particularly to locations that were once behind the Iron Curtain or otherwise considered dangerous.

Now is the time to visit cities like Zagreb, Prague, Warsaw, and Budapest, which in many cases will show you an older Europe where global franchises have not yet proliferated, and local custom still rules. Even European travel agents are starting to send their more discerning clients to these destinations. In Slovenia, the town of Bled rivals most Swiss and northern Italian towns as a stunning getaway. Turkey and Malta are also making it onto the lists of discount-minded travelers willing to venture a little further to find Old Europe.

Also, the alternative package tour has come of age in Europe. I'm not talking about buses packed with Americans in plaid shorts and visors, noses pressed to air-conditioned windows; rather, think about a package tour that directly addresses your hobbies or interests, such as literature, politics, art, wine, Arctic fjords, historical figures - wherever your curiosity takes you. Check out our section on Special Interest Travel for ideas and outfitters.

Canada: Vancouver is arguably a bit like Seattle in 1990; artsy, relaxed, a little scruffy, and very vibrant. Nova Scotia is the Maine of the moment; small, thin-walled B&B's, long days, cool temperatures.

Mexico and Central America: the notion of a trip to Mexico in July is intimidating - it's going to be hot, right? Not necessarily. You can beat the heat by traveling to locales at higher altitudes, where the climate can be spring-like year-round, such as the highlands north of Mexico City, where you will find many of the best attractions, including the pyramids at Teotihuacán, and the Toltec outpost of Tula.

The Guatemalan tourist board likes to call the country "the land of eternal spring," and Nicaraguan and Guatemalan natives even have an interesting name for their rainy season, which occurs from May to October. While most Northern Hemisphere residents would call this stretch "summer;" locals call it invierno, Spanish for winter.

Many Central American economies simply use the dollar as currency, so certain amenities such as car rentals may actually rival US prices. However, when a full meal costs about 68 cents in a place like El Salvador, you can splurge on the 4WD for your ride.

Down Under: It is winter in the southern hemisphere, but in northern Australia, where the coastal tropics in the north are in dry season, you'll have temperate weather day and night. Additionally, the dollar is doing okay, if not great, against the AUS dollar - $1.29 at this writing, which is a bit better than you would do in Canada. Gasoline prices come in below those found in Europe as well, at a bit over $1 AUS per liter, or a little over $3/gallon.

The USA: no matter how many foreign travelers flock to Las Vegas for bulk exchanges o Euros and yen for dollars, Las Vegas will have plenty of open, affordable hotel rooms, flights, and empty cabs. It's not my idea of a great summer trip, but a lot of folks think otherwise. Expect the theme parks and cities to be overflowing with folks; you'll really have to go against the grain to get away from the crowds stateside. Cabins in Montana, sports camps in Wisconsin, and summer attractions at ski resorts are some ideas about how to think about domestic summer travel against the grain.

Prices
This will not be a cheap summer to travel. No matter where you go and how you get there, you will be reaching into your pockets, whether it's for gas ($7/gallon in the UK), airfare, hotel rooms, tickets, or auto rentals.

How do you beat the odds? I see three options at present:

*Buy early, before prices rise. I think this will be the way to go for lodging, tickets, and similar fixed-price, limited availability items.

*Buy late, when current prices come down. This is going to be my tactic on flights; I actually don't see the current $750 flights to London holding up. The airlines will come down eventually, whether en masse or for short-lived fare sales. When the right price shows up, buy immediately.

*Investigate packages. Packages, especially all-inclusive deals, let you avoid surprise expenses and exchange rate sticker shock once your trip is underway. Many package operators offer fixed prices quoted in dollars; this way, you know what you get, and you know what it costs.

Remember, spring is the time to think summer travel. To discuss this and other Traveler's Ed articles, visit the Traveler's Ed Message Board.

Go Anyway.

The Independent Traveler is an interactive traveler's exchange and comprehensive online travel guide for a community of travelers who enjoy the fun of planning their own trips and the adventure of independent travel. You can access our wealth of travel resources and great bargains here at www.independenttraveler.com, or at www.bargainbox.com.

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