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Should you stay or should you go?

There's a lot of gloom and doom in the travel press these days, all lamenting the high cost of summer travel this year. Even Joel Widzer, usually a big travel booster, thinks this might be the year to spend some time in the backyard lying in the hammock and playing croquet. Joel sizes up the problem and gives some advice.
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I seldom buy into the latest travel hype, especially when it's negative, but I have to agree that this summer is shaping up to be a bad time to travel. Airfares are high, hotel rates are higher, the dollar is weak abroad, and gas prices seem headed for the $4-a-gallon mark at home. All in all, it is a gloomy prospect for summer vacationers.

Still, lots of people are expected to hit the road over the next three months, in part because there is pent-up demand for travel and in part because this is the only season that some people can travel. That means full planes, oversold hotels and lots of crowds — especially at airports.

The way I see it, you have two options this summer: travel despite the high cost, or postpone travel for a more opportune time. If you absolutely must go, consider these cost-savings tips.

Shorten the trip. Instead of taking a seven-day vacation, reduce it to four or five nights. This will save on hotels, food, car rentals and other related costs.

Have the patience of an elephant, then pounce like a jaguar. Travel providers have raised prices in anticipation of a record number of summer travelers. If these expectations are not met, look for prices to drop and specials to appear.

Think short. While many airlines have increased fares on popular long-distance routes, many have reduced fares on shorter routes. For example, Alaska Airlines recently reduced fares by as much as 76 percent for a number of short flights.

Cash in your miles. Now might be the time to use those miles you've been hoarding — even if you have to redeem at twice the usual rate. You'll save more money if you can find a package that includes air travel, hotel stay and car rental.

Look local. Think of the opportunities in your own backyard. If you're in Baltimore, take a weekend and explore the Inner Harbor. If you're in Philadelphia, revisit the museums and the Liberty Bell. Check into a nearby luxury hotel for the weekend and treat yourself to a wonderful meal, a round of golf or a daylong spa treatment.

Get two days for the price of one. Looking for a weekend escape on the cheap? Try booking a room with an early check-in for Saturday night then, once you arrive, ask for a late Sunday check-out. That way you'll get two full days for the price of one.

If you decide not to travel, think about putting the money you save to good use.

Get out of debt. Pay off that nagging credit card with the 20 percent interest rate.

Treat yourself to something new. A special piece of jewelry or a new outfit will continue to please you long after the summer is over.

Go to the bank. Investing for the future is a good idea in any season. Maybe you'll pick a stock that will pay for your next vacation.

Remember, things can change. The weak dollar will eventually gain strength, and I believe air fares and hotel rates will settle down. In the meantime, keep your eye on the travel pages and be ready to pounce on those destinations and fares that offer reasonable value. Remember, too: That prized vacation spot will still be there next year.