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Strategies to avoid the spring break crowd

/ Source: Independent Traveler

A family elder who grew up as a sharecropper in North Dakota has this to say of February: "The days lengthen, and winter strengthens." For travelers, the longer days mean spring is just ahead, with better weather and heaps of travel opportunities.

Whether you are avoiding or joining the spring break hordes, interested in exploring new destinations, or looking for some of the great deals spring can bring, we have useful tips for you in our spring travel strategies for 2008.

Spring break: Just say go
If you are a member of the MySpace generation, raising one of them, or simply adventurous enough to join the throngs of spring break revelers, I'll leave your choice of venue to you — but the following tips might help you navigate the long lines and bad judgment that come with spring break.

Research and book your hotel first. If every acceptable hotel within a reasonable distance of your favorite venues is full — and in the most popular spring break destinations, this is not entirely uncommon — you're going to want to know about it before you drop a ton of money on a flight. The quality and especially location of a hotel can make or break a trip, so you'll be well served to scour the market for acceptable accommodations early on in your planning.

The upside of researching and booking a hotel early is that, unlike most travel purchases, cancellation and change fees only occasionally apply. Most hotels require only 24 hours' notice to change or cancel a hotel reservation without penalty. (Note that this may not be the case when purchasing through certain booking sites, particularly budget sites such as Priceline, where you do pay in advance and change penalties often apply, so you'll want to read the fine print before booking online.)

As a result, you can nail down the perfect hotel room early, and then check out your flight options without risking a lot of money. Also, if you have specific room requirements (such as an ocean view, upper floors, specific number or type of beds, etc.), I recommend calling the hotel to make your reservation. Hotel operators are more likely to honor promises they make themselves than those obtained by clicking on a computer reservations checkbox.

Similarly, if you will need a rental car, book early. As cars start to disappear off lots, you can get into real trouble on both availability and pricing. For flights, I recommend that you fly early in the day — first thing in the morning if possible. These flights are more likely to be priced lower, depart on time, and be unaffected by systemic delays that can ripple through the air transit system and really mess with your vacation.

Spring break: Just say no
If you are planning to travel during the spring break high period, but wish to avoid the spring break crowds and chaos, consider the following tips and destinations.

The easiest way to avoid spring break crowds at airports, hotels and popular vacation destinations is to stay home during the traditional spring break stretch. This year, most university spring break weeks occur between March 8 and March 22, the second and fourth Saturdays in March; a few occur a little earlier, a few more a little later.

If you are traveling during this period, try to fly midweek, as most spring break revelers fly out and back on the first and last possible weekend days. If you fly midweek, most of your competition for seats are not headed anywhere new (except possibly for MySpace fame).

The Sunshine State: If you must go to Florida, the west coast tends to operate at a slower pace and lower intensity than the hard-charging east coast. If you are considering the major theme parks, think about visiting some of the less obvious options; the Magic Kingdom will be overwhelmed with families with school kids, while some of the outlying parks may be less crowded.

Beyond sun and sand: Many students and sun seekers avoid the great cities of the country during the early spring — and that's all the more reason to visit them. Big cities like New York, Seattle and San Francisco are fabulous year round, while the weather in Southern and Southwestern cities like Dallas, Austin and Savannah is temperate and pleasant. Spring is also a good time to check out popular sites like Gettysburg and the Grand Canyon before the summer crowds arrive — and don't forget about Washington D.C., which has its yearly Cherry Blossom Festival from March 29 through April 13 this year.

Back to school: When a well-known university town like Cambridge, Mass.; Princeton, N.J.; Madison, Wis.; Athens, Ga.; or Berkeley, Calif., empties out for spring break, you can enjoy all the charms of these often picturesque and culturally rich towns without the swarm of students. See our College Towns 101for tips and lots of info.

Saving money in spring
Opportunities to save money abound during the spring travel season. The so-called "spring shoulder season" in Europe extends from April into early June, and offers a great mix of in-season amenities and off-season rates. This is the time to take your dream European vacation — whether that means the hills of Tuscany, the streets of Rome, the plains of Spain, the fjords of Finland (yes, even that far north) or the slopes of Switzerland, where there is still plenty of snow without quite the same snow-blinding prices.

You'll find Europe in the midst of being itself, rather than a high-season touristy version of itself. Cultural offerings also peak during spring — music, art and theater seasons are operating at full bore, historical sites are open and inviting, and you have far less competition for practical concerns like public transit, hotel availability, restaurant reservations, event tickets and the like.

For skiers, late-season ski resort deals abound as spring advances, and many resorts are open and making snow even into April at higher elevations. Come mid to late March, the lifts and lodges are starting to empty out, as are flights in and out of the best ski destinations. The extended ski season is a favorite of hardcore skiers, and you can join them at greatly reduced costs as compared to, say, right now. Check ski reports for resorts with a deep base and good snow-making abilities, and you could end up skiing superb conditions in the warm spring sun in a long-sleeved shirt.

For boat lovers, April into (and especially) May is the season of deep discounts. Check out "repositioning cruises," where cruise lines offer the lowest rates of the year on cruises that move ships from the most popular winter destinations in the Caribbean and other southern environs to the summertime ports in Alaska, Europe and other points north.

Finally, many of the "classic" vacation spots are in prime form at sub-premium prices — Hawaii is a perfect example. Who could argue with a week in Maui in May at some of the best prices of the year?

As spring fades and summer approaches
If you are considering a late-spring trip, think about destinations that many consider classic winter destinations — including many of those same previously overrun spring break destinations. Florida, Mexico, the Caribbean, New Orleans and other points south see dramatic price drops once spring takes hold up north. Meanwhile, the height of summer still remains some way off; late spring can offer just the right amount of warm sunshine without the crushing heat.

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 , or at .