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5 essential rules for traveling this spring

To help you cope with both the certainties and uncertainties of traveling this season, here are five essential rules for spring travel this year.
One of the big rules for traveling this spring? Pack for every season, as unpredictable weather is not uncommon in many places.
One of the big rules for traveling this spring? Pack for every season, as unpredictable weather is not uncommon in many places.Victor R. Caivano / AP
/ Source: Independent Traveler

For travelers, the spring of 2009 is one wholly unlike any other. Travel dollars have never been so precious, both to those of us doing the traveling and to the folks hoping to profit from our travel expenditures.

Many aspects of spring travel have changed dramatically. There are fewer planes in the sky and fewer people on the planes, world-famous hotels are offering free nights, and car rental prices in the single digits are almost common.

Reassuringly, though, some things remain unchanged this spring — like blooming flowers, quixotic weather and a wealth of shoulder-season travel deals before the rise of peak summer rates. To help you cope with both the certainties and uncertainties of traveling this season, here are five essential rules for spring travel this year.

1. Pack for all seasons.
Of all the seasons, spring can offer the most wide-ranging weather. In a span of 24 hours, temperature changes of 35+ degrees are not uncommon in many locations in April and May; frost and snow in the morning can be followed by balmy sunshine in the afternoon. If your vacation lasts a week, you can encounter weather that ranges from the dead of winter to the height of summer. A hardy cold front pushing warm air ahead of it, for example, can drive temps into the 70s as it approaches, then leave a foot of snow by the time it passes.

Obviously this presents challenges to your lean packing plans. Layering and a good hat are the alternative to packing winter coats. Put a light rain jacket over a few thin shirts and top off your outfit with a snug hat; you'll be nearly as warm as you would be in a massive winter coat. That way you can continue to pack light — although you may have to do a load of laundry after you burn through three days of clothing in one day's cold spell.

2. Beware of seasonal pricing.
Spring is the season of price jumps; many seasonal outfits raise prices to summer peak levels in the second or third week of April. You can find this in almost every industry, from major theme parks to cruise lines to Nan's Bed and Breakfast.

As a result, you will want to ask about date-specific pricing when booking. If you ask a B&B for general rate information this week, you may find a different rate when you arrive at the front door. Similarly, if you check an attraction's Web site for admission prices today but don't call or dig around for seasonal pricing changes, you might find a very different price at the gate. Many classic spring attractions such as botanical gardens, castles, museums and historic properties change their prices seasonally. For example, Versailles raises its admission price on April 1.

Note that it is not always in the best interests of the vendors to advertise price increases in obvious places, so they may bury these a bit; don't get surprised by assuming everything will be the same on May 1 as it was on April 1 when you called -- you're no fool.

Alternately, if you are hoping to make winter last a little longer by going skiing, this trend can play to your hand very well, as ski resorts drop prices as spring advances. You can often save heaps without giving up quality skiing. This year in particular many ski resorts are enjoying better early April conditions than they have seen in years.

3. Beware of closings.
Spring is also the season of late openings, weather-related closings, large-scale repairs and upgrades at major resorts and theme parks, reduced operating hours, and outright shutdowns. Attractions that are heavily weather-dependent will almost always present some challenges and disappointments during spring.

Some of the risks may not be entirely obvious. Of course you can go water-skiing in Florida in April — unless the water-skiing guy operates a car wash during the winter and doesn't open for another month.

Another common occurrence: After milking every last day of fall for revenue and then spending the winter in cold storage, many attractions pull out the toolborxes and repair crews at the first sign of spring. If you take your kids to a theme park to ride a famous roller coaster and the place looks more like a construction site — or worse, it's open but you'd rather not ride an 80-mile-an-hour roller coaster in 38-degree weather — you'll be facing disappointment on an epic level. Kids don't forget that stuff.

Memorial Day weekend is the benchmark in this regard; by then, almost everyone will be operating at full tilt. The risk lies between now and then, when many business are focused on one thing: to be ready by Memorial Day. If the establishment seems at all likely to be a candidate for seasonal closings, call ahead to check on operating hours and inclement weather policies.

4. Take extra precautions for delays and interruptions at the airport.
This is always in your best interest, but is a concern this spring in particular now that airlines have made massive cuts in capacity, route maps and staff. During the peak spring break stretch, and as folks dig out from their winter hibernation, the airlines expect passenger miles to pick up.

However, the airlines are not planning to increase capacity to match the increased demand — they are planning instead to increase both prices and profits. As a result, knowing your options and planning for contingencies during travel becomes even more important. The airlines are not putting themselves in a position to take care of you (not that they have in a long time anyway, but that's another story) — you'll have to do that yourself. For a few self-help pointers, see Nine Tactics for Travel in 2009.

5. Expect a great deal.
Throughout the winter and into the spring, everyone has felt the pinch — or, more accurately, the vice grip — of the current economic situation. Businesses want your, well, business, and are willing to give a little to get it. And you certainly don't want to throw your money around like confetti, which was a luxury many folks assumed when taking their rare and short vacations not so long ago.

As a result, you can expect many of your travel services and amenities to be very attractively priced — and you should insist on it, because if one hotel doesn't give you a great deal, the one next door probably will. Everyone wants everyone else to make it through tough times, but any outfit that is not adjusting prices this spring probably does not deserve your hard-earned and increasingly hard-to-come-by dollars.