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Savvy travelers spend less by vacationing in off season

Can you travel in style without causing your credit cards to scream "ouch"? Sure.

Traveling on the off season, and even on the cusp of the "on" season, is the answer. During those months, the annual downswing in travel opens a bargain basement for hotels, airfares and cruises.

This drop is so predictable and precipitous it annually brings out a small army of savvy travelers. Once you pick your spot, a little research and a few well-placed phone calls can help you get to your destination without breaking the bank.

Here's how.

*Get your tickets first: The single biggest expense for nearly all international trips is airfare. If your life will permit you the flexibility to roll with a giant fare dip when it occurs, you can use that date as a starting point from which to plan the rest of your trip.

That's when you need to hit the Internet. There is one website that stands out when searching for affordable airfare: Kayak.com.

Kayak quickly and simply calls up the lowest fares for your designated itinerary and displays that information for side-by-side comparison. The site incorporates data from hundreds of travel sites like Orbitz, Travelocity and airlines. There is a simple, easy-to-use toolbar allowing you to refine the results by adjusting several trip variables.

Kayak also displays the lowest available fare for each day of any month. Expect fares to increase within seven days of departure, during and surrounding holidays, and for all time periods when kids are out of school.

*Stay on alert: Kayak also offers fare alerts via e-mail for your selected itinerary. You can choose from daily, weekly or monthly e-mails that will show what is happening to your airfare among the lowest-priced airlines flying that route.

It was via this daily update that I was alerted to an incredible plunge in a fare for a recent international trip. Finding something that exceeds even the truly affordable deal that you've been searching for feels like going to Vegas and being dealt a royal flush.

My e-mail brought word that a first-class fare had dropped down to only a few dollars above a coach ticket. I sat stunned for a few seconds then clicked on the Kayak link taking me to the airline's website for purchase. I watched as that fare disappeared completely within a few short hours.

*Take your seat: SeatGuru.com is an independent website that displays airplane seating charts pointing out the best seats and the worst -- detail not available at airline websites. You select your specific airline and plane and a seat map appears. Rolling your mouse over any seat offers a pop-up telling you specifics about that seat, such as power connections, entertainment options for long-haul flights, width and legroom -- even if there is a tendency for passengers to congregate in the space adjacent.

*Find the right hotel: There are two trains of thought about hotels: Save money or create an experience. For a hotel choice this important, I felt it necessary to call in a professional. The information online about a world-famous destination is endless, and sifting through it a daunting task. This is where a skilled travel agent will pay off. One phone call to my travel agent landed me a room at a five-star hotel for about half what it would cost in high season and below what was being advertised on the website. Plus, she was able to obtain two items that I would not have been given if I had booked online: breakfast daily and an upgraded room, both at no additional charge.

*Enjoy: Traveling in off season let us enjoy our trip with the sights practically to ourselves, in one of the finer hotels available. The weather was warm with cool nights. The photography was amazing, and I didn't have to fight for a view.

*Other useful websites: Trip- Advisor.com is a free travel research/guide website that is the modern replacement for a travel guidebook. Providing in-depth, current reviews and opinions from independent travelers, the site is consumer driven and the content is posted by everyday travelers. It is a way to avoid the hype and find out if that hotel you are considering is worth the money.

CruiseCritic.com is a good source to find out nearly everything you might want to know about a specific cruise line, ship or port of call. It combines independent consumer evaluations with those of professional critics and travel writers. The site is difficult to navigate due to heavy advertising by the cruise industry; a click on the wrong spot will send you off in the wrong direction. But use care and the site will provide excellent, useful information.