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It's that time of the year again, if you can believe it; days are shorter and bleaker and suddenly Canadians everywhere are turning to the Web to plot their sunny escapes.

But with household debt levels ballooning, stock markets tanking, and average domestic airfare over the holiday travel period in Canada increasing by 4 per cent, according to data from Expedia.ca, is travel really in the budget for families this year?

The answer is yes, according to Bob Diener, the founder of Hotels.com and GetaRoom.com.

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"But only if you lock things in soon," he says. "People who stand on the sidelines and book near the holidays will feel the crunch."

If a vacation in the cards this year, here are seven smart ways to save:

1. Book as early as possible. Last year at this time, travel experts were advising consumers to wait for last-minute deals. This year, however, they're recommending the reverse, according to Mr. Diener. Taking time to book vacation packages in advance could save you between 10 to 30 per cent this season.

2. Stay the extra night. It could cost you zero dollars. Most travellers stay between one to two nights, but many hotels offer significant discounts for the third night. In fact, some hotels will offer it at no extra cost. Simply perform an online comparision of three to two nights, or inquire whether the hotel will offer any discount. You may be surprised.

3. Ask for the unpublished rate. Travel companies including Getaroom.com offer what they call "unpublished rates" for particular hotels. But you won't know about these by looking online.

"With 70 to 80 per cent of Canadian travellers booking their trips online, hotels don't want to put their absolute lowest rate online," says Mr. Diener.

The only way to tap into these special rates, however, is to call the travel company and ask. Unpublished rates may vary, but some offer 10 to 20 per cent off regular room rates, while others can be as high as 50 per cent off.

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4. Bid online or watch for a flash sale. Priceline, the website that allows consumers to bid on more than 60,000 hotels across the world, is also a smart way to save on travel. Simply type in the location and dates, area of the city and hotel ranking and then name your price. You could save up to 50 per cent off your hotel, according to the website, but of course you won't find out the hotel name until you place your bid.

The flash sale is a new concept for booking travel, but it can be a cost-cutting option for the savvy consumer who knows where they want to go and plans in advance. An idea inspired by the daily discount movement, which offers deep discounts on particular goods and local services within a limited time period, flash sales occur daily for one to 12 hours, particular in key destinations like Boston, Chicago, New York and San Francisco.

5. Fly out of another airport. There are some deals to be found during the holiday season at some of the smaller airports across the country, where prices are substantially lower than last year.

Saint John, Charlottetown, Moncton, Gander and St. John's have all experienced a decrease in average fare over the holidays of anywhere from 12 to 26 per cent, according to Expedia.ca. Fares out of Windsor are 14 per cent lower, while in the Prairies and further West, cities like Saskatoon, Lethbridge, Prince George and Deer Lake can attract travellers with 9- to 26-per-cent decreases in average fares.

"It may also be worthwhile for Canadians living within driving distance of a U.S. border city such as Buffalo or Detroit to take advantage of savings from lower fees and taxes out of those city airports," says Sean Shannon, VP of Expedia Canada.

6. Go where the savings are. By vacationing in cities like Orlando and Las Vegas, where the number of hotels outpaces demand, you can save yourself a good chunk of change this year.

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"Downtown Disney is one of the best values," says Mr. Diener. "The other big bargain is Vegas, especially from Sunday to Thursday."

And with demand not picking up heavily until late December, most hotels are now offering about 50 per cent off their regular rate.

7. Alternative hotels. Why not try a boutique hotel or condo conversion? Many of these restored apartments offer 3.5 to 4 stars luxury, convenient locations and generally offer room rates under $200. Those craving affordability and comfort could also try shared bath hotels, which are becoming increasingly popular in "unaffordable" cities like New York.

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