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by Marvin McDaniel

Air travel during the holidays can become an unpleasant experience if you are not prepared. During the holidays many flights are oversold; and if you are not careful, your holiday plans can be disrupted. The best way to avoid mishaps is to be an early bird. If you follow these tips you are are sure to have a smooth traveling experience this holiday season.

1. Book your air travel early and be flexible about dates to get the best fares. If a carrier has discounted seats, these will go to the passengers who book in advance. Many airlines also offer discounts on tickets purchased at least 21 days in advance.

2. Get to the airport earlier than you might during other times of the year. During the holidays, parking and traffic around airports will be a problem, plus lines at check-in and boarding will be longer. Allow extra time, and ask your travel agent for advance boarding passes when they are available. Be sure you have ID and make sure the name on your plane tickets matches the name on your ID.

3. Label each piece of luggage with your name and address.

4. With full flights, carry-on space will be limited, so try to board as soon as possible to get space in overhead bins. Remember to pack a rolled up duffel bag to bring back gifts and souvenirs you may have gotten while traveling.

5. While airlines overbook flights, you cannot be denied boarding without compensation as long as you check in at the gate at least 20 minutes before a domestic flight. If you are confirmed on a flight and you are still bumped, you are entitled to compensation usually a free round-trip ticket on the carrier and sometimes cash. Each airline has its own set of rules, which they are required to give you upon request. In the unlikely event that you are bumped, ask to see those rules before accepting any compensation.

6. If you are renting a car, have a plan on arrival. While one traveler retrieves the luggage, the other can be waiting for the rental car. Just be sure to have a planned meeting space. Many car rental firms have off-site locations that require you to take a shuttle. Be clear about where you will meet up.

7. If someone is picking you up, it's best if they park and meet you at the gate or baggage claim. Many airports discourage drivers from waiting outside baggage claim for arriving passengers. And they can be ticketed or towed for parking in a loading zone even if they may get away with it other times of the year.

By planning ahead, booking early and allowing extra time, you can be sure that your holidays will remain happy.

If you're looking for something that combines relaxation, adventure and value this winter, why not take a cruise?

If you have never cruised before, you're truly missing out on one of the best vacations around.

One of the biggest advantages in choosing a cruise vacation is that almost everything is included in the one price you pay transportation, accommodations, all meals, entertainment, shipboard activities and the ship's ports of call.

Most first-time cruisers will choose either a three- or four-day Bahamas cruise or a seven-day sail on one of three Caribbean itineraries eastern, western or southern. To find out which cruise is best for you, make an appointment with your travel agent. He or she can work with you to match your preferences to a ship and itinerary that's right for you.

The one thing that will determine the cost of your vacation more than anything else is your selection of cabin. Cabins range from the most expensive suite to simple inside cabins on the lower decks.

The price of a suite can be several times that of an inside cabin, and your travel agent will help you select one that will be within your vacation budget.

Occasionally cruise lines will offer upgrades to passengers who book early. This means you pay for a smaller cabin, maybe an inside cabin, and get a larger cabin or one with a porthole or balcony.

As a rule, you get a better cabin and a better price by booking early. Booking early means planning your vacation three to six months in advance, sometimes longer. No matter what type of cabin you select, everyone on board receives the same treatment. All the food is the same, entertainment is the same and the only difference is your cabin.

When you do the math and look at the total cost of your vacation, a cruise is hard to beat. You know up front what everything will cost, and it makes creating a vacation budget much easier.

(Marvin McDaniel, CTC, is president of Carlson Wagonlit Travel/Carlson Travel Network.)

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