For holidays, there's no place like somewhere else

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Much like Thanksgiving, the travel focus for the Christmas season is often wherever friends and family live.

That makes for travel patterns that differ from a typical summer vacation, according to Ruth Nagy, managing director of travel operations for AAA East Central, which has an Upper St. Clair office.

Holiday travel also sets itself apart in that it tends to be more expensive.

"Anytime kids are out of school, flight prices tend to be higher due to the rule of supply and demand -- more demand, so higher prices," she said.

For families who want to combine "togetherness" with a vacation, the top destinations year-round, including at Christmas, are in central Florida and child-friendly: Disney World, SeaWorld, Universal Studios and more.

Savings to spots nationwide could have been realized if airline tickets were purchased months ago.

If you want to buy today for Christmas, the key to finding the best rate is "extreme flexibility."

"You have to make a lot of connections or not go on peak days or the day you wanted.

"You have to have some flexibility in booking," Mrs. Nagy said.

AAA projects that 94.5 million Americans -- an increase of 0.6 percent from last year -- will travel 50 miles or more from home during the year-end holiday travel period, which runs from Saturday through Jan. 1.

The increase marks the fifth consecutive year of growing holiday travelers.

Ninety-one percent, or 85.8 million travelers, are expected to travel by automobile, and 5.53 million by air. The latter reflects a decline from the 5.61 million air travelers last year.

Gas prices have climbed slightly from the multi-year low of $3.18 per gallon on Nov. 12, but AAA expects most drivers still will pay less than they did a year ago due to rising supplies and increased refinery production.

Air travelers will find airfares slightly lower than last year, with the average lowest round-trip rate being $199 for the top 40 U.S. routes compared with $204 last year.

For travelers in search of an old-fashioned holiday celebration reminiscent of old-time Europe, a popular European Christmas market is held in Germany, said Jennifer Duffner of Olsen-O'Leary Travel in O'Hara. Visitors stroll under lights sipping hot wine and soaking up the local flavor in outdoor market places where villagers' homemade items are sold. Other countries also have such markets.

The cost depends on factors such as where you stay, how long and the type of hotel, Ms. Duffner said.

For a warm weather holiday vacation, the Riviera Maya in Mexico is a draw. At the other end of the temperature spectrum, family ski trips to Aspen, Colo., or Jackson Hole, Wyo., are popular.

"We are in the Fox Chapel area, with a lot of kids from the Shadyside private schools, which have longer vacation times," Ms. Duffner said.

For a weeklong trip, flying to Mexico cannot be beat.

"It would be the most economical," she said.

For those in search of the holiday flavor while not stressing with holiday preparedeness, there are cruises.

"The ship will celebrate and will be decorated, but you don't have to do the cooking or cleaning. You get to lie in the sun," Mrs. Nagy said.

Cruise costs depend on the liner, destination and length of the trip.

In wintry weather, another option is what is called home port cruising, in which travelers drive to local ports, such as Baltimore or Manhattan, to board cruise ships for the Caribbean and elsewhere.

"It is very popular this time of year because you don't have to deal with weather threats and flight delays. It is much easier to say, 'If the weather is bad, I will drive a day earlier to the ship,' Mrs. Nagy said.

"You are not stuck with airline schedules and other hassles."

Airline travel tips for the season

The Allegheny County Airport Authority offers these tips when traveling via Pittsburgh International Airport during the 2013 holiday season:

• Check the status of your flight at the airport's website, FlyPittsburgh.com, or on the PIT airport mobile app.

• In inclement weather, employees of the Allegheny County Airport Authority implement the snow and ice control plan.

"When we get bad weather reports, we coordinate a plan with the air traffic control tower and all the airlines to keep the runways clear.

"Being very pro-active in snow and ice management helps to reduce the impact of winter storms," said JoAnn Jenny, director of communications for the Allegheny County Airport Authority.

• Check with the Transportation Security Administration at TSA.gov for packing tips and to review prohibited items.

• Arrive at the airport two hours prior to your flight.

• Keep valuables, medicine and other important items in your carry-on luggage.

• Wear easily removable shoes and coats.

• Prepare for heavy highway traffic and plan accordingly.

• Identify each bag with your name, address and contact number.

• Do not travel with wrapped gifts. Wrapped items might have to be unwrapped during security screenings. Consider shipping wrapped gifts to your destination before you travel.

• Pack snow globes and toy guns in your checked bags. Familiarize yourself with the TSA's guidelines for carry-on luggage at www.tsa.gov.


Margaret Smykla, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

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