Don't allow vacation to stress you financially

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Most people take vacations to leave behind the stresses of everyday life, so don't let your vacation cause unexpected financial problems. By planning ahead and doing your research, you can save money and enjoy your time away with family and friends.

When booking flights, there is a window of opportunity when flight prices are the cheapest, said Diane Johnston, the director of marketing at Augusta Regional Airport.

"It seems like when you book months and months in advance, you're probably going to pay a slightly higher fare than if you wait until you're a little bit closer in," Johnston said.

Her theory is that if you're booking your flight that far in advance, the airlines assume that it's imperative for you to arrive at your destination on a particular date and so your travel plans aren't flexible. Thus, you're paying for the convenience of having your travel plans finalized.

Johnston has found that travelers can get the best flight prices if they buy tickets two to four weeks before their departure. You'll probably notice, however, that prices increase several days before your departure date.

It's cheaper to buy tickets online rather than buying them over the phone or at the airport. There are extra fees if you talk to an airline representative, Johnston said.

Here are some additional tips for saving at the airport:

1. Bring your own snacks. Many airlines, including U.S. Airways, are charging for food during flights, Johnston said.

2. Check your luggage online. The fee is lower for checking your bags on the Internet instead of at the airport. For instance, U.S. Airways charges $23 online for the first checked bag and $25 at the airport. These prices are the same for Delta Air Lines.

3. Bring your own pillow and blanket. Many airlines no longer provide pillows or blankets free of charge.

In my travel experience, I've been hit with extra fees for overweight luggage. At Delta, for instance, you must pay a fee if your bag weighs more than 50 pounds. My advice is to try to pack as lightly as possible.

If you're traveling for an extended period, pack clothing that can mix and match for several outfits. If you'll have access to a washing machine, you can wash your clothes. Limit your shoes and bring footwear that can be worn with several outfits.

At least one carrier, Spirit Airlines, has proposed charging for carry-on baggage, though Johnston said she thinks those plans have been temporarily postponed. For now, if you pack extra light, you can avoid baggage fees completely if you take everything you need in your carry-on luggage.

If you plan to bring back souvenirs, it might be cheaper to mail them than stuff them into your luggage.

Last, if you need to change the date of your flight, you're probably going to be hit with fees. Some scheduling conflicts are unavoidable, but make sure you're satisfied with your travel dates before booking your flight.

Many hotels also charge cancellation fees. These fee policies vary -- some require a week's notice, others allow you to cancel within 24 hours. Ask the hotel's policy before you make a reservation.

You can get cheaper airfares with a "promo code" or "offer code," according to ShopSmart magazine:

- Airline Web sites: You might have to join the airline's frequent-flier program or search for the codes. Code deals could be under a different name. At United Airline's site, for example, you have to click "Special deals" under the "Planning & booking" tab.

- Airfarewatchdog.com: It's the single best code source.

- FareCompare.com (deals.farecompare.com/airline-promotion-codes): Click on "Real-time e-mail alerts" or follow the deals on Twitter or Facebook.

- Southwest Airline's Ding service: This downloadable app appears on your desktop and dings to alert you to Southwest deals.

- American Airline's DealFinder service: This downloadable tool (not available for Macs) creates a profile for you and provides personalized offers based on your travel interests.

- Travel search engines: Click on "Private Sale" at Kayak.com for "limited inventory" sales.

COUPON OF THE WEEK

Today's Augusta Chronicle has $1,024.25 in coupon savings. This includes Harbor Freight Tools, $845.20; Red Plum, $48.75; Rite Aid, $24; Smartsource, $72.80 and Walgreens, $33.50.

The SmartSource book has a coupon to save $1 on any Johnson's baby product. The coupon expires July 5.

RECAP

Here are some highlights from The Pinch blog last week:

GRAND-OPENING GIVEAWAY: It's Fashion Metro is moving to a new building at 2116 Windsor Spring Road on Thursday. If you're one of the first 1,000 customers, It's Fashion Metro will give you a pocket mirror.

If you're one of the first 500 customers to make a purchase of $35 or more, the store will give you a tote bag (limit one per customer).

FURNITURE TRADE-IN EVENT: Through May 10, La-Z-Boy is having its spring furniture trade-in event. La-Z-Boy asks you to trade in used furniture, in good condition, or donate $25 to a local charity. In return, you receive credit toward the purchase of a chair or sofa.

An old sofa is worth at least $250, and an old chair, at least $150, according to a La-Z-Boy sales insert. The store will donate usable trade-in items to local need-based charities.

Read The Pinch

LaTina Emerson's blog on shopping smart in the area, at blogs.augusta.com.


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