Live Large By Going Against the Vacation Grain

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Travel isn't getting any cheaper, but there are ways to save money without sacrificing quality. Hotel rates are rising in major cities around the world, foreign currencies linger at all-time highs, and airfares are edging up due to higher fuel costs. Snatching good deals means being more flexible about dates, destinations and lodging options. Here are some strategies for enjoying first-class vacations at economy prices.

Skiing After Easter
Spring skiing has many advantages, including warmer weather, smaller crowds, lighter gear and steep discounts. Skiing conditions, of course, are more unpredictable at this time of year, when some days are more suitable for sunbathing than hitting the slopes.

Although some regions are traditionally better suited for late-season skiing, this year's snowfall was abundant nationwide. In California's Alpine Meadows, for example, it was almost double the norm. Idaho's Sun Valley also received deep snowfalls this season -- about 180 inches by mid-February.

Many resorts already announced they will extend their closing dates. In other words, this is the spring to take advantage of bargain skiing.

After March 27, Sun Valley Lodge, a staple among skiers since 1936, will offer a special Spring Ski Package for $74 per person (double occupancy). This rate includes a one-day ski pass and can be booked for multiple days. The offer will continue through the end of the ski season, which is usually in mid-April. In high season, a similar room at the Valley Lodge costs $250, and a lift ticket goes for $79 per person.

Also in Sun Valley, Premier Resorts is offering several packages, including four nightsin a two-bedroom, two-bath Elkhorn condominium and three days of skiing for $375 per person (min. quad occupancy).

Tropical Summers
A trip to the Caribbean is relaxing any time of year, and decidedly cheaper in the summer. Many resorts offer discounts and incentives such as free nights and activities. Airfares from the U.S. also start to decrease after April.

While tickets to Mexico and the Caribbean can cost more than $600 in December and January, summer tickets usually cost less than $400, according to Farecast.com.  Even during hurricane season, which peaks in September, the risk of suffering a direct hit by a named storm is relatively low, though it's still a possibility.

At Discovery at Marigot Bay, for example, on the island of St Lucia, a room with views of the famed bay costs $378 from April to November, compared to $472 in mid-March. This resort,  a member of The Leading Small Hotels of the World, also offers a special summer package where guests can get a five-night suite stay for the price of three nights. St. Lucia, like many other islands, hosts a number of festivals and activities in the spring and summer. This year's St. Lucia Jazz Festival, from May 2 to May 11, has a lineup of renowned artists like Anita Baker, Jonathan Butler and Wyclef Jean, among others.

Carnival, on July 14 and July 15, is another big attraction.

Big-City Smarts
In cities like New York, Paris or London, where the price tags can be exorbitant, luxe-for-less is harder to find. Winter, spring or fall are less expensisve than summer, at least when it comes to airfares.

Avoid highly publicized, upscale hotels and try a stylish inn or bed-and-breakfast instead. It may not offer as many services, but can compensate with charm, personal attention and savings. Mr. & Ms. Smith, a guide to boutique hotels in popular metropolises around the world, suggests London's Guesthouse West, a modern 20- room lodging in the heart of hip Notting Hill with rates from $311. Breakfast -- a selection of croissants, pain au chocolat, muesli and yogurt -- is included.

At The Gore, a classically elegant 50-room hotel in the posh Kensington neighborhood, rooms start at $299. Another option is to book an apartment through a company. A two-bedroom apartment through Cheval, which rents luxury condos with daily maid service, costs $3,360 per week and sleeps three. That works out to about $160 per person per night.

Take advantage of big cities' unique free attractions. In London, see the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, for example, or enjoy the view from the top of St Paul's Cathedral.

Frequent-Flier Perks
Mileage programs are offering many benefits beyond a (hard to score) ticket or upgrade. The competition in this market is intense, and the perks are getting bigger.

Some American Airlines(AMR) card holders can request complimentary upgrades, get expedited check-in and boarding, plus preferential seats in coach. Many programs also have non-air rewards like gift cards or entertainment passes.

An easy way to earn miles is using a credit card tied to the mileage program. Choose a card that fits your frequent-flier goals, be it free flights, upgrades, hotel stays or restaurant discounts. Using the card also keeps the mileage account active, which means miles will

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