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Spring break: Planning and flexibility key to successful travel

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Favorite international destinations for spring break travelers include Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic (pictured), along with Aruba and Jamaica.

It’s not too early to start thinking about spring break.

The annual rite for sun worshipers, which runs from February to mid-April, isn’t just a stampede toward warmer weather. Many ski resorts experience peak demand, too.

If you’re traveling somewhere in the coming weeks, you’ll need to start planning now and to keep a few strategies in mind, experts say.

Research by Crimson Hexagon, a Boston company that measures online consumer behavior, suggests that spring breakers will be flocking to the usual places.

Internationally, the favored destinations include Aruba, Jamaica and Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic.

In this country, places with warmer weather, such as Tampa, Fla.; Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Savannah, Ga., also rank highly. And of course, Las Vegas and Atlantic City made the list.

Busy travel time

Spring break is a sprawling occasion, which makes travel patterns difficult to predict. You won’t find a tidy spring break forecast comparable to those for the popular Memorial Day or Fourth of July weekends.

“Don’t wait until the last minute,” advises Molly Fergus, general manager for TripSavvy , a travel advice site. “Spring break season is one of the busiest travel times of the year, which means flights will fill up, hotels will sell out and prices will be high in the most popular destinations.

“This is not the time to try to plan a last-minute trip, especially if you have your heart set on a specific place.”

Planning a vacation now ensures that you have more choices, which is something you’ll need if your first choice for spring break is sold out.

“It makes sense to plan well,” says Kurt Stahura, the dean of the College of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Niagara University.

“If you don’t want to be bothered by the noise and loud music that might very well accompany college students traveling in groups, it would certainly be best to research family oriented destinations that are less likely to have spring breakers, or those that have vast areas where you know you’ll be able to find a secluded spot to enjoy the sun, read a book or enjoy a meal.”

‘Hot’ destinations

What are the “hot” spring break destinations? The vacation rental site HomeAway shared its list with me. Its top cities for 2019 include Breckenridge, Colo.; Kissimmee, Fla.; Park City, Utah; Scottsdale, Ariz.; and Lahaina, Hawaii.

As is so often the case, there are rewards for contrarians. Consider a destination that may have fallen out of favor this year because of negative publicity, and you might find fewer visitors and lower prices.

“Travelers shouldn’t be adverse to or overlook destinations that may have experienced hurricanes or been impacted by severe weather in the past,” says Larry Magor, the managing director of the new Isla Bella Beach Resort, on Knights Key in Florida, which opens March 10.

Many hotels in Florida and other places affected by last fall’s hurricanes are eager to prove that their destination is back and that they are open for business. Resorts are offering rates, packages and promotions that are competitively priced.

Open for business

As someone who lived in a touristy destination for years, and survived several hurricanes, I can vouch for that. Hotels, restaurants and attractions are often among the first enterprises to make repairs and open up for business after a storm hits.

Travel experts I spoke with about spring break 2019 say avoiding potential traps is as important as ever. For example, if you insist on particular arrival and departure dates, you can end up overpaying for airfare.

“Be flexible,” says Daniel Marmontello, a senior product manager at CheapCaribbean , a travel site that specializes in Caribbean vacations. “Look for departures a day before or after your desired dates. Airfare pricing can vary by departure date, and savings can be found by being flexible.”

Marmontello also suggests taking a few minutes to search for alternate airports when you can’t find the flight you want. If you’re traveling from the Washington area, you have three major airports nearby to choose from, Reagan National, Dulles and Baltimore-Washington.

“Make sure to check prices across all of them,” Marmontello advises.

Better yet, “avoid flying if at all possible,” says Sami Cone, a parenting blogger from Nashville who often writes about vacation planning. “It’s expensive and can add up to a lot of delays and hassle.”

She advises driving to a nearby destination for spring break, which costs less and saves time.

Book backward

Her other spring break advice: Book backward. Instead of making travel reservations and then looking for theme park or other attraction discounts, check for discount packages first and then book your stay around those dates.

Although the savings can be substantial, don’t expect a theme park to give away rooms and tickets during busy times. Attractions have a time for deep discounts, in early January, but you’ve already missed it.

How about other spring break travel problems? I pulled up spring break cases from last year and found nothing out of the ordinary.

Along with the usual misunderstandings — which usually involved loud college kids disturbing the peace — I counted several problems with airline ticket refunds, an unclean vacation rental and a few issues involving bookings made through online travel agencies.

In other words, spring break travel problems are not that different from the problems you’re likely to encounter year-round.

So if you’re headed somewhere for spring break, start planning now, avoid flying to the most popular destinations and pack a few of these insider tips.

Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United.