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6 things to ask before booking a summer vacation

Wednesday - 5/1/2013, 4:38pm  ET

SCOTT MAYEROWITZ
AP Airlines Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- It's May. Memorial Day and the end of the school year are in sight. Suddenly, you're thinking about a summer vacation. A little advance planning -- and some insider tips -- can save you a lot of money. Whether you're booking airfare, a car rental or a hotel room, there are questions you should ask first.

AIR TRAVEL

Q: When is the best time to buy airfare?

A: There is no overarching rule, but generally the sweet spot for buying is four to six weeks before you travel. Prices are highest eight to 10 weeks and two to three weeks in advance. However, start your search earlier, if possible. Learn what fares tend to be on a route so you can jump on a deal when one appears. Timing it right can save a family hundreds of dollars. And remember, with most fares you now have 24 hours to cancel for any reason. Use that to your advantage.

Q: Is it worth paying for extras such as more legroom, access to shorter security lines and early boarding?

A: There are a number of variables to consider here, including the length of your flight -- and your legs. The airline and time of day can also matter.

You can buy your way to the front of a security line. United, for examples, charges $9 for the privilege. But first consider the time you're flying. At lunchtime on a Tuesday, the airport is probably empty anyway. However, if you're leaving Orlando or Las Vegas on a Sunday, the fee could be money well spent.

Boarding early improves your chances of finding overhead space. But that's about it. If you don't have a carry-on bag, then save the money -- typically $10 each way. Only on Southwest -- which doesn't assign seats -- is there an additional advantage: being first to pick where to sit.

Then there's legroom. JetBlue charges extra for seats in the front of the plane with more legroom. But its standard seats already have three inches more legroom than a similar seat on United. "Preferred seats" on American Airlines start at $4 and climb to $99, depending on the length of a flight. But there isn't extra space -- you're just nearer the front. Use sites like SeatGuru.com and SeatExpert.com to review specific seats.

RENTAL CARS

Q: Do I need rental car insurance?

A: The rental firms sell collision damage waiver (CDW) insurance for up to $25 extra a day. It offers protection from theft, vandalism or other damage. It's a major source of revenue. Decide whether you need this insurance long before you get to the counter.

Your personal insurance policy likely covers rental cars. It probably also extends liability insurance to your rental, which you also need. But confirm this well ahead of time with your insurer.

Many credit cards offer rental car insurance. Some offer primary insurance. Most only cover what your personal insurance does not. And cards have plenty of exclusions. If you are renting for more than two weeks or traveling to Ireland, Israel, Jamaica, Australia, Italy or New Zealand, you might not be covered. Exotic and luxury cars, some vans, motorcycles and SUVs aren't covered.

Your card probably doesn't cover the rental company's "loss-of-use" fee -- a surcharge for the revenue lost while the vehicle is in the shop. Some personal insurance policies cover this, some don't.

Pay for the rental with the card that gives you the best protection. Debit cards typically don't offer the same coverage.

As for liability insurance, if you don't have a personal policy you should probably buy this extra coverage, which costs a few hundred dollars. Or if you rent frequently, insurance companies will sell you annual non-owner car insurance policies.

Q: Is it worth adding a GPS or toll collection device?

A: You don't need to pay up to $14 extra a day for a GPS. If you own a portable GPS, bring it with you. Or use your smartphone. Just be warned: using the smartphone's GPS tends to drain its battery.

An automatic toll collection device will cost about $5 a day. It can save you time at busy toll plazas if you're traveling during holiday weekends. But when traffic is normal, it is harder to justify the time savings.

If you decline the service and the car still has a toll device, make sure it is properly stored in the protective case. If a toll booth picks up the signal you'll be charged the toll and face a hefty penalty from the rental company.

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