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Leigh Gallagher
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Getting excited about your summer travel plans? Not to be a killjoy, but it's going to be tough going this summer. For one thing, the travel industry, which saw a protracted post-9/11 slump, has come surging back in the past year or two. As a result, hotels are going to be packed to the gills and charging record rates this summer: According to PriceWaterhouseCoopers, U.S. hotel rates are expected to rise 5.6 percent this year, the biggest increase in 24 years. Adding to the hassles, the still-struggling airline industry has cut staff and flights dramatically — and has finally figured out how to operate more efficiently and waste fewer seats. That means flights, too, are going to be as packed as they've been in decades. The end result? Your vacation may be filled with more headaches than you can imagine. The good news, though, is there are ways to avoid the crowds and high prices. Here's how.

Consider package deals.

Vacation packages, where airfare and hotel are bundled together for a reduced rate, are no longer just for spring breakers, and thanks to the Web, they're a lot easier to find. In recent years, the packaged-vacation industry has gone from a niche business to a thriving segment of the travel industry. By packaging together unused inventory from hotels and airlines, sites like Site59.com, Travelzoo.com and LastMinuteTravel.com offer bundled trips that include airfare, hotel and often rental car usually for less than the price of a conventionally-booked airplane ticket alone. The online travel biggies like Travelocity, Expedia and Orbitz are in this game now, too.

When it comes to car rentals, go indie.

After remaining flat for five years, car rental rates are expected to rise 8 percent this year. Save on this by going with an independent car rental company. Believe it or not, there are hundreds of these, and most offer better rates than the big national chains that greet you at the airport. Carrentalexpress.com lists more than 300 companies, searchable by region, with daily rates that are 15 to 30 percent off the big chains.

Go off the beaten path.

Europe is going to be teeming with tourists this summer, and pricier than ever. Paris alone is expecting record visitors this year, fueled in part by hype over “The Da Vinci Code.” But you can tour beautiful old-world European cities with fewer crowds and for reduced rates if you venture to Eastern Europe instead. In Prague and Budapest, you can stay in five-star hotels for less than $200 a night. If it's beaches you're after, instead of Italy or the French Riviera, consider the Dalmatian coast of Croatia.

Consider September.

For families living by the school calendar, this isn't always possible, but taking your summer vacation in September almost always guarantees fewer crowds and lower prices. In most places, the weather is as good as it gets all summer, and hotels start offering off-season rates soon after Labor Day. In fact, in many places, the secret is already out and September has become almost an extension of summer, which means to get an even better deal, you'll have to shoot for October.

Leigh Gallagher is a senior writer for SmartMoney magazine and a regular contributor to "Cavuto on Business."