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Perfect summer vacations don't appear out of nowhere.

Studies show that workers who get paid time off averaged 3.2 days of unused vacation last year. If you want to get more out of your precious time away from the office, a little work and planning help. This simple checklist will get you started.

  • 1. Arrange time off

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    If you haven't put in for vacation days yet, hurry.

    If you haven’t put in for vacation days yet, hurry. What are you waiting for? You don’t want your boss to say you can’t go when you want to.

  • 2. Buy tickets now

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    Prices start jumping (sometimes dramatically) beginning about 30 days before departure, and they keep rising right up to the day of the flight. The longer you delay, the more you will pay.

  • 3. Think cheap

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    For the cheapest summer fares, avoid the peak season by traveling before June 8 or after Aug. 25.

  • 4. Read the fine print

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    Read the fine print on every purchase -- from airline tickets to travel insurance -- for exceptions, exclusions and gotchas. Most vacation flyers buy non-refundable tickets because they're cheaper than refundable airfare, but they may not realize what this means until they try to make a simple itinerary tweak and get socked with a steep change fee.

  • 5. Have a backup plan

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    If your airline has only a single daily flight to your destination, consider whether a delay or cancellation would ruin your plans. If the worst happens, the airline will help you get on the next flight out, but it might not be the same day or even the next day. Check out alternative transportation options “just in case,” and where to stay if you get stuck in an unfamiliar city.

  • 6. Check passport and other documents

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    Even if your passport is valid for your vacation dates, check the expiration date anyway; several European countries (France is one) bar travelers unless passports are valid for 90 days beyond the departure date. Also check expiration dates for driver's licenses if used as ID at security.

  • 7. Check the hardware

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    Be sure the zippers and handles on your luggage are in good working order, and that child seats are up to code. Did you know the FAA recommends all children -- even babies who can fly on your lap -- have their own seats?

  • 8. Medications, glasses, batteries

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    Get prescriptions renewed and eyeglasses updated and consider a backup pair or prescription sunglasses. Don't forget chargers for electronic devices and extra batteries for flashlights and other gizmos -- but be sure to keep them separated. The bomb squad was recently called to Los Angeles International to investigate a buzzing bag. The culprit: An electric toothbrush.

Rick Seaney is an airline travel expert and the co-founder of FareCompare.com, an airfare comparison shopping site