End-of-year tune-up tips for savvy travelers

By Harriet Baskas, Special to CNBC

Even the savviest traveler can use a few new tricks each year, whether on the road for business or leisure.

We asked travel experts for some tips that might help road warriors save time and money as we head into a new year.

Flying frugally

Before the end of the year, take inventory of your frequent flier miles. Claim credit for any missing miles and decide if you can top off—with an extra flight, hotel stay or mile-generating purchase—accounts where you are close to getting elite status perks for the following year.

When shopping for new flight reservations, sign up for fare alerts, enlist helpers such as Kayak’s price forecasting tool and remember the “24-hour reservation requirement” put into effect in January 2012 by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The rule requires carriers to hold a flight reservation for 24 hours without payment, or allow a reservation to be canceled within 24 hours without penalty if the reservation is made one week or more ahead of the flight’s departure date.

“If you see an airfare you’re comfortable with, book it,” said Kayak spokeswoman Maria Katime. You can continue your research and, if you find something better, go back and cancel.

Reasonable rental cars

When it comes to cars, reserve once you know your dates and have done some shopping, but recheck prices closer to the time of travel. “Prices can drop last-minute, depending on the actual availability of cars versus what the companies anticipate,” said travel expert Carol Pucci, who saved more than $100 with this method on the Big Island of Hawaii. “It was easy to do because I hadn’t prepaid, which is hardly ever a good idea given the chances of prices falling,” said Pucci.

To make sure a rental car company doesn’t charge you for scrapes, scratches or dings already on the car you’re issued, “take pictures of the car before you drive it away and when you return it,” said Joe Brancatelli, publisher of the business travel website Joe Sent Me.

“Rental firms are getting extremely aggressive about these charges and since the cars in the fleet are older these days than they used to be, there’s more of a chance you’ll be given a car with a ding and/or scratches,” he said.

Honing in on hotel deals

Sign up for the frequent stay program of any hotel you visit to take advantage of free perks that can include complimentary breakfast, free Wi-Fi and welcome amenities such as cheese plates and bottles of wine for even the first-time guest.

Research room rates and hotel property reviews online, but as a final step, call the hotel you’ve chosen. “Once I narrow down my hotel choice, I call the hotel to see if they have any better offers then what I see online,” said Rob Connors, assistant vice president of marketing for National Car Rental. “Your membership in a club or association might get you an added discount, and many times hotels offer special rates for suppliers calling on nearby companies.”

It’s also a good idea to check city tourism sites for short-run, special promotions.

Some cities have destination marketing funds and packages designed to generate room sales during off-seasons. The inaugural Hotel Week LA runs from Nov. 29 to Dec. 14, and in 2015, more than 30 Manhattan properties are participating in the fourth New York Hotel Week from Jan. 3 to 18. The programs offer significant discounts rate for some of each city’s top, usually very pricey, properties.

Vancouver’s “Be Vancouver” promotion gives guests $125 American Express prepaid gift cards for bookings made by Nov. 16 for stays through Feb. 28, bringing rates in some upscale hotels down to less than $60.

“The offers coming from that program are the best we have on offer,” said Jim Mockford, general manager of the Listel Hotel. “They’re highly targeted in regards to time frame, so you have to be quick and flexible. So it’s always a good idea to put your name on the mailing list of your favorite hotels. You’ll hear about some great deals that you’ll never see anywhere else.”

Choosing travel gear

To get the best bang for your buck when shopping for travel gear “make a list of three to five ‘musts’ for your new bag and prioritize these as you do research,” said Michele Marini Pittenger, president of the Travel Goods Association.

“The manufacturer’s warranty policy can be an indicator of durability, but be sure to check the dimensions of new carry-on bags to avoid getting dinged by extra charges when flying,” she said.

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