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Tapping into an unfilled travel tour is one way to get bargain fare

It's a blustery, snowy winter's day. That long, golden summer seems so far away. Just how could you recapture some of those lazy, timeless days -- right now? It is possible, and it's not as expensive as you might think.

Now you might consider using whatever vacation time you couldn't quite cram into your busy summer schedule. The travel section of your local newspaper, although not bulging out onto your coffee table on Sunday mornings as in the spring, still offers some super values.

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These lower travel prices stem not only from the much-touted airline deregulation, but from increased competition in the last few years throughout the fast-growing travel industry.

Baby-boomers, that bulging part of the population willing and able to part with some spare time and cash, rush off to such diverse places as Aruba, Alaska, or Greece. Travel to the more exotic places is no longer just for the rich or retired. But, perhaps from post-recession habits, today's traveler squeezes each travel dollar harder than ever.

``Consumers are incredibly sophisticated,'' says Gary Ballman, associate professor of tourism at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. People travel more now and are ``looking for bargains, looking for buys.''

This tight competition has spurred development of ``a new marketing vehicle,'' Mr. Ballman adds. A tour operator putting together a Canc'un hotel and air-fare package may be unable to sell the last 10 or 20 places through his usual channels. In past years, it has always been possible for people who have heard about these opportunities from Uncle Fred to get a short-notice package sale from a travel broker a day or two before the trip began. But often the tour would leave before all the seats were sold, and the tour operator would take a loss on each one.

Now, however, the tour operator or cruise line can cut his losses by contacting tour or cruise marketing companies. These companies do nothing but sell short-notice discounted tour packages, Ballman explains. Three weeks to two days before a tour, these ``leftover'' tours become available to travel clubs and other travel marketing companies at deep discounts, and shortly afterward to their members or customers at a small markup.

The travel club members, who have joined for a nominal annual fee of $30 to $40, call the club's toll-free number whenever they have the time to take a quick jaunt to Iceland or a cruise to Acapulco.

One such company is ``Moment's Notice,'' a one-year-old New York-based subsidiary of Matterhorn Sportsclub Inc., a company that's been in the travel business for 27 years. When members sign up, they list on a questionnaire where and when they would like to travel. When their target packages come in, they will receive a call from the club.

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In the meantime, they may be tempted by descriptions of other trips to China, Africa, or other worldwide destinations on the club's toll-free tape-recorded update. A spokeswoman for the club, Margaret March, says members need to hold a valid passport so they can be ready to travel overseas on short notice.

If you look closer at that same Sunday travel section, you may find ads extolling the virtues of looking over the rooftops of Georgetown from your window in a Washington, D.C., Hyatt for only $29.50 per person per weekend night (double occupancy). Just about every major downtown hotel that caters to the business traveler has valleys in its occupancies on the weekend, when business travel is at a minimum, says Ballman.

To generate some revenue rather than none, many hotels offer reduced rates on the weekend. They may offer two-for-one deals, or very reasonably priced packages including room, meals, and tickets to some special event.

A spokesman for the Sheraton-Boston quoted a $69.90-per-room rate for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights, a little more than half of the weekday rate of $120. The lower weekend rates are quite popular and are sometimes sold out several weeks ahead of time.

Similarly, many first-class restaurants offer discount prices on pre-theater or sunset dinners, served from 5 to 7 p.m., and in some places from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. (Some restaurants may neglect to mention the 25 to 50 percent discount unless asked.)

And if you like to travel first class, but at a discounted price, these organizations buy and sell frequent-flier award bonus certificates. The best discounts, which range from 40 to 65 percent, are on the longest hauls such as Europe, Australia, or Tokyo. Among such brokers are Travel Enterprises Inc., New York, and AGCO Discount Travel, Silver Spring, Md.

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