RISING GASOLINE prices, fees for checked luggage and now we're asked to pay $2 for bottled water. It's enough to make a person stay home. But don't.

You can still travel in style, though it may require some belt-tightening and an additional investment of research time.

By now, most people have caught on to searching online for low airfares, but according to Howard J. Poppel, author of "How to Travel for Next to Nothing," that's where most people stop.

Poppel, who teaches a class on the subject at the University of South Carolina, said, "It seems everyone knows to search various sites on the Internet when purchasing an airline ticket, but searching for a complete vacation package can save you hundreds of dollars."

There are many factors that affect the price of your vacation, including the competitiveness of the route, popularity of the destination and the timing of your trip.

For example, avoid the Grand Canyon when the masses are traveling during the summer. Instead, plan a trip during the canyon's "shoulder season," just before and after the peak season.

Do your research, because peak season can vary depending on the destination. For example, it makes sense to visit the Caribbean during the first week of December since rates typically increase Dec. 15.

Some mid-priced hotels such as Choice Hotels International are offering a $50 gas card after you've completed three separate stays. Free parking, Internet and continental breakfast make hotels like Comfort Inn a very good deal when compared with a full-service hotel where you'll be expected to pay for all of these amenities.

Every major city and state has its own official tourist site where besides finding a ton of information about attractions, entertainment and accommodations,

you'll discover money-saving

discounts.

The cost for a 14-day advance airline ticket from Philadelphia to Las Vegas could cost $567, but by going directly to LasVegas.com, I booked a non-stop flight aboard Southwest Airlines PLUS a 7-day stay in a four-star hotel for just $707.50.

Some travelers swear by the travel-auction Web sites that allow you to bid on hotel rooms, rental cars, or flights by naming your own price. Research the going price range, place a reasonable bid, provide your credit- card information and within an hour you will know whether your bid has been accepted. The down side is that you won't know the exact name of the hotel, airline or rental company until your bid is accepted, and there are no refunds. But if you are not bothered by that type of uncertainty, you can save money.

Poppel recommends using an auction site like Priceline.com or Hotwire.com when reserving a rental car because getting a car in good working condition is more important than the name of the rental-car company.

Another cost-saving tip is to consider smaller town alternatives such as Alexandria, Va., which bills itself as the other side of the Potomac, rather than staying in Washington, D.C. Alexandria is a fabulous walking city with lots of history, tours, and restaurants, with the same beautiful views of the Potomac River. And when you're ready to do some free sightseeing in Washington, D.C., you can hop on the Metro for a quick, safe ride into the city for just $1.65.

When was the last time you traveled by bus? That long? Me too. But did you know that the bus from Philadelphia to New York drops you just one block from the theater district and is usually around $30 per person one way? Fuel costs alone for driving could be as much as $56; factor in tolls of about $15 and parking, which can easily run $25 or more, and suddenly the bus seems quite appealing.

An ocean cruise seems like an extravagant vacation, but there are deals to be found. Sail from a nearby port like Baltimore, where a five-night cruise to Bermuda aboard Royal Caribbean Cruise Line (October departure) starts at just $599. Where else can you go to enjoy five-star accommodations, meals and entertainment for $60 a night?

Most Americans pay the published price rather than negotiate. But the best way to obtain a better price is to simply ask. I'm usually embarrassed when he does it, but my husband is not afraid to ask for "the hookup." He has been given extra lobster, front-row seats, first-class seating (he even had the nerve to ask if his friends could be upgraded), the concierge level, ocean-view rooms, and he has received travel vouchers, simply because he asked.

Trip-planning sites

Search the big boys, then compare: Travelocity.com, Expedia.com, Hotwire.com. Travel deals abound, too, on major airline Web sites such as USAirways.com, where vacation specials are posted each Wednesday.

www.Site59.com: Named to serve travelers who are ready to go at the last minute.

www.sidestep.com: Searches 200 Web sites for hotel, air, car rental, cruises and vacations.

www.Betterbidding.com: This site claims to help you become a more informed online bidder.

Fuelcostcalculator.com: Enter your city of origin and destination, type of vehicle and this site calculates your fuel cost. *

P.J. Thomas is editor and co-publisher of Pathfinders Travel Magazine for People of Color, a nationally distributed publication founded in 1997, and co-host of"Travel with Pathfinders" on WPGC-AM in Washington, D.C. Contact her at

pjthomas@pathfinderstravel.com.