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WATCH FOR TRAVEL PROMOTIONS

Like a hidden treasure, a wealth of deep discounts awaits the savvy traveler who seeks out and takes advantage of special promotions and coupon offers that pop up regularly but are often overlooked. If you look, you may find some of them in the junk mail you routinely pitch.

Legitimate promotions and coupons - available from a variety of sources - can save you money on air fares, car rentals, lodging, cruises, meals and entertainment, asserts Tom Parsons, an air-fares analyst who has made a profession of tracking down unusual travel deals. "Special limited promotions and coupons," he says, are "like $100 bills you can pick up and use, if you know where to find them."As an example, he notes that Carol Wright Co-op Promotions, a coupon distributing firm, is mailing out a package of coupons "in a plain brown envelope" to 20 million U.S. households this month that includes a certificate good for a discounted round trip on Northwest Airlines. If you are a recipient and you meet the ticket restrictions - such as all travel to be completed by March 31 - then you will enjoy "a significant discount" off Northwest's published fares.

"Every major U.S. airline and many international airlines issued hidden-discount, dollar-off coupons in 1995," Parsons says, citing industry estimates that between 750 million and 1 billion discounts were distributed last year. "Did you get your `fare share'?" he asks in his just-published guide to travel bargains, "Insider Travel Secrets" (Best Fares, $19.95), 392 pages full of tips on how to get the best deal on all your travel arrangements.

The book stems from Parsons's role as founding editor in 1987 of Best Fares, a monthly magazine highlighting the latest travel discounts. The Northwest certificate offer is detailed in the magazine's August issue.

Special deals can be found in traditional and unexpected places alike, he says, but you have to keep your eyes open. Most are valid only for a limited time period, and some may be available only in certain regions of the country.

"They can appear in your junk mail or as inserts in your credit card statement," Parsons writes. "They can be offered on displays at your supermarket, at the drug store, a furniture store or on the hang tag of a pair of boxer shorts." The last item refers to a now-expired, offbeat promotion in which someone buying five pairs of Joe Boxer shorts could earn a free companion ticket good for a midwinter, round-trip flight between New York and London on Virgin Atlantic.

In his book, Parsons cites numerous recent promotions as examples of what to be on the lookout for, among them:

- American Airlines offered a half-price companion ticket to senior citizens who charged their tickets on American Express.

- Continental Airlines trimmed up to $100 off a ticket to anyone who processed a single roll of film at any of 2,300 nationwide drug stores.

- Outrigger Hotels in Hawaii provided a free compact rental car for the length of any guest's stay.

- Wyndham Hotels offered a third weekend night free nationwide.

If you are a participant in an airline's frequent-flier program, "always scan the inserts that come with your frequent-flier statements," Parsons adds. "You're likely to find some good discount deals - plus periodic listings of travel routings that offer double or triple miles."

This is good advice, which I know from personal experience. Two years ago, my wife and I were planning a trip to Milan, Italy, and my wife's sister was going with us. United quoted a round-trip fare of about $800 each, which we were prepared to pay. And then my wife got her United frequent-flier statement in the mail (I had ignored mine) and read that in exchange for 20,000 mileage points each, she and her sister could get a ticket for just $200 apiece. I could have taken advantage of the bargain also, but I'd already spent my United miles elsewhere.

"Hotel chains constantly court your business with ever-changing promotions," Parsons says. These offers "are advertised in hundreds of daily and monthly publications, tucked in your credit card statement and added to the reservation systems used by travel agents." He cites the ads in the Sunday travel sections of big-city newspapers as a particularly good source for special travel offers.

"Finding the best car rental rate," Parsons continues, "can be a task as daunting as finding the best air fare." But again, look for money-off promotions in travel ads and credit card statements, or ask a travel agent. If you don't, "you're paying a rate that subsidizes everyone else's."

Travelers should also take advantage of discount coupon books distributed by many state and regional tourism offices. In the Orlando area, says Parsons, the Kissimmee-St. Cloud Vacation Guide provides "80 pages of information, event listings and discounts for travelers visiting Walt Disney World or the Kissimmee-St. Cloud area." And popular destinations around the country publish similar guides full of money-off coupons for dining, lodging and attractions. To get a copy, write or phone ahead to the local tourism office. Or pick one up when you get there.

But don't snap up what sounds like a great deal unless you are really sure it will save you money, Parsons warns.

And beware of scams, he cautions. Some unscrupulous travel companies distribute what they call "free" vacation certificates - perhaps good for free air fare to an island resort. The catch is that to qualify for the free ticket, you may have to buy an overpriced hotel package. Again, before putting up any money call a travel agent or the airlines and hotels directly to see if you can get a better price on your own.