(Tribune Media Services) -- I'm perched in a wooden treehouse lazing on a cushy double mattress atop a white sand beach along Mexico's Riviera Maya. Overlooking the turquoise Caribbean Sea, I'm about as far away from holiday hoopla and craziness as I can get when the beach butler comes by to see if I need anything.
No one is bickering or complaining. In fact, it is that rare vacation moment when everyone is happy at the same time. I'm not dreaming. We're at the small Azul Beach Hotel, a short walk along the beach from the Azul Sensatori Hotel, where we've been spending the holiday week. Kids play happily on the beach and splash in the water and I don't have to do the dishes after a sumptuous holiday feast -- in this case a beach barbecue featuring freshly caught grouper and snapper.
We've spent Christmases hanging stockings in ski condos from Vermont to Colorado and sailed a chartered boat around the British Virgin Islands. We've watched baby sea turtles make their way to the ocean one Christmas Eve along Costa Rica's Osa Peninsula and swam with the sea lions another year in the Galapagos Islands.
As the kids got older, these trips became their holiday gifts -- the memories and experiences, I reasoned, would last a lot longer than a new sweater or video game and they agreed, though they finally made me stop buying holiday ornaments every place we went. "No more room on the tree!" they groused, at about the same time they gave up posing for those ubiquitous family vacation pictures.
If you're thinking holiday trips are guaranteed budget busters, think again. In this economy, hotels, resorts, adventure outfitters and ski areas need our business as much as we need a break. They understand that if they don't offer families great value for their vacation dollar, we'll stay home.
For the first time, the all-inclusive Azul Beach Hotel is offering 25 percent off at the holidays, for example, and throwing in a massage. And if you can beg off family commitments, it's not too late to snare a deal for Thanksgiving weekend.
"Historically, holiday travelers would have to abide by minimum-night stay requirements and also pay a premium to vacation during the holidays," said Dan Sherman from www.ski.com. "This year we're offering more sales, bigger discounts and we have them available earlier than we did last year."
The trick is scoring a decent airfare. You need to be as flexible as possible, shop around and be ready to book seats when you find a deal you can live with. If you can travel after January 2, for example, the FDR Resorts in Jamaica -- where you are assigned a dedicated vacation nanny -- is offering a $700 air credit.
All the better, of course, if you can drive. Look for resorts with hotel rooms as low as $100 a night (or less). Try Horseshoe Bay Resort in the Texas Hill Country, or the Omni San Diego where you get personalized holiday stockings. Even in tony Beverly Hills 11 hotels are offering "And to All a Free Night" packages (book two nights and receive a third night free www.lovebeverlyhills.org.) Or book three nights at a Loews Hotel and get 30 percent off the entire stay through the end of January with their "Home for the Holidays" offer.
Even during the holidays, you shouldn't have to pay rack rate, even at the ritziest places. For example, The Four Seasons Resort Lana'i is touting a second room at half-price, free baby-sitting and kids program and no resort fee -- a savings of more than $300 a night for those who can afford the freight. Or get a free night at Destination Resorts luxe Hawaii condos on Maui (www.drhmaui.com).
CoCo Key Indoor Water Resort in Ohio -- winner of this year's best of aquatics award -- sports a 50,000-square-foot indoor water park and a holiday deal starting at $149 a night, including four two-day water park passes, as well as goodie bags for the kids. Look for deals at other CoCo Key resorts and check out the Snowland festivities -- complete with indoor snow, a story-telling reindeer and Santa's workshop at the Great Wolf Lodge Resorts that also include free admission to their water parks and room discounts.
If you've got a favorite destination or hotel chain, follow them on Twitter and become a fan on Facebook and you might score an especially good deal, suggests Erik Torkells, editor of www.tripadvisor.com. "Don't get hung up on the hotel rate," he advises, but be ready to wheel and deal for extras that can add up to a lot more than a few dollars less on room-free nights, free food, free lift tickets, air credits and kids' activities.
If you want to head to ski country, for example, Crested Butte Mountain Resort in Colorado promises a free plane ticket after you have purchased two, while Breckenridge, Colorado, is touting 20 percent off lodging. The Canyons Resort in Park City, Utah, will throw in two adult lift tickets each night and credits you can use for the kids ski school. Book four nights or more at the small Treasure Mountain Inn in the heart of Park City and pay less than last year while the kids (12 and under) ski for free. Web sites like www.liftopia.com can save on lift ticket costs too.
Join the "Grinchmas" celebration at Universal Studios Orlando where there will be a nightly Christmas tree lighting, special holiday-themed shows and deals that give you four hotel nights for the price of three and unlimited theme park admission for under $1,000 for a family of four. Or book an entire house in Orlando from www.homeaway.com for less than $200 a night.
Check out The National Christmas Tree and National Menorah when you stay at The Fairmont Washington DC where you can snare a holiday deal for $142 a night. Check Web sites like www.getaroom.com for deals in cities across the country.
In Mexico, my daughters Mel, Reggie and I settle in for an afternoon in our treehouse. My husband Andy and son Matt are next door. For once, they don't have to rush off anywhere and are happy to hang with Mom and Dad. Thanks, Santa!