Get prepared now so this break is your best yet, writes Stephanie Holmes.

There's nothing better than a long weekend to get us in the mood for summer. But with the year flying by, and the thought that Christmas and the summer holidays will be with us before we know it, it's easy for panic to set in. There's so much to arrange, and so little time to do it. How can you guarantee your holidays will be a success? It's easy, when you know how — this guide gives you some advice on what to get on top of over the next few weeks so you can relax come Christmas time. The only thing we can't help with is the weather . . . but we have a plan for that, too.

Book . . .

Now's the time to make sure you've booked everything you need to get locked in — flights, accommodation, campsites, day-trips, tours, festival tickets, and house/pet-sitters. It seems like a lot to sort, yes, but make a list and tick things off as you confirm them. Tackling things methodically will help you feel a lot calmer, and the planning much more manageable.

Flying over Christmas/New Year can be hugely expensive, due to school holidays and the increased demand of people trying to get home to their families. But it doesn't mean you're too late to get something sorted now, if you haven't already booked.

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"Travel over the holidays doesn't need to break the bank," says Flight Centre's Sean Berenson. "It pays to research your options, talk to a travel expert and most importantly book ahead, before the cheapest remaining Economy fares and room types sell out."

He suggests looking at destinations "off the beaten path", which are traditionally a lot cheaper when you get there. For example, heading to Vietnam or Thailand might cost a lot in terms of airfares, but once you get there your costs will be low, due to the exchange rate and the affordability of the destination. "Although you may spend slightly more getting there, your dollar will go further allowing you to splurge on luxury accommodation or more activities," Berenson says.

If you are heading overseas, the most important thing you need to book now is travel insurance.

"Getting the right insurance is just as important as sorting your passport or buying your plane tickets," says Carl Reaich from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Tourism (MFat).

"It's vital for every trip, wherever you are going. Make sure it covers everywhere you are going, and everything you plan to do."

Plan . . .

Research is key if you're heading further afield than the family bach. Rather than spending your spare moments mindlessly scrolling through Instagram and Facebook, look for information about your chosen destination. Are there any local customs or cultural faux pas you need to be aware of? How will you get around when you get there? What's in the neighbourhood near your accommodation? Where is the best
coffee/brunch/cocktail/beach bar? Are there any cool events on while you're there that you need to book tickets for?

The internet is a traveller's best friend.

There aren't many places in the world someone hasn't already been, and posted their thoughts on, online. Doing some research now can save valuable time when you arrive at your chosen holiday spot.

If you're heading to a far-flung tropical destination, make an appointment with your travel doctor to talk about what vaccinations you might need, and any that need topping up.

Some need to be done at least six weeks before travel to ensure they're fully effective, so you still have time to get this sorted. Look at the Safe Travel website for more information about travel health.

It's also important to check what visas you need for overseas travel. Don't leave this too late — some destinations require you to send away your passport in order to issue visas.
And, it's not too late to learn a little of the local language. If you have access to a smartphone, there are heaps of free apps that will teach you a few key phrases. Try Duolingo, Memrise, or Babbel, and put in a bit of practise each day, or as often as you can. You've still got nine weeks until Christmas — you could learn heaps in that time.

Prepare . . .

Even if you're not going overseas, there are still things to be done now to make your holiday run smoothly.

If you're going camping, now is a great time to check all your gear and make sure it's in good working order.

How about a back garden trial run? Get the family together to get everything set up — have you got enough tent pegs, camping chairs and sleeping bags?

Are there leaks in the solar shower? Is there a hole in the roof of the tent? A practise run is the easiest way to see whether anything needs replacing or repairing.

Then, how about starting to put a bit of thought into the little details of your holiday? Plan a food and drink menu so you're not stuck eating beans and barbecued sausages every night.

Once you've got a meal planner sorted, you can start adding a few non-perishables to your weekly shop over the next few weeks. This will save you from being saddled with a massive bill in the days before you head away.

Get the kids involved with the planning process, and give them responsibility for some of it. Perhaps they can plan the menu for one night, or research activities for the place you're going.

It's also a good idea to give children a refresher on water safety. It might still be a bit nippy to get out in the ocean, but a few sessions at the local pools is a useful way to reiterate the golden rules. Then, as the weather heats up as we approach the summer holidays, take them down to the beach and give them some real-world practise. It's as much for your confidence as it is for theirs.

Make a Plan B . . .

We've got everything crossed for a long, dry, warm summer season where the only thing we need to worry about is sunscreen and taking regular breaks in the shade.

But as we all know, it doesn't always work out like that, so it pays to have a back-up plan.

If you're heading to the bach, start stockpiling some boardgames and books and learn some card games, so that you can still enjoy quality family time on a rainy day, without the kids resorting to video games or Netflix.

Pop into charity shops at weekends to find cheap, second-hand books and games to add to the collection.

If you're heading for a beach break overseas, research rainy day activities, just in case you need them. Find out where the best nearby museums, galleries and theatres are, and check their Christmas/New Year opening times so you're not caught out.

FESTIVE FARE

Flight Centre

's Sean Berenson gives his top tips for booking travel over the Christmas holidays.

Consider flying on Christmas Day

Christmas Eve and Boxing Day are traditionally the year's busiest travel days, so the cheapest seats tend to sell-out quickly. Christmas Day can be a much more affordable option.

Many of our customers actually like travelling on Christmas Day because some airlines will do something special for the holiday — serve turkey sandwiches, play Christmas jingles and the flight attendants often wear Christmas hats. It's all very jovial. Travelling on December 25 won't suit everyone, but there are reasonable savings on offer for those who can be flexible.

Choose your departure and entry points carefully

Regional airports can sometimes be costly in comparison to the bigger centres when it comes to booking airfares. If you're within driving distance of your nearest city, it could be worthwhile comparing the airfares and look at driving to your closest major departure point.

The same goes for the destination you are travelling to. When flying to the Gold Coast you can fly into Coolangatta Airport on the coast, or into Brisbane Airport where you can catch a transfer to the coast.

Christmas cruise special

One of the best deals available over the Christmas holidays is a cruise departing December 18 from Auckland. It's a great option for families and friends to spend quality time together over the festive season and enjoy a holiday at the same time.

Sailing on the new Majestic Princess — which visited NZ for the first time this month — your holiday will include accommodation, main meals and entertainment. And the decorations will be taken care of too!

You'll be at sea for Christmas Day, travelling for 12 nights around New Zealand and Australia. Prices start from $2599, for sales until October 31 (unless sold out prior). The cruise departs Auckland on December 18 and visits Tauranga, Akaroa, Dunedin, Fiordland National Park, Hobart, Melbourne and Sydney. The price includes a free flight from Sydney to Auckland (on an airline chosen by the cruise line, in Economy Class, departing December 30. Domestic flights to and from Auckland not included), plus AUD$150 onboard spending money per stateroom.