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Why It's Still Wise to Aim for Christmas on the Road : Holidays: Inns with plenty of room offer discounts, while cities entice visitors with colorful, inexpensive activities.

November 21, 1993|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER; Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. To reach him, write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

It won't be long now until Santa stands aboard a barge in San Antonio and the trees of the Washington Ellipseblaze with lights. American cities have always put their own spin on holiday season celebrations, but in recent years, tourism officials have awakened to the idea of promoting those traditions to lure winter visitors. Those appeals are made doubly attractive by traditionally below-average hotel occupancies in December, which persuade many lodgings to offer cheaper rates.

If you're considering a Christmas on the road, here are a few thoughts to keep in mind:

* If your trip will extend into the new year, book early and expect an upward fluctuation in rates on Dec. 31. New Year's Eve is one of the busiest hotel nights of the year in any city. * Be sure to ask what holiday features are included in your room rates, and what are not. Many hotels offer lavish holiday brunches and other special events, but guests frequently must pay extra to share in them. Conversely, some hotels offer all-inclusive holiday packages that could force you into paying for offerings you aren't interested in exploiting.

* Keep in mind that though many cities have empty hotel rooms on their hands each December, demand stays high in warm resort destinations such as the Arizona desert and the Palm Springs area.

Here's a sampling of prospective holiday destinations from around the U.S., excluding California. (For seasonal events in this state, see California Corner on L3.)

Washington. From Dec. 5 to 10, the waters of Seattle's Elliott Bay and Lake Washington fill with holiday boat parades while bonfires glow ashore. On the first of those nights, some 400 boats (and 2,500 developmentally disabled guests) are expected to participate in the Seafair procession on Lake Union and Lake Washington. From Nov. 26 to Jan. 2, a community celebration known as the KING 5 Winterfest will feature musical performances (including a free Dec. 10 concert by the Seattle Symphony), arts and crafts workshops, ice skating and various other holiday activities at the 74-acre Seattle Center.. More information: Seattle-King County Convention & Visitors Bureau, (206) 461-5840.

New Mexico. Santa Fe twinkles with farolitos --candles in paper bags--throughout December, and on Christmas Eve, residents and visitors stroll through East Side neighborhoods admiring the lights and historic homes on such streets as Acequia Madre and Canyon Road. On Dec. 19 at 7 p.m., the city's Las Posadas celebration re-enacts Mary and Joseph's search for lodging, beginning on the city's central plaza and concluding at the nearby Palace of Governors. Visitors can also check into the seasonal "animal dances" at the Native American pueblos near Santa Fe and Taos. More Santa Fe information: Santa Fe Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 777-2489 or (505) 984-6760. More pueblo information: Eight Northern Indian Pueblos, (505) 852-4265.

Texas. In San Antonio, traditional holiday habits are mingled with the city's river landscape and its Latino and German cultural influences. The City Christmas Tree on Alamo Plaza is lit Nov. 26, followed by a San Antonio River parade past trees and bridges lit by 50,000 lights. On Nov. 26 and 27, the city Troubador Festival highlights mariachi music at downtown's Market Square, and during weekend Nativity celebrations at Market Square Nov. 27-Dec. 19, appearances by "Pancho Claus" are anticipated. On Nov. 27-28, O Tannenbaum, a German Christmas Market, will sell crafts and feature German musicians at the Plaza San Antonio Hotel. More information: San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 447-3372.

Louisiana. At 1 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 12 in New Orleans, Papa Noel and a procession of floats and marching bands make their way through the streets of the French Quarter in the city's fourth annual Christmas Parade. Other festivities: caroling and candlelight in Jackson Square; fireworks and bonfires on the banks of the Mississippi; and the Creole dining tradition of reveillon , a holiday-season meal that includes four or more courses. A dozen of the city's best-known restaurants are offering reveillon specials Dec. 3-25. More information: Greater New Orleans Tourist & Convention Commission, (504) 566-5011.

Washington, D.C. The nation's capital dresses up well for Christmas. It can also be a bargain: More than 20 free performances are scheduled at the Kennedy Center in December, including the city's annual "Messiah" sing-along, a gospel concert and performance by the National Symphony Orchestra. Ford's Theatre is staging "A Christmas Carol"; Washington Ballet is doing "The Nutcracker" and on Dec. 9, the President is scheduled to light the National Christmas Tree near the White House. From that date through the end of the month, the adjacent Ellipse area will host nightly choral performances, a Nativity scene and a collection of Christmas trees decorated to represent each of the 50 states. The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History displays its own Christmas Tree exhibit (free) Dec. 11-Jan. 2. More information: Washington, D.C. Convention and Visitors Assn., (202) 789-7000.

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