To save money while holiday shopping, it may seem like a good idea to head to the outlets. But beware: Outlet malls can cause even the most disciplined shopper to overspend, especially this time of year.

The main draw, of course, is that everything is on sale, and discounts are even better around the holidays. Typically you can save 25 to 65 percent; the average discount is 38 percent, according to Value Retail News, an industry publication.

But don't assume every sweater, pair of slacks, or kitchen appliance is a steal. We shopped the outlets, and while we did find significant savings on many items, some of the goods we bought were actually cheaper in regular retail stores. To see the items that we found were worth a trip to the outlets–and those that weren't– read "The Inside Dope on Outlet Malls" and check out our Ratings of dozens of the biggest outlet chains based on value, quality, selection, and customer help.

To get the deepest discounts, follow these three tips:

1. Head to the Sales Rack

Like regular stores, the biggest markdown on goods can generally be found on sale racks in the back of outlets. But before you buy, make sure the item you're interested in is really a good deal. There are shopping apps that will help you to scout for cheaper deals elsewhere.

Some items, like clothing, can be made specifically for outlet malls so you won't be able to compare prices on all the items you find. Manufacturers usually tweak some construction details on their retail goods (using less expensive buttons, fewer stitches per square inch, thinner materials, or example) to sell them for less at outlets.

The good news: We found very few seconds, irregulars, or returned items when we shopped at outlet malls recently. But it's a good idea to inspect goods carefully before you head to the register just to be sure they are in good condition.

2. Time It Right

Getting to an outlet mall can be a long trip. In Consumer Reports' survey of 15,789 readers who shopped at outlets, 34 percent traveled more than 50 miles from their home; one in five had to go more than 100 miles.

If possible, grab a to-go coffee and hit the road early. Crowds are smaller and merchandise hasn't been picked over in the morning. Most shoppers go to outlets between noon and 3 p.m. If you're not a morning person, try going in the early evening.

Another smart idea: Shop midweek if you can. Tuesday to Thursday is usually the quietest time at outlets. Weekends are chaotic, especially around holidays.

Also, do some advance reconnaissance. It will help you to stay sane when you get to the outlet Check the website for the outlet the night before you go to find out the hours it is open. Study the outlet's map to find the best parking area and park close to the stores you want to visit so you can get in and out before the crowds (and checkout lines) became overwhelming.


Read the results of our latest shopping poll to find out whether consumers were slow to begin holiday shopping.
 

3. Be Loyal

See if the malls near you have rewards programs. You can get exclusive, personalized coupons and sale offers. For example, Tanger, which operates 38 malls in the U.S, offers free coupon books that you can access on your mobile device, free gift cards once you hit certain spending levels, exclusive Web offers, and more for a one-time $10 fee.

While you’re on the website, look for printable coupons. Some centers charge a fee for a book of coupons on-site, but you can generally download it for free if you've signed up for the rewards program.