The January white sales are on, and we don't mean shopping for towels and sheets. Web searches for "wedding dress" and "wedding gown" tend to climb in January, which means lots of future brides are now shopping for a wedding dress.

"One in three brides gets engaged between Thanksgiving and New Year's," notes Lori Conley, a divisional merchandise manager at David's Bridal in Conshohocken, Pa. "In the industry, January through March is considered 'Bridal Christmas.' It's our busiest time of the year."

If you're about to shop for a wedding dress, check out the tips below from industry experts and from our own Consumer Reports wedding dress tests. They may help you find the dress you want at the right price and with less hassle.

Budget Now, Avoid Heartache Later

• Have an idea of your budget and try to stay within that range. Ideally, says Charlene Parsons, director of fashion design at Miami International University of Art and Design, "not only does the bride know how much she has to spend, but so does the sales person who has been assigned to her."

When the Consumer Reports National Research Center recently surveyed 464 Americans who’d had a wedding reception in the previous five years, almost two-thirds said they had overspent on their wedding budgets by at least 20 percent—not an ideal way to start a life together. 

• Factor in all the costs related to your attire. That includes alterations, the veil, headpiece, undergarments, hair barrettes or combs, and shoes. Anne Chertoff, trend expert for WeddingWire, a wedding planning site, notes that wedding boutiques and retailers have varying pricing on alterations. Some charge up to $500 for unlimited fitting appointments. Others charge a per-appointment fee of $100 or more. No matter what you decide to wear down the aisle, a skilled seamstress is your best friend.

Plan Your Visit

• Keep the shopping party small. Although it's fun to bring your entire posse along when you shop for a wedding dress, consider limiting the group to no more than five people whose taste you trust, Chertoff says. "If you know your future mother-in-law or another friend or relative will be hurt if not included, bring them back when you've narrowed down your options, so you already have a sense of what you want," Chertoff adds.

• Bring the undergarments you expect to wear, or something close to them. Also bring shoes in a heel height approximating what you expect to wear on your wedding day, says Amy Bitici, co-owner of Zoya's Atelier, a bridal boutique in Falls Church, Va. 

• Be realistic about the dress size. Order a dress based on your measurements now, not the smaller size you hope to be by your wedding date. "What happens if the dress that arrives is too small?" Chertoff asks. "It's not so easy to let a dress out. It's much easier to bring it in." To save time, money and stress, trust the sales person to order your right size. 

Mind the Details—and the Dollars

• Expect to pay more for natural fibers. "There will be a significant savings if the gown is not made of silk," says Paula Varsalona, a veteran wedding gown designer and head of the International Bridal Manufacturers Association, based in New York City. 

When you shop for a wedding dress, don't trust your fingers to tell you what you have; check the label and hang tags. The Federal Trade Commission requires gown labels or hang tags to disclose fiber content—silk, cotton, polyester, etc.—and care instructions. A label also should include the name of at least one of the businesses involved in the gown's distribution—the manufacturer, retailer or distributor, for instance—and where the gown was made.

• Don't dress to impress. If you feel you need to pay extra for silk or another expensive fiber, you may be fooling yourself. When Consumer Reports asked 143 people—women and men—to match five wedding gowns with their respective prices between $500 and $10,000, only two people got all five prices right. The only wedding gown that most people properly identified by price was the least expensive: a bright white, $500 polyester David’s Bridal dress made in China.

Only 41 percent properly guessed that an all-silk, elaborately pieced, made-in-America Vera Wang design was the most costly, at $10,000. More than half thought a $3,200 dress was $1,100 or less, and 85 percent thought the $1,100 gown—with the most embellishment—cost $3,200 or more. 

• Understand imports' limitations. If you're ordering from a wedding boutique and not buying off the rack, you'll typically wait six to nine months for your dream dress. But you could wait up to a year for a gown from abroad, Varsalona says.

What's more, although bespoke gowns made in Italy and Spain may look fabulous, manufacturers from those countries are less likely to accommodate you if, say, you want to add spaghetti straps to a strapless gown or alter a train. "You'll have to rely on the person doing the alterations to do it," Varsalona says. 

Look Out for Scams

• Avoid the bridal shop "fire sale." Bridal shops in financial distress have been known to offer goods at deep discounts for cash up front. Then they close fast, stranding customers. If you just can't resist the temptation of such a sale, use a credit card, which may help you get back your money if the vendor folds.

• Think twice about ordering a knockoff. That economic alternative could wind up crushing dreams instead of fulfilling them. In 2013 a bride from Indiana paid $221.79 to a manufacturer in China to copy a $1,375 Justin Alexander design. Consumer Reports compared the counterfeit and original versions and saw that what she received had different fabric, a too-short train, and no tulle underskirt, among other flaws. The company offered a partial refund, and she wound up purchasing the real thing from her local bridal store. The takeaway: If an online company claims to sell a certain label, go to the manufacturer’s site to make sure.

• Do your homework online. Akino Chikada, vice president of MarkMonitor, a service that helps online companies protect their brands, recommends researching whether a wedding dress supplier has been involved in any scams. Type the company's name plus "scam" in a search engine and note the results, she says. (You also can visit the Better Business Bureau's Scam Tracker to see whether the company is listed.)

Also check the website name in the address bar; a site pretending to belong to a reputable company may use a misspelled name in its web address to divert traffic to its business. The return policy should be spelled out for you. So should the privacy policy. "Counterfeiters and other 'brandjackers' don't usually invest the time to craft a clear strong privacy policy," Vargas notes.

Consider Bargain Alternatives

If you're shopping for a gown, you probably decided not to wear your mother's carefully preserved dress. If your progeny feel the same, your wedding gown will probably have just one use as well. With that in mind, consider these less costly alternatives to buying new.

Rent a gown. Designer gowns, used and new, are available for a fraction of their original price. Borrowing Magnolia, the online company from which we rented four gowns for our test, offers used dresses for sale or rent at a deep discount from their original prices. Recent brides can rent out their own dresses to others; by doing so, they reap an average $535, the company says. Another online service we used, Nearly Newlywed (based in Brooklyn, N.Y.), sells discounted new and used designer gowns that can be cleaned and resold through the company after the wedding.

• Buy a used gown or designer sample. Local thrift stores, including Goodwill, are sources. At The Bridal Garden in New York City, proceeds from the sale of donated new and used dresses go to charity.

• Purchase from a secondhand shop. Tradesy and eBay also sell used wedding gowns.

Don't Change Your Mind

In most cases you'll have no recourse if you decide you just don't like or want the dress once it arrives. If it comes to that, talk to the store manager to see whether the business will allow an exchange for a gown at the same price, Chertoff says. 

Alternatively, try selling or renting it at one of the resale or rental services listed above. Other resellers include PreOwned Wedding Dresses and Fabulous Frocks Bridal.