Monday, March 19, 2012

5 Best Travel Deals in 2012

As you start fantasizing about your next vacation, you might feel discouraged once the reality of airfares and hotel rates sets in.
U.S. lodging prices rose 4% last year, and industry research group STR forecasts another 4% jump this year. Airfares spiked 8% in the first three quarters of 2011 (the most recent data available). And Hotwire predicts hikes of 8% to 10% in 2012, as demand continues to stabilize and capacity is cut back.
Even so, there are still deals to be found—if you know where to look. The five locales here will allow you and your partner to fly and stay for a very budget-friendly price, thanks in part to airline competition and excess hotel inventory.
The domestic destinations come out to less than $1,500 for two for five nights; the international ones, under $2,500. Food, fun, and tacky souvenirs not included.
Riviera Maya, Mexico
Courtesy: Xplor
Total for 2 people, 5 nights: $1,875
Average Hotel Rate: $173
Average Airfare: $505
Why it's worth visiting: This region just south of Cancun is known for its powdery white beaches and calm, clear waters. Resorts line the coast, with all-inclusive deals being a popular option.
While you'll surely want to soak up the Caribbean rays and snorkel the coral reefs, you'll also want to venture outside the hotel to soak in some history. Nearby Tulum is one of the best preserved coastal Mayan cities, and the ruins at Ek' Balam are just a few hours away. "It's an incredible site that isn't as crowded," says Hope Smith, a travel agent specializing in Mexico.
Why it's a deal: The weak European economy has meant fewer visitors to Mexico. That especially hurts in Riviera Maya, which has the largest hotel inventory in the country. Drug-related crime has also dented tourism, even though the region is 1,000 miles from affected areas.
Result: "Hotel rates are depressed, even in high season," says Hotwire president Clem Bason. Flying here from the U.S. is a bargain compared with other popular beach destinations, though flights to Kauai run nearly $150 above average during peak season, per Travelocity.
Where to stay: The four-star all-inclusive Barcelo Maya Palace Deluxe, which starts at $134 per person per night and is on the beach.
Courtesy: Greater Phoenix CVB
Total for 2 people, 5 nights: $1,163
Average Hotel Rate: $109
Average Airfare: $309
Why it's worth visiting: The city's 300-plus rain-free days make it ideal for outdoor pursuits—whether hiking Camelback Mountain, catching catfish at Papago Park, or taking a Hummer tour of the desert past dark with night-vision goggles. "Phoenix's natural beauty is 24/7," says Douglas MacKenzie of the local visitors' bureau.
Just want to improve your swing? There are more than 200 golf courses in the area, from tournament sites to public links. The secret to a prime tee time: Make reservations at least a month in advance, suggests MacKenzie.
Why it's a deal: Phoenix is a hub for low-cost airline Southwest, which has kept fare competition stiff: Prices for travel through March were actually down 1% over the previous year. Also, the city overbuilt hotels during the late 2000s, and demand hasn't yet caught up.
Research firm STR expects only 58% occupancy this year, which should keep rates low. (Just be aware that you'll pay more in the spring, when the area is popular with golfers.)
Where to stay: The 4 1/2-star Arizona Biltmore, a Waldorf Astoria property adjacent to the 36-hole Arizona Biltmore Country Club. Rates start at $150 a night in the fall.
Courtesy: Thinkstock
Total for 2 people, 5 nights: $1,330
Average Hotel Rate: $150
Average Airfare: $290
Why it's worth visiting: With more museums than you could visit, memorials galore, interesting federal buildings, and pretty public spaces, the capital's wide array of attractions—most of which are free—make it an ideal destination for families.
Of course, you'll want to hit the standard monuments and Smithsonians (don't miss the National Air and Space Museum or the zoo). But in this election year, why not also get some insight into American history and government?
You can eye a copy of the Declaration of Independence at the Library of Congress, see how money is made at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, visit George Washington's Mount Vernon home (30 minutes away)—even walk the halls of the White House, suggests Suzanne Rowan Kelleher of family travel site
The only way to get into the White House is to apply through your member of Congress, though. For best results, put in a request four to six months out.
Why it's a deal: With the candidates and staffers off on the campaign trail this year, traffic will be lighter on Capitol Hill (fewer lobbyist visits, fewer protesters). That will translate to hotel savings for tourists, says Donna Mulligan of Orbitz.
"And as we get closer to summer, rates will be more aggressive." (Just avoid March 20 to April 27, as hotels will charge a premium for the 100th anniversary of the National Cherry Blossom Festival.) Because D.C. is a major market for JetBlue and Virgin America, airfares to Dulles and Reagan are affordable, averaging $290 recently.
Where to stay: Hotel Rouge, which is located five blocks from the Dupont Circle Metro stop and starts at just $119 a night. The kid-friendly Kimpton hotel has bunk beds and Xbox consoles, and even offers babysitting services.
San Diego
Courtesy: Orfila Vineyards and Winery
Total for 2 people, 5 nights: $1,326
Average Hotel Rate: $136
Average Airfare: $323
Why it's worth visiting: While San Diego may bring to mind family-friendly attractions like the zoo and Sea World, the area also offers plenty of bacchanal pleasure for adults.
San Diego County is home to nearly 50 wineries, most of which produce small-batch Cabernets, Merlots, and Syrahs. You won't face the crowds of Napa—or the prices. Tastings here will set you back only $8 to $10, vs. $10 to $25 there.
Plan your visit for September or October, suggests Samantha Pewitt of the local vintner's association. "The colors are beautiful," she notes—and you'll get to witness harvesting and crushing. Be sure to hit Cordiano Winery, known for its smooth Cab Sav, outdoor pizza oven, and terrace overlooking the San Pasqual Valley.
Why it's a deal: Vacationers overlook San Diego in favor of Los Angeles to the north and Mexico to the south, says L. Jasmine Kim of travel deals site That means you can get a good price on a four-star hotel here ($164, vs. $188 in L.A.). Air service by Southwest and Virgin America keeps fares low: $323 on average from U.S. airports.
Where to stay: The Rancho Bernardo Inn, 25 minutes from downtown San Diego, which starts at $169 a night. Seven wineries are within a 20-minute drive.
Warsaw, Poland
Courtesy: Thinkstock
Total for 2 people, 5 nights: $2,250
Average Hotel Rate: $118
Average Airfare: $830
Why it's worth visiting: Poland's capital offers up an Old World Europe experience rich in culture and history. You'll certainly get a good dose of both in Old Town, the half-mile district on the west bank of the Vistula River that was meticulously restored after World War II. The streets of this pedestrian-friendly zone are dotted with restaurants, boutiques, and galleries.
Once you've experienced Old Town, spend a few hours touring the Royal Castle, the former residence of the Polish monarchs. Then reward yourself with lunch at U Kucharzy, located in a historic hotel. The open kitchen allows you to watch chefs prepare specialties like steak tartare and stuffed goose.
"The food mimics the menu from the 1930s," says Gwen Kozlowski, a Tampa travel specialist who focuses on Eastern Europe. "It's a really interesting experience." Save room for rose-petal-jam-filled doughnuts from confectioner Cukiernia A. Blikle.
Why it's a deal: Poland is still on its local currency, the zloty. So you'll find a favorable exchange rate here, vs. in the eurozone. Also, Warsaw isn't yet a major tourist destination, says Kozlowski. As a result, five-star hotels last year averaged only $129 a night, per—60% less than those in Prague.
Hotels built for this year's Euro 2012 soccer tournament will also keep inventory high and rates down for most of the year. Just avoid going in June, when footie fans will descend.
Where to stay: The five-star Le Meridien Bristol, a 10-minute walk from Old Town. Because it's in the midst of a renovation, the hotel is a bargain, says Kozlowski; rates start at $113 a night. (Work is being done floor by floor, so it shouldn't disturb your stay.)
This article is part of a series related to being Financially Fit by Anne C. Lee.

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