Top five bargain destinations for winter

If you can manage a vacation this winter, you'll find bargains all over the world. The recent gains the dollar has made against the euro and the pound have put Europe within reach for budget travelers for the first time in years. And, prices in more tropical destinations have also come down for winter travel as providers try to lure vacationers reluctant to part with their travel dollars.

I've monitored trends, industry news, and sale patterns to point you in the direction of places that offer the best bargain value for the coming season. Below you'll find examples of deals presently available for winter trips. Like all deals, these are sure to expire; however, a little research on your part can yield similar results when you're ready to book.

Hawaii

Dear budget travelers: Hawaii wants you back, and is willing to cut you a deal to make it happen. Years of courting well-heeled vacationers with big bucks and the spike in airfare prices caused by the bankruptcies of Aloha and ATA in early 2007 kept bargain hunters out of paradise until recently. But when the two airlines shut down, revenue streams to hotels, resorts, and attractions took a major hit, one that was worsened by a drop in visitor numbers brought on by the struggling economy. So to stay afloat, the islands are bringing prices back down.

How much are prices dropping? Enough to put them below—well below, in some cases—2007 rates. In fact, the tourism bureau is currently listing packages featuring lower prices than last year from online travel agencies such as Orbitz, Expedia, Pleasant Holidays, and others.

Though packages are offering the best value this winter, airlines are tempting travelers with unusually low fares as well. For example, at press time, Hawaiian was running a sale with prices as low as $306 round-trip from Seattle, and new sales are cropping up all the time. Plus, there are more choices with new Alaska Airlines flights from Seattle, more service by Delta from Los Angeles and Atlanta, and added flights by WestJet from Vancouver. Hotels are also offering discounts, free nights, and resort credits. And Conde Nast Traveler blogger Wendy Perrin reports that vacation rental prices have dropped dramatically for winter. This kind of across-the-board savings in Hawaii hasn't been seen in a long time, and it likely won't last, so if you're a budget traveler with a hankering for Hawaii, then seize the day. Better yet, carpe vacation!

Ireland

In its latest ad campaign, Ireland wants to know: Can you afford not to go? While the truest answer is probably yes, it's a good question, especially for bargain hunters. A much better exchange rate, drop in oil prices and airfares, and great accommodations deals team up to make this winter a very affordable time to visit the Emerald Isle.

This upcoming season, regular airfares are beating last winter's sale fares from the U.S. to Ireland. Non-sale fares for January travel start at about $375 from the East Coast and $480 from the West Coast. By keeping your eye out for sales, you should be able to do even better than that. Ireland's tourism website, Discover Ireland, features deals from providers on air-and-hotel packages, land-only packages, and accommodations. Package provider go-today.com has Ireland packages from about $900 that include airfare and six nights' accommodations. On the go-today site, look for packages with a plane icon and the word "Save" next to the package name to find prices even lower than advertised.

Since May, the euro has plunged from nearly $1.60 to under $1.30. The more favorable exchange rate means visitors can make their vacation dollars go farther on the ground. In Ireland, that means more chances to explore ancient castles, ride horses along the coast, or discover Irish hospitality at local pubs.

Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico has long been known as one of the most affordable vacation destinations in the Caribbean. But hot airfare competition and promotions all over the island are making it an even better deal this winter. Plus, since U.S. travelers to Puerto Rico don't need passports (which cost $75 to $160 each for adults), it can be a more affordable option, and less of a customs hassle than many other Caribbean destinations.

Air service to Puerto Rico has really heated up recently. It all started when American Airlines announced it would cut routes to the island. JetBlue, AirTran, Continental, and Delta jumped in, adding more service from New York, Newark, Boston, Orlando, and Baltimore. American then got back in the game and announced it would continue its service after all. What first looked to be a loss in service has turned into a boom, and travelers benefit from the increased competition, especially during sales.

Air-and-hotel packages from providers such as CheapCaribbean.com also offer bargain value, with deals such as air from Miami and four nights' accommodations from about $400 per person for December travel. And Puerto Rico's paradores, or country inns, are running a special of $150 off reservations of four nights or more this winter.

Puerto Rico isn't the only place in the Caribbean that has good deals this winter. The U.S. Virgin Islands has a Winter Escape promotion that offers $300 in traveler's checks and a free fifth night. You can find the offer through travel agents, online travel agents, or airline vacation providers. There's also new JetBlue service to St. Maarten, and new service to St. Kitts and Nevis from American Airlines. Many hotels are offering special rates as well, so this is one of those times when a little research can save you a lot of money.

Caribbean (Cruises)

Yes it's true, Caribbean cruises aren't strictly a "destination." So what are they doing on this list? They're just too good a deal to not mention this winter. Here's why: For most of the last year, as airlines struggled and destinations started offering deep discounts to keep visitors coming, the cruise industry remained as popular as ever, and the prices reflected that. But a sharp drop-off in bookings has cruise lines suddenly and seriously discounting sailings. And that puts cruising on this bargain destination map.

You can find luxury cruises for mainstream cruise line prices, and on the more affordable mainstream lines like Carnival and Royal Caribbean, per-day rates are just about as low as they go.

At press time, Carnival was listing discounted sailings such as a six-day Western Caribbean Carnival cruise for $299, or about $50 per day, per person. Considering that price includes food, transportation, accommodations, and many activities, it's an unbeatable deal. On the luxe end, a January sailing on Cunard's Queen Mary 2 cost about $150 per person per day for a 10-night sailing. That's hundreds less per day than you'd normally expect to pay for a trip on one of the world's most famously opulent new ocean liners.

Check the latest reviews of cruise deals to find prices for your dates.

The Rockies

This winter will be a good time to hit the slopes without breaking the bank, especially in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and other Rocky Mountain destinations. According to Travel Weekly (registration required), bookings at ski lodges in the Western U.S. were down almost 20% in September. And accommodations rates have dropped for the first time in almost five years. The phenomenon seems to be regional, since ski destinations within driving distance of more densely populated regions such as New England aren't seeing the same effects as resorts in the Rockies.

United has a ski destination sale to destinations in Colorado and Wyoming, with fares starting at $206 round-trip. And Frontier, whose hub is in Denver, has just ended a sale and will likely have other sales for winter travel soon. Frontier also has ongoing deals for ski vacation packages.

Many ski resorts are already offering discounts and specials as well. For instance, Crested Butte Vacations is offering free lift tickets to guests for booking early-season lodging. Durango Mountain Resort in Colorado has three-day air, hotel, and lift ticket packages from $449 per person. Rates at the Great Divide Lodge in Breckenridge are just $99 per night when booked by December 1. For Utah skiing, you can find all the latest offers from resorts and hotels at Ski Utah. Throughout the Rockies this snowy season, travelers should be able to find good deals. As for good snow ... to know that, we'll just have to wait and see.

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