Top five bargain destinations for winter

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.

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