Top five bargain destinations for summer 2009

Options abound on the vacation package front. CheapCaribbean.com is offering discounted air-and-hotel packages such as four-nights and airfare from $560 per person (at press time, this deal was set to expire on May 11, but may be extended or replaced by a similar offer). JetBlue had an air-and-three-night package at the Riu Mambo all-inclusive resort in Puerto Plata for $405 per person. These are just a few of the vacation deals you should be able to find to the Dominican Republic this summer from online travel agencies and airlines.

At resorts around the island, discounts are the norm this summer. Club Med Punta Cana is offering 50% off the second person on stays of three nights or longer, or free stays for kids 15 and younger for seven-night stays. The Excellence Punta Cana Resort has 15 to 25% off summer rates, and the Puntacana Hotel has 40% off rates to celebrate its 40th anniversary.

National Parks

If you're within driving distance, on a budget, and enjoy the outdoors, a national park (or state or regional park) can be an ideal summer bargain destination. Accommodations are as cheap as you'll find them (though you'll have to pack your own bed ... or sleeping bag) and you'll be surrounded by free activities like hiking, bird watching, and swimming. If everything but the sleeping on the ground sounds good, you can forgo the camping in favor of an in- or out-of-park hotel or motel. However, unless you're planning on staying at one of the no-reservations campgrounds in a park, don't wait until the last minute to book your accommodations; this bargain option is one many summer travelers will likely take advantage of this season.

Not sold yet? Here are some numbers that illustrate the sorts of vacation costs you can expect at national parks. At Yellowstone, for example, the entrance fee (good for up to six people) is just $25. Campsites for up to four people range between $12 and $25 per night. And early summer room rates near the park start at $59 per night. If you're not within road-trip distance of the park, you might consider flying into Salt Lake City, where you'll be able to take advantage of U.S. summer airfare sales from many major airlines. For more tips, Priceline.com blogger Brian Ek has a detailed and money-saving post on the best way to visit Yellowstone on a budget.

Other parks offer similarly good value. In Yosemite, you'll pay $20 per car and $14 to $20 for a campsite. And at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, entrance is free and campsites cost between $14 and $23 per night.

Australia

This summer is a particularly good time to save money on an Australia vacation. The U.S. Tour Operators Association (USTOA) is reporting that travel to Australia is 20% cheaper now than it was a year ago. Plus, competitive pricing from airlines and other promotions such as discounted vacation packages and air passes make Australia an intriguing choice for travelers who can spend a little more but are still on a budget this summer.

The flight time from Los Angeles to Sydney is about the same as between L.A. and Rome. And this summer, it may actually be cheaper to fly to Australia than to Europe. A spot-check of flights from San Francisco in July puts a round-trip flight to Sydney at $763 versus $1,040 to Rome. Even from the East Coast, Australia flights are competitive with airfare to Europe.

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