Top five bargain destinations for winter 2011/2012

— -- Travel is a surefire way to chase away the winter blues. If you know where to look, you'll find deals in popular beach and snow hot spots, as well as in places that fall slightly off winter's beaten path. Here are five destinations offering particularly good prices this coming season.

I've tracked trends, industry news, and sale patterns to point you in the direction of places currently offering great bargains 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 bit of research on your part can yield similar results when you're ready to book.

Puerto Vallarta

Put a bright spot in the winter forecast with a trip to Puerto Vallarta. New air service makes the beach-and-dining destination even more accessible from the U.S. And a major hotel sale makes staying there more affordable, too.

Mood lighting at 30,000 feet will connect San Francisco and Puerto Vallarta when hip low-cost carrier Virgin America begins nonstop service on December 2. The airline will also offer connecting service to New York City and Seattle. Fares start from $129 each way (before taxes and fees) between December 2 and February 15.

Travelocity is discounting all-inclusive vacation deals to Puerto Vallarta, with prices such as $680 for round-trip airfare from Los Angeles and four nights at the Riu Palace Pacifico. Expedia is discounting 27 Puerto Vallarta hotels in its "Best Hotels of 2011" promotion. Book by December 5 for stays through March to get 30% off two nights, 40% off three nights, or 50% off four nights. Sample nightly rates on four-night stays include $71 at the Holiday Inn Puerto Vallarta or $84 at the Presidente InterContinental Puerto Vallarta.


Many popular ski destinations are hours from the nearest airport, but in Utah, 11 of its 14 major ski and snowboarding resorts are within an hour's drive of the well-served Salt Lake City airport. Utah also delivers on value with a variety of deals, discounts, and added amenities for winter stays.

The Quick Start program is back for another year, and it gives visitors a free lift ticket on the day they arrive by plane. From January 1 through February 29, the "Ski, Dine, and Stay" offer combines $20 off accommodations with other discounts and the chance to win ski passes or stays. A similar holiday package, available through the end of the year, offers lodging discounts and the chance to win shopping prizes.

Accommodations discounts and bundled ski-and-stay packages are the norm at Utah hotels in ski resort destinations. For instance, Park City's Chateau Apres Lodge offers nightly rates from $95 in December or $110 in January, including breakfast. Mention "December Special Offer" or "January Special Offer" to get the rate. With promo code "wonder," guests can get 40% off accommodations between December 1 and January 31 at the Hyatt Escala Lodge in Park City. And the Park City Mountain Resort has four-night stay-and-ski packages that include accommodations and lift tickets from $79 per person, per night on bookings made by December 1.

Travelers willing to go farther into ski territory will find even more deals. For instance, at Brian Head in the Rocky Mountains of southern Utah, the Grand Lodge's "Apres Ski Package" offers accommodations plus two adult lift tickets and apres-ski appetizers for $189 on Sundays and weeknights.

St. Lucia

If you can find a destination where the peak season and great deals coincide, you've really hit bargain gold. This winter, St. Lucia is a shining example with perfect weather and island-wide specials.

St. Lucia's "Warm Winter Values" deliver hotel package discounts up to 35%, plus food and beverage credits and spa treatments at participating properties around the island. Deals include up to 50% off all-inclusive rates at the Almond Morgan Bay, with per-person nightly rates from $139. Or 20% off, with rooms from $92 per night, for stays January through March booked by November 22 at the Bay Gardens Inn.

Expedia's Best Hotels of 2011 promotion also includes 10 St. Lucia resorts. Take 50% off four-night stays for discounted rates such as $60 per night at the Habitat Terrace or $191 per night at the swank Royal by Rex Resorts.

Finger Lakes Wine Country

Here's a winter vacation for all you multitaskers out there: New York's Finger Lakes Wine Country, which offers two vacations in one. You'll find the key elements of a wine country getaway—the wine tasting and the chance to meet and talk to winemakers—plus a cozy winter atmosphere. Best of all, you'll take advantage of lower prices for both experiences.

Through the end of March, "Winter Wine Weekend" packages offer discounted rates on accommodations. For instance, at the New Vines Bed & Breakfast, winter rates start at $115 per night, and you'll get the third night free. More than a dozen other hotels around the region are offering special rates or the third night free. The package also includes two-for-one attraction admissions, restaurant discounts, complimentary wine tastings at participating wineries, and more.

The Polar Passport offers another way to save. Many area wineries charge a tasting fee of $2 to $4, but the $12 passport gives holders free flights at more than 20 wineries. This year's passport should be available around December 5. And from January 7 to 16, the annual Bargain Bash is the time wineries offer discounts on wine, glasses, and other retail items. Find offers such as 20% off a case at Fox Run Vineyards or Tony's 4 Pack (two bottles of red, two bottles of white) for $25 at Anthony Road Wine Company.

Costa Rica

New air service from a low-cost carrier and standout vacation packages put Costa Rica on the bargain map this winter even as the destination enters its busiest season for visitors. And a winter full of giveaways to celebrate its designation as one of the happiest countries in the world doesn't hurt the deal horizon either.

On November 17 JetBlue premiered nonstop service between New York JFK and Liberia, Costa Rica. Introductory rates booked by December 1 for travel through February 15 (excluding holiday blackout dates) start at $119 each way.

Bundled air-and-hotel is another strong option for Costa Rica trips this winter. Pleasant Holidays is advertising three-night packages with air starting at $459. And United Vacations is offering air-and-hotel packages from $579 per person, with savings of up to $240 if booked by December 31 using promo code UV14620.

Read previous columns features expert travel advice and unbiased coverage of travel deals.