By Tim Leffel Travel columnist
updated 3/12/2008 3:44:58 PM ET 2008-03-12T19:44:58

Back in January, we ran a story about where those of us carrying dollars could still find a travel bargain abroad. Things have already gotten worse, with the euro blasting past the $1.50 mark and the dollar weakening further against the yen. On top of that, fuel costs and food costs keep rising around the world, impacting flight prices and restaurant tabs.

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I co-authored a new book — out this month — called “Traveler’s Tool Kit: Mexico and Latin America” and the timing couldn’t be more appropriate. The best place to find a travel bargain right now is in this region just to the south of us, in countries just a few hours away. That means not only attractive prices, but also easy flights, just one foreign language to deal with and no jet lag.

A cure for the beaten-up buck
Flying to Europe for a summer vacation can now require a five-figure budget and the equanimity to pay twice what you do at home for everything without getting depressed. In most of Mexico and Central America, however, you’re visiting places that are as cheap as — or cheaper than — home, with no hit to your money’s value because of currency fluctuations.

Mexico and the Central American countries have currencies that usually move in tandem with the U.S. dollar, either officially or in practice. Panama and El Salvador actually use our currency, so there’s never going to be a question of what your dollars are worth. The Belize dollar is always worth 50 U.S. cents, give or take a couple pennies. The Mexican peso fluctuates a bit from month to month, but in a narrow band between 10 and 11 pesos to the dollar. The U.S. dollar will get you around 500 Costa Rican colones, the same amount as two years ago. It’s the same story in Guatemala and Honduras, while in Nicaragua the dollar is actually worth more than it was two years ago, due to a 17 percent local inflation rate.

Apart from a few posh resorts and anomalies like rental cars, prices for travelers are far lower in this part of the world than they are in the U.S. and Canada, especially once you get out of the purpose-built tourist zones such as Cancun and Los Cabos. Unless you are staying at the very top international luxury hotels, lodging and dining prices are a pleasant surprise, not a shock to the system.

The closer you get to what the local residents are paying — e.g., by eating at locally owned restaurants, staying at independent hotels and taking public transportation — the bigger the savings. In my recent experience that has meant $60 hotels with a fantastic view and breakfast, beers in a bar for under a buck, and seafood dinners on the beach for $10 each.

No jet lag
Flying to Europe or Africa, especially from the West Coast, can knock you for a loop and leave you reeling for two days. A trip to Asia or Australia is worse. When you finally wobble off the plane, you’re in a time zone so different that the hands on your internal clock are spinning in opposite directions.

A trip to Mexico or Central America, on the other hand, is about as rough as going from Denver to Atlanta. Many tourists don’t even need to change their watch while on vacation. Most of Central America is on Central Time and only one state in Mexico is on anything other than Central or Mountain Time. You can hit the ground running, enjoying yourself from the start instead of fighting the urge to sleep through the day.

Exotic worlds a few hours away
The lands of the Aztecs and Incas seem worlds away from the strip malls and subdivisions of the United States, so people sometimes forget how close we really are to the seats of these ancient civilizations. In fact, Dallas is closer to Tikal (Guatemala) and Teotihuacán (Mexico) than it is to New York City. Three hours after you buckle in on the tarmac in Miami you can be driving to the jungles of Costa Rica, the reefs off the coast of Belize and Honduras, or the locks of the Panama Canal.

With more direct flights between the U.S. and Latin America all the time, there are a surprising number of quick and easy flight connections. Copa Airlines flies direct to Panama from five cities. Frontier Airlines flies direct to Mexico from seven cities and TACA flies to 14 cities in the region from seven U.S. gateways. Spirit, Delta, Continental and American have multiple routes to Mexico and Central America from their hub airports. JetBlue and Southwest are probably heading that way soon, too.

While flight prices will be more than for a domestic flight, partly due to additional taxes, they are likely to be in the $350-to-$650 range, round trip — far less than the $1,000 or more that other international flights are routinely costing now. High seasons vary across the region, though, so promotional sales are frequent — sometimes dipping under $300 from Miami, Los Angeles and Houston.

Until the dollar gets back on track, Latin America is looking like the most attractive international option around. You’ve got plenty of good reasons now to check out your neighbors.

Tim Leffel is author of the books "Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune" and "The World's Cheapest Destinations". He also edits the award-winning narrative Web 'zine Perceptive Travel.

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