Image: Camel caravan
Courtesy of G.A.P. Adventures
Up for a camel caravan through Morocco?
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updated 12/19/2008 9:37:24 AM ET 2008-12-19T14:37:24

Baby, it's cold outside! Looking for a shot of sun, and maybe a refuge from your 401(k) statements? We could all use a vacation — and no, holidays at the in-laws' doesn't count.

Cheer up: 'Tis the season for amazing travel steals and deals. Hotels and airlines aren't exactly raking in the bucks right now, either, so many of them are pulling out all the stops, offering some of the best deals we've seen in years.

Whether you're looking for just a fun-and-sun weekend getaway in Florida or Hawaii or an extended journey to an exotic cultural destination like Morocco or Malaysia, we've got advice on how to escape those winter doldrums on the cheap. But just like the economic free fall, these deals won't last forever — so start packing.

Note: The packages and deals posted here may be subject to availability, blackout dates or other restrictions.

For a complete slideshow of the best winter travel deals, click here.

1. Hawaii
Rule of thumb:
Look for bundled air and hotel packages for the deepest discounts.

Why here? In October 2008, occupancy in Hawaii dropped to 63 percent of available rooms — the lowest level since just after Sept. 11, 2001. The state's economy depends on tourist dollars to stay afloat, so all sorts of deals are popping up to lure travelers to the Aloha State.

Best bang for your buck: Online travel retailers such as Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity sell packages that include flights, accommodations and sometimes even car rental. Hotels prefer to discount this way because then you don't know by exactly how much they're lowering their nightly room rate. This means you can reserve a five-night stay at Oahu's four-star Turtle Bay Resort ("Forgetting Sarah Marshall" was shot there, and "Lost" is filmed among the property's banyan trees), including round-trip flights from Los Angeles on Hawaiian Airlines, for just $778 per person through Orbitz. Rooms normally start at $230, and airfare in January is usually around $400, so with the package you'll be saving about $400 a couple.

Travelocity has four nights at the ResortQuest Waimea Plantation Cottages on Kauai and round-trip air from L.A. for $703 per person. You can also book packages directly from a hotel chain's Web site. A mid-January weeklong stay at the Hilton Hawaiian Village and roundtrip flights from San Francisco on United Airlines, for example, costs $2,048 for a couple when booked on hilton.com but more than $2,300 when booked separately.

2. Sedona, Ariz.
Rule of thumb:
Search out added incentives dangled by hotels that don't want to reduce their nightly rates. Even if the total is more than the basic rate, the value of the add-ons usually outweighs the increase.

Why here? For spa-goers, this desert town is massage heaven. You can get your fix at the Amara Resort, a blissful getaway along burbling Oak Creek yet still close to downtown.

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Best bang for your buck: The Amara's Outer Radiance package starts at $445 for a night but includes a $260 credit to the spa. That'll pay for a 90-minute custom massage (including tip) or a massage lesson for two so that you can continue to work out the kinks back at home. You'll also find a bottle of wine and a fruit-and-cheese plate in your room when you arrive.

Not a massage fanatic? Try El Portal instead, a romantic hacienda-style hotel in the heart of downtown. If you're willing to take a chance and are planning to stay two or more nights, wait until the day before you arrive to book a room — if you call less than 24 hours in advance, your first night will cost only $99, Sunday through Thursday. Those more risk-averse can book ahead online and get a 10 percent discount through December. Rates start at $250 in the high season, but only $179 until March (excluding Christmas).

Amara
Tel: 800-815-6152

El Portal
Tel: 800-313-0017

3. Mexico
Rule of thumb:
Where the dollar is strong, look for hotels that list rates in the local currency.

Why here? The dollar is at its all-time high against the Mexican peso. Provided you choose your hotel wisely, you'll pay less than ever before.

Naoko-Money-Sho1
Courtesy of Turtle Bay Resort
Look for bundled packages so you, too, can surf outside Turtle Bay, Oahu.
Best bang for your buck: Since most resorts charge Americans in dollars, you don't benefit from the favorable exchange rate. The Casa de Sierra Nevada in San Miguel de Allende lists rates in pesos: 3,175 for a deluxe room, which would have cost you $320 as recently as August but comes to only $235 now. (You'll save even more from Sunday through Thursday, when that same room goes for $217.)

This Orient-Express property takes up five colonial mansions near the city's main plaza, with fountains and gardens hidden throughout. Every Tuesday, the chef offers a two-hour market tour and a cooking class for 600 pesos, or just $45. The cheap peso makes the dollar go farther in restaurants, too, of course. La Capilla, a moody, romantic former chapel, is the fanciest place in town, and now more reasonably priced.

Bonus: You'll also find the dollar climbing against local currency in Brazil and Argentina. Latin America has never looked so good.

Casa de Sierra Nevada
Tel: 800-701-1561

La Capilla
Tel: 52-415-152-0698

4. Naples, Fla.
Rule of thumb:
The period between Thanksgiving and Christmas is always a slow travel time, so hotels sweeten the deal to bring in guests.

Why here? Early December is a perennial no-go zone for vacationers, and popular resort areas like Florida can't depend on business travelers — particularly this year. That's why hotels, even those that rarely discount, are pulling out all the stops.

Best bang for your buck: If you've got a few vacation days still to use this year, many Florida hotels will reward you for taking some time off between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort in Naples, for instance, is offering a Holiday Reconnect package: For $309 per night, you get a resort-view room, full breakfast for two and a $100 credit that can be used at the on-site restaurants, spa or shops. The 295-room hotel has two golf courses designed by Greg Norman and five restaurants. Guests can also hop a free shuttle to the other Ritz property in town, which abuts the beach.

What else is there to do while in Naples? Take care of any last-minute Christmas shopping at the Waterside Shops, an open-air mall where palm trees grow outside Saks Fifth Avenue. Or head to the Philharmonic Center for the Arts for a Holiday Pops concert by the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra.

Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort, Naples
Tel: 239-593-2000

Philharmonic Center for the Arts
Tel: 239-597-1900
Tickets from $47

5. California wine country
Rule of thumb:
Consider traveling midweek, when hotels that cater mostly to weekenders lower their rates to fill rooms.

Why here? Come Saturday, Napa and Sonoma buzz with tipplers from San Francisco, even in the winter off-season. But during the week, you can have the valleys to yourself, and at a very nice price.

Best bang for your buck: The Sonoma Creek Inn's Carpe Diem package includes a bottle of wine, two wine-tasting passes and a room upgrade for just $75 for one night or $145 for two, Sunday through Thursday. Request a room with a private patio.

Over the hills in Napa, the Art Deco El Bonita Motel in St. Helena has rooms for $99 midweek — a steal in a valley where even the deli sandwiches are overpriced. You'll find some of the friendliest pourers in the state at the tasting salon at Ceja Vineyards, which is run by a Mexican-American family whose parents immigrated to work in the fields.

And why not take advantage of a business hotel's reduced weekend rates in San Francisco after your weekday wine tasting? The Omni San Francisco Hotel, a road-warrior mainstay in the Financial District, costs $299 during the week but just $189 on weekends. Plus, staying over a Saturday night will help bring the price down on those airline tickets.

Sonoma Creek Inn
Tel: 888-712-1289

El Bonita Motel
Tel: 800-541-3284

Ceja Vineyards' Wine Tasting Salon
Tel: 707-226-6445

Omni San Francisco Hotel
Tel: 888-444-6664

6. Vancouver, British Columbia
Rule of thumb:
On the flip side, if you can only travel on the weekend, look for the best rates at business hotels.

Why here? Vancouver is already abuzz with preparations for the 2010 Winter Olympics. The city itself doesn't get much snow, but you can be on the slopes in 15 minutes.

Best bang for your buck: In nearly every major city, you can find business hotels that lower their rates as soon as their usual customers head home on Friday. Vancouver is a prime example: The Four Seasons there charges $240 during the week, but you can stay on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday night for only $190. And from now through March, if you stay two nights, you'll get the third free.

Bonus: American cities get in on the act, too. You'll find great weekend deals at the historic Hilton Checkers in downtown Los Angeles, with rooms for $279 (on average) during the week but $149 on the weekend. And in New York City, the Waldorf-Astoria has weekend rates from $299 in January ($359 during the week) and the Bryant Park Hotel is almost $100 cheaper on weekends ($289 versus $375).

Four Seasons Vancouver
Tel: 604-689-9333

Hilton Checkers Los Angeles
Tel: 213-624-0000

Waldorf-Astoria
Tel: 800-925-3673

Bryant Park Hotel
Tel: 877-640-9300

7. U.S. Virgin Islands
Rule of thumb:
Rent a villa. In addition to benefiting from the great rates available this season, you'll get more privacy than you would at a resort, and you'll save a little more cash by having some meals at home. And keep in mind that it's always worth trying to negotiate with a villa owner on price. If you see a place you love that's just a little out of your budget, tell the owner what you've got to spend; a vacant villa earns them nothing.

Why here? Traveling to the Caribbean is getting to be more of a hassle — remember the good old days when you didn't need a passport? In the U.S. Virgin Islands, you still don't. Plus, you won't have to exchange any currency, and your cell phone will work just like at home.

Best bang for your buck: On laid-back St. John, the greenest island in the U.S. triumvirate, the three-bedroom Beit Hawa villa costs $3,500 per week during the upcoming high season, which starts Jan. 6. Find enough friends to fill the place and each couple will pay only $167 per night. By comparison, rooms at the only two resorts on the island, Caneel Bay and the Westin St. John, start at $509.

The house sits 50 feet above the beach, and the master bedroom has an outdoor shower. For a little more glitz, try neighboring St. Thomas. It's always a party at the Ocean Cliff Villa, which has six bedrooms and costs $6,300 per week through February, or $150 per night for each bedroom. In February, you're likely to spot migrating whales through the living room's picture windows. Both villas — and dozens more — are available through the Blue Escapes rental agency.

Blue Escapes
Tel: 800-556-4801

8. Portugal
Rule of thumb:
Airfares are cheap to Europe right now, but the airlines aren't bothering — or maybe don't have the budget left — to advertise.

Why here? While winter might not be the nicest time of year to visit the European mainland, the Azores enjoy a mild climate year-round and are only four hours from the East Coast of the United States. The temperature generally doesn't go over 70 degrees even at the height of summer on this volcanic archipelago, and tops out around 60 from January through April. Be prepared for the occasional shower, followed by a burst of sunshine.

Best bang for your buck: Both the season's modest fares and a favorable exchange rate (Portugal's currency is the euro, which is at a two-year low against the dollar) are reflected in the air and hotel packages offered by SATA Airlines' Azores Express Tours. For example, $649 per person for six nights at a country inn on São Miguel Island, including round-trip air from Boston. São Miguel is a favorite among nature lovers, with paths leading up its windblown hillsides to crater lakes with ocean views.

You can also tour the only two tea plantations in Europe. If you'd rather see Lisbon's cobbled streets than the Azores' fishing villages, six-night air and hotel packages to the capital start at $1,039 per person.

Azores Express Tours
Tel: 800-762-9995

9. Malaysia
Rule of thumb:
For a trip that you'll remember long after you've paid off the bills, look to up-and-coming destinations.

Why here? Southeast Asia has always been a mecca for shoestring travelers, and now Malaysia is joining the party.

Best bang for your buck: The Traders Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, across the street from the sky-high Petronas Towers, may be owned by the upscale Shangri-La chain, but its rooms go for just $85 a night. This is no backpacker's hostel: The hotel has a spa, health club, rooftop pools, jogging track and three restaurants. Through Jan. 4, many stores are also offering shopping discounts to foreigners; show your passport for extra savings. And you can eat on the cheap — curry puffs and satay for less than a dollar — at the city's numerous food stands. (How to play it safe: Look for the stands doing a brisk business, and buy only what you can watch being cooked in front of you.)

Bonus: Another cheap-but-chic destination is Laos. The world is waking up to charming Luang Prabang, where you can shack up at Mick Jagger's favorite hideaway, La Résidence Phou Vao, for less than $200 per night. Also consider Slovenia, in the hidden corner of the Alps that links Western Europe and the Balkan Peninsula. Easyjet flies from London Stansted to the capital city, Ljubljana, for as little as $37 in March (though beware of tacked-on fees that can raise the price significantly).

Traders Hotel
Tel: 603-2332-9888

La Résidence Phou Vao
Tel: 800-237-1236

10. London
Rule of thumb:
Take advantage of favorable exchange rates now — who knows where the dollar is going in another few months.

Why here? The greenback is stronger in the U.K. than it has been since way back in 2003. That means visiting this perennially expensive city is finally a bit more affordable. And so is getting there.

Best bang for your buck: Some of the best deals are to be found through packages put together by the airlines, including Virgin Atlantic, British Airways and their U.S. counterparts. We found a great deal on Virgin that includes round-trip air, six nights in a three-star London hotel and continental breakfast starting at $699 per person.

Last year, that's what the flight alone would have cost you. At those prices, you could do some real damage at the fantastic after-Christmas sales (up to 75 percent off even at Harrod's) that go through January.

Of if you would rather explore the countryside, you can get round-trip flights from Chicago to London and a weeklong car rental with unlimited mileage for as low as $769 per person, including taxes and fees. (Both of these packages expire Dec. 22, but expect similar deals to crop up through the spring.)

Virgin Vacations
Tel: 888-937-8474

11. Morocco
Rule of thumb:
Book a group tour. You'll benefit from the economies of scale and won't have to worry about logistics.

Why here? This isn't Grandma's group tour: On G.A.P. Adventures' Morocco Sojourn, a 10-day trip from Marrakech to the Atlas Mountains, the Sahara and the Atlantic coast, you'll spend one night at a nomad camp in the desert and take two excursions by camel.

Best bang for your buck: Not all bus tours are created equal. Well-respected outfitter G.A.P. Adventures attracts a young, worldly clientele with its off-the-radar destinations. The Morocco trip costs $649 per person, plus €250 local payment, which currently works out to about $100 per night, including all breakfasts, four dinners, tours and transportation by private van.

And you can feel swell about where your money is going, since G.A.P. runs a nonprofit foundation that supports local projects in the communities it visits. The company encourages travelers to give $1 per day and matches every donation.

Since costs are low in Morocco, G.A.P. estimates that you'll spend only about $200 on meals not included in the package price. Just remember to factor in some spending money for the country's exquisite metalwork, ceramics and textiles.

G.A.P. Adventures
Tel: 800-708-7761

Video: Packing for your winter vacation

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