By Travel columnist
updated 3/18/2005 1:18:52 PM ET 2005-03-18T18:18:52

The bargains everyone has been snatching up the past few years are gone. Look at a typical week-long vacation for a family of four to the Riviera Maya, Mexico’s newest hotspot. That family, traveling from Baltimore on a charter flight, staying at a middle of the road all-inclusive resort, paid $2,158 in 2002. The average price for 2005 is $3,774.

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While the deals may be vanishing, consider the following and you may just find a solution that will please both you and your wallet.

Remember the past. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 had a devastating impact on the travel industry. People were afraid to leave their homes, much less fly to another country. Toss in a recession, SARS, and the Iraq war. The travel suppliers were practically giving their product away — weeklong cruises for $399, all-inclusive resorts for $125 per night. They needed to survive, and they did. Things have calmed down now and they need to make up for four years of weak balance sheets.

Plan ahead. Over the past few years, travelers have been snatching up last-minute bargains. Today, those “deals” are the lovely rooms overlooking the dumpster or adjacent to the noisy elevator. They might be ideal for a quick weekend getaway, but not for any type of prolonged vacation. Do a little advance planning. You can never book too early. Besides, any competent travel agent will be monitoring the pricing on your behalf to catch a price drop.

Look for the offbeat. Cancun, Punta Cana, Riviera Maya, Jamaica, and St. Lucia are all wonderful vacation destinations. The problem is, they know it. Why not look to something every bit as beautiful, but still relatively undiscovered? Central America has some fabulous beaches and some of the world’s best eco-tourism. Costa Rica and Belize offer the Caribbean lifestyle without all the crowds and the high costs. There are many small unique Caribbean islands which are begging to be discovered without breaking the bank.

Go Euro. Yes, the dollar is taking a beating against the euro and pound. But small, independent hotels remain plentiful and reasonably-priced. While winter is the high season for the Caribbean, it is the off-season for Europe. Explore the continent without the crowds and save a few bucks to boot. Even if you opt for more upscale digs, what you may save in airfare will offset the cost. Northwest Airlines recently ran a sale of $158, round trip plus taxes and fees to Paris. If cruising or escorted tours interest you, buy the trip with American dollars and save even more.

Head out to sea or to an all-inclusive resort. Historically, cruises and all-inclusive vacations are priced to knock your socks off. If you are traveling with children, or big drinkers, this option may just save you money. In addition to the entertainment and activities, all meals are included. With the all-inclusive resorts, your drinks are also typically included. You will be requested (or required) to tip on a cruise line, but it is discouraged at most all-inclusive resorts. You may pay more up front, but in the end, if you have hungry kids, or thirsty adults, you may just end up saving a bundle.

Use a travel agent. This is not another shameless plug. Pricing can change hourly and travel suppliers are always putting something on sale, and not necessarily to the Internet. While the airlines have embraced the Internet as the end-all and be-all, the cruise lines and the travel suppliers still rely heavily on traditional travel agents to fill beds and berths. It is not unusual to receive a message about a two-hour sale. Royal Caribbean does this weekly. A good consultant will be watching these for you and will make sure you have the lowest price available. After all, your consultant is not as interested in this sale as he is in the future sales. This is a relationship business.

Bottom line: today’s high travel prices don’t have to keep you grounded. Plan ahead, consider some other alternatives, use a little common sense and the resources available to you and you should be able to find the perfect vacation to make you, your family — and your wallet — happy.

PS: My last column on scams stirred the timeshare pot for sure. There are many reputable timeshare companies including Disney, Marriott, Hyatt, and Hilton to name a few — to those, I offer my apologies.

John Frenaye is the president of JVE Group, Inc., a diversified company which operates the Carlson Wagonlit Travel associate office in Arnold, Md. With a background in business management, he writes about the travel industry as an insider with an outsider's perspective. E-mail himor visit his Web site.


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