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Summer vacation, minus the sticker shock

For the procrastinators who have yet to book a summer vacation, there still are a few ways to travel without spending more than you should while still having a blast.  By Vanessa Richardson
Travelers to southern Caribbean islands like Aruba can enjoy their vacation this summer while being relatively safe from hurricanes.
Travelers to southern Caribbean islands like Aruba can enjoy their vacation this summer while being relatively safe from hurricanes.Pedro Famous Diaz / AP file
/ Source: contributor

My mother’s relatives are having a family reunion in Puerto Rico next month. Being a typical procrastinator, I waited until the last minute, assuming my husband and I would have no problem getting a cheap fare and hotel room during the Caribbean’s typical off-season.

Boy, was I wrong.

The cheapest airfare I could find online was $750 per person. And no beachfront hotel in San Juan had a room below $130, a far cry from summers past when resorts offered double-digit rates in July and August, with a free piña colada thrown in. Now I have to consider the possibility of camping out at my grandfather’s house, where the guest room has one of those lumpy sofa beds with a bar that runs right across my back.

Either that, or spend the summer in my current residence of Fresno, located right in the heart of the triple-digit furnace of California’s Central Valley. These are my two vacation options right now.

And you other aspiring summer vacationers, who didn’t plan in advance and are now discouraged by the rising cost of gas, airfares and hotel rooms, you may feel your pickings are slim, too.

Randy Petersen, founder of the airfare bargain-finding website, does not beg to differ. “If you were really serious about summer travel, you should have started in January,” he said.

'Stuck in the middle'
You can still get a reservation, but higher fuel surcharges (adding an extra $250 to $300 for a trip to Europe) and reduced numbers of flights means you’ll be paying more for a mediocre seat. “You definitely won’t have a row all to yourself, and single travelers, you’ll be stuck in the middle,” said Petersen.

The same bad news goes for hotels, across the U.S. as well in the former summer-snoozer areas of Mexico and the Caribbean. Why? Family reunions are a big reason, says Petersen. “They’re going beyond the typical places like Las Vegas and Orlando.”

Post-September 11 travel patterns are another factor, he adds. “A lot of people still feel uneasy traveling outside the U.S. But to them, the Caribbean is just a little farther south than Florida, and they remember it as a safe, easy place to go. Same with Mexico. So even though high-end hotels there still drop their rates, the rest don’t discount because they have good traffic.”

I mull over putting the Puerto Rico trip on my credit card so I can avoid the bed of torture in my grandfather’s guest room, but Diane McCurdy, a financial planner based in Bakersfield, Calif., warned against it.

“You shouldn’t go into debt just for a summer vacation,“ she says. “Running it up on credit cards means the relaxation you gained during your vacation will immediately evaporate after you return, making you even that more stressed.”

So what to do for people like me in our near-stranded situations? We deserve a place in the sun too; we just need to find more creative ways to afford it. Below are a few ways you can take that vacation, near or far, without spending more than you should — but still having a summer blast.

Purchase a package deal
Get around sky-high prices with a vacation package that includes a hotel or rental car with your flights. “Typically, you’ll save more on a bundle of air plus hotel than purchasing them separately,” says Petersen.

You can find these bundled bargains at which specializes in last-minute getaways, as well as at more standard reservation-booking sites like Expedia  and Travelocity, which offer good deals. Frommer’s Budget Travel magazine also updates its “Best Deals” Web site daily.

When I searched for a four-night hotel stay in mid-July at the ritzy beach town of La Jolla north of San Diego, plus round-trip airfare from Fresno to San Diego, Expedia quoted me a package deal of $418. The fare for the same flights on United Airlines’ Web site cost $406 per person, without the hotel.

You don't even have to use all the elements of a package, says Petersen. “For a cheaper alternative to last-minute airfare, just look for an inexpensive package and don’t use the land part.”

Look ‘below the belt’ for Caribbean deals
The Bahamas, Jamaica and the Virgin Islands are still popular this summer, but many travelers there either ignore or are unaware that many Caribbean islands are located in the “hurricane belt” — and hurricane season is now in full swing until November 1. Instead, look at southern Caribbean islands located outside that belt, near Venezuela, and considered to be relatively safe from storms. They include Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, and the “ABC” islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao, off the tip of Venezuela.

Adrian Glover, senior online editor of Frommer’s Budget Travel magazine, recently spotted a super deal to Barbados, with round-trip airfare and seven nights’ hotel starting at $359 per person, whereas the lowest airfare from Miami to Barbados during that time was $402. “ And Barbados hasn’t been hit by a hurricane for the past 15 years,” said Glover.

Consider, ‘O Canada’
The Canadian exchange rate isn’t as favorable as it has been, but it still goes a long way compared to the euro. Plus, there’s plenty of varied geography to explore, and it’s far less crowded than similar topography in the U.S.

Glover picks Quebec City as a hotspot since the former French trading post is quickly approaching its 400th birthday. Petersen loves Toronto for its lakes and for plays and entertainment that matches New York City’s bounty. “If Canadian flights are too expensive, look at flying into Buffalo or Detroit instead,” he said.

Look at the hotspots’ next-door neighbors
A lot of people flock to Hollywood and Disneyland for a dose of Southern California cool, but forget about the beach culture of Orange County and San Diego just to the south. That’s one example of hidden gems in the U.S. that lay nearby but are often overlooked by their more well-known – and more expensive — neighbors “If you leave a hotspot and go in any direction, you’re bound to find someplace just as cool but hardly as crowded,” said Petersen.

His “up and coming” pick is Oregon. “Its wine industry is booming and although it’s nowhere near as built-up as the Napa Valley or San Francisco, it has a lot of unique geography, it’s relatively inexpensive to get to, and it has a range of climates. Perfect for the outdoors lover. 

Glover’s pick is Santa Fe, rich in arts and history, but often overlooked by those on their way to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. She also suggests visiting smaller U.S. cities that offer arts, culture and the outdoors for affordable prices. “You can get around them by foot, boat and train, instead of just by car.” Good picks are Denver; Burlington, Vermont.; Madison, Wisconsin; Portland, Maine, and Wilmington, North Carolina.

Consider ‘independent’ lodging
Because accommodations are often the most expensive part of a trip, non-hotel lodging such as private bed-and-breakfasts, hostels and inns can save you a bundle. “Alternative lodging can also be cool for family reunions and romantic getaways,” said Glover. “You can’t get much more romantic than staying in a lighthouse.”

Also consider trading houses. If you live in a popular spot, you’ll especially find it easy to swap your residence with someone staying in a place you’ve always wanted to visit. That’s how my friend with an apartment in San Francisco’s funky Mission District got to spend two weeks in Copehagen – with her swapmate’s car thrown in for free to drive around Denmark. The Budget Travel Web site has links to alternative lodgings.

See it in September
Consider waiting until after Labor Day to see the sights. When kids are back in school, many popular places — especially the national parks — are less crowded, less expensive, and the weather is just as good, if not better, than the dog days of August.