Winter in the city is substantially less fun than those scenic television shots of Rockefeller Center's tree and skating rink might lead one to believe. The icy sidewalks, skyscraper wind tunnels and crazed hordes of holiday shoppers can make December almost intolerable.
When average daily temperatures dip far below freezing, it's time to get out of the city. But with the economy struggling, sunbathing on a private beach in Maldives may not be a financially feasible option.
Fortunately, getting warm this winter doesn't have to break the bank. Travelers who stick close to home, select up-and-coming locations and score travel deals from financially ailing resorts and airlines can get out of the cold for an affordable price.
Central America and the Caribbean deliver a major cost-saving advantage, according to Tim Leffel, author of "The World's Cheapest Destinations: 21 Countries Where Your Money Is Worth a Fortune".
"If you're coming from the U.S., you don't have to pay very much to get there, and there's less jet lag, so you can really hit the ground running," he says. Better yet, both regions contain a plethora of lesser-known destinations where the U.S. dollar is especially strong.
Honduras, home of the largest coral reef in the northern hemisphere, is behind the tourism curve, as just 383,000 non-Central American tourists visited the country in 2007. This is starting to change.
Leffel recommends the island of Roatan off the country's Atlantic coast, where travelers can expect warm weather and wallet-friendly hotel deals, like the $799 low-season dive special at Anthony's Key Resort. The price includes a room for seven nights, three meals a day, a tropical picnic, an island fiesta, a buoyancy control workshop and dive equipment and transportation for up to 23 dives. Roatan is especially attractive for new divers—certification there is cheaper than almost anywhere else in the world.
In Panama, where economic and political turmoil stifled investment in tourism as recently as the early '90s, chain super-hotels haven't been able to gain the foothold they have elsewhere in Central America—which keeps the area cheaper. Many travel experts are calling Panama the new Costa Rica, and Leffel likens the region to a pre-Ambergris-Caye-rush Belize.
Bocas del Toro, an Atlantic coast Panamanian archipelago, offers "the charm of the Caribbean Islands without the prices," says Leffel.
Another option is to head to the Caribbean. Punta Cana, in the Dominican Republic, "is booming from moderate prices to high-end luxury," says Mitchell Sukoff, branch manager of New York City-based luxury travel agency Altour. In the past few years, there's been a push by the local government to increase tourism there, which has resulted in a profusion of all-inclusive resorts. It's the same latitude and lifestyle as Jamaica, but much cheaper—a night at all-inclusive Punta Cana beachfront resort Allegro Playa Dorada costs a mere $73, compared with $235 at Sandals Montego Bay.
Opposing strategies across the border
Travelers who choose balmy Mexico for a winter getaway would do well to stay far away from traditional beach destinations. "The five beaches that everyone goes to in Mexico are basically priced for Americans," says Leffel. Head just 30 minutes down the coast from the big tourist spots, he says, and you'll find more local flavor, fewer tourists and hotels for drastically reduced prices. He recommends the traditional village of Zihuatanejo over tourist-heavy Ixtapa, or the quiet Tulum instead of Cancun.
In the U.S., however, the best strategy is the exact opposite. Heading straight for the hot spots could be the best bet, since discounts abound.
Gabe Saglie, senior editor of bargain travel Web site travelzoo.com, says most hotels in warm locales see a drop in summer sales that recovers once the weather turns cooler. With the economic stress of this year, however, sales in many popular tourist destinations have not rebounded, which is driving hotel prices down.
"Domestically, the No. 1 destination is Vegas," says Saglie. "The MGM Grand just published a $59 deal [per night], which was the lowest price we've ever seen, plus a $300 fly-back credit if you return."
Similarly, Sukoff recommends Orlando, Fla., where luxury hoteliers accustomed to massive winter influxes are offering big price cuts. The Loews Portofino Bay hotel at Universal Orlando, for instance, is offering a winter price reduction that increases the longer you stay at the resort.
Sweetening the deal: Getting to these destinations is cheaper at the moment as airlines cut prices to fill seats.
Travelzoo's Saglie notes that big carriers such as American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Northwest and AirTran are all but lobbing discounted fares at passengers. For example, one recent three-day sale from multiple carriers offered $49 one-way tickets to destinations in Florida, and a recent round-trip special from Boston to Cancun was under $200. One of the best deals around is to one of the traditionally most expensive places: Hawaii.
A 15 percent drop in flights to and from the islands since September of this year has hotel managers aggressively recruiting guests with discounts. At the Grand Wailea Resort and Spa on Maui (average winter temp: 80 degrees), those who stay five nights get a $1,000 resort credit for food, activities and spa treatments such as the 80-minute Pohaku hot stone massage.
The most important advice is to act quickly. Says Mindy Joyce, senior marketing director of Travelzoo, "When we publish a deal, that goes out to 10 million people in the U.S. If you stall, and it's a really good deal, it's probably going to be sold out."