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Vacation planning is now all about cost

To keep visitors coming, top-shelf destinations no longer have top-shelf price tags. This year, four- and five-star hotels are offering unprecedented deals at in-demand spots.
Image: A'jia Hotel
Turkey is a deal compared with some other Mediterranean destinations. Travel booking site Mr. and Mrs. Smith is offering its members three nights for the price of two at A'jia Hotel, an ex-pasha's mansion on the Bosphorus. Rates start at $322 per night and include breakfast.Courtesy of A'jia Hotel
/ Source: Forbes

When it comes to 2009's hottest travel destinations, think cheap — but not chintzy.

To keep visitors coming, top-shelf destinations no longer have top-shelf price tags. This year, four- and five-star hotels are offering unprecedented deals at in-demand spots like Cape Town, Belfast and Vancouver.

According to booking site's quarterly Hotel Price Index, the cost of hotel accommodations decreased by 3 percent globally in the last three months of 2008. And average daily rates for Jan. 1, 2009, were down significantly in several major U.S. cities, according to another booking site, In San Francisco, rates were down 15 percent from Jan. 1, 2008; in Las Vegas, the rate decrease was 18 percent.

"For the first time in my career, [high-net-worth travelers] are focused more on the deal than the experience," says Jack Ezon, president of leisure travel for New York-based agency Ovation Vacations. In other words, travelers are looking for the best prices first and considering the destination second.

Just last week, Ezon sold one week in hotspot Riviera Maya, Mexico for $7,000. The suite booked usually runs $3,000 per night, which means this guest received a nearly 67 percent discount on his or her holiday.

Sure, the tropical forests, view of the Caribbean Sea and seven restaurants at Riviera Maya are nice, but the best part about staying in a Mandarin Oriental hotel is the highly lauded service and amenities, which include private yoga and Pilates sessions as well as culinary classes that teach local food traditions.

Usually rooms in this spot rarely rent below $700, but right now John Clifford, owner of San Diego-based booking firm says rates start at just $445 a night.

Shorter excursions
While "staycation," or taking a break at home rather than away, might have been last year's buzzword, Clifford says that in 2009, travelers who can't head to far-away destinations for a week or more are likely to opt for nearby getaways instead of remaining couch-bound. But they'll want to go to places that still feel different from home.

One place that fits the bill is Austin, Texas, which offers great discounts matched with an energetic atmosphere, says Clifford. "It's the coolest city in Texas," he says, noting Austin's numerous music venues, indie film theaters and art galleries.

Austin also offers upscale clothing boutiques like By George (which sells high-fashion favorites including Lanvin and Proenza Schouler), as well as pampering — like the Lake Austin Spa Resort — for those who'd rather indulge in a full-body massage than pork ribs.

There's recreation for pretty much anyone in this vibrant city. Just know that during Austin's annual South by Southwest music festival, which takes place March 13-22, 2009, deals — even available rooms — are scarce for that week.

However, if you're willing to set up camp about an hour outside of the city's downtown area, the 7,000-acre Horseshoe Bay in Texas' Hill Country is offering a special package for a family of four, valid from March 1 through May 21, 2009. Room rates start at $400 per night and include a $200 resort credit that can be used for golf, dining and other activities. Guests also receive a 20 percent golf discount, 20 percent spa discount and daily breakfast.

Great deals, but great distances
For honeymooners, the South Pacific is, and always will be, hot, says Vicki Seltzer, a travel expert at Philadelphia's Right now, that has a lot to do with the great deals offered in spots across Australia, New Zealand and Tahiti. The only caveat, however, is the long travel times from the U.S. and, especially, Europe.

"It'll remain tremendously popular, especially now that the dollar is stronger," says Seltzer. As of Jan. 21, the U.S. dollar equals over AUD1.5 and NZD1.9. Six months ago, the U.S. dollar equaled just AUD1 and NZD1.3. That means your dollar will stretch significantly further in both countries than it did only recently.

For example, Waiheke Island's Delamore Lodge, a short ferry ride from Auckland, New Zealand, is offering several packages, including a mid-week special available through the end of February 2009.

While the tight timing might not be ideal for some, those looking for a last-minute getaway will get quite the bargain. For $900, a duo can enjoy two nights in a luxury suite that would normally costs $1,160 for the same arrangement, as well as pre-dinner drinks and canapés along with gourmet breakfast each morning.

The caveat, however, is that round-trip tickets from LAX to Auckland in the month of February don't come cheap. The cheapest we found were $1,155 with a departure on Feb. 24. However, most flights started at $1,900.

Travel bargains come and go, but right now at least, the hotel discounts are steeper than they've been in a long time. To get the best deal, however, it's important to be a little less fussy about where it is you actually want to go. Our experts concur that this year traveling is less about the destination and more about the deal.

"These days, travelers aren't asking, 'Where's the best place to suit my personality?'" says Ezon. "It's more like, 'What's best place to suit my pocketbook?'"