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Ten places for savvy summer travelers

Summertime is vacation time. But if you had thought that this year you'd be able to splash out a little more on that beach holiday or European getaway, you might be in for a rude awakening.
A diver snorkels in the barrier reef area off the coast of Belize.Tony Rath / AP file
/ Source: Forbes

Summertime is vacation time. But if you had thought that this year you'd be able to splash out a little more on that beach holiday or European getaway, you might be in for a rude awakening.

With rising gasoline prices and a falling dollar, Americans are finding that many of their usual summer vacation destinations are going to wind up costing more than ever this year. Even budget-conscious family road trips — Grand Canyon! Monument Valley! Yellowstone! — no longer seem quite the bargain they once were, with fuel costs soaring over $2 a gallon.

Considering a European vacation? You may want to wait until next year. With the dollar falling 1 percent earlier this week against the euro, that bike trip through the Loire or two weeks in Tuscany is more expensive than ever. But it's not just the euro and gas prices that have skyrocketed: According to the Washington, D.C.-based Travel Industry Association of America (TIA), overall travel prices have risen 7 percent since December 2003.

Of course, a summer vacation doesn't have to cost a fortune. Like savvy shoppers who know it's best to wait until after Christmas to get the best prices, savvy travelers know when to buy — and for where. For example, airline tickets are always at their highest from Memorial Day to Labor Day, except for travel to off-season destinations like Mexico or the Caribbean. In addition to lower fares and hotel rates, off-season destinations offer the advantages of fewer crowds. The downside is that off-season places are off-season for a reason: Many of them become boiling hot or rainy during the summer months.

Despite soaring prices, Americans aren't postponing their summer travels. According to its just-released summer travel forecast, TIA predicts that leisure travel for the summer season will increase 3.2 percent over last year. The top destinations are Florida, California and Hawaii, with the average person taking a 7.6-night trip. The average cost of a summer vacation is $1,101 per trip, up 4.4 percent from last year.
It's not all bad news, though. To encourage summer travelers, many hotels have responded by lowering their rates. Last week, AAA reported that the national average price for a one-night hotel stay was down nearly 6 percent from last summer to about $125 for a family of two adults and two children. The national average cost for meals is down about 2 percent, to $110 a day.

"Hotels are still trying to kick demand back up," says AAA spokesman Justin McNaull. "There's so much competition that the leisure hotels have had to lower rates." McNaull says the drop in food costs is a reflection of "price sensitivity," but he expects it to rise soon, as prices of raw food (such as milk) have been slowly increasing.

With an eye toward finding locations that are both exciting and reasonably priced, this week we look at ten summer destinations for the savvy traveler. What do we mean by savvy? Some of the destinations are places that people may not automatically think of for a summer vacation — such as Vietnam, Thailand or South Africa. Although the flights can hover around $900 a person, once you're there the dollar goes a long way, so the savings balance out.

We've also included more mainstream destinations such as California and Florida, which are always popular choices and can be reached by inexpensive flights. There's a huge range of hotels and activities to be experienced there, at every price level. But beware, because one day for a family of four at Disneyland can wipe out any savings garnered from the low airline ticket.

We've also included Canada, which has a wealth of activities and is easily accessible from many U.S. cities. Mexico has also made our list because hotels rates are off-season, and it's easy to get to. And if you're a true beach aficionado, you won't mind the extra humidity.