There’s nothing like travel to chase away the winter blues.
And those who book over the next few weeks stand to benefit from some of the deepest discounts in years on hotels, cruises and airfare—compliments of the troubled economy.
January through March, the off-season in many locations, is “always the best time to get the best deals,” says Pauline Frommer, a travel expert and editor of the Pauline Frommer Guide books, who notes that package deals over the last few years have hit rock bottom.
“All of travel is more cost-effective than it was two years ago because of the recession," says Frommer. "Certain areas have gotten much more needy.”
Consider Las Vegas.
The gambling Mecca in the Nevada dessert has not only suffered a dramatic drop in convention business since the economy tanked, but also one of the worst housing bubbles in the nation.
As a result, hotels citywide are slashing rates in a desperate move to attract travelers.
“Just last month a huge new complex of hotels opened called City Center, dumping 6,000 new luxury rooms onto a market that was already flooded,” says Frommer. “January has always been their low season, but that has driven prices further down across Las Vegas.”
Rooms at “decent” hotels off the strip, she notes, like the El Cortez, which was recently renovated, are going for $10 a night, while hotels on the strip, including Circus Circus and the Stratosphere, are going for as little as $29 a night.
“Even older places like Caesars Palace is offering rooms for $89 a night which would have gone for $219 a year and a half ago,” says Frommer, noting it’s not just rooms that are going for less. “Every show is discounted and many of the very good restaurants are giving out coupons for half-priced meals.”
Another place to look for low-cost getaways? Cruise lines.
“The cruise industry is glutted with a number of new ships like the [Royal Caribbean’s ] ‘Oasis of the Seas’ which are just now debuting since all the major cruise lines ordered new ships when times were good,” says Frommer. “You’ll find week-long cruises to the Caribbean for $399.”
Just be sure you book through a cruise agency, she says, like cruisesonly, Cruise Star, or Travel Themes and Dreams, since they’re often rewarded by cruise lines for booking passengers in bulk with room upgrades and $100 to $200 shipboard credits, which they pass along to travelers.
Across The Pond
Though most of Europe is pricey right now, given the unfavorable exchange rate, Ann Lombardi, a travel expert with thetripcchicks.com in Atlanta, says there’s a sure-fire strategy in any economy to get where you want to go for a fraction of the cost.
“Whether you’re going to Madrid, Paris, Berlin or any major European city, get a copy of the train schedule and stay in a village that is two or three stops from the main city,” she says, noting her tours repeatedly place travelers in the idyllic village of Kandersteg in the Swiss alps, 45 minutes from the city of Bern and not far from the Italian border.
“Americans who visit Europe love to rush and spend one night here and one night there, but that requires you to pack up every day, be up at the crack of dawn and catch a train to your next hotel,” she says. “This way, you can save money and use the same hotel as your home base from which to take day trips. It’s much more relaxed experience and you get a better appreciation for the culture.”
Lombardi’s tours also favor the tiny Austrian town of Kuchl, which is 30 minutes from Salzburg. “You get to stay in a much less expensive bed and breakfast and it comes with a breakfast and dinner meal plan so it’s easy on your pocketbook,” she says.
Iceland And Ireland
Frommer says two European destinations stand out this year during the winter off-season, featuring barely believable deals.
“Iceland and Ireland have so seen their economies implode that even with the effect of the exchange rate there are incredible deals to be had,” she says, noting Icelandair recently announced a two-night package with roundtrip airfare from New York or Boston, and lodging at a three-star hotel in the capital city of Reykjavik, plus a Scandinavian-style breakfast for $469 per person.
Likewise, Go-today.com(along with other tour operators) is offering a six-night, air-and-land package to Ireland in January for $599 per person, which includes airfare from New York, a rental car with unlimited mileage, a night at a castle hotel, and six nights of vouchers for bed and breakfasts across the country.
Hawaii is another bargain this winter.
The island chain in the south Pacific lost a quarter of its air service two years ago with the disappearance of Aloha and ATA airlines and has been struggling with higher vacancies ever since.
Beachfront hotels and condos, which private investors bought as rental property during the boom, are going for as little as $89 a night on Maui—half what they did just a few years ago.
“Condos are an important part of the [rental] market in Hawaii,” says Frommer. “These people have mortgages to pay so you can really play let’s-make a-deal in Hawaii right now, but you have to negotiate.”
Finally, for those with kids and the young at heart, Disney is offering seven days for the price of four at some of the hotels on its properties, including park-hopper passes to its parks, says Frommer. “This from a company that is know to never offer discounts,” she says.
Don't Miss The Deals
According to Lombardi, the best way to ensure you’re current on all the best travel deals of the season is to open a dedicated email account on Hotmail, Yahoo! or Gmail and sign up for “every single newsletter that offers these travel sales” from sites like faresaver.com, travelocity.com and shermanstravel.com, she says.
“That way you don’t get these trip alerts jamming your inbox, but you don’t miss anything either,” she says. “I have to admit, sometimes travel agents can match them. Sometimes we can’t.”
Above all, says Lombardi, don’t let the economy squelch your sense of adventure.
“Don’t believe all the naysayers who talk about ‘staycations’,” she says. “Get out there and travel. This planet we share is great and there are bargains to be had worldwide.”