10 Cheap Vacations For Expensive Times

WASHINGTON (TheStreet) -- Gas is up to $4 a gallon and airfares are up 6% to 11% or more. Who's ready for summer travel?

Despite the rising cost of taking a trip, American Express' ( AXP) Spending and Saving Tracker found that 59% of Americans plan on traveling this summer. How they plan on doing so varies dramatically, as 38% of consumers are continuing their post-recession frugality and saving up for their vacation. As roughly 25% say they'll try saving on other portions of their trip to offset plane tickets or prices at the pump, Travelocity senior editor Genevieve Shaw Brown recommends travelers shave off some costs by giving greater consideration to where they sleep.

"Airfare is more expensive than last summer, so look to the hotel to offset rising costs," she says. "Added-value offers, like free room nights, free room upgrades and resort credits, all help to offset other higher costs while giving consumers more vacation for less money."

There will be even more compromise this summer. American Express says nearly 60% of the general population will be making tradeoffs to cut vacation spending. Roughly 15% will use hotel, airline and credit card rewards points, and 68% will be cutting vacations down to a series of weekend getaways.

Some travelers are getting creative with airfare; a TripAdvisor air travel survey found that 43% of travelers booked a connecting flight to stay within budget. At least they're still flying. According to FareCompare.com, American ( AMR), United ( UAL), Continental, Delta ( DAL), U.S. Airways ( LCC) and the discount carriers have tried 12 broad fare hikes in the past four months, with seven actually sticking. As a result, TripAdvisor says 33% of travelers are planning to drive to one or more of their destinations when they would have flown.

"As we've seen when times are hard or in other years when gas prices skyrocket, people do all kinds of different of things to say money," says Anne Banas, editor of SmarterTravel. "Some people shorten their radius and travel a shorter distance, but some people shorten the length of their trip and instead of going for a week or two, they just stay for five days."

Such sacrifices are noble, but unnecessary if your destination is affordable enough. TheStreet did some summer vacation scrounging and came up with 10 destinations that won't break budget-conscious travelers:

Costa Rica
Into each cheap vacation, a little rain must fall. If you have your heart set on seeing Costa Rica for minimal cost this summer, a little rain can bring a lot of savings.

"Summer is their rainy season that they call the green season," Banas says. "Even though it's offseason, you're going to save 20%, 30% to 50% off."

The weather's not the only reason Costa Rica and other Central American countries are presenting a more affordable alternative to Europe and elsewhere. Spirit Airlines -- with its low fares and myriad fees -- serves Costa Rica and is launching service to Nicaragua and El Salvador this summer. Combined, the rains and the discount options are a big reason why five-night, airfare-inclusive trips start at less than $700 per person for a stay at the Barcelo San Jose Palacio or roughly "$900 at the Costa Rica Marriott.

"The rains are intense and short during the day, so it's not like it's raining constantly," Banas says. "Plus the whole country is lush and green, and that's the place you go when you want to see animals and want to see nature, so it's almost an ideal time to go."

If you want to save money vacationing on a Caribbean island and avoid extreme summer weather while doing so, it's time to learn your ABCs.

"I've seen a lot of deals coming up for the ABC islands, and that's Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao," Banas says. "They're interesting because they fall outside the hurricane belt, and hurricane season in the Atlantic is June through November."

This island is almost synonymous with cheap Caribbean vacations, with Expedia offering four-night trips with airfare for $830 per person to $842 per person. Hotel rates can plunge as low as $69 a night in June.

"Aruba's always been classically affordable," Banas says. "There are a lot of flights going in there, so it tends to be a very affordable island."

The middle child of the ABC islands, Bonaire is lesser known but equally gorgeous. A "special municipality" in the Netherlands after the Netherlands Antilles broke up last October, Bonaire draws flights from Continental and Delta to its Flamingo International airport and, like Aruba, considers the summer its offseason -- which means most of the bed and breakfasts and vacation rentals the island relies on for accommodations will be open.

Bonaire is extremely environmentally conscious and has dedicated itself to becoming carbon neutral within the next two years. Many of its activities reflect that. The beach is the biggest draw, but snorkeling, kayaking, bird-watching, hiking and horseback riding are just some of the available ecotourist options.

The average temperature hovers around 82 degrees and there's 12 hours of sunlight. The bad news is that it's going to be much warmer during the summer. The good news is that, with only about 60,000 people on the island at any one time, only the flamingos will see you sweat.

"It's a great place to go if you have a summer wedding and want to go on a honeymoon or if you want to go somewhere exotic," Banas says.

After becoming an independent nation within the Netherlands recently, Curacao is making a big push for tourists from within its own hemisphere. In an attempt to make itself more accessible to Americans and Canadians, Curacao has wooed Continental into launching service from Newark, N.J., and convinced Hyatt to add a Regency to the dozens of hotels already in its capital city of Willemstad.

Americans traveling there with four-day air-and-hotel packages (around $550 per person) will find themselves immersed in a Dutch city full of restaurants and European shopping and surrounded by white-sand beaches, Southwest-style plains, mountains and caves.

"Curacao is hitting the map lately because they just became an official country within the Netherlands," Banas says. "There's a lot more airlift going in there, a lot more hotel infrastructure being built and a lot of deals."

Aspen, Colo.
Starting just around spring break, ski resort towns such as Aspen start getting really cheap -- for reasons that should be fairly obvious. Instead of lamenting the melting snow, however, many area resorts switch into outdoor mode and lure tourists with wide-open expanses usually covered by scores of skiers.

"If you're talking about a mountain vacation, there are still resorts during the summer -- but you're going to save so much money," Banas says. "People think of places like Aspen, Vail and Breckenridge as winter destinations, but there's a lot of outdoor stuff you can do in the summer, like mountain biking, hiking, horseback riding, zip lines and slides."

Air-and-hotel packages just aren't happening at this time of year in Colorado, but the cost of airfare will be mitigated by the decidedly discounted price of hotel rooms. Hotwire has some as low as at $58 to $90 for three-star hotels. Expand the radius to Breckenridge or Keystone and the deals get sweeter, such as a three-night stay in a condo at the $89-a-night-and-up Keystone Resort that throws in a fourth night free and gives guests free activity vouchers for fly fishing, paddle boats, gondola rides and other activities.

On a boat
If you can get to a nearby port, it may be worth ditching airfare and considering a cruise. Travelocity's Shaw says being flexible about your travel dates, vessel and ports of call can yield the most substantial savings.

For example, Royal Caribbean's Enchantment of the Seas has deals for nine-night, round-trip Eastern Caribbean cruises that start at roughly $100 per person, per night. The deal includes 15% offshore excursions during stops in St. Thomas, San Juan and the Dominican Republic. But if you don't live near the ship's departure site in Baltimore, it likely won't be worth your while.

Orlando, Fla.
Orlando is, not surprisingly, Travelocity's top family destination this summer, and second on the overall list. With Shamu at Sea World, Harry Potter at Universal Studios and a kid's entire DVD collection's worth of Pixar characters awaiting at Walt Disney World ( DIS), this is a tough one for families to avoid.

With the average daily room rate at Orlando hotels dropping to $87 this summer -- well below the national domestic average -- it may be tough to avoid just on principle. Five-night vacation deals anywhere beyond Disney's clutches can fetch as little as $350 to $500 per person for hotel and airfare, while even four-night deals at Disney's Dolphin Resort can run as low as $520 per person. That doesn't include park admission, but perks include transportation to and from Orlando airport, free transportation from your hotel to all the parks and free extra hours in the parks each day.


Las Vegas
Fewer people flew into McCarran Airport last year than the year before, housing prices are beneath the sand, hotels are hurting and even the guys from The Hangover aren't coming back for the sequel.

As a result, Travelocity says Vegas is its top destination this summer because it's the cheapest. The Tropicana is letting rooms go at $30 a night, Bally's is giving them away at $39 and the Stratosphere's rates aren't living up the the name at $32 a night. And those are among the high rollers, as Travelocity has $20 rates for the Hooters hotel and casino, $13 for the Golden Spike in Fremont and $9 -- yes, $9 -- for the Texas Station Gambling Hall and Hotel.

Even at those rates, what's the incentive for a penny pincher to go to a gambling town in the middle of a blistering summer? That's when the hotel and casino pools are at their best and most raucous -- which likely explains why The Palms and Mandalay Bay are holding the line at $80 and $90 a night respectively. However, even luxury hotels the Wynn and Encore are giving away $100 in resort credit to travelers who book a three-night hotel or flight and hotel package.

Dominican Republic
While the rest of the waking world deals with rising airfares, the Dominican Republic remains one of the cheapest -- if not the cheapest -- destination for flights in all the Caribbean. Granted, you're really taking your chances as you get deeper into hurricane season, but those odds have to factor in seven-night stays at all-inclusive resorts such as Riu Bachata that include airfare and can be had for roughly $900 per person.

Even when booking a la carte, prices at all-inclusive resorts start at roughly $105 a night for accommodations, food, drink and access to gorgeous beaches. This only makes the environment more competitive for resorts such as the all-inclusive Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Punta Cana, which is offering $1,500 in resort credit to be used on golf, spa sessions, room upgrades and more.

Victoria, B.C.
An awesome, overlooked Pacific Northwest destination that's accessible by discount carriers including Frontier and JetBlue ( JBLU) via Seattle and a $25 round-trip ferry ride across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Victoria is bustling but by no means a bank-breaker.

Many of the best activities -- which include checking out architecture dating back to the 1800s, stopping to smell the flowers at Butchart Gardens, taking in the history at the Royal British Columbia Museum, tooling around the second-oldest Chinatown in North America (behind San Francisco's) or keeping an eye out for orcas in the harbor -- are either free or inexpensive. Hotel rooms start at $81 for a Travelodge or Super 8, but there are also hostels for $50.

If that's too steep, try going just up the road a stretch and renting a room in Vancouver for $31 a night through iStopover. It's a much bigger, flashier city, but the price is slightly more small-town.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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