7 Cheap Holiday Vacations Worth Taking

BOSTON (MainStreet) -- Holiday travel doesn't always mean crowded airports, crammed carloads of family or stifled religious and political discussion around the dinner table. If you're lucky, it can just be a vacation.

While the American Express ( AXP) Spending and Saving Tracker found that the average family of four plans to pay $2,636 for holiday travel this year -- or just moderately more than it paid in 2010 -- and made clear that those families are looking for more than a days-long fight for bathroom time at a family member's house. Roughly 31% plan to dine out on their holiday trip this year, compared with just 20% last year. Nearly a quarter said they're willing to shell out more for entertainment, as opposed to just 20% who said the same last year.

Perhaps most telling is that of the 44% of Americans who plan to travel this year -- up from just 39% in 2010 -- 36% plan to fly this year versus just 26% last holiday season. While most will likely still schlep to see family, the 19% who said they want to spend on better accommodations and 12% who are seeking a more expensive destination may forfeit their share of ham and handmade woolen gifts this year in favor of a more far-flung destination.

"Americans will spend on travel this holiday season whether they are visiting family or taking that big trip they've waited for all year," said Claire Bennett, senior vice president and general manager of American Express Travel. "No matter where consumers choose to go, there is a clear interest in getting more out of travel."

For the 36% of American holiday travelers who said their destination and what it had to offer influenced their travel decision, it's still not too late to book that holiday getaway. Airlines, hotels and destinations realize that 21% of holiday travelers book less than a month in advance, especially during the first two weeks of December that the travel industry considers "dark weeks."

"It's still very true that the first two weeks in December and the first two weeks in January are still the best time for deals, if you can get away," says Anne Banas, editor of SmarterTravel. "The deals are expansive and pretty much everywhere for both domestic and international travel."

As a result, there are still deals out there for the 73% of late bookers who wait until one week or less before taking their holiday break. Travelocity, for example, is promising a $200 travel coupon to folks who book hotel or hotel-and-flight packages before Dec. 15. With some help from the folks at SmarterTravel and Travelocity, we've put together seven holiday travel destinations that won't do too much damage to a holiday latecomer's budget:

Costa Rica
Fairly inexpensive even during the high season, Costa Rica is a huge bargain before its big travel crush begins. Its tourism bureau has loaded up on deals and giveaways to lure travelers out of the cold, but travel companies are sweetening the pot as well.

United Vacations is touting airfare and hotel packages starting at less than $540 per person if booked by Dec. 31 using promotion code UV14620. Pleasant Holidays, meanwhile, starts its three-night air and hotel packages at less than $500.

It's an even sweeter deal for those looking to fly out of New York, where low-cost carriers are offering rates starting at $119 each way through Feb. 15.

"There's a new route on JetBlue ( JBLU) going to Liberia from John F. Kennedy airport," says SmarterTravel's Banas. "It's nice because it's a different part of the country than San Jose, which most people fly into."

St. Lucia
Heading down to the Caribbean for the winter isn't the most original idea on the planet, but vacationers who plan their trips early enough can have the place almost to themselves before the post-holiday crowds pack in.

"St. Lucia is a really beautiful island and what I think of as the romantic Caribbean island," Banas says. "The south end of the island is a little more exclusive and is pretty much hidden resorts where couples go and not a lot of families get away to."

It's also tantalizingly cheap early in the holiday season thanks to an island-wide "Warm Winter Values" promotion featuring 35% hotel discounts, food and drink credits and free spa treatments. One of the better deals on the island is a $139-a-night all-inclusive stay at Almond Morgan Bay that's 50% off what the same deal will cost just a few weeks from now.

Expedia's ( EXPE) also jumped into the mix by offering rooms from $191-a-night at the posh Royal by Rex Resorts to $60 a night at the Habitat Terrace though its Best Hotels of 2011 50% discount promotion.

Portland, Ore.
No, it's not a tropical paradise and it is surrounded by whitecapped mountains and acres of evergreens, but Portland is willing to meet open-minded travelers halfway.

Through Dec. 20, more than two dozen hotels throughout the city are offering a "Portland Perks" package designed to woo travelers to the coffee, craft beer and Cascade beauty of their fair city. The package includes a two-night stay starting at $83 per night, daily continental breakfast for two, free hotel parking and discounts at local shops, restaurants and museums. Just for kicks, they'll throw you $50 in cash.

Once there, visitors can strike out and ski Mount Hood, stay in town to see the Oregon Symphony's holiday shows or see what the rest of the Pacific Northwest has to offer. Fans of the wintry outdoors or Twilight can make their way up to Washington's Olympic Peninsula for some sweet storm watching from cheap beachfront cabins in Seiku.

"It's cold up there, but there are a lot of great deals and a lot of exciting places to go," Banas says. "It's also their storm-watching season, so if you're on the coast of Vancouver Island or Washington State, you can sit in the resort and watch the storms come in off the ocean."

The view and amenities for storm watchers only get better as travelers head north. On Vancouver Island, A Snug Harbor Inn near Torfino, B.C., offers $50 off the cost of a three-night stay and $100 off a five-night stay for those who want to watch 50-foot waves slam into the rocky shoreline while staying safe and dry by the fireplace. Torfino's Pacific Sands resort, meanwhile, offers a storm-watching package including a free bottle of wine, coffee from the espresso bar, daily hot chocolate and unlimited DVD movies and popcorn for $119 to $153 a night.

Puerta Vallarta, Mexico
This lovely seaside tourist hotspot is much better when the sun's still shining and the weather's still warm but the crowds and exorbitant rates are gone.

Expedia is offering deals at 27 hotels that chop 30% off a two-night stay, 40% off three nights and 50% off four. SmarterTravel found four-night deals through this promotion that include $71-per-night rates at the Holiday Inn Puerto Vallarta or $84 at the Presidente InterContinental ( IHC) Puerto Vallarta. Travelocity also got in on the action by slashing prices on all-inclusive vacations such as a $680 vacation with round-trip airfare from Los Angeles and four nights at the Riu Palace Pacifico.

Even the flight options are improving. Virgin America and its mood lighting, free Wi-Fi and loaner tablets start service to Puerta Vallarta from San Francisco next month, with connecting flights from New York City and Seattle. Airfares start at $129 each way through mid-February.

Finger Lakes, N.Y.
We're not going to lie to you: It is cold and wintry in the finger lakes around the holiday season.

That said, the wineries that have long since harvested their grapes really want you to come taste some of their stock. The "Winter Wine Weekends" package offered by the region's various chambers of commerce offers rooms at more than a dozen hotels around the region at special rates or with the third night free. The New Vines Bed & Breakfast in Seneca Lake, for example, sets winter rates starting at $115 per night with the third night free.The deal also includes two-for-one attraction admissions, restaurant discounts and free wine tastings at participating wineries.

Even when those tastings aren't free, there's a way to keep their costs nice and modest. Though most wineries charge a $2 to $4 tasting fee, the $12 "Polar Passport" entitles its holder to free flights of wine at more than 20 wineries. That's certainly one way to keep warm.

You'd think a Rocky Mountain state with "Ski Utah" on its license plates wouldn't need to lure folks in for the winter.

The Sundance Film Festival's home in Park City proves otherwise by continuing its "Quick Start" promotion giving guests a free lift ticket on the day they arrive from the airport. The city's Chateau Apres Lodge offers nightly rates from $95 in December or $110 in January, including breakfast, to folks who mention "December Special Offer" or "January Special Offer" to get the rate. With the coupon code "wonder," guests can get 40% off accommodations between Thursday and Jan. 31 at the Hyatt ( H) Escala Lodge in Park City. The Park City Mountain Resort, meanwhile has four-night stay-and-ski packages with accommodations and lift tickets from $79 per person, per night, on vacations booked by Thursday.

Local businesses are more than happy to chip in. The Utah Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau offers $20 off hotel stays and shopping discounts through the end of the year and between Jan. 1 and Feb. 29.

Orlando, Fla.
Because parents would have to have no soul or hate their children to not at least consider the ride-and-character-laden vacation mecca if they have the means.

Orlando is Travelocity's top-ranked domestic destination for December and the afternoon sun, shortened ride lines and sweet theme park deals are a big part of the draw. When even Disney ( DIS) can't squeeze Scrooge McDuck-ish money bins of money out of pressured parents this time of year and resorts to calling the holidays their "Value Season," that's a good sign of the great deals on the table.

One of the best, however, is a 25% off, $67-a-night say at Walt Disney World's Pop Century Resort. This budget Disney property still draws 4.5 stars from Travelocity users, offers free Magic Express shuttle service to and from the airport and access to Disney World's early opening hours reserved for park guests.

-- 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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