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Top 10 bargain destinations for winter 2003/2004

For the past few months, we’ve had our ears to the ground, following winter travel trends all over the world. We’ve selected what we think are the top 10 bargain destinations for this winter, all of which offer exceptional discounts and unique appeal. And, we’ve made sure to factor in weather as well, with a combination of cold and much-desired warm locales.

The sample deals we’ve found illustrate the type of savings you’re likely to find throughout the winter season. However, because prices tend to fluctuate, especially as space fills up, we recommend checking with the providers we’ve mentioned and doing some of your own sleuthing.

And now, without further ado, we bring you our picks:

Top 10 bargain destinations
1. Costa Rica 6. London and Paris
2. Caribbean cruise 7. Malta
3. Ireland 8. Portugal
4. The Bahamas 9. Athens
5. Quebec 10. Budapest

1. Costa Rica

Costa Rica wins top honors this year as a trendy winter travel destination that features both exceptional value and ideal weather. Here, winter offers the best weather of the year, with a relatively dry climate, long days, and warm air and water. And with 20 national parks, numerous biological reserves, and many beaches, there’s no shortage of activities.

Packages from travel companies such as Go-Today, Gate 1 Travel, and Overseas Adventure Tours are priced right and make planning easy. For example, Gate 1 Travel offers a four-night, air-and-hotel package with breakfast for $479. Go-Today has a similar offer for seven nights that includes a car rental.

While you must book these particular packages by mid-December, it’s likely you’ll find deals like this into the New Year.’s vacation editors keep up on packages to Costa Rica, saving you the time of searching site by site for the best values at any given time.

2. Caribbean cruise

Cruise lines are responding to growing interest in cruise vacations by building more, and larger, ships. But for some reason, possibly due to a still sluggish economy, they are putting sailings on sale this winter. So cruisers have more choice, not to mention that the all-inclusive nature of cruises make them a good overall vacation value.

Cruises in The Bahamas and Western, Southern, and Eastern Caribbean are just some of the most common sailings offered from U.S. ports by mainstream and luxury lines. Sample prices for mainstream cruises include $399 for a seven-day Eastern Caribbean cruise from Carnival, and $399 per person for a seven-night Southern Caribbean cruise from Norwegian Cruise Line. Those prices break down to under $60 per day for your vacation. For a more luxurious cruise experience, Cunard has a 10-night sailing aboard its new Queen Mary 2 from $1,689 per person. For current information about sales from the major cruise lines, visit’s cruise page.

3. Ireland

Winter may be cool in Ireland, but the Gulf Stream keeps temperatures above freezing most of the time, and it rarely snows. And, whether you’re on a driving tour of the countryside, or enjoying cultured days and lively nights in Dublin, there are plenty of things to do inside.

Package providers Go-Today and Virgin Vacations, airline and vacation specialist Aer Lingus, and Ireland expert are all offering low package prices for winter travel to the Emerald Isle. For example, we found a $499 six-night, air-and-hotel package from Virgin Vacations, and a $518 six-night, air-and-hotel package with car rental and daily full Irish breakfast from Aer Lingus. Also, AutoEurope has car rentals in Ireland from $16 per day and car class upgrades. And many of the same companies that offer air-inclusive packages also sell land packages with accommodations and car rental.

4. The Bahamas

Winter is high season in The Bahamas, with temperatures averaging between 70 and 80 degrees F and little threat of the hurricanes that can strike in summer and fall. However, high season doesn’t have to mean high prices, especially this year.

While you’ll see travel discounts across the board, the best prices are for air-and-hotel packages that often include other perks such as meals, activities, or car rental. At press-time, was offering a package geared towards families, with airfare from Ft. Lauderdale and seven nights’ hotel for $299 per adult and $199 per child. Other companies such as Liberty Travel and US Airways Vacations have a variety of Bahamas vacations. For example, Liberty Travel is offering a six-night, air-and-hotel package from Atlanta starting at $695 per person. For current sales, visit one of these travel providers or check out the air or vacations pages where we compile the latest deals.

5. Quebec

Quebec has much to offer its visitors this season, including an array of winter snow activities. Plus, prices are low, and you’ll have the Canadian dollar working in your favor. The province’s 90 or so ski areas erupt into winter activity, and major cities Montreal and Quebec City organize a slew of unique winter festivals.

Air Canada and Bonjour Quebec are two useful resources for finding deals to this winter haven. Air Canada often has sales from U.S. gateways to Quebec, as well as a vacations division with air-hotel-ski packages. We found ski packages on Bonjour Quebec that include accommodations, lift tickets, and sometimes meals, for as low as $61 ($80 Canadian) per night. If you’re looking to go last-minute, you can find out which airlines are offering the most competitive airfares to Quebec with the last-minute airfare database. When we checked, we found round-trip airfare to Montreal from Newark for $143, or from Miami for $219.

6. London and Paris

London and Paris make the list yet again, but since both destinations are featured so often, we’re making them share a rank this winter. With both cities experiencing their low season, prices may be reduced enough to make a trip to London or Paris cheaper than travel to many U.S. destinations.

Competition among providers is still driving prices down, and since it’s not peak season in either city, the prices are dropping even further. People coming from the East Coast and Chicago will be able to take advantage of the lowest rates, but travel from the West Coast is a bargain this winter as well.

Major airlines with discounted airfares include Virgin Atlantic, United, Lufthansa, and British Airways. Recently, we’ve seen fares as low as $178 round-trip from New York to London (Virgin, British Airways, and Lufthansa), and $277 from Philadelphia to Paris (Lufthansa). For current air sales, check the air page; or, if you’re looking to fly soon, check our last-minute airfare database for London or Paris fares.

The airfare may be low, but the real deals this season are the packages. Just a few of the many travel providers who currently have noteworthy sales are Go-Today, Virgin Vacations, Liberty Travel, and EuropeASAP. For example, at press-time, Go-Today had a six-night air-and-hotel London package from $299, and a six-night Paris package from $349 from New York. In both cases, departures from other cities were available for slightly more. Air France is also offering a sale on Paris packages booked through the end of the year, with prices for airfare and three nights’ hotel starting at $385 from Washington, D.C., or $535 from San Francisco.

7. Malta

Situated in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, the three islands of Malta, Gozo, and Comino make up the Republic of Malta. Long associated with Britain, English is still one of the national languages. Palaces, walled and baroque cities, 7,000 years of history, and rugged Mediterranean landscapes are all part of a trip to Malta any time of year. In the winter, the country offers mild temperatures and a variety of festivals, including Carnival. The reasonable prices we’re seeing are specific to this quieter season, when the weather is less tropical but still pleasant.

The Malta Tourism Authority is a great resource for information about the country, and has an accommodations section where you can search for reasonably priced hotels, villas, farmhouses, and other types of lodgings. It also offers a comprehensive list of tour operators that offer trips to Malta, so you can compare prices between competitors. Air Malta, the country’s airline, doesn’t fly from the U.S., but does fly from London. And flights to London are shaping up to be an exceptional value this winter. We’ve also seen packages from Go-Today that include airfare, six nights’ hotel, transfers, and daily breakfast for $599 from New York or Philadelphia, or $779 from San Francisco or Los Angeles.

8. Portugal

Low prices on travel packages, as well as generally mild winter weather (except in the mountainous northern region), make Portugal a notable bargain destination this winter. The country has a diverse geography that ranges from rugged to tropical, and a tradition of personalized accommodations (including farm houses and manor homes, especially outside of the large cities).

The Association of Tour Operators to Portugal offers a variety of packages, including escorted tours, self-drive tours, river cruises, and city packages. Plus, if you’re looking for something a little more tropical, it also offers packages to the Azores islands and Madeira, although these tend to be more expensive. The cheapest package we found was $599 for airfare from New York, five nights’ accommodations in a three-star hotel in Lisbon, daily breakfast, and a city tour.

Both Go-Today and Virgin Vacations also have Portugal packages. We found a six-night package with airfare from $449 per person through both sites, and although both were set to expire by mid-December, the sites tend to reissue the packages with adjusted prices and extended dates.

9. Athens

Visit Athens in winter, and you’ll see the Parthenon and other ancient sites without battling the high temperatures or large crowds of summer. And, by visiting Greece this season, you’ll only have to spend about half what you’d pay for a summer trip. Plus, you can catch Olympic fever by visiting Athens, host of the 2004 summer games, without paying the summer prices.

Gate 1 Travel has the widest variety of packages available this winter for both Athens-specific and more general Greece vacations, many of which include a stay in Athens. Package-types include hosted, guided, and cruise. The lowest price we found was $599 for January or February four-night stays in Athens, with round-trip airfare from New York, daily breakfast, and travel insurance. Both Go-Today and Virgin Vacations are offering Athens packages, perfect for independent travelers, that at press-time started at $549 per person for six nights’ accommodations and airfare.

10. Budapest

Budapest may be known for its castles, caves, music, and medicinal waters, but this winter, low prices make it even more appealing. Like the rest of the country, the capital city of Hungary experiences low temperatures and snow in the winter. However, if you’re willing to brave the cold, you can expect to spend about half of what you’d pay in the summer high season to fly and stay in the Pearl of the Danube.

Austrian Airlines has a Budapest package with no expiration date, from $399 for airfare from Washington, D.C. and three nights’ accommodations, as well as free public transportation and daily breakfast. And, Gate 1 Travel, Go-Today, and Virgin Vacations are offering winter packages to Budapest at a fraction the cost of summer packages.

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