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Mexico and Florida Beach Vacations South of $1,000

The Deal Detective is now sleuthing out bargains every week. Look for a new case each Thursday in’s Deal Alert newsletter.

Dear Deal Detective:

Four of my best friends and I are entering our senior year of college and want to take a spring break trip this coming March 2009. Unfortunately, being students we have a budget of about $1,000. We want to go someplace warm (beach!) but not one of the crazy college spring break destinations. We don’t want a big fancy resort, a small beach house or campground would be great! We plan to cook our own meals but would prefer a location with a good exchange rate. This is going to be a relaxing trip, just a chance to enjoy a change of scenery so crowds want to be avoided. Do you have any ideas? All the Caribbean vacation packages we’ve found are flashy and way over our budget, it’s very overwhelming!

—Amanda T.

Dear Amanda,

I like the way you think. I agree that spending your spring break with four of your closest friends in a hideaway sounds ideal. The only trouble is deciding where to go. There are places all over the world that could accommodate you, but you’d end up spending much more than $1,000 each. So, let’s pick a few more affordable destinations to compare.

Let’s start with somewhere outside of the U.S., such as Zihuatanejo, Mexico. Located about four miles outside of the tourist-run and party-central city of Ixtapa, this once-small fishing village has now become a hot spot for travelers to relax in the sand and have fun in the sun.

Many people stay a few miles outside of the small town, closer to the beach. There are a few bigger hotels to choose from, but in this case, we’re looking for a vacation rental. Start your search through a website like Zihuatanejo Connections, where you can view photos of the property and read reviews from previous guests. You can book a place like Casa de Leigh Y Loros, which is a two-bedroom beachside condominium that is outfitted with a kitchen, BBQ, hammock, and rooftop deck for $235 a night in March, or about $59 per person. That may be a bit pricey for you, but you can also find one for a lot less money, such as the Bungalow Frida. You’ll have to share a kitchen with another bungalow, but the price is just $55 a night for two and $20 per additional person. In total, you’ll spend $75 a night, or about $19 each.

You’re biggest expense is going to be the flight to Zihuatanejo. I was able to find round-trip flights for $650 (including taxes and fees) departing from New York City in March. Be savvy, and compare prices before booking, as you may be able to find a cheaper fare. Once you arrive in Mexico, however, you can save by cooking your own meals and enjoying the free beaches. The exchange rate is also a plus—10 pesos to $1 as I write this. If you opt for the more expensive rental, you’ll each spend $1,004 on lodging and airfare for one week.

If you want to save on airfare by staying a bit closer to home, Florida’s Sanibel Island might do the trick. The subtropical climate makes it ideal for lounging on the beach, watching dolphins play in the ocean, and rummaging for seashells by the seashore. You can rent a cottage right next to the water for $255 per night, or about $64 per person, which includes two bedrooms, a fully equipped kitchen, and a private sundeck and porch. There are plenty of rentals to choose from, so take your time to find the one that fits your needs. As for airfare, I was able to find round-trip flights from New York to Fort Myers (the closest major airport) for $253 per person. The basic cost for this trip comes out to about $635.50 each.

Two other destinations to consider are Anna Maria Island, Florida and Isla Mujeres, Mexico. Hard as it may be to believe, $1,000 can still stretch a long way, even in this economy. I hope you find what you’re looking for, and that your senior spring break is the getaway you deserve.

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