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Top five bargain destinations for winter 2004/2005

SmarterTravel

Whether you want to escape the cold or revel in it, this winter’s bargain destinations have got you covered. We’ve been keeping an eye out for regions where prices are dropping along with the mercury. From uncrowded ski spots and off-peak locales, to beach and tropical hotspots, this winter’s top five bargain destinations offer exceptional variety and value.

Our top five picks for winter travel are: the Caribbean; Ireland; Florida; Big Sky, MT; and Mexico.

Caribbean

A winter trip to the Caribbean promises an escape from the snow and freezing temperatures. Luckily, this season, increased airline competition to the Caribbean means more choices and better prices for vacation-goers.

For example, Air Jamaica has 360 weekly flights from the U.S., and has added an island-hopping program that lets you visit two or three islands on one air ticket. This November, JetBlue will add Nassau, The Bahamas, as its fourth Caribbean destination (after Puerto Rico and two Dominican Republic destinations), with prices from $99 one-way. In December, Song will begin flying to Nassau as well, with prices from $139 one-way.

Also, American has added more daily flights to its Florida to Caribbean routes this season. And, if trends continue as in years past, major U.S. carriers including American Airlines and US Airways will continue to offer winter sale fares on their established Caribbean routes. At press time, sale fares on American started at $227 round-trip from New York to Montego Bay, Jamaica, and on US Airways, $125 round-trip from New York to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, not including taxes and fees. Top

Ireland

Some vacation destinations such as Ireland fall into a travel limbo during winter, offering neither winter activities like skiing nor sunny weather. However, the country can still be a great option for the intrepid bargain traveler.

Although it’s the chilliest time of the year to visit the Emerald Isle, it’s also the cheapest, with off-season pricing on airfare and accommodations across the country. Plus, it’s not as cold as you might think, as temperatures rarely drop below freezing due to the Gulf Stream. For some travelers, winter can be an ideal time to visit, especially if you dream of country drives, cozy evenings in pubs, and charming nights in guesthouses, free from the tourist crowds of summer.

The best deals this season are vacation packages. At press time, Aer Lingus was offering a package that includes airfare, four nights’ accommodations, daily breakfast, and car rental starting from $399 per person. For other affordable packages, check out the SmarterTravel.com vacation section, or browse the offers from Go-Today.com, Sceptre Tours, or Tourism Ireland.

To create your own vacation, keep an eye out for airfare deals from Aer Lingus. At press time, fares started at $113 one-way from New York to Shannon, not including taxes and fees. The carrier has also launched a new [% 7375 | advice | fare structure %] that can translate into big savings, particularly for last-minute flights and business-class travel.

Also check out the various accommodations offers on the official Ireland tourism website, keeping in mind that B&Bs and guesthouses can offer considerable value as well as a traditional Irish atmosphere. If you need a car rental, Auto Europe often has discounts or free upgrades for car rentals. Top

Florida

Tourism boards in Florida desperately want to correct the misconception that the recent hurricanes have taken the state out of the running as a winter destination this year. In fact, most tourist destinations are open and ready for the usual influx of tourists seeking to escape northern winters. And travel providers are making it even easier to visit Florida during this usually peak season with deals across the board.

Hotels and resorts are also slashing rates, even ones that were not hit by the hurricanes. One example is the Tavernier Hotel in Key Largo, which is offering up to half off rates, with rooms starting at $44 per night. For additional offers, view the Hot Deals listing on the Florida tourism website.

For sale fares, check out the websites of airlines that frequently put Florida on sale, including US Airways, Southwest, Independence Air, and AirTran. The lowest fares at the moment are from Southwest and US Airways, both starting at $29 one-way. Similar sales will likely continue throughout the winter. For other deals, check SmarterTravel.com for the latest sales on airfare, vacation packages, and hotels. Top

Big Sky, MT

A winter mountain vacation is a perfect way to celebrate the season, but unfortunately, ski vacations can be prohibitively expensive. Luckily, by choosing a smaller ski town over a mega resort destination, you can lower costs without sacrificing the enjoyment.

One such town is Big Sky, in southwestern Montana. About an hour’s drive from Bozeman, the nearest airport, this ski area offers 85 miles of runs for downhill, cross country, and backcountry skiing, as well as excellent value this season. For instance, a five-night package at the Big Sky Resort, including lift tickets, starts at just $85 per person, per night.

Compare this price to those at more popular resort towns like Vail, where lodging alone can easily cost $200 per night, or Park City, UT, where even budget accommodations can be over $100 per night. Furthermore, flights to Bozeman are comparable or cheaper than flights to Vail, so your airfare won’t negate your hotel savings. In general, Alaska and Horizon Airlines are good bets for low-cost flights directly to Bozeman. Big Sky is also close to Yellowstone, which remains opens during the winter for activities such as cross-country skiing.

Big Sky is just one of many small ski towns where you can find lower prices, good skiing, and fewer crowds. You can find other small ski towns in Montana, Colorado, Nevada, and Utah by visiting the respective state’s tourism website. Top

Mexico

Winter feels good in Mexico. It’s warm and close by, and this season, it’s reasonably priced as well. In December, resorts can be crowded with holiday travelers, but in January and February you’ll find more availability in your preferred hotel or resort. Plan to finish up your travels in early March, however, before the spring breakers descend.

For January and February travel, we found deeply discounted air-and-hotel packages from OffPeakTraveler starting at $499 per person for seven nights at the Gran Melia Resort in Cancun with airfare from Ft. Lauderdale. Vacations to the Pacific Coast of Mexico start at $549 per person for seven nights at the Fiesta Americana Vacation Club in Cabo with airfare from Los Angeles.

Other vacation providers that tend to offer good Mexico deals include Pleasant Holidays and BeachDestinations.com. You can check for the latest offers in the SmarterTravel.com vacation section.

If you’d rather plan your vacation a la carte, check for sale fares in the SmarterTravel.com air section and on the websites of Aeromexico and Mexicana. To find specials on Mexico accommodations, visit the Mexico Tourism website. Top

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