Everyone knows that you pay a premium to fly to warmer climates when it's cold at home. That's why the winter season is the high season in the Caribbean, Costa Rica, Hawaii, and most of Florida and Mexico. The weather is almost always reliably warm, the hurricane season is long-gone, and snow is something you leave behind. But you don't have to spend a fortune to have a successful and fun winter escape.
6 Simple Ways to Save on Your Winter Vacation
1. A winter vacation does not necessarily mean a beach vacation.
A trip to Costa Rica (though certainly more expensive during the drier winter season than it is during the so-called "green" season), is still a relative bargain any time of the year. Mexico has a lot to offer beyond its beautiful beaches, and you shouldn't be afraid to get out and explore; just be careful and heed the latest travel warnings. Golfers may find more bargains in the sometimes cooler Bahamas than in the hotter Caribbean climates, especially while the recession is keeping tourism down and when many more hotels are offering bargain rates. Divers may want to look at cheaper islands like Dominica, Saba, and Bonaire over busier islands with beautiful beaches like Grand Cayman or Providenciales. Sport fishing enthusiasts may want to look at marina-side accommodations rather than beach-side accommodations.
2. Don't pay for stuff you don't need.
Do you prefer not fighting for a palapa-shaded beach lounger with hundreds of other vacationers? Would you prefer to float quietly in the pool than be splashed by dozens of happy children? Do you really need a lazy river pool? Do you need a butler to be on call? Would you rather explore some funky local restaurants than eat at a big resort? Then perhaps you shouldn't be at a big resort at all. All those facilities and staff at your beck and call cost money, and those costs are passed onto you in room rates of hundreds of dollars a night when you stay in a large resort. If you prefer a low-key holiday, think small. Look for a resort or hotel that offers only the services that you really need. If you don't mind walking across the road or driving 10 minutes to get to the beach, then you could pay significantly less than at a large, full-service resort. That's true regardless of where you travel or even when.
3. Don't assume an all-inclusive vacation is the best way to go.
All-inclusive resorts do have a tangible benefit. Once you pay for your vacation up front, then you will need to pay very little, if anything, during the vacation itself—unless you want to buy a couple of trinkets, get a massage in the spa, or take home a bottle of local rum. Your room, meals, drinks, entertainment, and almost all activities are included in the single price. The trouble is, if you don't want to drink a lot and don't eat constantly, you may not be getting your money's worth at an all-inclusive. Especially in a country like Mexico, where the U.S. dollar still goes a long way, you may actually spend far less if you stay at a non-AI resort. In the Caribbean, although restaurant food can be expensive, there are almost always cheaper local restaurants where you can get a meal for under $20 per person, just like at home. But you won't usually find the local hotspots at the big resorts, where you'll pay top dollar for everything from a frosty tropical drink to a bottle of water, from your burger at lunch to your grilled mahi mahi at dinner. And solo travelers in particular usually pay a huge supplement to stay at an all-inclusive resort.
4. Spread out and save a bundle.
If you are willing to stay in self-catering accommodations, you may not only have more room to spread out (condos are usually much larger than a comparable hotel room), but you'll be able to save money by cooking some meals yourself. Granted, food in Caribbean and Hawaiian supermarkets is still about 30% to 40% higher than at home, but it's always more cost-effective to make a few meals yourself. Even if you only have breakfast and lunch at your condo, you could cut your meal costs in half. If you are willing to make your own drinks, you might cut your bar bill by 2/3. Condos and villas are not always cheaper than hotel rooms, but it's certainly worth checking the prices to see what you can save. You'll save even more if your condo or villa isn't on the beach. Just be sure your accommodations have the features you need to be happy. Ask about pools, air-conditioning, new appliances, and anything else you can think of before making a commitment.
5. Simply pick a cheaper place to travel.
Not all 80-degree destinations are expensive, even in winter. Most of Florida has the advantage of being reliably warm year-round, but you can still find chilly days and nights, especially in the northern half of the state, where it's not high season during the winter. But if you go to trendy and expensive South Beach, stay a few blocks inland, and the hotel rates are dramatically less; the same goes for Fort Lauderdale. Costa Rica is reasonably priced year-round; though you'll certainly find expensive resorts and can take high-end tours, it's relatively easy to have an affordable adventure here. Hawaii can be as expensive or as cheap as you wish. Although you'll pay dearly to visit Kauai any time of the year, the Big Island has many off-the-beaten-path accommodations that are much cheaper. And you can sometimes snag good deals on condos on both Oahu and Maui in the winter months; if you forego expensive restaurants and activities like luaus and parasailing, you can have a great vacation for a low price, especially if you are coming from the west coast. If you choose a cheaper Caribbean island like St. Croix, the Dominican Republic, or Bonaire, you can save significantly over more expensive destinations like Anguilla, Virgin Gorda, or Barbados. And bigger islands like Jamaica and Puerto Rico have such a wide variety of destinations and accommodations that you can find some kind of vacation spot at almost any price point.
6. Time your vacation right.
Although the period from Christmas through mid-April is the most expensive time to travel to the Caribbean, Florida, Mexico, and Costa Rica, you may still find some last-minute bargains (though airfare will be the sticking point this year, I think, more than hotels). And you may want to look for lulls, when there may be bargains. These lulls in business often occur in early or mid-January, immediately before and after the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, and in early March before Spring Break really kicks into gear. And if you can put your holiday off until after Easter week, you'll save a bundle.