As we enter the spring/summer season for vacation travel, what are the top travel bargains? I find they are six basic areas or modes of travel:
• First, for better or worse, is Las Vegas. The recent addition of 6,000 luxurious rooms in City Center — a newly completed complex of high-rise hotels, condos and shops — has had a devastating impact on hotel prices there, establishing a ceiling of $149 to $159 per deluxe room on many weekday dates in the months ahead. Other hotels of a lesser category have thus had to charge less: $77 per weekday for many top first-class hotels, $50 a room for ordinary first-class hotels, $30 and $25 a room for hotels like Circus Circus, Excalibur or Stratosphere. With all four cut-rate carriers flying to Las Vegas (Southwest, Air Tran, Spirit and JetBlue), with car rentals at modest rates through BreezeNet.com, and with half-price coupons for leading restaurants sold for $2 at discount theater booths on The Strip, you enjoy a wonderfully cheap vacation in Sin City (on weekdays when no giant convention is in town).
• Central America, particularly Honduras, Guatemala and Panama, occupies second place in my bargain ratings, not simply because their land costs are unusually low, but because of a chaotic airfare structure in the region. On numerous dates, it is possible through a careful scanning of airfare search engines, and a use of one-stop-en-route flights, to find round-trip airfares there from the U.S. for as little as $200, which brings your total airfare cost to only $300 when about $100 in government fees and taxes are added. Honduras, where last year's political turmoil gravely affected tourism and hotel rates; Guatemala, whose cost of living is just as low; and Panama, actively seeking to encourage incoming tourism through low rates and bargains; are all marvelously cheap to visit.
• Orlando, Fla., is bargain number three. Again, all four of the major cut-rate airlines fly there at especially low rates. And motels outside the premises of the theme parks can easily be had in most months for as little as $50 a room. Add the special four-day passes costing $149 for Universal Studio's complex of theme parks — consult The Official Ticket Center (www.officialticketcenter.com or phone 877-406-4836) —and you can enjoy America's theme-park city for very little.
• Mexico, and especially Cancun, occupies the fourth position, because of the lingering reluctance of many Americans to risk what they discern as drug-related violence and swine flu possibilities. In actual fact, the violence is almost entirely concentrated in border cities hundreds of miles from the Caribbean or Pacific resorts of Mexico, and from its capital city and colonial highlights; and swine flu is no longer a threat. Tour packagers like Vacation Travel Mart (www.vacmart.com) offer air-and-land packages in which you stay in all-inclusive hotels for four or five nights, receiving three meals daily and unlimited beverages, together with round-trip airfare, for as little as $500 from numerous U.S. cities.
• China comes next. A year ago, you had one major tour operator — China Focus Travel (www.chinafocustravel.com) —offering rates of $999 (in winter) and $1,500 or so (in summer) for a nine-night stay in multiple Chinese cities, including round-trip air from the U.S. West Coast, all meals and daily sightseeing. Now you have two major tour operators — China Focus and China Spree (www.chinaspree.com) —fighting it out in a world of near-miraculous low prices. Considering that the under-$1,800 packages of these two companies are for trips almost two weeks in length and include all meals, all city-to-city transportation, most evening entertainment and daily sightseeing, their products are now the least-expensive air-and-land packages in travel today, far below the cost of equivalent trips to Europe.
• And cruises are number six, despite what you may have heard from commentators claiming that heavy maritime discounting is a thing of the past. I don't find that to be the case at all. From discount cruise brokers like Vacations To Go (www.vacationstogo.com), CruisesOnly (www.cruisesonly.com), CruiseCompete (www.cruisecompete.com), Online Vacation Center (www.onlinevacationcenter.com) and others, it's no trick at all to find one-week cruises selling for $399 to $499 in the Caribbean, and for $699 in the Mediterranean.
Travel continues to be replete with bargains.