Cheap trips for winter
Now that the obligatory holiday trips to see family have wrapped up, consumers hoping for a more leisurely getaway may want to keep their suitcases handy. Experts say the travel deals available in early January are often some of the best offered all year. And this sale season, lower-than-usual snowfall in many parts of the country has added a few peak-winter destinations to the mix.
In general, travelers can expect to pay more for air fare and hotel stays this year. Average daily rates for U.S. hotels rose 4.2 percent in 2012, to an average $106.23 in November, according to Smith Travel Research. Domestic air fare increased 4.5 percent, adding from $2 to $10 per trip on round-trip flights, reports FareCompare.com.
And forecasts suggest more of the same this year. Part of the rise comes from economic recovery, but higher air fare also resulted from airlines cutting back schedules to fly fuller planes and maximize their profits, says Gabe Saglie, a senior editor for deal site Travelzoo.com. Hotels have been able to offer less-generous discounts.
Travelers booking in January -- whether for last-minute getaways or a trip later in the year -- may be able to score deals that negate those rising prices and then some. "The first two weeks of the year tend to be a great time for bargains," says Anne Banas, executive editor for advice site SmarterTravel.com. "These are some of the best travel deals of the year."
Many of the offers are for travel by February, but some extend well into the fall. Travelers should also read the details for restrictions like minimum-stay requirements, or higher holiday-weekend rates. Packages that combine air and hotel or other components packages can also be a great deal, but it's still worth crunching the numbers, she says. Some offer a range of extras (like ski lessons or fancy on-site dinners) that, if unneeded, may make the total tab higher than it would be if each element were purchased separately.
In particular, experts say, travelers should look for deals in these seven destinations:
The Caribbean and Bahamas
The islands are a popular holiday destination, "but now everyone is back to work," says Kari Dilloo, a spokeswoman for Bing Travel. That creates softer pricing until demand picks up in March for spring break travel. Atlantis Paradise Island in the Bahamas, for example, currently has rates as low as $65 per person per night for a family of four, savings of up to 50 percent off regular rates. The deal also includes air fare credits of $200 to $300 depending on the length of stay, free meals for kids age 12 and younger and a deal pass for free appetizers and drinks at various resort restaurants.
The so-called Wave Season -- when many lines offer their best deals -- kicked in Jan. 1. "For anybody who's looking to cruise last minute in January 2013 -- or booking six, even 12, months out -- January is the time to start scoping the deals," Saglie says. Alaska especially is seeing more competitive deals this year with both Princess and Celebrity adding ships there, he says. (Look for a May or September shoulder-season sailing to maximize savings.) Norwegian has rates as low as $449 per person on select May and June cruises from Whittier to Vancouver, a savings of 40 percent.
Concedes Banas: "Iceland is not top of everyone's mind in the winter." But there are plenty of winter attractions, including hot springs and prime Northern Lights viewing. Some of the most attractive deals stem from airline Iceland Air. Its Northern Lights Escape package, which starts at $953 per person, includes round-trip air fare from New York, Boston or Washington, D.C., as well as four nights' hotel, breakfasts, intra-Iceland air and bus travel, a Northern Lights tour and entry costs to other attractions. Depending on travel dates, just the flight might cost you that much, she says.
Resorts often reassess bookings this time of year, offering deals to entice travelers before warmer spring weather kicks in during March and April, says Banas. With a warmer-than-usual winter, skiers may even see some deals over the Presidents Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekends, which usually demand premium pricing. At Sugarloaf Inn, in Carrabassett, Maine, "Classic Ski Week" five-night packages of lodging and lift tickets start at $425 per person, a discount of up to 50 percent off prices if purchased separately. Village Inn Plaza in Vail, Colo., has discounts of up to 30 percent, with per traveler rates on seven-night "Ski & Stay" lodging and lift ticket packages starting at $464 per night.
New York City
Prices fall off dramatically in January, when attractions like the Times Square ball drop and the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree are past. Typical December rates run $300 to $500, with peak weekends sold out; in January, it's easy to spend less than $100, Saglie says. Even higher-end properties come in at under $200 per night. The four-star St. Giles Hotel, for example, has January rates as low as $152, a 25 percent discount. Four-star Hotel Mela, in Times Square, is up to 40 percent off, with starting rates of $129.
It's another destination that sees traffic drop off between the December holidays and March Spring Break traffic, Dilloo says. Marriott's Waiohai Beach Club, on Kauai, has two-bedroom villas for as little as $480 per night, a 40 percent discount, through the end of February. On Maui, Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa offers $389 per night on select dates through June, 25 percent off regular rates. Most deals require booking by mid January to claim.
Irish tourism groups have dubbed 2013 "The Gathering," and a main focus of the yearlong celebration is enticing travelers of Irish heritage to visit, says Saglie. "We're seeing already some very aggressive packages, even from tour companies that don't usually specialize in Irish travel," he says. That helps undercut rising air fares, even during the peak summer season. Great Value Vacations has seven-night hotel, air and car rental packages starting at $1,199 per person for June through August. Travelzoo estimates the savings at $900 over booking components separately.