Since the middle of the financial meltdown in 2009, more people have disposable income, and travel is booming. United Nations World Tourism Organization estimates that the number of people who will take leisure trips this year will surpass 1 billion for the first time. That’s an increase from 980 million travelers in 2011.
Consequently, discerning exceptional travel values in 2012 is more difficult than it was 3 years ago. In 2009, travel bargains abounded. Now, you have to look for either offbeat travel destinations that have underrated charms or tried-and-true vacation spots that still haven’t made it all the way back from the recession.
Airlines and car-rental companies reduced capacity to account for the economic downturn, which in turn has produced higher prices. These days, $300 round-trip airfares are bargains and anything near $200 is a steal. Airplanes that have empty seats are rare. At press time, car-rental rates that are below $30 per day are good deals, and the same goes for weekly rates that are below $200.
Our selections for 2012’s exceptional travel destinations are based on discounts for airfare, dining, sightseeing and the ancillary costs that travelers often overlook, such as public transportation. In Portland, Ore., for example, the downtown streetcar is free and a ride downtown from the airport on the light rail system is $2.40. The same journey in San Francisco is $8.
With a few exceptions, these mostly are summer-travel destinations. But real value-hunters should bear in mind that off-season travel remains the best bargain of all. And the old rule that airfares are lowest for flights on Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday largely still holds true.
ROLLING WITH VALUE. Economically, Sin City still is hurting from its mid-decade sin: overbuilding. For example, CityCenter (16.7 million square feet, $9.2 billion), which is the largest dining, lodging and shopping development ever built, added almost 5,000 hotel rooms to the Strip when it opened in late 2009 near the height of the economic downturn. But the annual number of visitors to Vegas dropped by 1.1 million in 2009 compared with 2008 and, what’s worse for the casinos, the annual gambling revenue tumbled by $963 million, according to Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. Gambling revenue has climbed only $389 million since then.
The world’s most famous adult playground still is trying to return to its pre-recession levels, so it remains a bargain-hunter’s paradise. Rooms typically are less than $100 per night (far less than the $120-per-night average in 2008), and midweek travelers (Sunday through Thursday nights) will find rooms for as little as $20 downtown. It was difficult to find the same rooms for less than $40 in 2008.
To top things off, McCarran International Airport is the West Coast hub for the low-cost carrier Allegiant Air, which maintains competitive airfares into and out of Las Vegas. Spirit Airlines and Virgin Atlantic also will add more service into Las Vegas, and McCarran will open a 14-gate terminal in June. As a result, airlines have cut prices to fill the new seats, and we found round-trip flights from the Midwest to McCarran for as little as $99 (compared with roughly $200 just a year ago).
Trip Tip: Every casino in town is filled with high-end stores to lure your slot-machine winnings away, but if you want a premium shopping experience for half of the cost, try the 150-store Las Vegas Premium Outlets North downtown. It’s common to find outfits for 75 percent off the retail price.