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Great Vacation Values 2015

Destinations Where Your Travel Dollars Go "Farthest"

Increased demand raised the cost of travel, but a few destinations still provide good value. Familiar destinations, such as Las Vegas, continue to deliver, but changing conditions shine a new light on locations such as Europe.

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What comes down must go up … and up … and sometimes up even more.

That’s the takeaway with regard to travel costs in 2015, which continue to surge from their 2009 recession lows. Driven by healthy demand and what analysts call “price discipline,” the key expenses of travel continue to reach new heights.

For example, the average U.S. round-trip airfare for 2014 passed $391, which is almost $50 more than its 2009 inflation-adjusted low of $343. Unfortunately, that isn’t likely to change despite lower oil prices, says Henry Harteveldt, who is a travel-industry analyst and the founder of Atmosphere Research Group.

Airlines have no incentive to lower fares domestically because of a lack of significant low-cost competition, he says. However, “we’re starting to see fuel surcharges be reduced or even removed, and that can lead to savings of several hundred dollars on an international flight.”

Driven by similar factors, in the lodging industry the average hotel room in the United States is expected to cost $121 in 2015, which is nearly one-quarter more than its recent low of $98 in 2009.

Overall, the total cost of travel climbed 12.9 percent since 2007, according to an index that’s maintained by U.S. Travel Association (USTA).

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What’s pushing this price curve upward? Classic supply-and-demand economics. If demand increases but supply doesn’t, prices rise. A record 1.1 billion people traveled internationally during 2014, and continued growth is expected. United Nations World Travel Organization forecasts that international travel will reach nearly 1.6 billion people by 2020. Meanwhile, USTA predicts that 2.1 billion overnight trips will be taken in the United States in 2015, which is an increase of 1.6 percent over 2014.

Although travel bargains are nowhere near as plentiful as they used to be, we found that reasonably priced vacations that deliver excellent value remain possible. For the most part, we based our selections on the basic costs of a vacation at a particular destination—lodging and activities. We didn’t factor in airfares explicitly, because they vary so much depending on from where you start. For example, even though hotels are less expensive overall in, say, Sarasota, Florida, than they are in Honolulu, a family who lives on the West Coast might find Honolulu to be a better value when airfare is figured into the equation.

Our booking queries all designated the same period in mid-June, except for our ski destination, which was toward the end of March, for a 3-night stay for two adults (with two kids for family destinations). You should keep a few things in mind:

♦ Prices change constantly, often daily, sometimes hourly. This selling strategy is called “dynamic pricing” and now appears to be almost universal for air travel, rental cars and hotel rooms, based on our research. Airfares, lodging, rental-car costs—all of these now are booked online almost exclusively, and sophisticated algorithms drive instant adjustments on the basis of availability and demand. In other words, if you try to book an airfare or hotel, you might get a different result Saturday morning than you would Tuesday night. You even might get a different result at a different time during the same day. Generally, this means that seats have been sold, or the airline has changed its revenue objectives for a particular route, plane, day or ... whatever. Travel-industry experts suspect that booking algorithms respond to the number of queries—even that they shape results for individual consumers—now that most companies conduct tracking. (That’s what all of those cookies do.)

Our advice: You should research destination costs and then shop around. Your budget might be insufficient for that family trip to Disneyland on Sunday—but more than adequate 10 days later. However, the first good deal that you see might be the best one that you’ll find. That’s why it’s important to understand the market for a particular trip, such as a 2-week vacation in Europe, and be ready to buy when you see good prices.

♦ If you can travel during low-demand periods, bargains might increase significantly. “This is the most important advice we offer readers now,” says Budget Travel Digital Editor Kaeli Conforti. “If you’re looking for bargains, go somewhere when other people aren’t going there. For example, New York has become one of the most expensive destinations in the world—except in January and early February, when you can find some great deals on hotels, plays and concerts.”

♦ No magic wand exists for airfare savings other than savvy, persistent shopping. We found that prices are the best about 6 weeks before a trip, but this depends highly on the destination, the season and other market conditions. Most travel experts agree that it’s best to use general search sites for research but buy from the airline direct, because you have more recourse if your plans change.

DOMESTIC DESTINATIONS

LAS VEGAS

LAS VEGAS. The Strip has become the site of a high-class buffet battle.

LAS VEGAS. The Strip has become the site of a high-class buffet battle.

Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority

Adult Playground. Las Vegas continues to lead the world as the go-to place for gaming, dining and indulgent relaxation. Although the city largely has recovered from the disastrous plunge in fortunes that it experienced in 2009, its huge lodging inventory and reliance on gambling revenue mean that visitors still can enjoy a memorable getaway at an excellent price.

Our price checks showed an average hotel room at just $104; hotel rooms that were in downtown Las Vegas clocked in at an impressively low $63. (It’s wise to remember that the city is eminently walkable—people-watching is one of Sin City’s great free attractions—and an “off-Strip” hotel that’s just a few blocks from the Wynn, say, might be half of the price of the Strip-front property.) Downtown Las Vegas is just a 10-minute ride from the heart of the Strip, and an $8 24-hour pass is available for the public transit Strip & Downtown Express luxury liner bus.

The savings don’t end at your hotel-room door. Las Vegas still is the home of the $6.99, all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet, but the proliferation of luxury hotels and restaurants along the Strip touched off a high-class buffet war. Now, rather than a cafeteria line, a dinner buffet has up to 16 chef-staffed cooking stations. The aptly named Bacchanal at Caesar’s Palace ($51–$54), which opened in 2012, has at least 500 separate gourmet items from which you can sample. Since 2013, the Bellagio buffet includes all-you-can-eat caviar Friday through Sunday at a price—$40—that restaurants typically charge for just 1 ounce of the appetizer.

Las Vegas also is the land of bargain entertainment. A typical Las Vegas show might not be the equal of a Broadway production, but it’s less than half of the price—below $50 if you take advantage of coupons or package deals. The Strip also is loaded with famous free attractions, most notably the Bellagio fountains, which display every half-hour during the day and every 15 minutes at night, as well as innumerable street entertainers. A stroll along the Strip might take you past two versions of Elvis, a couple of mimes and perhaps even a Lady Gaga look-a-like.

However, because Las Vegas is one of the world’s convention capitals, a few annual gatherings, such as the International Consumer Electronics Show every January, use up a large portion of the city’s visitor capacity, which drives prices way up. You should consult Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority’s convention calendar (vegasmeansbusiness.com) to see who’s gathering in Sin City the week that you’re considering going.

TRIP TIP: You don’t have to have an automobile in Las Vegas. A few hotels provide free shuttle service to and from the airport; others provide shuttles around the city, although they mostly just take you to sister hotels. It’s worth checking on shuttle availability before you book a room.

ANAHEIM

ANAHEIM. Disneyland remains the major draw for families.

ANAHEIM. Disneyland remains the major draw for families.

Disney

Family Fun. Let’s face it: Just two true family-centered theme-park capitals exist. Anaheim, California, which is the home of Disneyland, outpaces Orlando, Florida, which is the home of Walt Disney World, as the better value. The chief reason is the popularity of the Florida city with international travelers, primarily Europeans, whose proximity draws them there and helps to keep prices high.

Anaheim has 19,508 hotel rooms, and 55,917 hotel rooms exist in the region. That yields a competitive market in which our hotel-room query came up with an average price of $139; hotels around Disney World averaged $234. Park admission also is less expensive in California. A 3-day pass is $235 at Disneyland, $275 at Disney World; a 1-day pass is $99 at Disneyland, $105 at Disney World.

Another advantage is Disneyland’s accessibility, Conforti says. “It’s easy to get back and forth from the park to the hotel. In Orlando, you have to drive everywhere and pay for parking.”

Although Disneyland is Anaheim’s main draw, visitors who rent a vehicle gain the opportunity to visit other nearby attractions, such as Knott’s Berry Farm. For food, Downtown Disney District, which is adjacent to Disneyland but doesn’t require an admission fee, is famous for its wide array of relatively authentic and inexpensive themed restaurants, such as Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen, which offers red beans and rice or gumbo for less than $8 each.

TRIP TIP: Disneyland can be the centerpiece for vacation packages that bundle hotel, park admission and more in one low price. However, you should beware of ultradiscounted park tickets that you might find online—police have found some of them to be fake.

HOUSTON

HOUSTON. Space Center Houston is one of the city’s many attractions.

HOUSTON. Space Center Houston is one of the city’s many attractions.

Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Urban Getaway. Everything is bigger in Texas, including the bargains, which brings us to Houston.

Really? Houston? Yes. The average hotel price in the oil capital is $186; in the city’s museum-rich Texas Medical Center district, it’s $171. Compare that with Manhattan, where it’s above $300. Other major cities, such as Chicago or San Francisco, check in with averages of at least $248.

The big surprise for most about Houston is the city’s astoundingly dynamic dining scene, which is centered largely along Westheimer Boulevard and not far from the museum district. According to a 2012 study by Rice University, Houston is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in North America. Consequently, Houston’s new-wave cuisine embraces influences from Asia to Africa, from Europe to Latin America—and the best dining is far more affordable than it is in other big cities. A full-scale gourmet dinner for two at Hugo’s, which is one of the country’s finest authentic Mexican restaurants, according to restaurant experts, runs less than $60. (Similar upscale gourmet dinners in Los Angeles, New York or San Francisco cost at least $120.) Other culinary hot spots in Houston are priced similarly. Bargain diners can savor barbecue, the Texas staple, for less than $10 per person.

If you believe that all that you’ll see in Houston are cowboys and oil wells, you should be prepared to be surprised further. The city’s museums and arts are truly world-class. The Museum of Natural Science ($20) holds a gem and mineral exhibit that’s exceeded only by that of the Smithsonian Institution, and it has a mesmerizing dinosaur hall. The Menil Collection, perhaps the best Surrealist art museum in the country, is free.

We believe that Houston’s opera, symphony, theater and music scenes are as good as its dining and museums, and what other urban getaway boasts anything like Space Center Houston and its outer-space artifacts? Exactly, none.

We’d be remiss not to mention the heat in Houston, however. It can be extreme during summer—temperatures and humidity both in the neighborhood of 100 (degrees Fahrenheit and percent). The weather typically moderates by early September and can be grand in October or April when countless azaleas and magnolias are in bloom. We found that prices don’t change much from summer into fall, though.

TRIP TIP. Although the city’s overall transit system is sketchy to say the least (and traffic is horrendous), a reliable $1.25 airport bus service will take you downtown or to the Medical Center district. After you arrive, Houston’s light-rail service provides easy passage from hotels to parks to museums. The best fare deal is a $3 day pass.

SARASOTA

SARASOTA. A balmy climate and calm, warm water mark this beach city.

SARASOTA. A balmy climate and calm, warm water mark this beach city.

iStockphoto

Best Beach. Sarasota, Florida, has beautiful, fine, white-sand beaches, a balmy climate almost year-round, warm water and an ample supply of reasonably priced resorts. What else would you want from a beach vacation?

The pace of life on the Gulf of Mexico is gentler than it is on Florida’s Atlantic Ocean side, which we believe makes for a better beach experience. Dr. Beach, who is coastal ecologist Stephen P. Leatherman and is known as the leading authority on U.S. beaches, once named Sarasota’s Siesta Beach as the best in the country for reasons that include water quality, overall ambience and safety. (A beach is left out of subsequent lists after it’s so named but has to maintain its standards, Leatherman says.) A Florida Atlantic beach never has been named.

Sarasota’s beaches largely are found on two off-shore islands, Lido Key and Siesta Key. Caribbean and Florida travel expert Steve Jermanok, who runs a tour-booking company, prefers Siesta Key for the quiet atmosphere that most people seek in a beach vacation. “Siesta Key is the ultimate laid-back, sleepy beach town,” he says. Our hotel checks came up with an average price of just $145.

Three airports serve Sarasota through daily jet service from much of the United States. Sarasota Bradenton International has limited service, so you might find a better deal if you fly into nearby Fort Myers or Tampa and make the hour or so drive to Sarasota. Our research indicates that you even might get a break on the car rental itself.

TRIP TIP: As at many beach communities, you can save a lot of money in Sarasota by looking for lodging off the beach—five blocks inland, say—and heading down to the shore in the morning with a beach bag that’s packed with lunch, towels, books and other gear.

PUERTO RICO

PUERTO RICO. An old town, a beach and a rain forest provide contrasts.

PUERTO RICO. An old town, a beach and a rain forest provide contrasts.

Shutterstock

Caribbean Getaway. Puerto Rico is the unsung star of the Western Hemisphere’s biggest sea. Its flavorful combination of beaches, history, food, music and rain forest often is overlooked in favor of higher profile island destinations, such as Jamaica, the Dominican Republic or even the Bahamas. What’s best of all: You don’t have to have a passport to travel to Puerto Rico, like you do the other destinations.

Our hotel-pricing research shows Puerto Rico at an average of $150. Compare that with the Dominican Republic’s major resort district, Punta Cana, at $252. Also, San Juan, which is Puerto Rico’s capital, is a major air hub for the entire region, with dozens of daily flights to and from the United States. Consequently, airfares to get here are less expensive compared with other Caribbean locations, no matter from where you fly.

“There’s been an explosion of new lodging in Puerto Rico over the past 5 years,” Jermanok says. “From deluxe accommodations to small B&Bs, the market is very competitive, and the fact that San Juan is a major hub for American Airlines and JetBlue means there are lots of cheap flights from many U.S. cities direct to Puerto Rico.”

Aside from fine beaches and resorts, Puerto Rico provides compelling history—Old San Juan, which has 16th-and 17th-century buildings, is a World Heritage Site. Puerto Rico also has the only tropical rain forest preserve that’s in the U.S. National Forest System—the El Yunque National Forest. Finally, the island is famed for its reggaeton and salsa music, which often can be enjoyed for free in local taverns or outside at evening park concerts.

TRIP TIP: The famous Caribbean truck-driver cheap meal of stew beans and rice is known here as habichuelas guisadas. It’s worth every penny of the $5 that you’ll pay to enjoy it.

FOREIGN DESTINATIONS

BANFF, ALBERTA, CANADA

BANFF, ALBERTA, CANADA. Take your pick of one of three ski hills.

BANFF, ALBERTA, CANADA. Take your pick of one of three ski hills.

Banff Lake Louise Tourism

Winter Wonderland. A good ski destination has to have one thing to ensure success—snow.

Our research into winter-sports destinations was affected by the specter of climate change. Virtually the entire West Coast had a poor snow season in 2014-2015 that resulted in widespread closures and short seasons. If you book a ski vacation, and you have to cancel because of a lack of snow, then it doesn’t matter how much of a bargain that it appeared to be at the start of the season. Many climatologists say such winters are likely to become common, so your best bet for a ski destination is an interior region at high altitudes.

Given that, our selection is Banff, Alberta, Canada. The famed Rocky Mountain town has reliable winter snows, ample lodging and visitor facilities, and it’s close to three major ski hills, all of which have complete facilities for everyone from beginners to experts. Banff is a particularly good value now, because, as of press time, the U.S. dollar gained 20 percent against the Canadian currency over the past 8 months, and the dollar’s strength is expected to continue through the winter of 2015-2016. Hotel prices in Banff average $114 USD. Compare that with an average of $188 in Winter Park, Colorado, $134 in Salt Lake City or $364 in the Salt Lake mountain resorts.

What’s better still are the lift-ticket prices. A Banff 3-day pass that provides access to Lake Louise Ski Resort, Mount Norquay and Sunshine Village is $206 USD. A 3-day pass at Winter Park is $288. Alta or Snowbird in Utah cost about the same as Banff, but that’s for only one hill. A combined Alta/Snowbird 3-day pass runs $288.

TRIP TIP: A rental car is unnecessary. Shuttles to and from Calgary International Airport are about $50 USD each way, but after you reach Banff, you’ll find that the three-area lift ticket includes transport from the town to the ski hills. Banff itself is eminently walkable after your ski day is done.

MAZATLAN, MEXICO

MAZATLAN, MEXICO. A great dinner for two is affordable and filled with a regional blend of seafood and Mexican staples.

MAZATLAN, MEXICO. A great dinner for two is affordable and filled with a regional blend of seafood and Mexican staples.

Leslie Forsberg

North American Bargain. Almost all of Mexico has recovered handsomely from the tourism slump that started a decade ago. Cabo San Lucas, Cancun, Puerto Vallarta: Our hotel price checks came up with averages near $200 or above ($269 in Cancun).

Consequently, Mazatlan still provides excellent value. The average hotel there is $102; three-star hotels average out at an amazing $85. Most other visitor services remain equally economical, from the food—you can get a great dinner for two for $20—to local transit.

Mazatlan’s Zona Dorada has excellent beaches that are shielded somewhat from incoming Pacific Ocean swells by offshore islets. The local cuisine is a superb regional blend of seafood and Mexican staples, such as handmade tortillas, chiles and beans, and we particularly recommend the city’s signature dessert—guava pie.

The city’s old town is charming and well-preserved, and day-boat excursions to Stone Island provide a look at the city’s working harbor. Finally, only Mazatlan has the quirky pulmonias, which are open-air cabs that are designed by a native son and, thus, aren’t used anywhere else.

TRIP TIP: The price for taking the bus from the hotel zone to Old Mazatlan is now 10 pesos each way. However, because of the strength of the U.S. dollar, the bus costs less than 75 cents and is quite a deal.

 

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC. The Vltava River is the focus of the 1,000-year-old European capital city.

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC. The Vltava River is the focus of the 1,000-year-old European capital city.

Czech Tourism

European Vacation. The burgeoning strength of the U.S. dollar against the euro means that 2015 is the best year for a European trip in a long time. At press time, the dollar was at its highest rate against the euro in a decade—0.94 euros for $1 as of March 2015, and many experts believe that it might reach parity in 2015.

We believe that the overall best value for your stronger tourist dollar is the capital of the Czech Republic—Prague. Three-star hotel rooms are just $91 in the city center, whereas similar hotels cost $129 in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Vienna and $143 in London. Airfares into the city from major U.S. transfer hubs, such as London, Amsterdam and Frankfurt, Germany, are reasonable. Getting around is easy: Most major sights are within 1 mile of the city center, along the Vltava River, and walkable.

As for those sights, many of the best are free. The most famous might be the Charles Bridge, which is the medieval span that joins the city’s east and west sides. It’s packed with artists, musicians, street performers and tourists from around the world. Old Town, which is 10 minutes from the Charles Bridge, is a charming warren of cobblestone streets, food vendors and a famous clock tower on the edge of Old Town Square. Admission to Prague Castle (the largest in the world, the Czechs claim) is less than $14, which compares nicely with, for example, the Tower of London at around $34.

TRIP TIP: As in most places in Europe, the in-city currency exchange booths in Prague are no bargain—that attractive rate that’s posted on the sign is the amount at which they buy, not sell. The best approach is to obtain a fee-free ATM card, which are widely available from U.S. credit unions, among other locations, and get cash from bank machines.

Eric Lucas has written about the travel industry for 23 years. He has written six travel books and travels up to 100 days per year.

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