January means bargains to not-so-warm vacation sites

Best deals go to those who keep plans flexible

Travel

Your Money

January 11, 2004|By Julie Claire Diop

No matter if you live in the frozen North or the sunny South, January is the month to find vacation bargains. And travelers willing to experience the offbeat will find the best deals.

Airlines and hotels drop their prices in January and February to keep busy, and the best deals go to those who are flexible and willing to travel to a nontraditional winter vacation spot.

The least expensive vacations are often the last-minute ones. Many airlines and travel sites, including US Airways, United, American and Travelocity, send out weekly e-savers or e-fares to fill coming flights. Look on their Web sites and you may find Orlando, Fla., to San Francisco on United for $267 round trip, and Chicago to London on American for $286.

Before booking flights and hotels, it's worth finding the most competitive price and then trying to beat it on Priceline.com. Planning for a trip to Maine last summer, I could not find a decent hotel room for less than $125. On Priceline, I got a hit at $75.

A really cheap way to travel if you aren't on a tight schedule is as a courier. They get from 20 percent to 80 percent off the price of regular airline tickets, and sometimes can plan trips more than a month in advance. (Organs for transplants are often sent by courier.)

The International Association of Air Travel Couriers ($45-a-year membership fee) is a clearinghouse for courier flights (www.courier.org).

In January, you can snag plenty of bargains through Web sites or travel agencies to places such as Montreal, Paris and Dublin, Ireland. STA Travel, which has offices on many college campuses, offers flights for travelers younger than 26 to these cities for $280 to $330. Travelocity and other online travel sites also offer student fares.

You can still go somewhere warm in winter on the cheap, such as Costa Rica and Belize. In January, Central American destinations are 20 percent to 30 percent cheaper than the Caribbean and Mexico, because Central America is a "developing destination," according to STA Travel's Carissa Garza.

The Lonely Planet is invaluable for finding good inns, hotels and restaurants in faraway places. Often for $40 a night you can vacation with other backpackers, and for $60 a night find a room in a European-style bed & breakfast. Hostels are no more than $20 a night.

If you want to get to know real people on your trip, you might like a two-week Habitat for Humanity Global Village trip. For roughly $1,500 (plus airfare) for transportation, housing, food and insurance, you work with local people and spend a couple of days touring sites. Habitat for Humanity has many scheduled trips, and can also plan trips to more than 80 countries.

For your armchair traveling pleasure, check out these sites: Go to STA Travel (www.statravel.com) for student and youth deals, and then see if you can do even better on Priceline.com (www.priceline.com). You can find information about hostels on Hostelling International USA (www.hiayh.org).

For reading pleasure, I found BootsnAll.com (www.bootsnall .com) full of fun stories from other travelers and lots of information about getting by on the cheap.

Write to Julie Claire Diop in care of Your Money, Room 400, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60611 or e-mail yourmoneytribune.com.

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