5 bargain summer destinations

Smart Money

Most years, waiting until late April to book your summer vacation meant missing out on the best deals. But this spring -- thanks to a glut of rentals and un-booked hotel rooms -- experts say it's still possible to score a cheap trip.

U.S. hotel prices are expected to rise 4.7% this year to an average $107 per night, according to Smith Travel Research, but experts say those prices may be offset by better promotions. Thanks to reduced traffic and a slew of new hotels, even popular spots aren't booked up. Summer favorites such as South Padre Island in Texas and Branson, MO, still have more than 50% availability for summer rentals, says Jon Gray, the vice president of U.S. business for rental site HomeAway.com. (The site reports overall listings are up 30% compared with last year.) And hotel prices are down in cities such as San Diego, where rates fell 7.4% to $135, and Orlando, which saw a 7% drop to $94, reports Hotels.com.

It's the cost of travel itself that may limit roaming. Airfares are already up roughly 4% this year, and summer travelers may see even higher prices. Domestic fares for summer flights are up 3% to an average $383, and international fares are up 5% to $880, according to Travelocity. "If you procrastinate, that could be a substantial hit," says Gabe Saglie, a senior editor for Travelzoo. Gas prices, meanwhile, are hovering at $3.83 per gallon -- just four cents shy of last year's average, reports AAA.

Here are five spots at home and abroad where experts say the lodging deals are sweet enough to offset higher travel costs:

(Photo: Getty Images)

Las Vegas, NV

"Cities where you can gamble are really popular right now," says Taylor Cole, a spokeswoman for Hotels.com. Las Vegas prices plummeted during the recession and have yet to fully recover. Many casinos use rooms as loss leaders, too, counting on revenue from gambling, shows and restaurants to make up for the low rates. Hotwire puts the average rate at $99, a 6% drop compared with last year. With a package, travelers might do even better. Courtney Scott, a spokeswoman for Travelocity, says a round-trip flight from New York and four nights at the Luxor in June can be as cheap as $498 per person. Of course, Las Vegas is literally, as well as figuratively, hot: the average temperature is 100 degrees in June, 106 in July and 103 in August. But the city is known for its fancy casino pools, and properties blast the air-conditioning to keep visitors comfortable.

Disney World/Epcot Center (Photo: Getty Images)

Orlando, FL

Orlando typically has good summer deals, but availability and pricing seem to be even more advantageous this year, says Saglie. Hotel prices are down 7% compared with last year, to an average $146, according to Hotels.com. Saglie attributes it in part to wider rental availability of timeshares and private homes. "Timeshare owners who can't sell are turning them into rentals," he says. A three-bedroom rental might go for as little as $700 per week. Travelers may find even better deals by looking beyond Orlando to cities like Davenport, which are still close to the parks but off most people's radars, says Eric Horndahl, head of marketing for rental site FlipKey. With hurricane season starting June 1, it's also worth reviewing owners' cancellation policies in the event of inclement weather.

Bavaro Beach (Photo: Getty Images)

Dominican Republic

Prices are up just 3% in the Caribbean, versus 5% in North America, according to Hotels.com. The Dominican Republic is one of the cheapest international destinations this year, says Scott. While the average international airfare runs $880, she says, summer air and hotel packages to the island can come in for even less than that. CheapCaribbean.com, for example, has a package of airfare and four nights at the Barcelo Bavaro Palace Deluxe from $849. Many of the discounts are at all-inclusive beachfront or golf resorts, sweetening savings, Scott says. The Excellence Punta Cana has offers starting August 14 for 35% off, with rates starting at $111, and the Majestic Colonial is offering rates as low as $439 for a four-night stay -- 25% off and free airport transfers all summer. As with other Caribbean destinations, hurricanes are a risk after June 1. Consider cancellation policies and change fees when booking, she says.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Colorado

"There are a lot of reasons to go to Colorado in the summer," notably mild weather and abundant outdoor activities such as hiking and rafting, says Gray. A third: low prices. Breckenridge still has 69% availability for summer rentals, Gray says, and rates for a one-bedroom may be as cheap as $89. A slow winter season has also made hotels more competitive, Saglie says. The four-star Loews Denver has one-bedroom suites for 40% off through June, with rates as low as $119 per night. Beaver Creek Resort outside Vail has 60%-off summer deals, knocking starting rates to $99 per night. Overnight temperatures can still dip into the 30s and 40s in some areas, though, which may turn off travelers looking for a warmer trip.

Cancun's hotel zone at dusk (Photo: Getty Images)

Mexico

Prices in Cancun are up 8% to an average $165, according to Hotels.com. But exchange rates have also become more favorable over the past year, with a dollar buying 27% more. Travelers can expect to see substantial savings in resort towns such as Los Cabos, Puerta Vallarta and Cancun, Cole says. Bookit.com has 45% off the new Villa del Palmar Cancun, with reduced rates starting at $120. Playa Grande Resort & Grand Spa offers summer rates of as little as $208 -- a 53% discount. Cole suggests reviewing travel advisories before booking. Drug violence led to a U.S. Department of State warning earlier this year, with the government recommending deferral of non-essential travel to some areas. It's not a blanket don't-go, however. "Millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year for study, tourism, and business," notes the report, and "the Mexican government makes a considerable effort to protect U.S. citizens and other visitors to major tourist destinations."

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