If you're determined to take a midwinter vacation when cold temperatures hit, timing is the key to saving. And if you're willing to travel sometime in the middle of January until just before Valentine's Day, you may just be in luck. It's known in the industry as a "dead zone," according to Rick Seaney, CEO and co-founder of farecompare.com, a travel planning website.
"An airfare dead zone is pretty much what it sounds like: A time of year when hardly anyone wants to fly for a vacation or weekend getaway, and because of this low demand, prices drop," Seaney says. Precisely because of that dead zone, it's an ideal time to plan a midwinter vacation.
The period typically lasts until President's Day weekend, which is Feb. 15-17 in 2014, the beginning of a more expensive period. If you time your return before Valentine's Day, you're likely to get cheaper fares, Seaney says.
There are two popular types of midwinter vacations: beach and ski. Your choice depends on your tolerance for cold temperatures and the activities you prefer.
[See: 15 Best Winter Vacations.]
Beach vacations. For those who want to escape the cold, Florida, the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos and the Caribbean are safe bets. Caribbean islands almost guarantee temperatures in the 80s. For travel that doesn't require a U.S. passport for entry, try Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands - St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix. For most other Caribbean destinations, including Anguilla, Aruba, Antigua, Barbados, Bonaire, the British Virgin Islands and Curacao, you'll need a passport, so make sure you're prepared.
When it comes to price, the more difficult it is to reach an island, the more it's likely to cost you. You'll not only pay for connecting flights or ferries, but hotel room rates can be higher in some remote destinations. However, some islands have a range of different types of hotels and resorts that meet the needs of travelers with different budgets, so it's best to figure out how much you're willing to spend and then search hotels in your price range.
In the beach category, Puerto Rico, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic offer some of the best midwinter deals, according to discount travel site hotwire.com, based on actual deals during this time period. In addition, Los Angeles offers deals, though temperatures might only hit the mid-to-high 70s.
[Read: 11 Easy Ways to Slash Travel Costs.]
Ski vacations. If you're willing to pass up some of best-known and most expensive destinations, you can save as well. Reno, Nev., can be less expensive than Tahoe, Calif. Vancouver, British Columbia, can be cheaper than staying in Whistler, British Columbia, with affordable shuttles from Vancouver to and from the slopes, according to hotwire.com. Ogden, Utah, the gateway to three major resorts - Wolf Mountain, Snowbasin and Powder Mountain - has lower prices than Park City, Utah, and is only 40 miles from Salt Lake City.
Wherever you decide - to the beach or the snow - here are some tips to keep your costs down:
Find free nights. When you go to a hotel or destination website, look for the special offers usually prominently displayed in the top part of the screen. Special offers can be packages that include transportation to and from the airport and a welcome gift or some type of entertainment. Or they can be a deal where you book five nights and get two nights free or book three nights and get one night free, such as at the Anacaona Boutique Hotel on Anguilla, a mid-level property that can cost $265 per night. The key to the Anacaona deal is making a reservation between Jan. 4 and Jan. 30. Another deal is to pay for six nights and get the seventh night free from Jan. 5 to Jan. 31 and March 1 to March 31 only. Even high-end resorts like Caneel Bay in St. John offer deals where you book four nights and get the fifth night free, valid Jan. 4 to Jan. 25 for consecutive nights only in ocean view, beachfront, premium ocean view and premium beachfront rooms.
Avoid nonstop flights. To find a less expensive airfare, search flights (or request flights) with one or more stops if you can afford the time. When using travel websites for booking, refrain from clicking "nonstop flights only" or search all flights and compare prices, recommends Tom Parsons, founder of bestfares.com.
[See: 10 Ways to Avoid Airline Fees.]
Ask for transfers. Traveling to and from the hotel tacks costs onto your midwinter vacation, so inquire when booking by telephone or through a travel agent if the hotel or resort has a free shuttle between the airport and the hotel. Plan ahead for this, as it will make your trip smoother and cheaper.
Find free breakfast or happy hours. No matter where you stay, it's always worth finding out which hotels include breakfast of some kind with your room. Even if it's a continental breakfast, you'll still save.
Ask for a refrigerator. Instead of eating in restaurants, aim for at least one meal each day in your room or on your balcony or patio. Research ahead where you can shop or, if you can handle the challenges, bring some nonperishable food with you.
Timing a midwinter vacation can save you money on airfare and hotels, so plan your trip sometime after Jan. 4 and before President's Day weekend. Think through the details, including meals and transportation to and from the airport before you go. You'll spend less and enjoy the trip more.
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