10 TO WATCH
Top Budget Travel Destinations for 2010
Each year, we pore over industry news and trends and dive through mounds of statistics to determine the world's new best-value destinations. Find out why our picks are more affordable than ever—and how to have fun once you get there.
With the recession and the swine flu discouraging travel, this West Coast peninsula has endured an incredibly tough two years. Baja has responded to hard times by reducing hotel rates by up to 30 percent or by adding perks to already cheap packages. Case in point: a three-night stay for two at the Playa Grande Resort & Grand Spa—on a private beach in Cabo San Lucas—includes an on-beach dinner, massages, round-trip airport transfers, and a $50 restaurant gift certificate, starting at $241 per night (solmar.com).
Flights into Baja are cheaper and easier than in the past, too, especially if you're coming from the central or eastern parts of the U.S. American Airlines has added flights from Dallas and Chicago, and low-cost Mexican carrier Volaris has added domestic links to Baja's main hub of Los Cabos from Mexico City. Tickets on Volaris via the capital's secondary airport, Toluca, are as low as $39 each way (volaris.com.mx).
Main events: Discover the redeveloped San José Del Cabo, just 20 miles north of resort-filled Cabo San Lucas.* In the last two years, it's become the place to go if you want culture with your beach vacation, thanks to Thursday gallery nights and new restaurants serving locally accented new Mexican cuisine. In the Baja capital of La Paz, September 15 starts a two-day celebration of Mexico's bicentennial. The governor kicks off the festivities by shouting ¡Mexicanos, viva México! and the crowd answers with the national anthem (lapaz-tourism.com).
Memorable moment: In Cabo San Lucas, get up early, rent a kayak from one of the shacks along Médano Beach, and paddle out to snorkel off Playa del Amor, near the iconic El Arco rock formation. Head back by 11 a.m., when high winds and tourists come pouring in, and then drop by Doña Olga's down-home Tacos Gardenias to dine on cactus tacos (loscabosguide.com/gardenias, tacos de nopal, about $2, closed Mon.).
Price check: Hotel Siesta Suites in downtown Cabo San Lucas is considered a top value lodging option by TripAdvisor, with doubles from $68 (cabosiestasuites.com). Facing the Gulf of California near the 300-year-old mission in the quiet town of Loreto, the year-old La Mision is an ideal jumping off point to check out Baja's famous cave paintings, with rooms starting at $97 a night (lamisionloreto.com). Round-trip fares for February 2010 recently started at $273 from L.A. (Mexicana), $296 from Minneapolis (United), $354 from Seattle (Alaska Airlines), and $379 from Phoenix and New York City.
Why in 2010: When the final 2009 numbers are tallied, the D.R. may overtake Jamaica as the Caribbean island country most visited by Americans. The year saw a spike in visitors from the U.S. despite a downturn in tourism across the Caribbean—but the country's increasing popularity has not translated into higher prices. The peso-to-dollar ratio remains favorable for Americans, and airfares are getting cheaper, too. In early 2010, according to forecasts from Bing Travel, average round-trip fares between U.S. gateways and the main D.R. airport in Santo Domingo will fall again, to about $377—a drop of 8 percent from early 2009.
The resort area of Punta Cana, a busy strand of beaches on the island's eastern coast, has long been a prime draw for U.S. travelers, but the Samaná Peninsula is a gorgeous—and considerably cheaper—alternative. The remote, 35-mile-long peninsula is studded with white-sand beaches and coconut trees, and the warm waters lure legions of humpback whales in the winter. While Samaná is mercifully undeveloped today, a new highway linking Santo Domingo with the peninsula was completed in 2009, and rapid growth can't be far behind. For now at least, lodging is relatively cheap. Hotels.com forecasts that in early 2010, the average nightly lodging rate in Samaná will be $168—much lower than the average in Punta Cana ($271). That's also far less than the rates in better-known destinations elsewhere in the Caribbean, such as Palm Beach, Aruba (recently averaging $236 per night), Providenciales, Turks & Caicos ($292), and Paradise Island, Bahamas ($360).
Main events: Samaná is still too quiet to have major events, but January through March is an ideal time for whale-watching, as thousands of humpback whales migrate to Samaná Bay to mate (sample tour: Whale Samaná, whalesamana.com, through mid-March). February 27 brings street and beach parties in honor of the D.R.'s Independence Day, though smaller celebrations also take place on July 14 (Bastille Day) among the estimated 2,500 French expats on the peninsula.