10 TO WATCH
Top Budget Travel Destinations for 2012
Your annual guide to the year's biggest savings—from deeply discounted tours to favorable exchange rates to the cheapest five-star hotel rooms around (as low as $112!)—in some of the world's most appealing vacation spots.
Best Time to Visit: High season is dry season in Belize, roughly February to April. (While the country is hot and humid year-round, northern areas stay much drier than their southern counterparts.) Arrive in late May to find the sweet spot for beach-ready weather, early-shoulder-season discounts, and thinning crowds.
Where to Stay: Avoid San Pedro, where hotel prices are up 6 percent from 2010, and head south to the less-touristy Placencia Peninsula, where crystal-clear lagoons and 16 miles of sandy beaches coexist with the world's first-ever jaguar preserve. The seaside Maya Beach Hotel is owned by an expat couple (she's American, he's Australian) who set up guests with fishing trips, scuba dives, cave tours, and massages. mayabeachhotel.com, from $89.
Price Check: In May, direct flights from Miami start at $444 (American); from Houston, $745 (Continental). For cheaper fares, grab a seat on a one-stop flight; from Los Angeles, fares begin at $523 (Continental).
Why in 2012: America's seventh-largest city is best known for its 19th-century missions (remember the Alamo?), but San Antonio is staking a claim on the future with new construction: a massive expansion of San Antonio's popular River Walk (thesanantonioriverwalk.com, pedestrian access free). As part of the $358.3 million River Improvements Project redevelopment plan, this network of paths along the San Antonio River nearly doubled in length in June, adding eight miles of walk-and-bike routes and a slew of shops and cafes. The latest phase of the project was perfectly timed with the introduction of the city's first bike-rental program, B-Cycle, which launched in early 2011 (bcycle.com, daily rental $10). Best of all, room rates are down 5 percent from last year—the average four-star room goes for $100 per night—and the city's S.A.V.E. (San Antonio Vacation Experience) program promotes additional hotel deals year-round (visitsanantonio.com).
Best Time to Visit: April promises prime weather—the average high is 79 degrees and there's little rain—but springtime also means massive crowds, who descend on San Antonio for events like Fiesta, a Tex-Mex-style Mardi Gras. For a quieter trip, try September. It's a bit rainier and hotter (expect highs in the 90s), but worth it for the extra elbow room.
Where to Stay: The nearly two-year-old Hotel Havana, the brainchild of Texan tastemaker and hotelier Liz Lambert, is set in a revamped 1914 building and decorated with Turkish rugs and vintage Cuban artwork (havanasanantonio.com, from $115).
Price Check: Direct flights are plentiful and affordable in September, when fares start at $314 from Phoenix (US Airways), $320 from New York (United), $268 from Denver (United), and $321 from Chicago (American).
Why in 2012: With new airport terminals sprouting up from Warsaw to Gdansk, a hotel-construction boom that's drawing marquee brands like Hilton and Westin, and a growing economy (the Polish GDP has shot up 4 percent since last year), Poland is ready for its close-up. Its cameo will come in June, when the UEFA Euro 2012 soccer tournament descends on stadiums across the country (and Ukraine—the two nations are cohosts)—but you don't have to be a sports fan to reap the benefits. South Africa, which hosted the World Cup in 2010, saw post-game price drops as high as 20 percent when premium rates vanished, and the same trend is expected in Poland, where five-star hotels are already among the cheapest in the world (in Warsaw, they average $135 per night).
Best Time to Visit: The warmest weather, with averages in the low 70s, arrives from May to October—and so do vacationers, who sweep in around July and August to hit the Baltic beaches. Book a trip around September, when the crowds and soccer tournaments will have disappeared, leaving tranquility and low prices in their wake.
Where to Stay: Soon after opening in 1913, the opulent Polonia Palace was a hangout for celebrities, artists, and politicians (President Eisenhower stayed there in 1945). Nearly 100 years later, after undergoing a renovation, the spot—Warsaw's sole hotel to escape WWII unscathed—is prized for its clean, modern rooms and central location. poloniapalace.com, from $123.