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If you really want to save in 2009—and help to revive a sagging domestic economy—travel within the United States. These three U.S. destinations are set to shine in the New Year.
Why in 2009: For years, the capital of down-home cool (and Texas) has been working to become the nation's capital of pop culture—at least among cities of a similar size. This city of 1.6 million residents has succeeded in its mission, especially as a venue for indie rock, bluegrass, and country music. Its largest music festival is South by Southwest, a multi-day, 1,700-band extravaganza that draws serious music fans nationwide (sxsw.com, Mar. 18–22, 2009). Austin's economy, meanwhile, is well diversified between public and private sectors, which means that Austin is poised to weather the economic downturn reasonably well, says University of Texas at Austin economy professor Daniel S. Hamermesh. So it should be full speed ahead on spending for free and affordable cultural events. A bonus: In the past year, discounter JetBlue has added flights to Austin. Rival airlines are feeling the pressure to keep airfares low.
Main events: Thousands of music fans converge on the city each year for two festivals: South by Southwest (mentioned above) and the Austin City Limits Music Festival (aclfestival.com, Oct. 2–4). Art lovers come for the Texas Biennial (texasbiennial.com, Mar. 6–Apr. 11) and the open-air Art City Austin (artallianceaustin.org, Apr. 25-26). Even if you're not in town for a big event, keep in mind that Austin has pretty weather for eight months of the year (summer's the sweltering exception). With its extensive Greenbelt park as well as 10 miles of waterfront paths, it's easy to get outside and enjoy a little nature.
Memorable moment: Chill out on the terrace bar of the Inter-Continental Stephen F. Austin hotel, overlooking downtown. Order a Stephen F. Top Shelf, the house margarita, tip your hat to the mounted longhorn on the wall, and watch the Texas Capitol turn pink as the last rays of the sun hit it. 701 Congress Ave., 888/424-6835, austin.intercontinental.com, margaritas from $10.
Price check: Round-trip tickets between Austin and Chicago recently started at $210, a 9 percent drop from a year earlier, says Farecast. Affordable lodging isn't hard to come by. Hotel rates should average a modest $104 a night, says a forecast by PKF Hospitality Research. We like the stylish Austin Motel, starting at $70. 1220 S. Congress Ave., 512/441-1157, austinmotel.com.
Why in 2009: It's not just the presidential inauguration, the Capitol's freshly minted visitor center, or the recently re-opened National Museum of American History—all reasons enough to drop by D.C. in 2009. It's also the built-in, year-round cost containment: Free admission to national monuments, the Smithsonian's many world-class museums, and the Smithsonian National Zoological Park make the capital a perennial choice for an affordable family vacation. (For other ideas, check out Destination DC's list of "100 Free (And Almost Free) Things to Do in D.C.")
Main events: The popularity of the upcoming presidential inauguration is jacking up prices temporarily around January 20. But there's plenty else to see in D.C. during the rest of the year. On April 12, for example, a re-creation of contralto Marian Anderson's famous 1939 open-air concert at the Lincoln Memorial will commemorate the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth. This year's rendition showcases Denyce Graves, the Chicago Children's Choir, Sweet Honey in the Rock, and the Washington National Opera (lincolnindc.com, free and non-ticketed).
Memorable moment: For lunch, head to the tapas restaurant Jaleo for a shared plate of house-made grilled pork sausage with sautéed white beans (jaleo.com, $8.50). After a walk along the National Mall, end your day at the rooftop bar and terrace of the W Hotel, debuting in August (whotels.com), and watch the sun set over the Thomas Jefferson Memorial (nps.gov/thje, free).
Price check: If you plan wisely, free admissions should yield huge savings for your family. To save even more, fly into Baltimore/Washington International (BWI) airport, roughly an hour's ride by Amtrak rail or by public transportation to D.C.'s Union Station. Southwest's strong presence at BWI makes fares more competitive than those at the more central Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
Why in 2009: The Aloha State received positive, high-profile press coverage when president-elect Barack Obama recently visited, but it's still hurting from the downtown of the national economy. This always-popular destination saw about a 10 percent drop in visitors in 2008, a statistic that represents a tourism drought for Hawaii. Tour operators are responding by aggressively discounting un-booked rooms and car rentals and bundling them into packages. As we enter 2009, there are remarkable package deals, air inclusive, from both the west and east coasts.
To save a bundle, consider a timeshare rental instead of a standard hotel stay. Rental rates are dropping to as low as $100 a night for beautiful properties, says Timeshare Users Group (tug2.net), a site tracking timeshare rental inventory in Hawaii and elsewhere. Many of the timeshare properties are owned by people who are now anxious about making their mortgage payments, and you can rent their spacious units at a significant discount, without listening to any sales spiels.
Main events: It's Hawaii—beaches, volcanoes, and luaus will continue to be the big draws. But this year marks Hawaii's 50th anniversary of statehood, and a party is planned at the Capitol for March 18 (free, hawaii.gov/statehood). Obama watchers can take a do-it-yourself tour of the president-elects's childhood haunts by using a map from Obamasneighborhood.com; or hop on a two-and-a-half-hour bus tour of his grade school, the Baskin-Robbins where he once worked, and several picnic spots that he loved (Guides of Oahu, obamatourhawaii.com, $40 per person).
Memorable moment: Have a mai tai made the right way at the Royal Hawaiian, a landmark pink hotel in Waikiki Beach. It's a beautiful spot for watching the surfers wipe out and the sun go down—and taking in live Hawaiian music and hula dancing. 2259 Kalakaua Ave., Honolulu, 808/923-7311, mai tai from $14.
Price check: Pleasant Holidays has numerous Hawaii promotions, including three-night air/hotel packages starting at $427 per person from Los Angeles and $472 per person from San Francisco (pleasantholidays.net). Apple Vacations also has deals, such as a recent offer for six-night stays at the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani, including a $150 per-room voucher for meals at Sheraton restaurants. The package rates begin at $999 (applevacations.com, from Baltimore, Newark, and other airports).
The financial crisis has weakened currencies around the globe against the U.S. dollar. Although predicting currency trends is a tricky business, Hungary, Iceland, and Mexico should remain bargains for U.S. visitors in the coming year.
Why in 2009: Budapest has become the sort of expat haven that Prague was in the '90s, back before the Czech capital's cafés started charging $4 for an espresso and tour groups suddenly outnumbered locals. Recently, the U.S dollar has surged in hard-hit Hungary, gaining 30 percent against the declining local currency, the forint. In addition to savoring the city's glorious art nouveau architecture, anchored by the imposing Museum of Applied Arts in the center of town, you can shop in the well-preserved Great Market Hall, explore the miles of caves under Castle District (former hideouts for soldiers during wartime), and catch a show at the Hungarian State Opera House, where standing-room tickets go for only $2.
Main events: Budapest's monthly design market WAMP is well on the way to renown as an international fashion destination. The market, which spotlights contemporary handcrafts, jewelry, prints, and other items from Hungarian craftsmen, is held in the summer and fall in Erzsébet Square and in winter at Gödör Klub (wamp.hu/en, free). Hungary's two largest cultural and foodie events are the Budapest Spring Festival, a collection of 200 free and ticketed concert music performances (festivalcity.hu), and fall's 18th Budapest International Wine Festival, which encompasses tastings and workshops at Buda Castle (winefestival.hu, free).
Memorable moment: Take a dip in the therapeutic hot springs of Budapest, which have drawn travelers for nearly 2,000 years. The Gellért Baths and Spa Budapest (H-1118 Budapest, Kelenhegyi út 4, 011-36/1-466-6166, gellertbath.com), an opulent 19th-century spa hotel with mosaic tiles and palm fronds, costs charges roughly $18 for a day in its pool. Browse spasbudapest.com for more options.
Price check: As business travel tanks, vacationers may score the best values by upgrading to hotels that traditionally serve corporate travelers. Budget Travel's pick for the city's best value hotel, NH Budapest (nh-hotels.com), recently offered rooms for $93 a night, about 41 percent off its average rate, according to TripAdvisor. City tours on foot or by bus are between $10 and $20 because guides cost about a third less in Budapest than in other Western European capitals.
Why in 2009: The dramatic collapse of Iceland's currency, the kronur, has hung a 48-percent-off sign on virtually everything for American tourists. A hot dog (an Icelandic specialty) in downtown Reykjavik, for example, runs about 210 kronur—that's $3.50 in U.S. dollars at last year's exchange rates, but about $2 today. Meanwhile, in a bid to lure tourists, Icelandair has recently rolled out steep airfare discounts. Published fares to Iceland for early 2009 are down 22 percent from a year earlier, says Expedia.
Main events: Astoundingly, beer was illegal in Iceland until 1989. On March 1, Beer Day, Reykjavikers toast its legalization with parties at pubs, clubs, and restaurants (goiceland.org). On June 21, the summer solstice, locals cheer the midnight sun on the longest day of the year. Cuteness alert: Watch the island's adorable baby puffins as millions of them leave their nests in early August for that first oh-so-awkward attempt at flight. See the event as part of many organized tours (visiticeland.com).
Memorable moment: Soak in one of the city's seven hot pots—outdoor thermal pools. Save by purchasing a Reykjavik Welcome Card, which includes admission to the hot pots plus five museums, a family park and a zoo, as well as transport on city buses and a ferry trip to Videy Island (a noted spot for bird watching). A 24-hour card is about $11 at today's exchange rates (visiticeland.com).
Price check: Rates at the Park Inn Island Hotel, for instance, start from $87, and it has amenities that are roughly comparable with the ones offered at a Radisson in the U.S. Look to Icelandair.com for fare sales and air/hotel packages to Reykjavik. But shop aggressively for a rental car, which can be expensive in Iceland, by comparison shopping at metasearch websites such as Kayak.
Why in 2009: Our southern neighbor has always been relatively affordable, but this year is special. The U.S. dollar's exchange rate against the Mexican peso is at its most favorable point in 15 years. Prices should be down across Mexico, including in high-profile destinations like Mexico City, Oaxaca, and Cancun. Resort destinations that have become newly popular, such as Riviera Nayarit and Puerto Peñasco (Rocky Point) should be positively cheap this year.
Main events: Catch some sun in Riviera Nayarit, a trendy tourist region recently launched by Mexican officials. About 20 miles north of the Puerto Vallarta International airport, the new hotspot stretches along 100 miles of Pacific coast (rivieranayarit.com). March brings the 25th anniversary of the Festival de México, an 18-day celebration of arts and culture held in the country's vibrant capital (festival.org.mx, free and ticketed). Starting May 10, residents of Oaxaca come together for a week of dance and processions (oaxacainfo.com).
Memorable moment: The Easter season is a fine time to experience the country's culture up-close because of the often-exuberant ways that Mexicans celebrate the holiday. In San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, a Good Friday procession dramatizes key moments of Jesus's crucifixion, for example. And Easter Sunday commemorations end with participants exploding effigies of despised historical figures, including Judas Iscariot (internetsanmiguel.com, free).
Price check: Budget Travel's Web tool can help you pinpoint the Mexican resort towns that are linked to your nearest airport by nonstop flights (budgettravel.com/nonstopmexico). For example, an all-inclusive package at the Tesoro Resorts in Ixtapa—on Mexico's Pacific Coast—includes food, alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks, and lots of entertainment, starting at just $170 per room, per night, and children under 12 stay for free (tesororesorts.com, 866-998-3767).
IN THE NEWS
Major events and anniversaries should keep Berlin and Vancouver in the spotlight for much of the year. Plan ahead to be a part of the action, and take advantage of the favorable economic climate, too.
Why in 2009: It's the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Plus, the city's been on a long construction spree: Berlin now has one of the world's most dynamic skylines, thanks to innovative buildings such as the swoopy O2 World stadium and the city's vast, sleekly modern main train station. Despite all the moving and shaking, Berlin remains a bargain. Even in the financially flush year of 2007, four- and five-star rooms averaged €130 a night; comparable rooms in Paris and London priced out at more than twice as much. Splurge by opting for a fancier hotel than usual. Swissôtel Berlin, our pick for best value hotel in Europe, has rooms from $188 (011-49/30-220-100, swissotel.com/berlin).
Main events: Throughout the year, Berlin will commemorate the fall of the Wall with concerts, memorials, and an open-air-exhibition in Alexanderplatz. On November 9, at the Brandenburg Gate, a symbolic wall of hundreds of five-foot-tall stones decorated by children will fall like dominos, launching a fireworks display (mauerfall09.com). Also in autumn, the rebuilt Neues Museum will open on Berlin's central Museum Island, displaying masterworks that include the world-famous bust of ancient Egypt's Queen Nefertiti.
Memorable moment: Take the official, self-guided Berlin Wall tour using the GPS-integrated WallGuide (mauerguide.com, $13). Among the sights is Potsdamer Platz, the city's central plaza, surrounded by showstopping buildings that include Renzo Piano's gorgeous, glass-and-terra-cotta shopping arcade (visitberlin.de, free).
Price check: Rooms in many of Berlin's three-star hotels will go for about $90 this year. Pension ABC, for example, is a squeaky-clean, family-run inn near Potsdamer Platz with doubles from $89 (011-49/30-2694-9903).
Why in 2009: Americans heading to Canada finally have the U.S. dollar back on their side. Exchange rates have rebounded to 2005 levels. And fares into Vancouver for the first three months of 2009 are down 24 percent from a year earlier, says Farecast. Meanwhile, the city has been busy glamming itself up to prepare for February 2010, when it hosts the Winter Olympics. It's spent lots of money to retool infrastructure and unveil cool new venues. The Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Centre, for instance, is now topped with a six-acre rooftop garden of 400,000 native plants and wild grasses that are partly irrigated by a sophisticated rainwater collection system.
Main events: Olympic host cities love to premiere cutting-edge architecture in advance of the Games, and Vancouver is no exception. Visit in 2009 to get a sneak peek (vancouver2010.com). A case in point is the Richmond Oval, a new 8,000-seat arena with a speed-skating track and a glass façade that yields clear, expansive views of the rugged North Shore Mountains (richmondoval.ca). Vancouver will also be trading on all the Olympian attention to tout its local arts and entertainment scene. The Cultural Olympiad's 400-plus events include ice sculptures, circus acts, and a concert by the band Arcade Fire (vancouver2010.com/culturalolympiad, Feb. 1–Mar. 21). Among the city's other events, Grammy-Award-winning saxophonist Sonny Rollins returns to the TD Canada Trust Vancouver International Jazz Festival on June 29 (admission from $67, coastaljazz.ca).
Memorable moment: Cap off a visit to 1,000-acre Stanley Park with afternoon tea or dinner at The Fish House, a cozy clapboard 1930s building, complete with a fireplace, two patios, and live jazz on Thursday nights. It overlooks the park's gardens and forests of cedar, hemlock, and firs. Try the prawns, sautéed with garlic, roasted red peppers, tomatoes, basil, and feta cheese, then flambéed tableside with ouzo. (8901 Stanley Park Drive, 604/681-7275, fishhousestanleypark.com, flaming prawns $15).
Price check: The Listel Hotel, a highly rated, artfully decorated boutique in the city's West End, recently put its rooms on sale via Orbitz starting at $65 a night—75 percent off the hotel's average price.
BEAT THE CROWDS
These countries are hardly undiscovered, but it's not too late to enjoy them either. Plan a trip in 2009, so you can say you knew these places before they were overrun.
Why in 2009: It's no longer a backpacker's secret. In 2008, the country drew about 2 million visitors, more than 10 times the number it drew a decade ago. Cambodia's still off the radar for most Americans, but it's poised to take the same path as its better-known neighbor Vietnam, which saw a similar number of visitors nine years ago and now draws roughly 4 million visitors annually. Look for independently owned guesthouses because the major resort chains haven't built much here yet; and by all means, go before the crowds get too thick.
Main events: The sprawling Angkor complex and its magnificent Hindu and Buddhist temples between the 9th and 15th centuries will always be the star attractions here. Expect to spend at least two days exploring. In nearby Siem Reap, shop at the Artisans d'Angkor collective, where those making traditional handicrafts gain a guaranteed percentage of the profit (011-855/63-963-330, artisansdangkor.com).
Memorable moment: Rent bicycles in and around Siem Reap for less than $2 a day. Although the somewhat creaky models and frequently unpaved roads can make for a bumpy ride, it's a low-key way to explore the temples at your own pace—and to see the Cambodian people and landscape more intimately.
Price check: For recommendations for independently owned guesthouses, turn to Asiarooms.com, which recently listed rooms at Monoreach Angkor Hotel in Siem Reap at a starting rate of $33 per night. If you'd prefer an expert's guiding hand, consider Intrepid Travel's Heart of Cambodia tour. A guide will escort you around Phnom Penh, arrange a sunset viewing over Angkor Wat, and walk you through the depths of the Phnom Chhnork caves. The 15-day tour costs $1,400 per person (whether traveling single or as part of a couple), covering lodgings but not airfare—less than $100 a day (intrepidtravel.com).
Why in 2009: Panama has led tourism growth in Central and South American countries for two years running, posting back-to-back 20 and 30 percent gains in 2007 and 2008, respectively. Last year, the country surpassed the one-million-visitors mark, welcoming 1.2 million leisure travelers. That's about how popular Costa Rica was in 1999—before it emerged as a solidly mainstream destination. Compared with Costa Rica, Panama has more animal species and a larger amount of preserved terrain filled with colorful macaws, monkeys, and endangered shore birds.
Main events: The Panama Jazz Festival, held January 1–17, will feature saxophonist Wayne Shorter's quartet (panamajazzfestival.com, from $10). Panama's Carnival celebrations, running February 2–24, are some of the largest pre-Lenten parties in the world. The bulk of the parades and revelry will take place in Panama City and Las Tablas (visitpanama.com).
Memorable moment: Climb Cerro Jefe (Boss Mountain) in Chagres National Park, whose summit stands nearly 3,000 feet above sea level. When the weather cooperates, you can see the Panama Canal and both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans (visitpanama.com). Back in the capital, thread your way through the cobbled streets lined with Spanish mansions in the colonial-era district of Casco Viejo, used as a stand-in for Haiti in many scenes in Quantum of Solace.
Price check: American Airlines Vacations has a three-night winter stay at the Veneto Hotel & Casino from $87 per person per night (aavacations.com). Keep a lid on costs by booking at locally owned inns. Among TripAdvisor's top rated B&Bs in Panama is La Estancia (011-507/314-1581, bedandbreakfastpanama.com, from $75 for singles and doubles). It's on a hill next to a nature reserve.