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Paradise - for half the price

Tourist spots use steep discounts to heat up bookings

To boost business, hotel operators in Barbados and other Caribbean destinations are trying to lure cash-strapped travelers out of hibernation with big bargains. To boost business, hotel operators in Barbados and other Caribbean destinations are trying to lure cash-strapped travelers out of hibernation with big bargains. (Patricia Borns for the Boston Globe/File 2008)
By Nicole C. Wong
Globe Staff / January 30, 2009
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Ready to thaw out? Thanks to the recession, there are plenty of hot deals to hot destinations.

Flights between Boston and Miami on average cost 30 percent less this winter compared with last winter. Dozens of Southern California hotels are discounting room rates by 25 to 45 percent. And Caribbean vacation packages that include airfare and lodging are being offered for at least half off.

How low can they go? You and a companion can snag a flight and four-night hotel stay in Aruba for about 75 percent off - $750 per person, including taxes and fees.

Bargains abound as the travel industry tries to lure consumers out of their recession-induced hibernation. Bookings at some hotels have recently slipped as much as 10 percent compared with the same months last year, and hospitality analysts predict a rebound won't happen until sometime next year.

Going to Walt Disney World Resort is even a deal. If you buy a four-night hotel package that includes four daily passes, per person, to the Orlando, Fla., theme parks, you'll get three more hotel nights and three daily passes, per person, free of charge. For a family of four, that can mean a savings of more than $400.

These types of perk-laden packages are the way to nab customers at the moment, said Gregory Saks, general manager of the travel practice for Web analytics firm Compete Inc.

"Consumers are spending ample amounts of time looking and browsing for deals," Saks said. "If a free breakfast is included, if a fourth night free is included, that kind of value will get consumers over the edge."

Airfare sales may help, too. Boston flights to popular warm-weather destinations through April 30 cost significantly less than a year ago, according to an analysis done for the Globe by airfare tracking website Farecast.com. The biggest price drop - 42 percent - is on flights to Los Angeles, which now cost on average $231 round trip. Airfares to Miami have slid 30 percent, to an average of $245 round trip.

Another way to save on airfare is by booking flight-and-hotel packages.

Liberty Travel, the largest US provider of travel to the Caribbean, launched a sale on Sunday with more than 170 new bundled offers that must be booked by Feb. 9 for travel between April 15 and July 31.

The deepest discount - 75 percent off - provides a pair of travelers airfare from Boston and a four-night stay at Divi Village Golf & Beach Resort in Aruba for about $750 per person, including taxes and fees. About 65 percent of Liberty's Caribbean packages offer at least 50 percent off - bringing prices back down to 2005 or 2006 levels, said Mark Benson, Liberty's vice president of Caribbean product.

"Normally at this time of year for the winter, you would be lucky to see a 30 percent discount for the hotel," Benson said.

And customers are biting. During the first three days of the sale, Liberty fielded four times more consumer inquiries than it did at this time last year and inked 2,500 bookings, or 66 percent more, "which is phenomenal," Benson said. "There seems to be an awful lot of pent-up demand out there."

If you can endure the winter a little longer, a Caribbean trip can be even cheaper. The all-inclusive Almond Resorts is slashing prices 50 percent on reservations made by Feb. 9 at all five of its properties in Barbados and St. Lucia. A couple can enjoy a three-night stay - which includes meals, drinks, and activities such as water skiing lessons and reef fishing - for as little as $300 per person, including taxes and gratuities, from May 1 to Dec. 20.

"We wanted to put a sale on that was beyond belief," said Wendy Cole, the resorts' vice president of sales and marketing for North America.

But if you prefer to play in the Pacific, Expedia.com is offering 39 Hawaiian packages that include airfare and four-night hotel stay for 25 to 50 percent off. If the trip is booked by Feb. 26, you and a companion can warm up at the Castle Maile Sky Court in Honolulu for $869.88 per person, including taxes and fees, through March 30.

Then there are cruises, which travel agents often laud as good deals because they include lodging, meals, and entertainment for one price. And this year, cruises aren't tacking on fuel surcharges, which saves about $10 a day. Cruisedeals.com, an online seller of cruise vacations, is offering several cruises that "are less than $100 per day - some are a lot less," said Jared Smith, the company's general manager.

Cruisedeal's biggest dollar-stretcher is the 18-night "South American Dream Deal." The ship sails in April from Valparaiso, Chile, to Los Angeles on the Norwegian Sun and costs $842.03 per person, including port charges, taxes, and fees. That breaks down to about $47 a day - perhaps less than you'd pay for dinner at a nice restaurant back home.

Nicole C. Wong can be reached at nwong@globe.com.

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