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After the watching blizzards plague the northeast and midwest this winter, many people are hoping to escape (read: flee) the cold for a warm weather getaway. TPG International Correspondent Lori Zaino helps select some warm destinations that won’t break the bank.
After a long childhood in Chicago followed by a few years in New York City, I think it’s safe to say I hate winter. By the time March came around I would be craving a sunny getaway to Aruba or Hawaii, but couldn’t always afford them. Instead, I looked for budget-friendly winter escape—like the ones I’m sharing here—and learned how to use points and miles to book flights to make my trip’s final tally even cheaper.
Although it can be a bit of a trek to get here, once you arrive in Quito, you’re in the clear for a brilliant budget vacation—with March temperatures at a solid 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Whereas trips to the Galapagos Islands can be pricey, staying on the mainland in Quito and exploring the surrounding area can be extremely cheap, with budget hotels running as low as $15-$20 a night, and hostels as low as $5-10 per night. If you plan on traveling with a few people, Airbnb also offers some inexpensive and comfortable apartments.
For just a few dollars, you can take city buses all over town, and even on day or weekend trips outside of Quito. Make sure to check out the equator monument at the Mitad del Mundo (though thanks to the modern-day invention of GPS, it turns out that the actual equatorial line is about 150 meters from the monument itself) and feel the excitement of standing at zero latitude. Nature lovers can enjoy a day trip to Mindo for bird-watching in the famous “Cloud Forest,” hiking through waterfalls, and a cable car ride with lush green views. If you’re hoping for an adventurous weekend trip, head about 3 1/2 hours south of Quito to Baños, named for its famous hot thermal springs, which are thought to have healing properties. Known as the Gateway to the Amazon, Baños provides easy access to cheap Amazon jungle tours, waterfalls and volcanoes, as well as activities like zip-lining, hiking, biking, bungee jumping and rafting—you’ll never be bored.
TIP: Exchanging USD bills over $20 can be difficult in the city. Stick to low bills (after all, you’re on a budget, so it works!) and things will be much easier.
Panama has a little bit of everything: culture, history, mountains, rainforests and over 1,000 islands, most with amazing, untouched beaches. Though it’s one of the fastest-growing Latin American countries, you’ll still get a lot of bang for your buck here. The local currency, the Panamanian balboa, is tied to and interchangeable with the US dollar, so voilà—no commission! Additionally, the Panamanian Tourism Authority offers any tourist free insurance for 30 days once they step foot outside Tocumen International Airport (PTY). Budget hotels and hostels with a private room generally cost about $40 per night, and a meal at a nice, sit-down restaurant can be as low as $10 per person. Heavy boozers will love Panama, as taxes on alcohol are quite low, making it an extremely cheap drinking destination.
While there’s plenty to do in and around Panama City, getting over to the San Blas islands (an archpelago of 378 islands) for some snorkeling or diving is recommended. The native people, the Kunas, heavily protect their sparkling beaches from mass tourism, keeping them as pristine as possible. Hike the famous Baru Volcano—the tallest mountain in Panama—or ride the waves at Santa Catalina, a famous surf spot on the Chiríqui Gulf.
TIP: Save the money and avoid waste by not buying water bottles, and drink the local tap water instead. In most areas of Panama the water is quite safe to drink; be sure to confirm with your particular hotel or hostel staff to make sure, but it’s a great way to save money .
Portugal is one of the cheapest countries in Western Europe, easy to access from the US—especially if you’re flying from an East coast hub like JFK or Newark—and so tiny, you can drive from Lisbon to the southern Algarve coast in just about 2 1/2 hours.
The Algarve is ideal for a spring trip because although it could be a little rainy, it will be generally warm and pleasant, and you can explore the many small towns and beaches without the crowds you’d find in the summer. The glorious cove beaches of Lagos are a great place to start, and from there you can drive to little villages like the cliffside Sagres—set on one of the most southwestern points of Europe—and Faro, which isn’t particularly beautiful, but does have an airport. As spring is low season in this region, you can easily find budget hotels, hostels and apartment rentals for under $50 per night, and daily lunch menus consisting of an appetizer, fresh seafood, dessert and drink will range between $10-$15 a person.
TIP: Check out this post on the best way to fly to Portugal using points while avoiding fuel surcharges.
Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Ford Lauderdale is on its way to becoming as hip as its southern neighbor, Miami. Fort Lauderdale beaches are some of the best in the United States, and in March, temps average in the mid-to-high 70s. Budget activities include chilling out on the beach with a good book and strolling the 2 1/2-mile Hollywood Beach Boardwalk, but if you’re looking for more action, head to John U. Lloyd Beach State Park, where you can surf, canoe and fish.
If beaching isn’t your thing, there are plenty of family-friendly activities—such as the Young at Art Children’s Museum and the Museum of Discovery and Science—and the Everglades National Park is just a short drive away. The airplane-obsessed (this is The Points Guy, after all) can enjoy free plane watching at the Ron Gardner Aircraft Viewing Area, which is open from 7 am-11 pm. You can even listen to conversations between the pilots and the control tower via the solar powered speaker system.
While prices for food, drink and hotels in Fort Lauderdale aren’t especially low, they’re certainly cheaper than those you’ll find in Miami. For instance, March weekend rates at the W Fort Lauderdale (about $400/night) are about half the price of those at Miami’s W South Beach (just over $800 per night). It’s also quite a bit cheaper to fly into Fort Lauderdale (FLL), which is served by discount carriers like Spirit and JetBlue.
TIP: If you’re eager to enjoy the trendier scene in Miami, it’s just 45 minutes away by car. (Note that an Uber ride to/from South Beach will cost roughly $50 each way.)
San Antonio, Texas
Average March temps in San Antonio hover in the low 70s, inviting visitors to rent a bike, hop on a boat tour, or stroll the tree-lined stone paths of the River Walk (aka “The American Venice”), stopping at riverside bars, shops, restaurants and cultural/historic attractions such as the San Antonio Museum of Art and the Pearl Brewery. Roughly 10 minutes’ walk away, the legendary Texas landmark of the Alamo offers free entrance.
If you’re a wine lover, head to the Texas Wine Country, which is decidedly cheaper than Napa. For April, you can book a “Wine & Wildflowers” tasting tour of four wineries, plus discounts and other gifts, for approximately $60 per couple ($35 individual). You can make this a romantic getaway, or even go with a big group of friends.
Families can also enjoy the San Antonio Zoo, a wide variety of museums, and even tour the spectacular National Bridge Caverns (make sure to get tickets online for cheaper prices). You can also check out Visit San Antonio’s collection of parks and playgrounds, some of which have free entrance.
TIP: This city often hosts large conventions, meaning heavy business travel during weekdays; for the cheapest hotel rates and most availability, aim for a weekend getaway.
Las Vegas, Nevada
Although there are plenty of ways to toss cash around in Sin City, it’s also possible to do Vegas on the cheap. You can often find a low-cost fare on Spirit Airlines or some award availability on pricier carriers. The grand selection of hotels makes for great competition, and you can often find hotel prices for as low as $40 per night, not to mention plenty of hotels where you can use points. Staying off the Strip is also a great way to save money.
If you’re itching to gamble, hit the penny slots downtown Vegas hotels like the Golden Nugget or the 4 Queens. (Better to lose a bunch of pennies than a bunch of $100s, right?) If you’re low on funds and reluctant to risk them, head to some of the great hiking spots around Vegas, take a short side trip to the Hoover Dam (where visitor center tickets are just $10 for adults). Catch the Bellagio’s fountain show of elaborate water displays choreographed to a variety of tunes (a free show that runs every 15-30 minutes), or simply sit by your hotel pool (or sneak into an even better one)—this post can help you to choose some of the best hotel pools in Vegas.
If you’re really strapped for cash, simply walking the Strip can be a great activity. Between the bright lights, hotels, and people watching, you could be entertained for hours!
TIP: If you are dying to catch a show but can’t really afford it, pop into Tix4Tonight, which has locations on and around the strip where you can purchase half price tickets the day of the show. If you’re planning on taking a taxi, note that most drivers will charge you $3 to use your credit card, so bring cash to avoid this extra charge.
Makes sure while traveling to consider other accommodation options other than hotels, like Airbnb, which can often be cheaper, or if you’re feeling extra-adventurous (and really broke), a service like Couchsurfing. In order to maximize your points earnings, use your Chase Sapphire Preferred card (especially on all travel and dining expenses for double points per dollar spent) which has no foreign transaction fees.
Are you heading anywhere special this spring for a sunny escape? Do you have any tips for saving money while traveling or great budget destinations? Please share in the comments section below. The Points Guy Assessment: The Chase Sapphire Preferred is a great pick for the beginner and the frequent traveler. The CSP has superb travel benefits, double points on certain purchases, and a 50,000 point sign up bonus. The $95 annual fee is waived the first year so this puts it as one of the less expensive cards, while still allowing you to earn one of the most valuable point currencies.
The Points Guy Assessment:
The Chase Sapphire Preferred is a great pick for the beginner and the frequent traveler. The CSP has superb travel benefits, double points on certain purchases, and a 50,000 point sign up bonus. The $95 annual fee is waived the first year so this puts it as one of the less expensive cards, while still allowing you to earn one of the most valuable point currencies.