In the mind's eye, the beach is such a tease. Sun, sand, surf, swimsuit and a reason to wear sunglasses. A solar-powered place where you need a flashy towel instead of an electric blanket, and the coldest thing in sight is the drink sweating in the glass at your elbow.
Oh, how we want it! A whole week would be paradise right now, in high season, while winter is still frosting our longjohns. And we want it cheap. Well, not that cheap. But, you know, affordable.
So, what price paradise?
To find out, we sent writers to five dreamy beaches: three located in the most popular and convenient spots for Chicago snowbirds--Florida, the Caribbean and Mexico--and two in far-flung fantasy spots--the South Pacific and Bali. In coming weeks, we'll report in-depth on the ins and outs of traveling affordably to each of these regions.
Editor's note: A photo with the "Beach prices" chart (right) was misidentified. The photo labeled Moorea is actually of Bora Bora, another island in French Polynesia. In addition, there was a typographical error in the transit time shown to Moorea; the trip takes 17 1/2 hours.
There are some sweet-sounding deals out there, depending on where you go and how you go.
Of our five areas, Florida is the low air-fare leader, with round-trip tickets typically hovering around the $200 mark to the major beach towns there. Add seven nights at a hotel--it's possible to find a no-frills room in Miami Beach within walking distance of the beach for about $100 a night--and you've got a week of sun and sand for $550 per person if you take a traveling companion. But Florida being Florida, with lots of beaches to choose from, you could get a room in Panama City for $56, or push the price tag all the way in the other direction to a place like Little Palm Island in the Keys where nightly rates run 20 times that much.
In the Caribbean, with several dozen islands to choose from, lodging prices vary dramatically, from $70 a night at the Mango Inn in Puerto Rico to $680 or more, winter and spring, at the Guanahani Hotel on St. Barts. Air fare starts at about $340 to Puerto Rico, but getting to other islands can run as high as $1,000, depending on the season.
With do-it-yourself prices all over the map, you're generally better off taking an air/hotel package. Companies like AmericanAirlines Vacations (800-321-2121; www.aavacations.com), GoGoVacations (www.gogovacations.com), Apple (www.applevacations.com) and Funjet (888-558-6654; www.funjet.com) have seven-night air/hotel deals to Cozumel and Aruba for as little as $800. Or you can look to islands like Jamaica and St. Lucia that are known for their all-inclusive resorts, where a week might cost $1,200.
For popular Mexico hot spots such as Cancun and Puerto Vallarta, air on your own starts around $410, and a week's worth of nights in a three-star room in a desirable location adds at least another $500, meaning that two people traveling together would each pay a minimum of $660. Outfits like Funjet Vacations and Apple Vacations offer seven-night air/hotel packages from Chicago ranging from $600 to $750 for three- and four-star properties, some of them all-inclusive.
Air/hotel packages are also your best bets for the South Pacific and Bali, where air tickets alone usually top $1,000. Several companies--Tahiti Legends (800-200-1213; www.tahitilegends.com) and Tahiti Vacations (800-553-3477; www.tahitivacation.com), for instance--run seven-night specials (though you might spend one of the nights en route) to Tahiti or Moorea that include a budget hotel and round-trip air from Los Angeles for just under $1,000. Add another $300 or so for Chicago-L.A. air, and there you are. For Bali, it's not too tough to get air and seven nights in a four- or five-star hotel, with breakfast and transfers thrown in, for $1,200 to $1,500 from companies like Asian Affair Holidays (800-742-3133; www.asianaffairholidays.com), go-today.com (425-487-9632; www.go-today.com) and Cathay Pacific (800-233-2742; www.cathaypacific.com/chl).
Certainly, air and hotel prices are the big-ticket concerns, but that's just the beginning. Vacations are made of other expenses. So we also checked prices on everything from T-shirts to postcards, car rentals and phone calls. Those prices appear in the chart on the facing page.
It all adds up. And as the dollar signs roll by, there are other things to consider:
Is the place easy to get to? Florida takes three hours; Bali takes 29 or so.
Are there interesting things to do, away from the beach, once you get there? Moorea is breathtakingly beautiful, but unless you're there for some serious honeymooning, you'll find more to do in Miami Beach.
Is it worth it? That depends on what your dreams are made of.
In our upcoming stories, we'll answer these questions in detail and--sorry to shatter the dream with a dose of the real world--evaluate the drawbacks.
Here's a sneak peek:
Florida (Miami Beach)
We sent Robert Cross to pricey South Beach, where even some of the most expensive hotels don't sit on beachfront property. He returned with the good news that, yes, it's possible to find relatively inexpensive rooms in Art Deco hotels on Ocean Drive. And that's where the action in Miami Beach is.
The bad news is that you may have to put a deposit on the room before you've seen it. South Beach hotel decor and amenities can be eclectic, to say the least. And eclectic isn't always a good thing. Since you've got to walk to the beach anyway--because a street, park and wide swath of trampled-down sand separate Ocean Drive from the ocean itself--you might prefer to walk an extra block, from Collins Avenue, where there's a wider selection of affordable hotels.
The Caribbean (St. Martin)
Carolyn McGuire headed to the French/Dutch Caribbean island of St. Martin/St. Maarten on an air/hotel package that included breakfast, the most economical way to go. The good news here is that this island falls in the Caribbean's mid-price range, and it is possible to choose a package hotel with in-room kitchenette on either "side" of the island, but the more charming and slower-paced French side is the one she chose. To stock the pantry, twice a week there's an outdoor market for fruit, vegetables and fish. And several supermarkets sell prepared foods. But back in the room, kitchen appliances may not be in the best working order and--more bad news--money saved on meals can slip away in exchange rates if the dollar keeps falling against the euro, which is the local currency.
Alan Solomon skipped better-known Cancun and Puerto Vallarta in favor of Zihuatanejo (always paired with Ixtapa in travel ads) and says that air/hotel packages are hard to beat, especially when they may be your only high-season shot at a non-stop flight, and at prices that would be tough to match on your own.
Air/hotel packagers offer hotels in different price categories, and even the lower-priced ones have been screened to eliminate gecko-filled flophouses. If you're willing to give up HBO, modems and mini-bars, you could find yourself in clean, well-located and comfortable lodgings, even on the water, for the price of an Iowa mom-and-pop motel.
But--bad news--the old incredibly cheap meal deals have been replaced by Chicago prices at mid-level restaurants and New York prices at top-level places.
The South Pacific (Moorea)
I scouted Moorea, sister isle to Tahiti in French Polynesia, and discovered that even in a legendarily expensive destination, you can save a lot of cash by taking an air/hotel package that offers a budget hotel, especially a hotel where rooms come with kitchenettes. The air/hotel packages often can be had for less than what you'd pay for air fare alone if you were booking on your own.
That's the good news.
The bad news is that unless you're willing to cook morning, noon and night, you could easily run up a meal tab equal to the price of the air/hotel package. And if you find your budget hotel is not exactly paradise, you and your bank account could be facing a $300-a-night price gap to check in at one of the five-star resorts.
Phil Marty headed to the Indonesian island of Bali, where prices may be the cheapest of the lot once you get there, but getting there means more than a day in transit. He says Bali is a natural for air/hotel packages, again because air fare alone generally is out of sight when booked on your own. Bali, reasonably priced to begin with, is an even better bargain now because tourism is still lagging as a result of the terrorist bombing more than a year ago. And for an extra couple hundred bucks, you usually can add stopovers in other exotic spots like Singapore or Hong Kong.
Going with a Bali package spares you the heavy lifting, leaving you more time to pore over your guidebook. But--bad news--a package will limit your choice of hotels and locations. It may put you up in a five-star property you'd never regret, except for its location in an isolated spot less convenient for sightseeing.
So, let's go. Bring your swimsuit and sandals and your wallet too. You'll need them all as we hit the beach.
E-mail Toni Stroud: email@example.com
Next week: Our first report--from Miami Beach.