Bargains for spring break

If you'd like to get away for spring break and haven't yet booked your trip, don't panic. Thanks to the travel downturn, you may pay no more than students who booked months ago. You may even pay less.

Unlike past years, when three- or four-night packages could increase by $100 to $300 in the final weeks before spring break, prices have remained mostly steady since fall, said Patrick Evans, spokesman for STA Travel, a major student travel agency.

At the STA branch at San Diego State University, manager Ryanne Mancero said procrastinators were in luck.

"In years past, it's all been booked up by the end of January or the beginning of February," she said. "The flights would be gone; the deals gone. This year, there are some last-minute discounts. There is some space."

Overall, spring break trips are cheaper than in 2008, according to Live Search Farecast, a website that tracks airfares and other travel prices.

Hotel rates in popular spring break destinations have dropped 19%, it found, and in mid-February, airfares to these spots (think "fun and sun") were averaging 13% less than a year ago. From LAX, flights to Mexico cost 20% less, and Hawaii was down 11%.

To get the best deals, avoid the usual spots, book a package and fly wisely. Here's where to start:

Get off the grid. "What people come in and ask for is not always what they wind up walking out with," said STA's Mancero. And with good reason.

Sporting sun, sand and a high-voltage party scene, "Cancún, Mexico, everyone knows, is the quintessential spring break destination," she said. But not the cheapest. With airfare from the West Coast, hotel and some meals and drinks, a week's stay can total $1,000.

Some Cancún-lovers, Mancero said, are switching to Cabo San Lucas, another Mexican beach resort but closer to L.A., to save $200 or more per trip. Airfares from LAX to Los Cabos, an airport that serves Cabo, have dropped more than a third in the last year, averaging $260 for a round trip, according to Farecast.

Other STA clients on the West Coast are booking Hawaii, Miami, Las Vegas or other U.S. destinations.

Las Vegas, Mancero said, is "definitely a great option for people on a budget who want a really splashy spring break." Sin City may not have the ocean, but it has killer pool parties, warm temperatures and, this year, hot hotel deals.

Major Miami hotels are charging nearly 30% less than last year, on average, Farecast found.

Ever think about Europe for spring break? Many students do. With low-season prices, six nights in London or Paris, with airfare from the West Coast, can total about $1,000 if you sleep in hostels, Mancero said.

To get a grip on costs, first decide on a budget, then choose the destination.

Facing a $1,500 limit, Hillary Proctor, a senior at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., is taking an eight-day tour of Costa Rica later this month for about $1,200, including air.

"It sounds like Costa Rica is a pretty cheap country for food and other day-to-day-expenses," she said. And she'll get lots of variety, with hiking, zip lines and beach time.

Think all-inclusive. Don't just budget for hotel and airfare. Figure in meals, drinks, local transportation, excursions and souvenir buying.

Andrew Thalhimer, a senior at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, is paying about $1,500, including airfare, to spend a week with more than a dozen fraternity brothers at a Dominican Republic resort that includes meals and drinks with the room.

"We liked the idea of it being all-inclusive," he said.

Last year the economics major booked a weeklong Caribbean cruise for a little less. But the extras took a toll.

"That was quite a little bar tab I had at the end of that trip," he said.

Fly on weekdays. By traveling round trip on Tuesdays or Wednesdays, you'll pay 22% less, on average, for airfare than on weekends in the peak break weeks of March 8 to 22, Farecast recently found. Depending on where you go, you'll save up to $80 per ticket, it estimated.

For more savings, try an alternate airport. Flying into Fort Lauderdale, Fla., instead of Miami, then taking a shuttle or driving to Miami, can cut your round-trip airfare by $100 or more, Mancero said.