CALGARY - The short, dark and cold days can drag down many Canadians' moods as the holiday season passes into the frigid days of January.
At the same time, holiday spending binges are weighing on credit card balances — making that much needed getaway a difficult proposition for some.
But with a little foresight, flexibility and good timing, those white sandy beaches might not be so out of reach after all.
Mexico is Flight Centre's top destination for Canadians, with the Dominican Republic and Jamaica also growing in popularity, said spokeswoman Allison Wallace.
"That is where the demand is, so that is where your best options will be as opposed to off the beaten track," she says, adding Mexico and the Dominican are "your best bet for pricing."
"Hawaii does not have all-inclusives at all and the harder to get islands in the Caribbean will have more expensive flight options."
Tropical vacations are generally more expensive during the high season, from just before Christmas to around the end of April, says Sean Shannon with Expedia.ca.
"It's basic supply and demand — back to economics 101 theory," he said.
"You still can get some pretty good value even in high season if you spend the time and look at some of the deals."
When it comes to waiting for a last-minute deal to present itself or booking a vacation package months in advance, Shannon said there's no golden rule.
"The game of last minute bookings, especially during high season, is a little bit like playing roulette. You can play the game and it can win for you, or it can lose for you," he said.
"A lot of times I say to people it comes down to your risk profile."
Wallace said last-minute deals are "extremely rare" during peak season and it's a good idea to take advantage of early booking bonuses in the late summer and fall.
"If you know you’ll be travelling during peak season, book ahead. I recommend at least three to six months out and if you see prices starting to rise it means the flight is filling up," she says.
Bundling a flight, transfers, meals, booze and accommodations in an all-inclusive deal is a great way to save money, but travellers should make sure they understand what they're actually buying.
Activities at the resort such as scuba diving may not be included, says Wallace, adding drinks, gratuities and airport transfers might also "get out of control" if one isn't careful.
Shannon says all-inclusive travellers might just need to keep their expectations in check. For instance, the house wine or beer might have to suffice instead of a long list of premium booze.
"Like everything, there's usually some trade off there."
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Playa la Ropa, Zihuatenejo
The area of Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo on the Pacific Coast is full of beaches, but head to Playa Ropa (Clothes Beach) for a casual atmosphere with restaurants strewn up and down the beach and an abundant number of elegant accommodations. Watersports are the name of the game here, but for those tiring tire of the beach (does that even happen?), there's a nearby golf course. <strong>Where to Stay</strong>: The newly-refurbished <a href="http://www.tideszihuatanejo.com/" target="_hplink">Tides Zihuatanejo</a>, a 35-room, 35-suite hotel overlooking the bay on Playa La Ropa. The luxury hotel has three pools and a spa. In low season, rooms start at $380 per night. If sweeping high-rise views are a requirement, <a href="http://www.hotelcincosentidos.com/Hotel_Cinco_Sentidos/Welcome.html" target="_hplink">Hotel Cinco Sentidos</a>, lodged high above Playa la Ropa is a great option. The resort is tiny (there are only five guest rooms), but it's all about the personal touch. The hotel has an infinity pool with broad ocean views, but if after privacy, each room also has its own "mini pool." Junior suites starts at $195 in low season <strong>Getting there</strong>: Fly into Ixtapa/Zihuatenejo International airport, roughly 15 minutes outside of town, which has all-year round flights from Los Angeles, Houston and Phoenix and seasonal service from cities such as Chicago, Minneapolis, Denver and Toronto. Photo: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/linda_uruchurtu/237949699/" target="_hplink">Yakinodi</a>/Flickr
Roughly 65 miles south of Cancun lies Akumal, one of the many small beach towns on the Riviera Maya. The town has a calm beach with small waves, which makes it perfect for families with small children, divers and undersea photographers. Its proximity to the ruins at Tulum also makes it an ideal place for explorer-vacationers. <strong>Where to Stay</strong>: Stay at the eco-friendly <a href="http://www.hotelakumalcaribe.com/" target="_hplink">Hotel Akumal Caribe</a>, which offers a hotel, villas and bungalows, starting at $110/night in the off-season. Or, opt for house living at the upscale <a href="http://www.luxehotels.com/hotels/LasVillasAkumal/rooms" target="_hplink">Las Villas Akumal</a>, with villas that are equipped with a full kitchen (including a juicer!). The resort has a small general store, great for people who have forgotten their sunblock at home, or want OJ for the next morning's breakfast. Two bedroom suites go for $249 in the low season. <strong>Getting there</strong>: Like Tulum, fly into the Cancun airport. Photo: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/peyri/3880774550/" target="_hplink">peyri</a>/Flickr
Cabo San Lucas
Make like all of Hollywood and head to Mexico's western coast on the Baja peninsula. Home to scores of luxury hotels, Cabo is paradise for escapists and fisherman alike. Tourists head to El Arco, a rock formation perfect for watching gathering sea lions. <strong>Where to Stay</strong>: Go high end at the <a href="http://www.esperanzaresort.com/" target="_hplink">Esperanza</a>, where rooms start at $495 in the low season. The resort offers yoga and cooking classes, as well as sports fishing expeditions and whale watching excursions, both of which are popular activities in Cabo. The hotel provides private shuttle service from the airport for $135 each way for a maximum of 6 people. For a cheaper option, stay at the <a href="http://www.welkcabo.com/faq.asp" target="_hplink">Sirena del Mar-Welk Resort</a> where rooms start at $199 in the low season. The hotel, set on 7 acres, sits perched on a cliff with views of El Arco. <strong>Getting there</strong>: Delta, Continental and American are just some of the airlines that service the <a href="http://sjdloscabosairport.com/" target="_hplink">Cabo san Lucas airport</a>. Photo:<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/jeffgunn/5322361247/" target="_hplink"> jeffgunn</a>/Flickr
About eight miles north of Cancun and just off the coast, sits the 4-mile-long Isla Mujeres. The island's east side has a rockier shoreline, making it an ideal spot for surfers. The ferry dock sits closer to the mainland on the west side, and is ideal for Cancun daytrippers looking for a quiet escape. <strong>Where to Stay</strong>: Five minutes from the ferry terminal sits <a href="http://www.villarolandi.com/" target="_hplink">Hotel Villa Rolandi</a>. The resort offers fishing, scuba diving and boat rentals. Upon arriving in Cancun, get picked up by the hotel's 42-foot yacht to make the 30 minute ride to the resort. The hotel's 35 rooms start at $300 in the off-season. Or stay on Playa Norte in one of the 124 rooms at <a href="http://www.privilegehotels.com/" target="_hplink">Privilege Aluxes Isla Mujeres</a>. The hotel has three restaurants and 24-room service and offers fishing trips. Go all inclusive for $1,899 for a week vacation in low season. Prefer to fly from Cancun to the resort? Charter a puddle jumper. <strong>Getting there</strong>: The island is accessible by ferry boats, and a common mode of transportation on the tiny island are taxis and scooters. Photo: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/sarunas_b/2501027428/" target="_hplink">Šarūnas Burdulis</a>/Flickr
Isla de la Piedra, Mazatlan
The U.S. State Department has issued a <a href="http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/tw/tw_5440.html" target="_hplink">travel warning</a> for this area of Mexico, stating that Americans should not visit Sinaloa, where Mazatlan is located, unless absolutely necessary. That said, Mazatlan is considered by many to be the "Pearl of the Pacific." Located north of Puerto Vallarta, across from the southern tip of Baja California, Mazatlan is easily accessible via the city's open-air taxis which take visitors through Old and New Mazatlan. Check out Gadling's list of what to do in Mazatlan this summer <a href="http://www.gadling.com/2011/05/27/mexico-safe-to-visit-for-the-most-part/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+weblogsinc%2Fgadling+%28Gadling%29&utm_content=Google+Reader" target="_hplink">here</a>. Go to the city's islands, namely Isla de la Piedra, or Stone Island. Take a $10 ferry to enjoy the peninsula's (it's not actually an island) palapa restaurants. <strong>Where to Stay</strong>: Stay at the <a href="http://www.pueblobonitoemeraldbay.com/" target="_hplink">Pueblo Bonito Emerald Bay</a>, which sits on 20 acres in New Mazatlan proper. The resort has 11 restaurants, sits on its own private beach, and offers snorkeling and parasailing (not to mention obvious sunbathing). The hotel offers an all-inclusive package (which starts at $289 in low season) or nightly rates ($130). <strong>Getting there</strong>: Mazatlan is home to the Gral. Rafael Buelna International Airport with flights to such U.S. cities as L.A., Houston, Minneapolis and San Francisco. Photo: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/marinacostabonita/4980444862/in/photostream" target="_hplink">Marina Costa Bonita</a>/Flickr
Nachi Cocum, Cozumel
Cozumel, an island just off the coast of Mexico, is a popular spot for cruise ships and can be crowded with throngs of people. If in Cozumel for the day, head to the <a href="http://www.cozumelnachicocom.net/eng/about.cfm" target="_hplink">Nachi Cocum Beachclub</a>, a small, all-inclusive resort providing guests with a pool, full restaurant, bar and beach access all for $49. <strong>Bonus</strong>: The club only permits 100 guests in at a time, so it keeps the crowds down. <strong>Getting there</strong>: The beach is about a 15 cab ride from the cruise dock. Photo: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/zenm/5137052953/" target="_hplink">zenm</a>/Flickr
Ask just about anyone what they think is the most incredible beach in Mexico, and you're sure to hear "Tulum." The beach, set below the Mayan ruins, has practically see-through water. It's a short beach, but it's a goodie. Spend the morning walking the incredible collection of ruins (open from 8am to 5pm, not including night tours), pack a picnic and stay the afternoon enjoying the scenery. <strong>Where to Stay</strong>: The town of Tulum is broken up into three parts: The hotel zone, archeological zone and the town zone. Save money and stay at the <a href="https://sites.google.com/site/posadalunadelsur/home" target="_hplink">Posada Luna del Sur</a>, a small personally-run hotel in downtown Tulum. The hotel strives to create a sense of place with white-washed walls, Mayan art and a dining area on the roof. It's a bargain, too: $70 per night in the low season. Be forewarned: no kids under 16 are allowed. Or, head to <a href="http://www.betulum.com/eng/index.html" target="_hplink">Be Tulum</a>, part of the Design Hotel Group. The 20-room hotel (with jungle, arena and ocean suites) sits on the beach (complete with a dining area overlooking the Ocean). Rates start at $342 for a jungle suite in low season and kids are OK. <strong>Getting there</strong>: Tulum is 81 miles south of Cancun, which is home to a widely accessible international airport. Rent a car at the airport and explore neighboring beaches as well. Photo: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/garyjwood/3181742143/" target="_hplink">Numinosity (by Gary J Wood)</a>/Flickr
A Surf mecca and fishing town home to some 4,000 people, Sayulita lies on the Riviera Narayit along the Pacific Coast and is connected to Puerto Vallarta by a newly-constructed road. The town offers a simple and relaxed variety of taquerias and stands, which dot the town square. And surfing. Rent a board at the retro <a href="http://www.quiverito.com/htdocs/boardlist.html" target="_hplink">Quiverito Surf Shop</a>, where prices start at $100 an hour. Or take lessons through <a href="http://www.duendesurfsayulita.com/surfshop.htm" target="_hplink">Casa Duende Vista</a> - $35 for group, $40 for private. <strong>Where to Stay</strong>: Rent a home at <a href="http://villaamor.com/" target="_hplink">Villa Amor</a>, a cluster of 44 villas overlooking the Pacific Ocean. There are a wide variety of options to be had here, from the supremely inexpensive to high-end. One bedroom villas come equipped with king bed, coffee maker and fridge and start at $55 per night in low season. Or go loco with the Gran Villa, which has three bedroom suites with ensuite bathrooms, an infinity pool and 360 degree views. These perks don't come cheap, though; prices stat at $600 per night. <strong>Getting there</strong>: Villa Amor is 36 miles from the Puerto Vallarta airport, but the hotel offers transportation if arranged ahead of time. <a href="http://www.puertovallarta.net/fast_facts/airport-airlines-puerto-vallarta.php" target="_hplink">Puerto Vallarta International Airport</a> is accessible by numerous airlines from the U.S., including America, US Air and Alaska Airlines. Photo: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/brettlider/79969338/" target="_hplink">Brett L.</a>/Flickr