This emerging Central American destination is a budget hotspot that offers visitors a natural high with 18 volcanoes, rain and cloud forests, and world-class surfing. Called "the next Costa Rica," Nicaragua has many of the attributes visitors find in its southern neighbor but without the crowds, high prices and commercialism. Beset by a long revolution in the 1960s and '70s, Nicaragua has put that portion of its history behind it and is now considered the safest country in Central America.
Round-trip airfare is about $500; hotel and restaurant prices are about 50 percent less than those in Costa Rica. If you’re looking for high-end tourism, check out the luxurious new Mukul Beach Golf & Spa resort, an ecologically friendly oceanfront development on the country's Emerald Coast that features an 18-hole David MacLay Kidd-designed golf course.
When to go: Dry season, from January through April, brings reliably sunny weather but is the most expensive. Best value is during the green season, from May through September.
A four-hour direct flight from Boston brings travelers to this lush European outpost that calls to mind the verdant green of Ireland and the volcanic landscape of Hawaii. The Azores, an autonomous region of Portugal, is a string of nine volcanic islands sitting in the wide-open Atlantic between New England and Lisbon. As such, it qualifies as the closest access to Europe for Americans.
Its off-the-beaten-path location makes it inexpensive, with air and hotel packages starting at $1,099 for six nights, but increased air service and new hotels may change that as its appeal broadens. Insiders have long lauded it for its budget prices and friendly populace. Other perks: world-class whale watching, hot mineral springs, quaint seaside towns and fabulous cuisine.
When to go: Spring is an ideal time, with flowers blooming everywhere. Summer offers great whale watching.
Like many other South Pacific islands, Moorea, just off the coast of Tahiti, offers turquoise lagoons, soaring volcanic peaks and luxuriant green valleys. It also has amazingly low-priced travel packages. (Spend five nights at the InterContinental Moorea Resort & Spa or the Le Meridien Tahiti, including air, for less than $2,000.) With recent films and segments of “Amazing Race” focusing the spotlight on French Polynesia and its 118 islands, this romantic destination has a lot of buzz going for it.
Surprisingly, its unsurpassed beauty, friendly islanders and incredible snorkeling are only an eight-hour flight from Los Angeles—just two hours farther than Hawaii. Bora Bora is one of the most famous islands of French Polynesia, but other equally beautiful atolls and isles are spread out across the Pacific and are ripe for exploration.
When to go: There’s no bad time, but the crowds are lighter in May, June, September and October.
Skiers and snowboarders seeking champagne powder, diverse terrain, long vertical drops and spectacular scenery can find it all—at bargain prices—at Banff and Jasper National Parks in the Canadian Rockies. Consistently acclaimed as some of the most scenic ski areas on the planet, the parks are also known for having some of the lowest hotel prices and most reasonable lift tickets in North America.
The reason? Winter is the off-season for these beautiful resorts, so prices drop. With additional airlines now offering service to gateway cities in the province of Alberta—Calgary and Edmonton—transportation costs have declined, making 2014 an excellent time to sample the region's famous light, dry powder.
When to go: Anytime between November and May.
Once a favorite retreat of Hawaiian royalty, Waikiki is home to many of Oahu's finest hotels and much of its dining, shopping and nightlife. But after the recession and the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami, visitor numbers dropped precipitously. The state and other government bodies responded by pumping money into a revitalization program, with more than $3 billion spent at last count. The result is a much nicer Waikiki with a wider beach, pretty pedestrian walkways, upgraded shopping areas and safer tourist regions.
Another plus: Waikiki doesn't have room to build new hotels, so developers have been upgrading aging ones with great results and bargain rates. Among them are Coconut Hotel Waikiki, Hotel Renew and Vive Hotel. For those seeking more luxurious digs, check out the elegant Royal Hawaiian or Moana Surfrider, both of which have undergone multimillion-dollar updates.
When to go: Anytime is great, but prices are highest in summer and during holidays.
Ecuador may be small—it's roughly the size of Switzerland—but it offers an incredible snapshot of the best of South America, from the Amazon to the Andes to the Pacific Coast and the Galapagos Islands. In addition to natural wonders, Ecuador is known for its Kichwa villages, indigenous art and colonial centers that are remnants of its Spanish period.
Budget travelers can expect to find great airfare deals—recent prices to Quito have been under $500 roundtrip from New York and Miami. Packages and hotel deals are also expected to be available this year as Ecuador attempts to draw tourists from Brazil and FIFA World Cup 2014.
When to go: Ecuador is a year-round destination but is most crowded from June through August and during the December holidays.
New York City
There are hundreds of reasons to visit the Big Apple, one of the greatest cities in the world. But during 2014, another will be added to the list: to make a pilgrimage to the new National September 11 Memorial Museum, which will be dedicated to the memory of the nearly 3,000 people who died at Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan. Constructed at the spot where the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers once stood, the new museum will display victims' possessions as well as recorded messages about them from family and friends.
New York is a pricey city, but you can visit on a budget by thinking outside Manhattan for discounted hotel rates and planning ahead to score an airfare deal. When in the city, take advantage of free attractions, including Central Park.
When to go: The museum is tentatively scheduled to open in Spring 2014.
With 50,000 hotel rooms, great shopping, an exciting dining scene and dazzling museums, Mexico City is a world-class destination that’s beginning to cause a buzz again. The huge city, which has 175 museums and four UNESCO World Heritage sites, had been out of the spotlight for more than a decade because of a crime problem. But a network of 12,000 surveillance cameras and increased police presence seem to have controlled this, bringing back an estimated 12 million visitors last year. And with good reason—where else can visitors see colonial architecture and pyramids that predate the discovery of the Americas and feast on dining that’s as exciting as that found in New York City—all at bargain prices?
When to go: Summers can be rainy and winters chilly. The best weather is in the spring, between March and May.
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- French Polynesia