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Africa / Beach Vacations / Caribbean / Europe / USA

Personal Picks: Assistant Travel Editor Jane Engle

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Crashing arrowAs the travel industry continues to reel from the economic meltdown, the influx of deals may actually change the way we travel.

Destinations that may not have been on our radars have now become accessible and affordable options.

We checked in with Jane Engle, assistant travel editor of the Los Angeles Times, to find out some of her personal picks for this spring, summer and beyond.

1. FIRST, BY SEA

OK, not to beat a dead horse, but cruising is hot right now. “Even if you’re not a big fan, boy, this is the year to do it,” says Engle. Caribbean cruises are an especially great option for the spring as it’s not quite hurricane season yet (that’s June through November), and prices can run as low as $50 a day.

If the Caribbean isn’t your thing, you still have plenty of options. “The farther along you go and the nicer the ship, the better the deals,” Engle explains.

These days more and more far-flung destinations are becoming affordable options for travelers. Holland America, for example, is offering a 10-day Panama Canal cruise with departures from Fort Lauderdale in mid-March, early April, and again in October—starting at only $799 per person. www.hollandamerica.com

Deck chairsEngle also notes that a number of cruise lines are now stationing their ships in Dubai, or making it a port of call. The Dubai Cruise Terminal already serves ships from Costa, Silversea, Royal Caribbean, and Princess, among others, and additional vessels will appear in 2009 and 2010.

For more, check out Despite Recession, Cruise Lines See Record Number of Bookings.

2. THEN BY RIVER

“Another option that Americans tend not to consider is European river cruising,” says Engle. “Our concept of cruising involves big ships with lots of activities. The thing about river cruises is they’re not that big, but much of it is included.” Often times, excursions, bus tours, even alcohol can be included on a European river cruise. “Even if you’re a modest drinker, with one drink at lunch and a couple at dinner, it can really add up,” she says.

Though not the ideal family getaway, river cruising is great for those into cultural excursions, particularly in Eastern and Central Europe. Because flooding is more likely at this time of year, spring is a slower season for river cruising, and therefore there are deals to be had.

Ama Waterways (formerly known as Amadeus River Cruises) has a 14-day cruise along the Danube departing May 29, June 12 and June 19 starting at $2,299. That includes two nights in Budapest and three nights in Prague (including daily breakfasts), all onboard meals and wine, daily sightseeing excursions, and use of bicycles to explore the countryside on your own. www.amawaterways.com

Riverbank EuropeViking River Cruises is offering an eight-day Danube cruise from Budapest to Nuremburg, starting at $1,799 per person. Upcoming sailings depart April 19 and April 26; prices go up slightly in early summer, then drop back down in July and August, and again in October and November. That includes seven shore excursions and all meals, but not alcohol. www.vikingrivers.com

For more ideas on cruising Europe’s waterways, don’t miss Barging Through Europe.

3. BOUND FOR BRITAIN

“What a shock, Britain is now affordable!” says Engle. “Last year about this time, a British pound was worth about $2. It was painful. A subway ride could be as much as $16 round-trip.” Fortunately for us, the pound has taken a pounding, and is now worth about $1.41.

Of course, traveling to London in spring means you’re at the mercy of its unpredictable weather, but just focus on the indoor activities and you’re good to go.

Union jack british flagAccording to SmarterTravel.com, British Airways is offering fares to Europe starting at $149 each way, including a free, two-night stay in a three- or four-star hotel in major cities throughout Europe. The catch is that taxes and fees will tack on another $149 or so, and you have to book by March 13.

But have no fear, deals are still coming: We checked, and a British Airways flight from JFK to Heathrow departing April 8 and returning April 15 costs $149 each way, plus taxes and fees, totaling $440.70. www.britishairways.com

Engle notes that Virgin Vacations often has good bargains, and England is no exception right now. For example, a fly/drive package in mid-April for a family of four, including airfare from Dallas and a seven-night car rental, costs $3,696.

If you’re looking to stay in one place and skip the car, Virgin Vacations also has an air- and hotel-inclusive, three-night London Fling package. The cost from Chicago for two adults from April 17-21 is only $1,478. Both deals must be booked by March 25. www.virgin-vacations.com

Find out where to go once you’ve arrived with our Off the Brochure Travel Guide: London, England.

4. SAFARI DOWN SOUTH

Safari giraffesOnce a relatively pricey destination, South Africa has become an affordable option now that the rand has lost value against the dollar. But even more importantly, South Africa will host the World Cup soccer championship in 2010, at which point airfare and hotel prices will soar—so now is the time to go.

To sweeten the pot, South Africa has become a premier safari destination, particularly as political unrest has affected tourism in Kenya and Zimbabwe. And while many East African lodges close for the rainy season in April and May, South Africa is a great year-round destination—but prices will still drop during the low season. This year, from May 1 through September 30, rates at the Kariega Game Reserve start at R2000 (about $191), compared to R2800 (about $267) in the high season. www.kariega.co.za

Premier Tours currently has an eight-day South African safari and Cape Town visit starting from an incredible $995 per person. That includes four nights at the Protea President Hotel in Cape Town, daily breakfast, tours of the Cape Peninsula and wine country, three nights at the Protea Kruger Gate Hotel with breakfast and dinner daily, and two full-day game drives in Kruger National Park. This deal is available May 1 through September 30, 2009. www.premiertours.com

Need non-safari ideas for South African travel? Check out the Off the Brochure Travel Guide: Cape Town, South Africa.

5. VEGAS TIME

Las Vegas stripAnd last, but certainly not least, it’s time to head to Vegas, baby. “If you ever wanted to pamper yourself and thought you couldn’t afford it, you can now live like a millionaire on the Strip,” says Engle.

Rates at the MGM Grand drop as low as $80 a night April 13 and 14, plus $35 credit, 25 percent off spa services and two line passes to Studio 54 or Tabu. www.mgmgrand.com

From now through September 10, Mandalay Bay is offering a “fly back free” certificate valued at $350, plus $100 in cabana credit and $25 “sand dollars” to be used at the hotel’s beach. A two-night minimum stay is required, with room rates as low as $100 a night. The fly back certificate requires a three-night stay on your next trip. www.mandalaybay.com

One last tip: Sign up for email alerts from Vegas hotels to find even more last-minute and unadvertised deals.

Looking for more things to do in Las Vegas? Try these articles: Unusual Activities in Las Vegas, Undiscovered Las Vegas, Three Days, Nine Meals: Las Vegas and Suzy Gershman’s Postcard from Las Vegas.

By Sarika Chawla for PeterGreenberg.com.

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