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5 inexpensive, last-minute holiday travel destinations

Julie Loffredi

Looking for the most bang for your travel buck? Consider heading to a warmer clime where your dollar and credit cards will go further. Better yet? Cash in some of your credit card miles to save on your flights and hotels.

Here are five countries that are on travel experts’ radar now for their exceptional value for a last-minute holiday season vacation or long getaway in 2017.

MEXICO
With a slew of new flights from the U.S. because of a new treaty, the increased competition means more planes flying south and lower airfares.

For example, Southwest, Delta and American Airlines are starting nonstop service from Los Angeles in December to places such as Cancun, Puerto Vallarta and Los Cabos.

The dollar, too, goes further now in Mexico in the wake of Donald Trump winning the U.S. presidential election. The peso, which reached a record low Nov. 9, dropped even more in subsequent days, and has regained a bit of ground since then.

For the best travel discounts in Mexico, I recommend Cancun. The oceanfront tourist spot is known for low hotel rates, which likely will fall further in the months ahead due to a flurry of new hotels.

Cancun is hot with American travelers. Expedia, citing hotel bookings, put Cancun No. 3 in its list of top Thanksgiving destinations, up from No. 9 in 2015.

The travel site also is seeing a big spike in Americans traveling to Mexico in December – likely due at least in part to those added flights.

Card smart tip: Airports can be a nightmare around the holidays. American Express Platinum cardholders and Centurion Members get complimentary Centurion Club access at Mexico City’s airport.

SOUTH AFRICA
If you’d prefer a safari to sunny beaches, the falling rand means Americans can fly and stay for less by vacationing in South Africa.

To go where the wild things are and not break your bank, consider staying at one of the 20 South African National Parks. Staying at the park properties is much cheaper than at privately operated lodges, The Guardian reports.

For example, at Addo Elephant National Park, visitors can book a private tour for about $155 and maybe see elephants near watering holes, and lions and spotted hyenas in the morning and evening. A typical safari costs from $800 to $1000.

For an extra fee at the Addo, you can take an eco-tour to maybe spot a southern white whale or a great white shark.

And if you’d rather not stay in the park, there are plenty of places nearby, including, I’m not making this up, the Addo Dung Beetle Guest Farm, for about $60 a night.

If you’d rather stay in the big city rather than the bush, Cape Town just placed second on Lonely Planet’s “Best in Travel” top 10 cities for 2017. The website cited the city’s “historic wine estates,” “hip markets,” inventive restaurants as things to be savored.  

Card smart tip: Due to higher incidents of theft in South Africa, contact your credit card issuer about your travel plans. You don’t want your card to be declined on your trip because your issuer isn’t sure you’re really the one charging tickets for a whale-watching tour. Also, note that many safaris and tours only accept cash – so plan accordingly. 

COLOMBIA
Lonely Planet just called this country “a South American jewel,” ranking Colombia No. 2 on its “Best in Travel for 2017” list.

Americans are already discovering Colombia’s charms. The number of U.S. visitors increased by 26 percent in 2015, and that shows no sign of slowing this year. The falling peso is just one reason. The increasing stability of the country is another.

Bogota is the biggest magnet for tourists, with its many museums, historic churches and colorful and flavorful cuisine. Cheap eats include empanadas for about a dollar.

If you go to Bogota, be sure to check out Monserrate for beautiful views of the city.

For a day trip from Bogota, you can tour a coffee plantation for as little as $5 to $50, depending on what you are into, travel writer/blogger Matt Kepnes writes on his Nomadic Matt website.

Early in 2017, Pope Francis is expected to be a big attraction when he visits Colombia. While it’s cheaper now to visit the country, steer clear of the dates (not yet set) for the papal visit, as hotel rooms will be scarce and prices will jump.

Card smart tip: Outside of urban areas, credit card usage may be limited. Use ATM at the airport. Also, keep updated on the latest security updates for Colombia.  

NEW ZEALAND
Want to head Down Under? Skip Australia and hit the white-sand coves of this beautiful country nestled in the South Pacific.

New Zealand is a travel bargain – once you cover your airfare – says Susan Kottler, a travel agent with TravelMasters in St. Louis. December through February is the peak season because it’s summer there when it’s winter here.

Airfares are high, from $1,800-$2,200 round-trip, she says, but if you plan your trip ahead and open a new credit card with a big sign-up bonus, you can use your points for the airfare.

“You need about two weeks to see both islands, and the average amount for hotels and touring is about $5,000 a person,” she says. “A great place to visit with lots to do.”

If you’re thinking far ahead, Outside magazine lists New Zealand as one of its five can’t-miss offseason summer destinations. While everyone is thinking summer, it’s winter in New Zealand. Outside says United has summer airfares for $900 round trip, and you can rent a van for $23 a day – half the December price.

That all makes a flash sale earlier this year all the more incredible: A few lucky travelers managed to score tickets from California to NZ for as little as $215.

Card smart tip: This is a long flight – and can be pricey, depending on the time of the year you’re booking. Consider opening a credit card with a big sign-up bonus to apply to your airfare or use your existing card that will net you the most travel rewards. And, be sure to use a card with no foreign transaction fees.

SPAIN
Spain is one of the most affordable destinations in Europe.

“Spain is really inexpensive in lodging, cuisine and shopping, and the food is delicious,” says Nancy Marcussi, owner of Heaven on Earth, which specializes in villa and apartment rentals and culinary travel groups.

“Barcelona reminds me of Paris, with its wide leafy green boulevards, pavement cafes and hip boutiques,” she says. “Madrid is like New Orleans at Mardi Gras but with a bit of civility, and Seville has a village feel and very sweet citizens.”

Marcussi, who led a culinary tour of Spain and Marrakech, Morocco, in September and October 2016, adds, “They say Seville is one of the warmest cities in Europe, so it would be a great and inexpensive place in winter.”

Smart travelers can take advantage of lower hotel prices in Spain and still get a chance to visit other neighboring countries for day trips via the train.

An offbeat, new attraction I just came across? Travel + Leisure notes Spain’s first nude restaurant is opening in January 2017 on Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Because of the strong dollar, if you want sunscreen for your in-the-buff buffet, you might do better buying it in Spain rather than buying it in winter in the U.S. ahead of your trip.

Card smart tip: Check your credit cards to see whether they offer a travel credit as reimbursement for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fees. 

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