After traveling all year for business meetings or conventions and taking vacation to cover a child's inconvenient half days at school, many harried Americans are left with a dilemma. With a few weeks left in the year, their remaining precious vacation days are about to expire.
The average American worker has about six paid vacation days left unused at the end of the year, according to Hotwire.com's American Travel Behavior Survey, conducted earlier this year.
It's time to use 'em or lose 'em.
For the flexible traveler able to jump on a plane over the next two weeks, discounts are plentiful. That's because business travel is winding down for the year while many leisure travelers are saving their pennies for holiday expenses.
Hotels and airlines are cutting prices and bundling discounts to fill rooms and seats that would otherwise go unsold. "It's a great time to get last-minute deals if you're flexible and have time available," says Fiona O'Donnell, senior lifestyles and leisure analyst for the Mintel Reports Group. Here are a few deals:
Winter in the wine country (West Coast)
Winter is Cabernet season in the Napa Valley and hoteliers are celebrating the end of harvest with discounted winter room rates. While new wine ages in recently-filled barrels, the legendary Napa Valley Lodge in Yountville, California, has packages with room rates starting at $195 (Sunday through Thursday) and $245 (Saturday and Sunday) that include wine tasting passes, a bottle of wine, continental Champagne breakfast buffet and 20% off spa treatments. In contrast, Summer rates can start at $300/night. This offer is good now through January 31, 2012. Other Napa Valley offers, including restaurant month and vintner discounts are also available. "The harvest season might be over, but there are still plenty of reasons to visit wine country in winter," says Anne Banas, executive editor of Smarter Travel. "Not only will the wines warm you up, but wine tastings and dining options offer plenty to do indoors. Plus, you can often find good discounts on hotels and B&Bs, often 30% to 50% off regular season rates."
Winter in wine country (East Coast)
Bundle up and head to the Finger Lakes region of New York, where the wine scene is low-key and travelers celebrate the cold with cross-country skiing and snow-shoeing. Banas recommends Atwater Estate Vineyards and the New York Wine and Culinary Center on Canandaigua Lake. Winter travelers can receive discounts or free nights with participating hotels and inns as well as discounts at local wineries and restaurants through March 31, 2012.
San Francisco --or Washington -- here we come
Even cities where hotel prices increased this year are experiencing a lull between the holidays. Prices for San Francisco hotels have jumped 22% over 2010, due to convention bookings and domestic and European visitors, says Hotwire.com's Clem Bason, president of the Hotwire Group. But rates for the first few weeks in December are down by about 10% from peak prices, according to Hotwire.
The nation's capital is almost always busy doing the people's work, so hotel prices tend to remain high in good times and bad. However, government also slows down around the holidays. Prices in Washington are down about 15% from peak rates, according to Hotwire. "We love sending people to D.C. when the weather is OK because there are so many free attractions in the area," says Bason. "You can see a lot of our nation's history for free."
Portland, Oregon, has a "Portland Perks" winter special designed to lure travelers to this food-obsessed and environmentally green Oregon city: $50 cash received upon check-in, free overnight parking, complimentary continental breakfast for two and a Portland Perks coupon book. This offer at select hotels requires a two-night minimum stay and is valid for travel from November 1 to December 30, 2011.
Set sail for the Caribbean
With many cruise ships already committed to trips to the Caribbean this month, cruise lines are dropping prices on any remaining empty rooms, says Amy Chlebeck, a travel consultant with Minneapolis-based Carlson Wagonlit Travel. Cruises departing Miami or Fort Lauderdale for three- to 10-day trips are available. Check with your favorite cruise line if you've sailed before. Travelers who aren't familiar with the different cruise lines may want to hire a travel agent to help sort through the options, says Chlebeck. Some cruises cater to singles, while others target families or older couples. And some ships have better food than others.
Shop until you drop
If we can't convince you to take a break from the holiday frenzy, how about a trip that takes care of your shopping needs? For travelers looking for cold weather, Minnesota may also offer the opportunity to play in the snow. You might not even need to rent a car when booking a Mall of America travel package. Hotels near the enormous Bloomington, Minnesota, mall often offer transportation to and from the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport and the mall. Check individual hotel offers at the Mall of America website.