NEW YORK (MONEY Magazine) -
Planning summer travel should be a leisurely experience, a time to think about leaving real life behind and to ponder which bathing suit to wear.
Sadly, that won't be possible this year. More Americans will vacation in the coming months than at any time since 2001, which is driving up the prices of hotel rooms, car rentals, restaurant meals and gas. Though air fares remain low, the price of just about everything else rose a collective 5 percent in the past year, according to the Travel Industry Association.
Bargains will be scarce this summer, which is why we sought the advice of more than a dozen experts who look for good prices all day long, including tour operators, travel agents, guidebook authors and online deal finders. They revealed four destinations that are cheaper than they were last summer -- and that might be more expensive next year.
But hidden bargains don't stay hidden for long, so the only way to score the best deal is to plan your getaway now.
Buenos Aires: An inexpensive alternative to Europe
Why now? If you want a European-style excursion but can't stomach the sky-high euro, head to Buenos Aires, known as the Paris of South America.
Argentina is emerging from a severe recession. But the political upheaval associated with the downturn has subsided, and bargains still abound -- especially for U.S. travelers, who can get nearly three pesos for $1. That'll go a long way in the chic nightclubs, sidewalk caf駸, boutiques and restaurants.
Summer in North America is winter in Argentina, but temperatures typically hover in the 50s and 60s, perfect for watching people tango in the streets. (And they do -- check out the Plaza Dorrego.) At night, you'll pay as little as $10 for a world-class steak dinner.
The deal Fly South Vacations (800-234-5245, flysouthvacations.com), which specializes in Central and South America travel, is offering six-night packages. A nonstop round-trip flight from Chicago on United Airlines, with lodging in a four-star hotel, breakfast, a city tour and an airport shuttle, starts at $1,228 per person based on double occupancy.
Vieques, Puerto Rico: Discount airlines make an unspoiled oasis affordable.
Why now? Vieques was once the site of Navy test bombings and citizen protests. No more.
Today nature lovers are exploring pristine beaches, coral reefs and the world's brightest bioluminescent bay (filled with light-emitting plankton). The Caribbean is always a good deal in summer, and it's an even better deal now that discount airlines have arrived -- San Juan is practically a hub for low-fare carriers including JetBlue, Spirit and Delta's Song (starting in June).
Fly for as little as $200 round trip from some U.S. cities and then take a 30-minute hop on Vieques Air Link (888-901-9247, vieques-island.com/val) for about $135 round trip. Thanks to trade winds from the south, humidity on Vieques is low. But hurry: Developers are already planning to build resorts.
The deal Stay at one of the charmingly basic guesthouses in Vieques for $50 to $65 a night. Or enjoy a beachfront room at the new Bravo Beach Hotel, named one of the world's most affordable beach resorts by Travel & Leisure (787-741-1128, bravobeachhotel.com, $125 to $175).
Philadelphia: Fly cheap, show the kids some history
Why now? "Why Philly?" is the real question. The answer is that there's a lot more to the City of Brotherly Love than cheese steaks and rowdy sports fans (although the cheese steaks are delicious).
Philadelphia has been upgrading its historic sites and now rivals Washington, D.C. as a fun, educational family destination. Independence Mall, dubbed the nation's most historic square mile, has been transformed.
Joining Independence Hall (free admission), where the Declaration of Independence was signed, are the Independence Visitors Center (free), where you can download maps of walking tours; the National Constitution Center, which offers hundreds of multimedia exhibits ($5 to $7); and the new Liberty Bell Center (free).
Southwest and other discount carriers have sent fares plunging, making Philly an affordable destination no matter where you live. By the way, if you want a great cheese steak, the place to go is Geno's in South Philly.
The deal Skip the hotel and stay at an affordable B&B in a historic home, like the downtown Shippen Way Inn (215-627-7266, $95 to $130).
No-fly cruises: Park-and-sail ports cut cruising costs
Why now? Once upon a time, if you wanted to take a cruise, you had to get yourself to Florida, New York City or Los Angeles. Today many Americans can hop in the car and drive right to the boat.
Fast-growing port cities include Baltimore; Bayonne, N.J.; Boston; Galveston; Mobile; New Orleans; Norfolk; Portland, Ore.; San Diego; Savannah; and Seattle.
Cruises are always a good value because so much is included (even meals and shows), but trips are selling out at a much faster pace than in previous years, says Stephanie Wortman, a travel specialist at American Express. "The earlier you book, the better selection of cabins you'll get."
The deal An ocean-view room on a five-day Carnival cruise (866-299-5698, carnival.com) in July from New Orleans to Cozumel, Mexico is going for $739 per person based on double occupancy (hot-tub use included).