Tourists visiting a sculpture called La Mano de Punta del Este, depicting five human fingers, in Punta del Este, Uruguay.
Tourists visiting a sculpture called La Mano de Punta del Este, depicting five human fingers, in Punta del Este, Uruguay.Credit…Tali Kimelman for The New York Times

By Amy Tara Koch

If you are searching for a cost-effective spring break, there are two rules of thumb. Avoiding the hot spots like Miami, the Caribbean and popular European cities is crucial, and going all in with all-inclusive packages, a travel holy grail for families in search of getaways that don’t break the bank.

We spoke to several experts to weigh in on money-saving tips and less obvious but equally compelling destinations.

For many families in winter, escaping the cold is top of mind. Gary Leff, whose blog View From The Wing focuses on travel deals and maximizing frequent flier miles, encourages people to travel farther afield — whether it’s Mexico, Central America or elsewhere in Latin America. His reasoning? It’s cheaper to be on the ground there, so airfare gets amortized across several nights, and offset by savings on hotel, meals and activities. He notes that Costa Rica and Belize can be reached with United Airlines miles, flying on their partners Avianca (via Bogotá) and Copa (via Panama City)Delta’s new partnership with LATAM Airlines creates opportunities for connecting to Uruguay.

Jack Ezon, the founder of Embark Beyond, is a fan of the white sand beaches and bountiful activities in Punta del Este in Uruguay.

“This is Miami with a side of cowboy for a fraction of the cost,” he said. “Families can swim, surf, snorkel with seals and spend time on a working ranch, or, estancia, for horseback riding and helping the gauchos with a cattle drive.”

Five-star hotels like the Estancia Vik cost $468 a night in Uruguay, while a more basic property, The Grand Hotel, is much less at $176 a night.

In Mexico, Lindsey Epperly Sulek of Epperly Travel recommends the new Palladium Resort at Costa Mujeres, 30 minutes north of Cancun’s hyperactive Hotel Zone. Since it’s north of Riviera Maya, this beachfront all-inclusive with a water park, three pools, seven restaurants and teen club, has a lower price point. A junior suite, with nightly rates beginning at $629, can accommodate a family of four.

On the high end, Shawna Owen of Huffman Travel books families who want a tropical splurge for a week at Francis Ford Coppola’s all-inclusive, eco-lodges in Belize.

“The mountain beach package, divided between two properties, delivers pristine beaches and jungle adventures like hiking through waterfalls and exploring Mayan ruins,” Ms. Owen said. The property takes care of everything, even airport transfers.” (Rates for a family of four begin around $10,283.)

Warm weather cruises are a smart way to access multiple destinations under an all-inclusive umbrella.

Instead of choosing the newest ship, Chris Gray Faust, managing editor of Cruise Critic, points out that better deals can be found on older, refurbished vessels. Built in 2009, Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, was recently revamped with features like a karaoke club, an escape room and three waterslides. A seven-night Eastern Caribbean sailing this March starts at $543 per person, while the company’s newest ship, Symphony of the Seas, starts at $824 per person and sails to similar ports. The savings for a family of four will be more than $1,100.

Ms. Faust also noted that cruise lines drop prices in February in order to fill empty cabins. “While you might not get your top choice of cabin, you’ll likely find some rock-bottom pricing on select sailings,” she said.

The South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona.
The South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona.Credit…Tatyana Zenkovich/EPA, via Shutterstock

Off-peak visits to a National Park mean maximum nature with minimal gridlock and less money out of your pocket.

In late March, Zion National Park and Grand Canyon National Park have hiking, biking, sun and in-park lodging that cost less than summer pricing. (For example, staying a night at The Grand Hotel at the Grand Canyon costs $280 in March, compared to $350 in the summer.)

The Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee also offer an active, less-crowded experience (think fishing, hiking, horse riding and ranger-led programs) with mild, sunny weather and wallet-friendly lodging nearby. Options include Home 2 Suites by Hilton in Pigeon Forge ($149 a night) and Greystone Lodge on the River in Gatlinburg ($136 a night).

For culture and charm, Ireland always gets high marks. Though weather will be blustery in March, prices will warm the cockles of your heart (Aerlingus offers fares from Boston, Chicago, Miami and Newark to Dublin for under $500).

Start with a few days in Dublin (don’t miss Trinity College, specifically the workshops at the Science Gallery) and then head to Galway where you can channel your inner aristocrat at Ballynahinch Castle ($380 a night for a family-sized room with breakfast), set on 700 picturesque acres of woodland and mountains that overlook the Owenmore River.

“You can ride horses on the beach, take a boat trip from the local fishing village, go fly fishing in a fairy tale landscape and try your hand at clay skeet shooting,” said Ms. Sulek of Epperly Travel.

Closer to home, think about Washington D.C. (No. 1 on our 52 Places to Go List) where you can visit Smithsonian museums free of charge and book a visit to the Capitol through the office of your representative or senator. A cash-saving tip from Mr. Leff, the travel blogger: “Hotels in Alexandria or Crystal City with easy metro access will get you the best deal.”

If your family prefers snowy pursuits, spring skiing is always fun. Copper Mountain (90 minutes from Denver) has steep end-of-season discounts if you book the resort’s lodging. A one-bedroom condo will run around $207 a night, with a promotion through April offering the second night half-off or the fourth night free. With booking, children 12 and under ski free.

Lodging at Mammoth Mountain in California has a fourth night free and midweek discounts.

If you really want to ski on the cheap, swap downhill for cross country. Marquee resorts like Aspen and Jackson Hole have miles of groomed trails that require no lift ticket.

This story originally appeared in the New York Times on February 25, 2020.