The scent of pineapple floated through the Kona farmers’ market on the Big Island, Hawaii as my son and I searched for produce to bring to the beach. Fresh papayas for only $4 a bunch? We nabbed a perfectly ripe pineapple, papayas, tiny sweet apple bananas that my son would later devour by the bunch, passion fruit and avocados, all for about $10.
Could we actually be saving money on our tropical vacation? Yes, we were. It was part of a trip to Hawaii that was more affordable than we would have thought possible.
Sunny skies are closer — and cheaper — than you think. In Mexico, our family has discovered local accommodations that blew the nearby resort prices away. Closer to home, we’ve found cheap skiing in Lake Chelan and a budget-friendly desert journey through Arizona to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Here are details on these four affordable sunny winter getaways.
*Please note that all lodging prices are approximate and may vary after press time.
1. Explore nature in Loreto, Mexico
Mexico isn’t as expensive as you think, especially if you skip the resorts in the major tourist areas and head to Loreto, a sleepy town in the middle of the Baja Peninsula on the Sea of Cortez. The best thing about this historic town, one of the oldest settlements on Baja, is that everything is within a five- to 10-minute walk, including restaurants, the boat docks and the beach. Hop on a tour with Wild Loreto to see the gray whales along the Pacific Coast and meet the local sea lion colony on Coronado Island. The water in the Sea of Cortez can be chilly, but nothing a wetsuit can’t handle as you snorkel around the islands off the coast.
Go: Savings on accommodations and food once in Mexico can help offset airfare costs. Try an airfare alert on a website like AirfareWatchdog.com.
Stay: La Damiana Inn (rates from $68), is a friendly home away from home located in a converted schoolhouse about four blocks from the beach, with a communal kitchen and living space, too. Hotel Coco Cabañas (rates from $89) is just a few blocks from the beach and has two pools; cabañas come with full kitchens.
Eat: Fish tacos, guacamole and parrotfish fillets in garlic are a few of the local specialties. La Parala has a wide range of dishes, while Loreto Islas can give you views of the sea along with some of the tastiest fish on the beach. Finish up at La Michoacana, the best ice cream spot in town.
Also don’t miss: San Javier Mission, located in the hills about a half hour from Loreto, is a 300-year-old mission that is one of the most well preserved on the Baja Peninsula.
>Next: Chelan, Wash.
2. Play outside at Lake Chelan, Wash.
With an average of 300 sunny days a year, Lake Chelan may be known as one of Washington’s best summer destinations, but it is also a lovely, low-key winter getaway (hint: fewer crowds). Rent electric bikes for a ride along the lake, go cider pressing at Orondo Cider Works, or take a sunny hike up to Chelan Butte for fabulous views of the lake and town. If this year’s snow finally makes an appearance, get some runs in at ultra-cheap Echo Valley Ski Area, an ideal spot to introduce kids to snow sports (and tubing!).
Stay: Try Campbell’s Resort, a lakeside lodge with kid-friendly amenities and a spa (rates start at around $100 or Lakeside Lodge and Suites, with an indoor pool and hot tub (rates from $109). Check also Chelan Vacation Properties, which has the largest selection of vacation homes and condos in the valley.
Eat: Blueberry Hills Farms is your go-to stop for comfort food, pies and a hearty breakfast. Enjoy a slice of the finest pizza in town at Local Myth Pizza.
Also don’t miss: Local vineyards. Benson Vineyards Estate Winery boasts a beautiful Mediterranean-inspired property, where kids can explore while mom and dad taste. Vin du Lac Winery’s Bistro serves up tasty bites for the family and a Saturday Jazz Dinner (parents only).
3. Beach it in Kona on the Big Island
Of the Hawaiian islands my family has visited, the Big Island is the most affordable when it comes to food and accommodations. Make the sunny, west coast district of Kona your home base to take advantage of fabulous farmers’ markets, kid-friendly beaches (Kahalu‘u Beach is one of our favorites) and local hiking. Drive to the east side of the island for an overnight at Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park; a $10 car pass gives you seven days of access.
Go: Both Hawaiian Airlines and Alaska Airlines fly directly to Honolulu with connections to the Big Island. You’ll find the cheapest flights in the off-season.
Stay: Rent a house in Kona through VRBO.com or similar vacation rental websites (see sidebar) to get the best deal. If you prefer hotels, grab a room at the Royal Kona Resort in Kailua Kona (from $155) or head farther south to the town of Captain Cook to stay at the Halemalu, a small vacation villa and resort (from $110).
Eat: Fish and fresh fruits are easy to come by. Be sure to stop by the Island Lava Java for guava bread pudding French toast on the weekend.
Also, don’t miss: The Pu`uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park, south of Kona, where you can get a look at early life on the island.
>Next: Grand Canyon road trip
4. Take a road trip from Tucson to the Grand Canyon
A glimpse of the Grand Canyon isn’t just for summer road trips; the winter months offer spectacular views, fewer crowds, more in-park lodging availability, and plenty of 60-degree sunny Arizona days (though temperatures around the canyon do dip lower).
In Tucson, spend a couple of days exploring the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a zoo, natural history museum, aquarium, botanical garden and art gallery all rolled into one. Then drive three and a half hours north to Sedona for hiking in Red Rock State Park. Continue on to the spectacular South Rim of the Grand Canyon (about a two-hour drive).
Go: US Airways offers flights flying into Tucson and out of Flagstaff for as low as $240 per person in the winter. Rent a car in Tucson (Costco members can save on car rentals) and drop it off in Flagstaff as you head home.
Stay: Set up camp at DoubleTree by Hilton Tucson-Reid Park in Tucson (from $89), Ridge on Sedona Golf Resort in Sedona (from $89) and at one of the Grand Canyon National Park Lodges (rates start at $95), once you are ready to explore the South Rim (book the lodge as early as possible).
Eat: Beyond Bread serves up hearty sandwiches, soups, salads and pastries at affordable prices in Tucson, while Tortas de Fuego in Sedona will give even the vegetarian in your group a memorable Mexican meal.
Also, don’t miss: The Colossal Cave Mountain Park, a park outside of Tucson that is home to abundant wildlife (bats, coatimundi, peccary) and a cave with stunning stalactites and rock formations.
>Next: Find your home away home
Find your home away from home
You’ve heard of VRBO, but what other sites help you get more vacation home for your buck? Here are some of our favorites.
VRBO.com: With an almost 20-year history, VRBO is a trusted name. Prices vary from budget to ultra-spendy, while properties range from studios up to seven bedrooms and beyond.
HomeAway.com: This sister site of VRBO has a more user-friendly design, but most of the same properties of VRBO. If you are looking for a bit more luxury, you can scan through the new Luxury by HomeAway listings.
FlipKey.com: What makes FlipKey different is its user-friendly map, which helps you pinpoint exactly where you want to stay. It also boasts an impressive inventory of properties.
Dwellable.com: Dwellable is a Seattle company created by one of the founders of UrbanSpoon.com and is building an impressive database of properties around the country.
Airbnb.com: Need an entire apartment, tree house or maybe just a room for the family? Airbnb has an eclectic range of properties to choose from around the world. Make sure you read the description carefully before booking to be sure you get what you pay for.
Booking.com: Not exactly a home rental site, Booking offers hotel rooms, but also unconventional options, such as guesthouses, villas, castles, as well as rental homes.