Where travelers can stretch their dollars farthest

I finished up a pile of work (hence my lack of WalletPop blog postings so far in 2009), I've got a pile of frequent-flier miles on American Airlines that's nearing their expiration date and with the daily doom-and-gloom headlines, I'm ready to blow this joint. What other excuses do I need to take a vacation? You may not feel like it's the right time to travel for pleasure, but with nearly the entire world in economic doldrums, there may never be a better time to scoop up so many travel deals that won't put a big dent in your wallet. And besides, you deserve it!

I chatted with a few travel agents about overseas destinations that offer more bang for the U.S. buck than ever before. They include:

* Iceland. Now's the time to rush in like vultures to take advantage of a battered krona after Iceland bet the house on the banking industry and saw its economy collapse. As Madeline Drexler reports in her travel story for the Los Angeles Times, the first thing she saw at the Keflavik International Airport was a big, red sign that asked, "Are you here for the nature or the exchange rate?" Well, I've been waiting to visit this island's volcanoes, glaciers and hot springs for years but didn't want to pay $10 for a bottle of Budwiser and $100 for a bottle of California merlot. But now, according the currency converter Web site XE.com, US$1 equals 112 krona, double the amount a year ago when it was 63 to the dollar. It's still not cheap-cheap, but if you like swimming under the stars in geothermal spas carved out of lava rock, Iceland is worth checking out for spring visits.

* South Africa. This country is in second place of currency plunges, says Arthur Frommer. Safari outings, Cape Town hotels and the good bottles of wine are nearly one-third less expensive. Frommer noted South African Airways Vacations for offering better deals these days -- its nine-day package "South Africa on Sale" of air, hotel and ground transportation costs $1,800 -- that's $200 a day (although you'll have to pay for most of your meals and pony up an extra $480 for fuel surcharges and taxes).

* Australia and New Zealand. It's good that the Nicole Kidman/Hugh Jackman movie Australia didn't become a blockbuster and bring a flood of tourists as expected. Whereas the Australian dollar was on par with the U.S. dollar a little over a year ago, now you can get an exchange rate of AUD$1.50. In New Zealand, it's nearly double, at NZD$1.88. February is prime summertime Down Under, and Qantas Vacations is offering airfare and 5 nights in Sydney starting at $999 if you book by February 11. I remember when the cheapest February airfare I could find to New Zealand from San Francisco in 2000 was $1,250, now Qantas is offering it at $798. I can put up with a 14-hour plane ride in coach for that price (of course, the "government-imposed taxes and fees, which range between $75-$150," aren't included in the advertised rate).

* Hawaii. Okay, it's officially a state, but usually an expensive one to visit. Now that the tourism levels have dropped by 10 percent, the islands are offering lots of package deals to lure Americans back -- like round trip airfare and three nights lodging for under $400. The San Francisco Chronicle blog Hawaii Insider says Waikiki on Oahu (Obama's stomping grounds) have the greatest number and variety of deals.

* Cruises. Occupancy rates have dropped by nearly a third, so cruise lines are offering heavy discounts and even throwing in free airfare and shore excursions. My mother booked a seven-night cruise around the Caribbean on Carnival next month for $400 According to USA Today, the best deals are the Caribbean, Mexican Riviera and Alaska but prices are starting to go up.
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