Airline vacation packages have always been great values that are easy to book. Lately, though, airlines have realized that many travelers don't want to be stuck on a bus tour, nor do they like staying in business mega-hotels or sterile tourist-class lodgings. Thankfully, they've set up some amazing deals—trips that cover airfare plus stays in historic castle hotels, car rentals, and even a literary pub crawl. (Prices are per person, based on double occupancy, unless otherwise noted.) Here's what's out there now.
Ireland's national airline goes out of its way to encourage independent travel. It will help arrange car rentals (from $21 a day), stays at country-house hotels and castles (from $37 per person nightly), a medieval banquet at a 15th-century castle ($49 per person), and a guided pub crawl of James Joyce's Dublin haunts ($9). Trips to London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Paris, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Milan, and Rome are also offered through its EuroCity Stays program (hotel rates from $44 per person, per night). Booking this way saves a considerable amount: an itinerary that includes round-trip airfare from New York, three nights in Killarney's Cahernane Hotel, three nights in Dublin, and a six-day car rental costs just $976 per person.
Sometimes white sand and hot sun is the only way to go. AeroMexico is offering getaways through December 18 to Cancún, Cozumel, Acapulco, Ixtapa, Puerto Vallarta, and Los Cabos. Five nights at Cancún's beachfront Calinda Beach Resort & Spa plus a round-trip flight from New York's JFK, including airport transfers, start at $383 per person. With prices so low, guests can spend their days trying all the extras; everything from horseback riding and deep-sea fishing to aromatherapy massages at the resort's full-service spa can be booked for an additional fee. Only have time for a quick trip?Three-night getaways are also an option.
The national airline of Fiji offers discounted vacations on two cruise lines and at more than 40 hotels, including Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort, the famous Wakaya Club, and Laucala Fiji Forbes, on the late Malcolm Forbes's private island. Prices vary widely depending on the property and time of year, but there are some great deals. The beachfront bures at the Matamanoa Island Resort look out on coral reef and turquoise water; a seven-night stay, with airfare from Los Angeles, transfers, breakfasts, and a catamaran to and from the island, costs $1,571 per person.
American has organized some outstanding golf packages in Hawaii on the Big Island, Oahu, Lanai, Maui, and Molokai. The price for three nights in a garden-view room and unlimited golf at Maui's Ritz-Carlton Kapalua is $575 per person (airfare is additional); extra nights can be booked for $192 per person. One-bedroom cottages at nearby Kapalua Villas are available from $529 a person, double, for a three-night stay ($176 for each additional night). American also has discounts on stays in Las Vegas and Disney World.
BA Holidays' Affordable Africa brochure is like an F.A.O. Schwarz catalogue for adults. Instead of toys, you'll drool over luxurious safaris in Kenya and Tanzania, a Nile River cruise, a hot-air balloon ride over the Serengeti—all at reduced prices. The 12-day Kenya Kaleidoscope package includes airfare from New York, Newark, or Boston, such top-notch accommodations as the Mount Kenya Safari Club and Sweetwaters Tented Camp in Nanyuki, game drives, and most meals; rates are from $3,399 per person. A 10-day air-inclusive expedition to Egypt, which takes in Cairo, Giza, Luxor, Isna, Idfu, and Aswan, begins at $2,669 per person.
San Juan is the hottest urban Caribbean destination right now, and Continental flies to Puerto Rico three times a day. Its three-night getaway could incorporate either a stay at the Hotel El Convento, a restored 17th-century Carmelite convent in historic Old San Juan (from $599 per person, including airfare), or at El Conquistador Resort on Puerto Rico's northeastern shore (from $721 per person). And if you're heading to Europe, take a look at Continental's package Web site—www.coolvacations.com. Continental and Air France are offering seven-day trips to Paris (airfare, five nights in a hotel, and breakfast included) through the end of the year, starting at just $749 per person.
Outrageous Tokyo hotel bills have long been the stuff of travel lore, but beginning next year JAL has worked out some especially affordable rates for Japan's major cities. From January through March, a seven-day, five-night Tokyo trip from San Francisco, including airfare, airport transfer, and accommodations in business hotels, will start at $1,020 per person. Travelers looking for a more cultural experience may choose a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. The five-night Inn Flex Plan to Kyoto starts at $860 a person, departing from San Francisco ($940 from Chicago, Dallas, or New York).
Still haven't made it to Prague?Finnair's tour division has an incredible bargain on a seven-day trip to the Czech Republic's most popular city; rates range from $599 to $999, with a single supplement of only $75 and additional weeks for $125 each. Flights depart on Fridays through April 2000. The price covers hotel, an architectural sightseeing tour, daily breakfast, and all airport transfers. Norvista also has an independent-traveler program for Helsinki, Stockholm, and St. Petersburg.
Excellent service on SA is a given, but the low prices on its new vacation packages are a surprise. A Bali honeymoon trip is the height of luxury—four nights at the Four Seasons Resort at Jimbaran Bay, daily breakfasts in bed, a dinner in your villa's garden, a relaxing Balinese lulur massage and flower bath for two in your suite, and the use of the resort's canoes and catamarans. All this, plus airfare from Los Angeles or San Francisco, three nights at Singapore's elegant 1900 Goodwood Park Hotel, flights to and from Bali, and airport transfers, costs $2,488 per person. That's a bargain considering the resort's regular rate of $525 a night for a double. A week on the Malaysian side of Borneo, including round-trip airfare from L.A. or San Francisco, is $998; from New York, $1,068 (departures through November 30 and from January 5 to March 31). Guests can divide their seven-night stay between Shangri-La's two beachfront resorts in Sabah—a tropical region rich with wildlife preserves, cloud forests, hiking trails, and offshore coral reefs.
No one knows London like Virgin, and its six-night package (from $1,089 per person) is good for both first-time visitors and travelers already familiar with that pricey city. Round-trip airfare, lodging at a choice of 30 hotels or private apartments, airport pickup, and daily continental breakfast are combined with such fun extras as a complimentary copy of Virgin's hip new guide to London, a ticket to a play or musical, lunch and a drink in a pub, a proper afternoon tea, and a hop-on, hop-off bus tour. Other specially designed itineraries are available for families or anyone who wants to Chunnel over to Paris for a night or two.
Kimberly Robinson is an associate editor at Travel & Leisure.