Best Places to Stretch a Weak Dollar
Why It's a Bargain: These non-euro nations have been value central for Americans for a long time—and these days they're even more so.
Where to Stay: To see just how hot (and hip) Croatia has become, check out the sleek Arcotel Allegra in Zagreb, where rates start at $126 a night. For a classic old-world experience, stay at the Imperial Hotel in Prague, an Art Deco jewel that was recently refurbished; a nightly rate including value-added tax (VAT) starts at $191 (420/246-011-600; www.hotel-imperial.cz).
What to Buy: For all the money you're saving, treat yourself to a future heirloom: crystal is an excellent buy in this part of the world—especially in Prague, where you can buy cut-crystal vases or bowls for as little as $40.
Why It's a Bargain: This city has always been Western-friendly in terms of culture, and with its dollar and the Chinese yuan both loosely tied to the U.S. dollar, it's economically friendly too.
Where to Stay: Overlooking the South China Sea, Hong Kong Island's Le Meridien Cyberport has that oh-so-Hong Kong mix of elegance and techno-hipness, with rates starting at about $200 a night. If you crave those stunning harbor-and-skyline views, the Peninsula—known for its cool airport transfers—offers a "Value Experience" package that starts at $410 a night, which includes a daily fruit basket as well as breakfast for two every morning in its aristocrat-worthy lobby.
What to Buy: You'll roll your eyes at tea bags once you've sampled good Chinese tea here, made from loose leaves or hockey-puck-like cakes. Tea salons here offer tastings the way wineries do in Napa, but the prices are better. You can bring home a flavorful green, oolong, or pu-erh tea for less than $10.
Why It's a Bargain: This South Pacific nation has been hot for years, but it still hasn't gotten too pricey; one New Zealand dollar costs Americans just 77 cents.
How to Go: With lush rolling hills, fjords, and glaciers—terrain that Lord of the Rings-lovers know as Middle Earth—this is a great country to take in by foot. U.S.-based outfitter Country Walkers offers a 10-day "South Island Splendor" trip; you'll hike, kayak, and taste local wines; rates start at $4,198, with all meals included (800/464-9255; www.countrywalkers.com). If you come here solo, it's hard to argue with Hotel So in Christchurch. Rooms may be petite, but they're enticingly crisp and contemporary in an IKEA sort of way, with flat-screen TV's and free wireless—plus rates start at a staggering $68 a night for a double (64-3/968-5050; www.hotelso.co.nz).
What to Buy: New Zealand greenstone—a semiprecious stone called pounamu by the native Maori—resembles jade, and goes for about $15 for a simple necklace. If you really want to dazzle (or freak out) folks back home, bring them some merinomink gloves for about $20. They're incredibly warm, thanks to the fact that they are made of, yes, local possum fur.
Why It's a Bargain: Like most currencies in Southeast Asia, the Vietnamese dong is still cheap compared with the U.S. dollar.
How to Go: Especially for first-time visits, a package tour can offer good structure and compound your value. Globus (866/755-8581; www.globusjourneys.com) offers a 14-day Vietnam-and-Cambodia tour starting at $3,119. If you want to go a little more upscale, check out Asia Transpacific Journeys' four 17-day itineraries throughout the year, starting at $4,995 person; you'll be put up in plush hotels like Hanoi's T+L 500 winner Sofitel Metropole and kept busy hiking, riding bikes, and sometimes even meeting with former royals (800/642-2742; www.asiatranspacific.com).
What to Buy: The silk trade here puts a special emphasis on beautifully embroidered—and wonderfully affordable—clothing. You can buy a quality silk scarf for as little as $5, or have a jacket made for about $20.
Why It's a Bargain: These nations' currencies—particularly Argentina's, Chile's, and Brazil's—have stayed within reach of the dollar.
How to Go: If you equate "group tour" with "herd," check out Globus's Monograms trips, which lay out your vacation but then set you free: the 11-day "South American Selection" trip hits Rio de Janeiro, Iguazu Falls, and Buenos Aires, and prices start at around $1,600 per person (866/270-9841; www.monogramstravel.com).
What to Buy: In Buenos Aires, leather goods are gorgeous, plentiful, and surprisingly economical: you can find good gloves for as little as $10, or have a jacket custom-made for about $150.
Why It's a Bargain: If you travel the area by cruise ship—one of the best ways to see it anyway—you'll prepay in dollars and then pop into both euro- and non-euro-based countries.
How to Go: Plenty of cruise lines serve the Mediterranean, but Holland America offers a 10-day "Roman Empire" cruise that starts at $1,399 per person; it includes, of course, Rome, along with Greece, Sicily, Turkey, and Croatia. And during periodic "View and Verandah" sales, you can get a free cabin upgrade (877/724-5425; www.hollandamerica.com). You can usually even find deals with the high-end cruise lines: Silversea, for one, is offering a 30 percent discount on its Athens-to-Venice itinerary, which has you docked in Venice for the better part of two full days (starts at $4,546; 800/722-9955; www.silversea.com).
What to Buy: In Greece, pick up a Panathenaic amphora—a ceramic jug modeled after those once awarded at the Panathenaic games (an ancient alternative to the Olympics). These classic vessels go for anywhere from $25 to $250.
Why It's a Bargain: The peso is doing better than it used to—but, well, it's still the peso, so deals abound.
Where to Stay: Ixtapa's Club Med—the area's first resort when it opened in 1982—has now been renovated with bold, contemporary decor, and lots of family-friendly amenities (including a circus school for kids—trapeze lessons, anyone?). When a renovation is completed in March 2008, there will be nearly 300 rooms and 60 family suites, with all-inclusive packages starting at $200 a night per adult, and up to 70 percent off for kids. Other packages give kids a free pass altogether (888/932-2582; www.clubmed.com).
What to Buy: Guerrero, the state where Ixtapa is located, is a veritable silver mine—and you can buy a piece of jewelry starting at $5.
Why It's a Bargain: Their dollar is pegged to our dollar, and in some spots you can even use greenbacks. To keep your bottom line really steady, stay at an all-inclusive resort, where you'll prepay for meals and even some drinks.
Where to Stay: Our Lucaya on Grand Bahama is actually two resorts in one—a Sheraton and Westin that share three pools, two golf courses, a kids' club, and seven-plus acres of sandy beach. If you want extra value (and more all-inclusive options), stay on the Sheraton side (866/837-4186; www.sheraton.com), where all-inclusive nightly rates start at $295 per couple.
What to Buy: Cuban cigars have long been a treat for visiting Americans, with the sad hitch that you can't bring any back to the U.S. For an embargo loophole, look for Graycliff cigars (www.graycliff.com) while you're here: they cost up to $20 each and are made by Cuban craftsmen who live in the Bahamas, making the stogies a perfectly legal souvenir to tote home.
Western Europe's Rivers
Why It's a Bargain: Gliding down the waterways of Europe lets you take in all the scenery and culture while keeping most of your expenses in dollars.
How to Go: Avalon Waterways covers Europe by way of the Danube, the Moselle, the Rhine, and the Rhone. This spring the small-ship line is launching a new 138-passenger ship, the Scenery—which, despite being petite, offers travelers the obligatory pool as well as niceties such as Egyptian-cotton sheets and flat-screen TV's. Its 11-day "Flavors of Burgundy and Provence" goes from Paris to Nice along the Rhone, and includes hotels at each end as well as stops in Arles, Avignon, and the Chardonnay area; passengers also receive onboard wine tutorials to help guide onshore tastings. Rates start at $2,059 per person (877/797-8791; www.avalonwaterways.com).
What to Buy: While ashore in Burgundy or Provence you can try wines so local, or "small," that they typically don't get imported to the U.S.—and you can often bring them home for $20 or less.
Why It's a Bargain: Yes, London. If you shop for airlines' vacation packages, the pound doesn't seem so heavy anymore. You can bundle your costs up front—sometimes including meals and activities—and often get an impressive discount.
How to Go: Continental Vacations (800/301-3800; www.covacations.com) offers a wide variety of hotels and many values, including hotel stays with free breakfast—or even free nights. We found an eight-night package with accommodations at the Thistle Victoria (www.thistlehotels.com), a stately neighbor of Buckingham Palace, for $1,300 per person (based on double occupancy)—a savings of $1,600 compared to separate hotel and air bookings.
What to Buy: Street markets like those in Portobello, Camden, and Greenwich are great places to find arts and crafts, antiques, and local curios like English toast racks. Treasures can be had for as little as $10.