Warm up from the biting cold
Even with the lower-than-normal snowfall this winter, the weather is still a bit frightful. The sun doesn't feel as hot, and temperatures aren't as high in most of the U.S. as they are in some lush, warm locations.
So why not get out of the winter weather for a few days and trade a few of those bulky layers for T-shirts, shorts and a pair of flip-flops? If you think a winter escape doesn't fit into your budget, think again.
Using travel sites such as CheapTickets.com, CuringColdFeet.com, TripAdvisor.com, Travelocity.com and Orbitz.com, Bankrate found some affordable rates to get out of the cold and into some toasty, warm destinations.
Gulf Shores, Ala.
Flight: $308 average per person on round-trip nonstop flights, depending on origination city.
Accommodations: Rooms start as low as $47 a night.
The details: Other than the cheap deals to be had, Gulf Shores' 32-mile stretch of beach offers budget-minded travelers mild off-season temperatures, nine year-round golf courses, great food options and a host of area activities. Package rates start as low as $59 per person per night (based on a group of four) for a room and the ability to golf on any of the nine golf courses.
If golfing isn't your bag, there are plenty of other attractions in the area. The Gulf Shores dining scene has received recent television and national media exposure for the destination's focus on its unique local tastes. And the Gulf State Park Pier provides views of gorgeous sunsets from $2 to $8 per person, depending on whether you'd like to throw a line or two in the water.
Flight: $218 average per person for round-trip nonstop flights, depending on origination city.
Accommodations: From $50 to $114 per night.
The details: There are oodles of hotels and motels offering cheap rooms. Some, such as the Flamingo Cancun Resort, even have options for an all-inclusive plan. On Orbitz.com, the hotel also offers 50 percent off kids' meals and 20 percent off adult meals. This includes a $30 credit to swim with the dolphins. Of course, there's also the pristine stretch of beach with views of the Caribbean Sea, a lagoon and an array of international restaurants. With all this fun in the sun, make sure to tote along a towel and some strong SPF.
There are also many other affordable hotels with prices that average $75 per night. These are just a short bus ride to Cancun's famed night life, shopping district and convention center. You're minutes from the chance to take a tour with Captain Hook, a company that offers various free tours (reservations are required) in a 17th-century replica of the Spanish ships El Galleon I and El Bucanero II. You can soak up sun and surf at Akumal, the best place to go windsurfing and snorkeling in Cancun -- located minutes from the shopping district. Just remember, you'll need to convert your U.S. dollars to Mexican pesos. Currently, $1 converts to about 13 Mexican pesos.
Flights: $289 average per person on round-trip nonstop flights, depending on the origination city.
Accommodations: $43 per person per night for a family of four at one of six Sky Hotels and resort properties.
The details: Families who love Legos can stack up the fun and explore the 150-acre park, from Miniland USA to Lego Kingdom. Thaw out from the cold and settle into three nights of accommodations in a one-bedroom suite (upgrades to multibedroom suites are available) at one of six properties, including Palisades Resort or Lake Buena Vista Resort and Spa. Packages include a family four-pack of tickets to Legoland and two Lego fun packs for $172 per night (now through March 31, 2012).
After you've had your fill of brick-building, you can get back in touch with nature at the Ocala National Forest for free. It boasts huge springs, twisting streams, and lakes for fishing and water skiing. Many of the scenic lakes were formed when limestone bedrock dissolved, which permitted the surface layer to slump and fill with water. Several other parks, such as Wekiwa Springs and Fort Christmas, also have tons of fun activities for kids of all ages.
Flights: $289 average per person on round-trip nonstop flights, depending on origination city.
Accommodations: $199 per night, which includes a suite and several credits for activities.
The details: It doesn't get much sunnier or warmer in the winter than Phoenix. Several hotels are wooing warm-weather seekers with attractive packages, including the Arizona Grand Resort, which is offering a Grand Adventures package through the end of February.
For $199 a night, you're treated to a stay in a one-room suite, $100 in "Adventure Pack Certificates" plus a $50-per-night credit to create your own adventure -- from dining al fresco to a cocktail by the pool.
The package includes a selection of complimentary activities that guests can choose from such as guided hikes at the adjacent South Mountain Preserve, morning yoga or tai chi, s'mores by the fire, movies under the stars, or an evening of tequila tasting and tortilla making.
There are also plenty of free local attractions such as the Verde Canyon Railroad where you can travel for free by train through protected wilderness reservations and Sinagua Indian ruins.
Flights: $274 average per person on round-trip nonstop flights, depending on origination city.
Accommodations: Less than $40 per night for double occupancy.
The details: Home to 848 square miles of beaches, parks, golf courses, shopping, dining and more -- a visit to Jacksonville is a great way to soak up some warm, sunny weather on the cheap.
According to VisitJacksonville.com, you'll shell out around $90 a day for hotel, food, and arts and culture at renowned museums. One family-friendly example is the Hands-On Children's Museum, which has an admission price of around $8 per person. There are also miles of free beaches for surfing, playing volleyball or just soaking up the sun.
If the beaches get boring, you can always attend a local sporting event, from baseball to basketball, for around $8 a ticket. If outdoors is where you want to be, take advantage of the largest urban parks system in the country with 111,600 preserved acres for hiking, biking, camping and kayaking. Entrance fees are usually less than $5, not including equipment rental if you need it.