As the days get shorter and the winds get meaner, Canadians become united in a single fantasy: escaping our harsh climate to soak up some rays down south. Few among us haven’t paused while digging out our wooly toques and musty mittens to picture ourselves stretched out on a beach chair, margarita in hand. But where is the perfect escape right now? We spoke with travel industry insiders to find some great resort deals this winter.
It’s not as simple as merely choosing the cheapest resort package deal. Just ask Christopher Elliott, a consumer ombudsman and National Geographic Traveler’s editor-at-large. His inbox is filled with holiday horror stories about food poisoning, hidden charges or bug-infested beds. “Some people just look for the very cheapest vacation, then act all surprised when they’re disappointed,” he says.
Elliott says the safest bets are usually the big names in the business, like Sandals and Beaches. And while going with a well-known company isn’t a guarantee there won’t be any disappointments at all, he says the big players are much more likely to offer good customer service in the unlikely event something does go wrong.
Joanne Thachuk, owner of Travel Sensations Downtown in Toronto, also recommends Sandals and Beaches, but says there are other resort chains like Karisma, Iberostar, Riu and AMR “that are amazing and a better bang for your buck.” As for specific locations, both Elliott and Thachuk say tried-and-true hotspots like central Florida and Cuba are safe bets for winter weary Canadian families and couples. Florida, of course, is a short flight for many Canadians, and the intense competition among the abundant hotels can mean real savings. Cuba is probably still the most economical place to travel, although Thachuk notes prices seem to be increasing and “the vacations tend to be more basic than the other destinations.”
For the best value for Canadians, Thachuk recommends the Mayan Riviera in Mexico and Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic. “At those locations you can usually obtain a five-star property at a three-star price,” she says. “The resorts, food and people are fabulous and don’t carry the high prices of the English, Dutch and French islands in the Caribbean.”
One of her favourite resorts for families in the Mayan Riviera is Karisma’s Azul Beach Hotel, a five-star property with suites where you can swim right up to your door. “It also has a variety of restaurants with great food,” she says. For adults, Thachuk recommends the very affordable Valentin Imperial Maya, and the El Dorado Casitas Royale, which has thatched roofs and beachfront cabanas that give it a real tropical feeling.
For good value in Punta Cana, Thachuk recommends the popular Bahia Principe chain of resorts. If you have young kids, Club Med is a also good bet: most resorts only offer programs for kids age four and older, but Club Med takes babies as young as four months.
When you’re booking your trip, don’t rely too heavily on the internet, and in particular, reviews on websites like TripAdvisor. Elliott cautions that reviews on those sites can be subject to manipulation by the resorts themselves or someone with an axe to grind. Instead, turn to word-of-mouth recommendations from family and friends for reliable endorsements. “To find the real truth you have to go there yourself or talk to a friend that has been,” he says.
If neither is an option, Elliott suggests you can get information reasonably approaching the truth from sites like TripAdvisor if you discard the top 10% of the fawning reviews, then do the same with the bottom 10% of the most critical comments. Somewhere in the middle of what’s left is something close to the truth, he says. Experienced travel agents can also offer good information, and booking through them doesn’t usually cost more than booking online.
In order to make the most of your time, stay at resorts that aren’t too far from the airport. “Who wants to land, then spend half a day driving to the resort?” says Toronto Sun travel editor Robin Robinson.
She also recommends searching for packages with flights that get you to your destination fairly early in the day and don’t leave at the crack of dawn on departure day. After all, every precious hour you can spend soaking up the sun will help you arrive home feeling rested and refreshed.