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LITTLE PACKAGES, BIG SAVINGS

The desire to travel may be strong, but this year the means for many are weak. How can adventurous travelers cut vacation costs during pinched economic times? In general:

*Travel off-season. In Mexico and the Caribbean between Mid-April and November, costs at some resorts drop as much as 50 percent.

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*Book charter flights for big savings on air fare.

*Shorten your time away from home, and maximize vacation time by booking direct flights.

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*Limit your luxuries while you're gone by staying in budget accommodations. Travel agents may be loathe to put you into such hotels, because if you don't like them, they hear the complaints. But if you feel certain that no ocean view, no color television, or staying a block from the beach is worth what you'll save, insist on budget bookings, then ask your agent to direct you to the best of the least expensive places.

Some specific suggestions:

CANCUN, MEXICO

Two charter operators book direct flights from Baltimore-Washington International Airport to Cancun and a third leaves out of Dulles International Airport. Their packages include round-trip air fare, hotel, hotel taxes and airport transfers. After mid-April, when the peak season ends, packages will cost about $450 per person for seven nights, based on double occupancy.

Cancun was born when a group of business people ran a computer search to determine the perfect resort spot. The area's main attractions are its beaches and water sports, notably snorkeling and diving. Shopping spots are plentiful, and cotton clothing is an especially good buy.

Cancun is no sleepy fishing village. It boasts skyscrapers, bustling streets and countless disco-bars. Of course, this modernization can be to a tourist's benefit. Most of the big hotels have their own water purification systems and they also import fruits and vegetables that are safe for Americans to eat. Tourists are still warned against drinking non-bottled and non-purified water and against eating salads and fruits without hard rinds.

If you are looking for a taste of "real" Mexico, day trips from Cancun may satisfy you. The area boasts three Mayan ruins, easily accessible through group tours which leave daily from most major hotels. Or, for about the price of two people taking a tour, you can rent a jeep and drive yourself to the sights.

Jamie McDowell, manager of Capital Travel Center in Annapolis, recommends driving to Xel-ha, a nearby lagoon that offers fine snorkeling. Tourist groups stop there, too, but don't allow much exploration time. After sunning and swimming at Xel-ha, it's an easy drive onward to Tulum, site of Mayan ruins.

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If day trips from Cancun still don't take you far enough from the hustle-bustle, you may want to stay on Cozumel, an island 20 minutes off the coast of Cancun. Because its waters are, as Jamie McDowell says, "very clean and alive," Cozumel mainly attracts divers. There are few night-life activities on the island, so be prepared for days of diving and nights of sound sleeping.

Exchange rates in Mexico fluctuate wildly, but as Dave Gumm, president of Holiday Travel Bureau in Baltimore, notes, "Mexico is one of the few places left where the dollar is actually worth something."

NASSAU, THE BAHAMAS

Located just south of Miami, Nassau on New Providence Island is less than two hours away by plane. Marylanders can depart BWI at 8 a.m., and, when returning, depart Nassau at 6 p.m. Both ways, travel time barely interferes with vacation days. Some charter deals to the Bahamas currently cost $299 for four days/three nights. Rates usually decrease starting April 16.

Crossing New Providence by car takes only 45 minutes, but just because the island is tiny doesn't mean there's nothing to do. The most popular activities are beach-bumming and gambling. Huge hotels house equally enormous casinos, and everyone tries his luck. Should you tire of these activities, you can visit a new Nassau attraction, Coral World. Visitors descend a glass tower planted in the ocean to see -- and be seen by -- hundreds of lobsters and tropical fish. Others will want to charter boats and try their luck at deep-sea fishing.

NEGRIL, JAMAICA

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Air Jamaica offers non-stop flights to Jamaica from BWI. Four-day/three-night packages (including round-trip air fare, hotel, hotel taxes and transfers) cost from the mid-$300s to low $400s, based on double occupancy, and depending upon the hotel. While many visitors are attracted to the better-known Montego Bay, Mr. Gumm, of Holiday Travel Bureau, recommends visiting Negril, in Jamaica's west.

"The western portion of the island has remained relatively undeveloped for the last 10 years," Mr. Gumm says. That means uncrowded beaches, quiet night life, and gaining a feel for the island instead of for tourist stops. As a bonus, he says, "You can cut food costs, because they have a lot of smaller, native-run restaurants."

CAYMAN ISLANDS

Lately, according to Jamie McDowell of Capital Travel Center, the Cayman Islands have been a good buy, although they are still more costly to visit than Cancun, the Bahamas or Jamaica. One off-season charter package including air, hotel, hotel taxes and transfers costs about $670 per person for seven nights, based on double occupancy.

Most visitors stay on Grand Cayman Island, which just opened its third nightclub this year. The islands have a British feel -- clean, proper and very quiet. Scuba divers flock there to dive on the area's numerous sunken wrecks. Others enjoy seeing the island's turtle farm -- turtles are raised like chickens, and many local dishes feature their meat. Most visitors, however, find happiness in simple relaxation.

AMBERGRIS CAY, BELIZE

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A still-exotic destination is Ambergris Cay, an island off the coast of the tiny country of Belize. From Baltimore, fly to Miami or New Orleans non-stop, and there connect with a flight to Belize City. In January, air fare cost just under $500 round trip. Once in Belize, food, hotels and activities are inexpensive.

Mr. Gumm of Holiday Travel Bureau recommends a hotel called Ramone's Reef Club, which in January cost under $100 a night (double occupancy). Check with your travel agent to see if rates drop during the summer months.

"Ambergris is a Hemingway-type island with a sleepy village feel," Mr. Gumm says. "The native people are incredibly friendly." You can fish, dive or take a trip to Belize City, where ancient Mayan ruins are being unearthed in archaeological digs.

"I'm surprised more people haven't discovered Belize," Mr. Gumm says. "Right now, it's a destination for people who want something different."

THE FLORIDA KEYS

For the look and feel of the Caribbean at the cost of a flight to Miami plus car rental, you may want to consider exploring the Florida Keys. Such a trip involves doing your homework to find B&Bs; and inns along whichever route you choose to follow. For information, call your travel agent or the Florida Tourist Board (904) 487-1462.

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One last bit of general information: Cruises may be an economical choice for families, because accommodations and transportation, as well as all on-board meals and activities, are included in the cost.

If you belong to a travel club, check out its packages. Sometimes, club deals are worth the extra cash (for AAA, about $50) it costs to join. And finally, remember that booking well in advance of departure dates almost always helps minimize costs.


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