Don’t waste your Winter Break

By By Matt Homer and By Matt Homer

By Matt Homer

Winter Break may seem like a distant mirage in a desert of inhospitable homework and midterms, but this oasis is real and will arrive sooner than you think. Begin planning now to make the most of it.

Think of the possibilities. You could spend your month-long break hibernating on your parents’ couch and watching mid-day soap operas or, with a little bit of forethought, you could be traveling the world. Why not spend your Christmas Eve in mass at the Vatican, wandering through the Islamic remnants of southern Spain or sipping a cup of fresh mint tea in Morocco? If this sounds too good to be true, then read on.

Forget the archaic advice perpetuated by our parents’ generation. Foreign travel is no longer expensive, nor is it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. With a little bit of planning, foresight and ambition, it’s a possibility open to nearly everyone.

If you agree but think it’s too soon for you to consider a winter vacation, here’s two reasons why you should. First, it will give you something to look forward to in the coming days of depressed sunlight. Second, if you don’t start planning now, you’ll probably end up going nowhere.

Two brief tips for an inexpensive but ambitious vacation:

First consider airfare. If you are traveling abroad, this will most likely make up the biggest chunk of your budget. Although there are many travel Web sites, I suggest you scour two in particular-studentuniverse.com and kayak.com.

Kayak.com is particularly useful because it searches multiple Web sites and displays the all-inclusive cost, so you won’t have to wonder about taxes or fees. It also lets you search with flexible dates so you can look for the best fare within a certain timeframe. This past week I found roundtrip airfare from Salt Lake City to Germany and Guatemala for just more than $500-taxes and fees included.

If you choose to go to Europe but can’t find a cheap flight for the location you want, check out the discount carriers that fly between European cities. Simply book a flight from the United States to the cheapest European city and then continue to your final destination on one of these local airlines.

Wikitravel.com has a pretty good listing of these carriers and they are generally very cheap. I once flew from Italy to Spain for fewer than $50 roundtrip.

If foreign travel looks too costly, check out low-cost domestic options. I’ve found travel.yahoo.com and travelocity.com especially fruitful. Each week I receive an e-mail from Travelocity with a list of roundtrip flights from Salt Lake City costing fewer than $200. For that price you can travel to almost any major U.S. city, but you’ve got to be watching.

Next, let’s look at where to stay. The cheapest option is always a hostel. For those unfamiliar, these are dormitory-style hotels used primarily by people our age. Hostels can vary quite a bit, but you can expect to be in a room of bunk beds with three to 11 other people. If you’re worried about mixing the sexes, you can rest assured that most places offer separate male and female rooms. The typical price for a night’s stay ranges from $15 to $30. One of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed in cost only $15 a night.

All things considered, it’s completely possible to have an incredible foreign vacation for around $1,000 and an American one for fewer than $500. However, doing things the cheap way requires greater preparation, a willingness to accept uncertainty and self-discipline.

Just imagine: Two months from now you could be sitting on your couch watching Brad Pitt wander through Italy in Oceans Twelve or you could be there yourself.