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Arthur Frommer's 12 Best Bargain Vacations

China leads the list of top travel bargains starting in early December of this year. By flying first to San Francisco and connecting with a non-stop flight to Beijing, one enjoys a remarkable 9-day, 7-night stay in that nation's two largest cities - Beijing and Shanghai - for as little as $1,039, virtually all-inclusive. Close behind China, and this time on flights departing from Miami, are travel opportunities in Costa Rica, the most popular of Central American nations. We list those, as well as several other unequalled travel values, for residents of the Palm Beach area:

(1) Wilson Wu's Beijing and Shanghai ("A Tale Of Two Chinese Cities"): As little as $1,039, including air. An unchallenged bargain is this remarkable price for a one-week stay in these two Chinese cities (three nights in Beijing, four nights in Shanghai), offered by a well-established entrepreneur in Asian travel, Wilson Wu, through his company called ChinaSpree.com. For departures in the coming winter (first of December through February), he has astonished the travel world by reducing the price to Beijing and Shanghai to $1,039 for round-trip air from San Francisco (an equally remarkable $1,099 from New York), airport transfers, seven nights with full buffet breakfast daily at first-class hotels in those two cities (as well as three lunches elsewhere), escorted sightseeing and other features, all during December through February. While Mr. Wu hasn't yet announced the charge for spring, summer and fall 2014, you can be sure his price will remain a remarkable value, almost always less than you would payfor airfare alone to and from China from San Francisco.

(2) An escorted 10-night tour of Costa Rica in October and November: Only $995 to $1,095 per person (plus $234 in taxes and fees): At the lowest rates of the year for such tours within Costa Rica, Caravan Tours - a long-established firm - will take you by escorted motor coach on a 10-night tour of every important sight, including quality accommodations, three meals daily and daily escorted sightseeing. But airfare to Costa Rica, which you book yourself, is not included. The tour operator lists two departures in October and eight in November. Access www.caravan.com or phone 800-CARAVAN.

(3) A hosted tour of four locations in Costa Rica: $1,149 per person, but not Including airfare. From the long-established G Adventures

(www.gadventures.com; 800-800-4100), here's a well-planned, 10-day tour to four distinctive locations (San Jose, Tortuguero on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast, the Arenal Volcano and the Guanacaste beaches on the Pacific coast). You receive nine hotel nights, nine breakfasts, two lunches and two dinners, a tour in each location and transportation from place to place. The price is for each of two people traveling together (single people traveling alone pay $1,669), and departures are frequent in September and October. Look for "The Best of Costa Rica" in the tour operator's catalog or website.

(4) Five nights in Buenos Aires, Argentina, including round-trip mid-week airfare from Miami: $1,559 per person, in October and November. You'll receive round-trip air on LAN Airways, five nights at the boutique Art Hotel in Recoleta, breakfast daily, transfers, half-day tour, fees and taxes, and airfare fuel surcharge (included in the price). Note that you'll need an Argentinian visa costing $140, and that it's the fuel surcharge of $560 that pushes your total cost to the $1,559 level. Offered by Escapes Unlimited (www.escapesltd.com,

800-243-7227).

(5) Bargain-priced stays in Las Vegas, scheduled for October through mid-December: The summer months and early-to-late December are the low season in Las Vegas, when hotel stays are at their cheapest. But though business picks up in October through November, it does not reach anywhere near the levels of January through March. On midweek stays throughout the autumn months, many major Las Vegas hotels charge as little as $34, $40 and $45 a night per room from Sunday through Thursday, and though you'll have to add a ubiquitous "resort fee" of around $20 per room per night, the cost of visiting America's Sin City at that time is refreshingly low. Consult a long-established website, TravelWorm.com, for the latest bargains in such unpretentious Vegas hotels as Circus Circus, the Stratosphere, Rio All Suites, Riviera, Super8, Excalibur and Hooters. Except when a major convention is in town (and you should always consult the convention charts), Las Vegas can be a major, year-around bargain.

(6) A South American sampler, 20 days for $1,255 (plus food kitty, plus air) in October: On an adventuresome trip from La Paz to Santiago (Bolivia through Chile) that will spend eight of 20 days camping out, the aptly-named Intrepid Travel will take a small group (limited to 22 people) on an overland route through the Andes Mountains, touching down in several preserved colonial towns in Bolivia and Argentina, before arriving in Santiago, Chile. Talk about "adventure tours"! Airfare is extra, as are meals (covered by a daily kitty totaling $700 for the entire trip; thus, your total cost is $1,255 plus $700, which equals $1,995). Consult IntrepidTravel.com.

(7) Fly-and-drive tours to Ireland, bringing you round-trip air to Dublin and a car with unlimited mileage: $799 and less. To a European nation whose economic woes are matched only by Greece, tour operators have vied with one another to invent ever-more-attractive air-and-land packages. They bring you travel there on Aer Lingus from several U.S. cities, and supply a car with unlimited mileage for a week, all for $799 per person and less. Though not every tour operator offers such a package throughout the year, at least one of the following three companies will always be charging that price for the dates in which you're interested: BMIT.com (standing for Brian Moore International), Go-Today.com and SceptreTours.com. Consult all three.

(8) Mediterranean cruises on Norwegian Cruise Line and MSC Cruises: It's no secret that business has been slow (and cabins easily available) for Mediterranean cruises this year, not because the experience isn't appreciated, but because the cost of flying from the U.S. to various Mediterranean ports is greater than it was last year. But even when you have to pay $1,300 or so for a one-stop (en route) round-trip ticket to Barcelona, Venice or Rome (from which most ships leave), the cost of the cruise itself can be so low as to make the total expense a definite bargain for an all-inclusive, two-week vacation in fall and winter. And throughout the year, these two bargain-priced lines sailing the Mediterranean in every month - Norwegian Cruise Line and MSC -charge as little as $83 to $90 a night per person for an 8-night through 11-night sailing on dates well scattered throughout each month. While their ships aren't as spiffy in appearance, cuisine or service as the premium lines, these two

popularly-priced companies provide a thoroughly enjoyable cruise in fall/winter, stopping in all the classic, colorful ports of the historic Mediterranean. Go to the websites of VacationsToGo.com or CruisesOnly.com for a list of departures and prices.

(9) $625 on select Miami sailings of Disney ships: On select departure dates from Miami in November (Nov. 15 and Nov. 29), you'll pay as little as $625 per person for five-night sailings of the Western Caribbean aboard the high-quality Disney Magic. Go to the Disney website - disneycruise.disney.go.com/

special-offers/ - or phone 800-951-3532 for details.

(10) Seven all-inclusive days and nights in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, including round-trip, nonstop air on American Airlines from Miami: $946 per person. Departing Friday, Oct. 25, and returning Nov. 1, you'll enjoy an air-and-land package to the popular Punta Cana resort area, as well as seven nights of accommodations at the intimate VIK Arena Blanca resort on Bavaro Beach, for the remarkable price of $946 per person, including three meals each day, unlimited drinks and beverages, and all government taxes and fees. Contact Apple Vacations at applevacations.com or phone 800-517-2000.

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NOTE: The prices cited are per person for each of two people traveling together, and do not include government taxes and fees (unless those taxes and fees are specifically listed as included). Airfare is often included in the price, but only when specifically mentioned. Prices are subject to change, and new listings will periodically be substituted for those that are no longer valid.

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Arthur Frommer is the pioneering founder of the Frommer's Travel Guide book series. He co-hosts the radio program, The Travel Show, with his travel correspondent daughter Pauline Frommer. Find more destinations online and read Arthur Frommer's blog at frommers.com.

 Photo credit:  MojoBaron