The sun warms your bare arms, an iced drink cools your hand, waves lap at your feet. It’s easy to conjure up the picture. More difficult can be deciding where to go to make it happen. The Dominican Republic, Jamaica, the Caribbean, the Florida Coast? Your mind can slosh with the ocean of options. Fortunately, there are simple ways to narrow the search and find a destination that fits your budget as much as it does your daydreams of sunshine.


Call a travel agent

When late-night mouse clicks produce images of palm trees and tanned couples walking in the surf, the next click could easily be “Book now.”

Hold off the urge, no matter how pretty the picture. You could be better off calling a travel agent. They may charge a small fee, but they often have firsthand experience of warm-weather resorts and can guide you to a hot spot that will suit your needs. Plus, they have a knack for nabbing good deals and will act as your travel advocate if a problem arises later.

If you don’t have a travel agent, there are ways to find a good one. Start by asking your friends; recommendations from people you trust can give you confidence — and can make an agent step up, knowing you’ll be chatting later with a client.

You can also find a reputable travel agent via the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) website, at That organization has a code of conduct for its agents and provides them with opportunities for continuing education. Another good choice would be to turn to a big-name, well-respected agency such as AAA, Carlson Wagonlit and Travel Leaders.

Suggested hot spot: Mary Krueger, of Butterfly Travel International in Lino Lakes, has been sending clients to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic. “It’s a hot new area that features all-inclusives.” All the big names in resorts have a presence there, Krueger said, adding that “Hard Rock has an amazing all-inclusive [resort] there.” None of the properties are allowed to build taller than the tree line, so it retains a natural feel.


Check out the charters

Charters ­— offered by tour operators that lease airplanes or buy large blocks of seats on a regularly scheduled commercial flight — are a bargain traveler’s friend. They offer low prices, though not necessarily a lot of flexibility in scheduling. Most such trips run Saturday to Saturday, though there are shorter options.

Check with Apple Vacations, which uses regularly scheduled Sun Country flights for its departures out of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. It offers getaways, via nonstop flights, to Montego Bay, Jamaica; Liberia, Costa Rica; Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, and six Mexican destinations.

Funjet, another popular charter company that flies out of MSP, also has a roster of destinations to woo sun-seekers. Worry-Free Vacations, once a popular charter business owned by Northwest Airlines and now a subsidiary of Delta, offers hotel and car deals, but has stopped leasing planes for its trips. The company instead now books its customers on Delta flights.

Suggested hot spot: Costa Rica is on the rise for Apple Vacation travelers. The company flies to Liberia, Costa Rica, direct from MSP. But the top spots are Cancun and the Riviera Maya. “It’s been that way for years and probably will be for years to come. They have great beaches. The flights are convenient,” said Colleen Caponi, director of marketing for Apple Vacations.


Turn to a packager

Packages almost always offer a superior deal to booking the individual parts of a trip, from flights to cars, separately. Because these offers whisk you away to paradise on regularly scheduled commercial flights, you’ll find them much more flexible than charter vacations.

Virtually every airline offers vacation packages, so you can book with your usual carrier and collect miles. Sun Country Vacations and Delta Vacations are popular in the market, but Southwest and other major airlines can also help you beat the chills.

Costco Travel also offers vacation packages and discounted cruises, but only to Costco members. The company uses its clout as the nation’s second-largest retailer to negotiate prices and passes savings along to its members, bringing them to such varied spots as Disney World, a houseboat on Arizona’s Lake Powell and Las Vegas at discounted rates. Sam’s Club stopped selling vacations last year.

Suggested hot spot: This is just the second year that Sun Country Vacations has been offering vacations in Huatulco, Mexico, a beach destination on the Oaxaca Coast known for its nine distinct bays. The area is celebrated as a more natural Mexican destination, where visitors can stop by a coffee plantation, bird-watch and kayak on green seas.