A few weeks ago, I boarded an Air Europa 767 in Barcelona, bound for Miami — and found it 80 percent empty, with room to stretch out and snooze across three seats. It felt like 1995. The price was retro too: about $550 for a trans-Atlantic flight.
This was not, however, the luxury of a bygone era. A Catalan friend explained to me that many thousands of Spaniards have recently run out of their two-year unemployment benefits, a scenario repeating itself across recession-stricken Europe.
This was just the latest reminder that the financial crisis — and the related phenomenon of globalization — will continue to define how, where and when we travel in 2012.
When the financial meltdown hit, we put Europe on hold and took so-called “staycations,” foregoing Cape Town in favor of Cape May.
Three years into this mess, we’re all getting restless. With global news tweeting into our iPhones from Tel Aviv to Tripoli, we’re more curious than ever to explore the world. But you can’t keep a good traveler down: we’ve figured out how to navigate these austere times with cut-rate lodging websites, social media, budget airlines and off-season jaunts.
So my advice is to embrace the weirdness of this moment in history. The crisis has its own little windows of opportunity, and we might as well enjoy them. Here, then, are a few suggestions for making the most of 2012.
1. Spain and Greece: It seems obvious, and it’s true: These countries, battered by crisis, haven’t been so cheap in years. In Northern Greece, where tourism has always been primarily domestic, you can have dinner overlooking the Aegean for less than the cost of a Midtown frappuccino. You can practically name your price for hotel rooms on beaches from Thessaloniki to Thassos. Even traffic-crazed Athens is quieter and more manageable than ever.
In Spain, a boom-time infrastructure makes travel convenient between cities where prices have fallen to peseta-era lows. In Madrid and Bilbao, museums have new galleries and longer hours. And the Red de Juderías Españolas — Spain’s national network of Jewish heritage sites — is expanding rapidly. A particular highlight is the Catalan city of Girona, where officials have restored many of the remnants of its rich Jewish cultural heritage.
2. Winter in the Negev Desert: This is Israel at its most primeval – a landscape of vast and empty plains, rugged mountains, caves and canyons. The singularity of this environment is magnified by winter’s stillness, drawing ever more off-season travelers to Israel’s largest desert. So say tour operators, who are seeing a new breed of traveler — one who’s done all the usual stuff and is seeking a more personal, nature-focused experience of Israel. December through February tend to be mild and sunny, ideal for exploring this otherworldly terrain. Ancient Nabatean settlements like Shivta feel eerily present in the crisp quiet of a winter afternoon.
The rise of Negev winter travel is part of a larger trend toward off-season tourism. And it’s not all about prices: November on Cape Cod, May in Curacao and January in Paris reveal a more local, workaday aspect not on view during peak months.
3. Santiago, Chile: It’s fun to see the flip side of the financial crisis. While the countries of Europe pass one austerity reform after another, Latin America is feeling prosperous, and nowhere more so than in Chile. Gone are the days when travelers bypassed the sleepy capital en route to the mountains: with good times on a roll, Santiago is a livelier, more cosmopolitan city. Those snowy peaks tower above the city’s skyline, providing a dramatic backdrop to fashionable boulevards where cafés stay full all night. Boutiques are popping up in formerly dowdy districts, and everything comes slathered in dulce de leche.
Santiago’s estimated 15,000 Jews are growing in number, with economic opportunity drawing professionals from across the continent. With several large new synagogues in the posh Lo Barnechea neighborhood, and even a Jewish firehouse, Chilean Jews welcome visitors to what must be one of Latin America’s most diverse Jewish communities — there are congregations for German immigrants, Sephardim, Israelis and every denomination.
4. The Mediterranean islands, now within reach: There was a time when chic island hideaways like Cagliari (on Sardinia), Menorca or Santorini were prohibitively expensive and difficult to reach. Flights from nearby cities could be nearly as costly as the trans-Atlantic route, and ferries were slow. But the European discount-airline trend has lately expanded to these formerly remote shores – and now the Greek and Balearic islands are just an hour and $100 (or less) from the mainland.
Vueling, a handy Spanish airline, recently added Crete, Mykonos and Santorini to its routes, which already include cheap and frequent Balearic jaunts. Italy’s Meridiana Fly can jet you to Cagliari, Lampedusa and Catania on Sicily, the latter once a schlep by car from Palermo. Ryanair, the original no-frills Irish line, flies cheap to Corfu, Crete, Rhodes and Kos, as well as to Ibiza and the Canaries. These were traditionally the vacation resorts of mainland locals; now they’re accessible to anyone with a little Internet savvy. Check skyscanner.net for up-to-date flight schedules from European hubs.