THERE'S a good reason Southern Californians don't go to the Caribbean: Hawaii is closer and cheaper.
But this fall, that Pacific paradise may get some competition from Barbados and beyond as top resorts, cruise lines and low-cost carriers roll out seasonal deals.
Come September, you may be able to hop a flight from LAX to Nassau, Bahamas, for less than $200, cruise to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands or to St. Martin for less than $65 a day, or kick back with an umbrella drink at a tony St. Bart's resort for half-off plus a free set of wheels.
Sure, it will be hot, sticky ... and you could get blown away by a hurricane. They don't call it off-season for nothing.
But for penny pinchers itching to explore a new paradise (and stay in resorts usually only Brad and Angelina can afford), it may be worth the risk, even in the face of what is predicted to be another active storm season.
The devastating storms of 2005 (and resulting news coverage) have already scared off this year's low-season gamblers.
"The public is more aware it's hurricane season than ever before," says Laura Veglia, Expedia's Caribbean manager. "They're following the Weather Channel regularly."
Susan Tanzman, owner and president of Los Angeles-based Martin's Travel & Tours, characterizes West Coast bookings as "very soft."
"But," she adds, "L.A. travelers may be missing out on some deals that we're not seeing in Hawaii, which is having a banner year."
Anyone considering the Caribbean should first know there are two off-seasons. One is summer, when demand is high, weather is still decent and discounts run a respectable 20% to 35%, and the other is fall, better known as "value season," when storm risk may be greater but prices take a dive.
Airfares, especially from the West Coast, are above average this summer because of high fuel costs and packed planes.
In June, fares from LAX to the Caribbean averaged $500 to $600, according to Farecompare.com, a new comparison-shopping site. Round-trips from LAX to San Juan, Puerto Rico, were $587, almost 40% more than last year, the site showed last week.
And that's after U.S. carriers added almost half a million new seats to the Caribbean this summer, a 3% increase from last year, according to New Haven, Conn.-based Back Aviation consultants.
But come Aug. 15, things will change, says low-fare guru Tom Parsons of Dallas-based Best Fares. Families are back home, weather is rainier and the airlines will "be begging."
Low-cost carriers are already getting travelers' attention. JetBlue, Spirit Airlines, USA3000, Frontier and Alaska have all announced cheap fares to the islands this fall.
And big carriers are starting to match. United, for one, just introduced $120 one-way fares from New York to Bermuda, undercutting JetBlue's new $129 service.
Because most of these cheap flights depart from East Coast cities, cost-conscious Angelenos must cobble together a low-fare itinerary.
But the savings may be worth the hassle. You can fly JetBlue from Burbank or Long Beach to Nassau, Aruba and San Juan, by way of New York, for as little as $436 round trip.
The airline also just introduced $149 one-way service from Los Angeles to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. There, you can catch one of Spirit Airlines' cheap flights to 12 Caribbean destinations. Fares range from $39 to $149 one way, not including taxes. Not flexible enough to do the low-fare limbo? Check out alternate airports. Fares from San Diego to San Juan were $200 less than LAX, according to a Farecompare.com June price survey.
Meanwhile, the cost of cruising is dropping.
"We're pricing very aggressively this fall," says Carnival spokesperson Jennifer de la Cruz. "Passengers can save an additional $50 to $100 per person on select sailings over last fall's fares."
A seven-day Western Caribbean cruise on the Triumph this September starts at $449 per person for an inside cabin. That's $64 a day (not including taxes and fees), almost half off July prices.
Brian Ek, a spokesman for opaque travel site Priceline, urges travelers to check the Web every Wednesday for one-day sales. "All the cruise lines run them now," says Ek, who posts the best on Pricebreakers, a new deal tracker on the Priceline site.
Experts say cruises are a safer bet during hurricane seasons because ships have sophisticated weather forecasting technology and can quickly change course if need be.
But the off-season cruiser may miss ports because ships change itineraries to skirt storms.
Landlubbers can hedge their bets against treacherous weather by booking Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao, the ABC islands. They have the least chance of getting hit by hurricanes.
But for the best resort buys, you'll have to take a chance on Hurricane Alley.
"Bahamas, Jamaica and Puerto Rico have all been very aggressive this year, but Dominican Republic has had the deepest discounts," said Bob Lawrence of New Jersey-based Liberty Travel, the nation's top packager to the Caribbean.