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How to save on a Santiago vacation

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South America is a bargain now, and Santiago, Chile, is a fine one-stop destination. You can surf the Pacific, tour the wineries, hit the slopes and explore the Victorian elegance of nearby Valparaiso — all in day trips from Santiago.

And the price is right. For about $60 a day, you can dine in nice restaurants and sleep in cozy accommodations, says Kathleen Munnelly, South America editor for Lonely Planet guidebooks. For $150 a day, you can enjoy luxuries that would commonly cost twice as much in North America or Europe, she says.

You won't run out of things to do. The laid-back cafes and restaurants in the bohemian Bellavista district feature live music after 11 p.m. Or get your fill of seafood at the Mercado Central market.

Seasons, of course, are the opposite of those in North America. June through August is winter, and September through November is spring. The ski-and-snowboard season runs from June to October. Santiago maintains its mild climate throughout the year, but many of the top ski resorts are within an hour's drive of the city. And if you go to Parque Nacional Villarrica, near the resort town of Pucon, you can ski on a smoking volcano. A three-star hotel in Pucon costs about $120 a night during peak season and drops to $80 a night in September, when there's still good powder on the slopes.

To get a tax break, stick with the nicer hotels, says Wayne Bernhardson, author of the guidebook Moon Handbooks Chile. Under Chilean law, foreign tourists do not owe the 19 percent value-added tax for hotel stays, but hotel staff must fill out the paperwork for you to get the tax break. Smaller hotels may not want to mess with the red tape because it's costly for them to keep track of the records. Generally, hotels with two or more stars will give you the refund, Bernhardson says. Be sure to ask about it when you book your accommodations.

Chile does levy some unexpected fees. All arriving U.S. tourists must pay a one-time fee of $100, which is good for the life of your passport. And there's a departure tax of up to $26.

  • Getting there. Round-trip flights from Chicago to Santiago cost about $1,200 per person in June through August, but drop to $1,000 per person in September. Hotels across Chile cost about 30 percent less in October, November and December than during the peak summer tourist season, which starts in January.

Best dining bargain. You've already had the sea bass, so try the wines. Excellent vintages cost less than $10 a bottle.