If you're hoping for a dream vacation this year but are worried about the cost, fear not. A little research, imagination and flexibility can save you a lot of money on your trip.

When choosing a vacation spot, many travelers only look at the traditional resort choices - such as Hawaii, Jamaica, and the Bahamas - which are likely to be overpriced and crowded. But, if you're willing to take the road less traveled, it can make all the difference.The Meyers Report spoke to experts from the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) about inexpensive vacation hot spots across the nation.

- Southeast. According to Jim Orasso, president of ASTA's south Florida chapter, Cancun and Cozumel are two Mexican cities that are a good deal in the summer, when it's their tourist off-season.

"They offer great bargains during the summer to try and attract vacationers," Orasso said.

Orasso also pointed out that small cities on the west coast of the Sunshine State, such as Santibel and Captima, can be inexpensive vacation paradises. Other low-budget vacations can be found in the islands off Florida's panhandle area, such as St. George's Island or Appalachicola.

- Midwest. In this region, bed-and-breakfast establishments are increasing in popularity, and can be found in an affordable price range of $20 to $85 a night. Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin offer diverse geography with rolling hills, state parks, and many lakes at easy-to-budget prices. For example, in Minnesota you can buy an annual permit for only $17 that will enable you to camp at any one of the state's 64 parks.

- Northeast. East coast vacation prices are extremely seasonal and tend to skyrocket as soon as summer rolls around. Your best bet is to vacation in early spring or fall to avoid the summer crunch. Popular choices include New Hope, Pennsylvania, Flemington, New Jersey, Atlantic City and the Jersey Shore.

- West. "Most places out here have summer as their high season, but in cities like Phoenix, Tucson, Palm Springs and Las Vegas rates drop quite a bit starting June 1st," said Duf Fischer, president of Mission Travel in Santa Cruz, Calif.

For vacationers looking to vist smaller places, Santa Monica and Long Beach recently have seen new hotel construction and are in the process of coming back as tourist areas.

Fischer also recommended the Santa Cruz/Monterey Bay region, 70 miles south of San Fransisco.

"We have great weather, and we're close to both the redwoods and the ocean. It's still a fairly small area, not yet completely built up."

Here are some other bargain travel tips:

- If you are currently a student or under age 26 and you have any inclination to travel, go now. You are eligible for tremendous travel discounts.

"Student fares are not only cheap, but they also offer greater flexibility and longer stays," said Charlie Robinson, district manager of the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) in Chicago. For more information on student/youth travel opportunities, contact CIEE at 29 E. Delaware Place, Chicago, IL, 60611. Phone: (312) 951-0585.

- Avoid peak seasons, especially holidays.

- Right now is a good time for cruises, due to a price war that has been raging for the past six months. Cabins are offered from level one (highest quality and most expensive) to level ten (cheapest). It's a good idea to sign up for a level ten cabin, as cruises often fail to fill up, and you may find yourself upgraded to a level three cabin for a much lower price.

- If a package vacation appeals to you, but you're afraid of high prices, they may not be as expensive as you think.

"The best buy is not necessarily the one with the lowest price," said Bernice Rosmarin, co-owner of Edison Travel in New Jersey. "Travel packages are a way to get a lot for your money."

Even Club Med, that infamous and trendy vacation-paradise chain, can offer you a full week in Tahiti - including airfare, room and board, meals, nighttime entertainment, sports equipment and lessons - for a mere $1,700.

- An increasing number of travelers who used to fly exclusively are now getting aboard Amtrak. Amtrak also is upgrading its computer system, which will improve the quality of train service. If you'd like to take a train trip this year, it's best to reserve your seats early. Sleeper cars tend to sell out the fastest, so your chances may be better if you're willing to take a regular coach seat.

- If you're interested in a particular area of the country, call the state Chamber of Commerce and ask to speak with the Office of Tourism.