Learn a language

Old San Juan's Castillo San Felipe del Morro

Old San Juan's Castillo San Felipe del Morro Photograph: Misael Martinez

Order with impunity at Mexican dives in Corona, chat with your Dominican neighbors in Washington Heights: You know that brushing up on your Spanish will improve life in a city where a quarter of the population is Hispanic. An intensive course in NYC costs about $350, but for $480 a week, plus airfare, you could be memorizing vocabulary on the playa in San Juan, Puerto Rico, one of about 100 study destinations offered by AmeriSpan (800-879-6640, amerispan.com). The agency, founded by John Slocum after his own struggle to find a language school in Guatemala, carefully vets institutions and dispenses straight-talking advice about the pros and cons of each destination. Study abroad isn't just for college kids—the majority of participants are professionals (the agency also arranges specialist training for medical and legal staff)—and being immersed in the culture speeds up the learning process.

For optimum results, and to keep costs down, go for a homestay, which in San Juan, Slocum admits may not be as luxurious as you're used to, but fine if you're prepared for basic lodgings. "After two weeks, I already knew more than I had with one year in high school," Slocum says of his own experience. "If you're staying with a family, you have to figure out what they're telling you about when dinner's going to be or what they're serving you, or if you're cold or hot, or need directions." Classes at the Institute for Spanish Language Acquisition (I.S.L.A.) are limited to six students and held between 9am and noon, leaving the rest of the day free for exploring and wallowing in an average-high temperature of 84 degrees in winter. Although the school is located in the unlovely business district, it's only a 20-minute bus ride to Old San Juan, and I.S.L.A. organizes cultural tours and hiking in the El Yunque rain forest.