50 Affordable Vacations to Add to Your Bucket List
Oh, the places you'd go -- if you could. While most people have exotic locales on their bucket lists, there are also many places in the United States and abroad that are just as enticing but won't cost your retirement kitty. Here are some ideas for where to take a memorable vacation and still be able to afford your golden years.
Recognized as the culinary capital of Mexico, Oaxaca is irresistible to anyone interested in food and drink. It's the birthplace of mezcal, the agave-based ancestor of tequila, and mole, the family of rich sauces found throughout the country. This bustling, bohemian city has cobblestone streets, colonial charm, and low prices. At Las Brisas Huatulco, an all-inclusive resort with its own coral reef and myriad other amenities, rates start at $116 a night. Other types of accommodation can be found for about $25 a night for a private room, breakfast included.
Martinsville Speedway celebrates its 70th anniversary in 2017, and there's more to see in this quaint, historic town. All but one of the museums are free, and the Smithsonian-affiliated Virginia Museum of Natural History is $5 a person. Outdoor recreation is cheap and plentiful, and there's a free loaner bike program. Hotels range from $70 to $140 a night, although rates can be higher during Nascar weekends.
Fairbanks, Alaska, is situated in the auroral oval, about 200 miles from the Arctic Circle, making this cold city a hotspot for travelers who want to see the Northern Lights. City officials recommend at least a three-day stay in fall, winter, or early spring for an 80 percent chance of successful viewing. Area hotels offer Northern Lights wake-up calls, but visitors can opt for a more quintessentially Alaskan experience like a cabin stay or sled-dog trip, too.
Getting to Hanoi, the architecturally diverse city sometimes called the Paris of the East, can be pricey -- flights start around $500 from Los Angeles. Even taking that expense into consideration, a Vietnamese vacation can be remarkably cheap. Bahn mi sandwiches are less than $2, Vietnamese coffee is $1, and 4-star hotels are $25 a night.
The America's Cup sailing race and a wave of new and renovated resorts are sure to attract affluent visitors to Bermuda this year. An affordable and stress-free way to see the pink-sand beaches is to take a cruise to the island nation. For instance, an interior cabin on a seven-night sailing from New York aboard Norwegian Cruise Line's Breakaway, a Cheapism.com top pick for budget cruises, starts at $579.
Near the rustic ski town of Kingfield is a unique system of wood-framed, cedar-sided "huts" connected by trails. Visitors can hike, bike, ski, snowshoe, or even paddle between the secluded retreats. All-inclusive pricing starts at $90 a person and includes communal lodging and three meals a day, although prices and service vary by season.
Once the capital of the Khmer Empire, Angkor is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and includes the famous Angkor Wat, which dates back to the 12th century. Despite being rich in history, Cambodia is inexpensive, with a three-day pass to see the temples costing about $40 and most meals costing less than $3. Medium-range hotels start at $10 a night in the Siem Reap area.
From popular spring break destinations such as Panama City Beach to under-the-radar locales such as Navarre Beach, Florida's Emerald Coast offers bargains and beautiful scenery. Destin is a top beach destination with sugar-white sand, and "The Truman Show" put the pristine, almost bizarrely perfect beach community of Seaside solidly on the tourist map.
Ever since "The Wizard of Oz," there's been curiosity about Kansas. Head to Dorothy's home state to visit the Oz Museum in Wamego, dedicated to artifacts from the books and film, and hit the Oz Winery next door. The town also holds an annual OZtoberFest.
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The main crater of this active volcano is one of the largest in the world, and it's definitely worth a hike to the rim. While getting to Costa Rica takes a pricey plane ticket, food is inexpensive and public transportation plentiful. A budget of $45 to $80 a day can accommodate thrifty travelers. Visit during the cheaper rainy season from May to November if getting wet isn't a deterrent.
The astounding cliff dwellings of the Mogollon people date back to the 1200s and are now a national monument thanks to President Theodore Roosevelt, who had them protected in 1907. The ruins are located on 553 acres, and guided and self-guided tours of the mysterious, abandoned dwellings are available. There's camping and also hot springs nearby.
Lonely Planet recently named the Upper Peninsula of Michigan one of the world's best value destinations. Marquette is where much of the action is, Copper Harbor is known for mountain biking trails, and shipwrecks off the coast entice divers. Check out nearby Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore or venture to Isle Royale National Park to find lighthouses, dramatic stone cliffs, waterfalls, and more. Hotel rooms go for less than $85 a night depending on the season.
With a little hunting, travelers can find affordable flights to Barcelona -- about $400 from New York, for example. This unrivaled spot for history, culture, architecture, and food holds bargains too. The first Sunday of the month all museums are free, and the light rail to the beach is $1. Hotels in the central Eixample neighborhood can cost less than $40 a night, and tapas fans will find many bars serving small portions for less than $3.
Although airfare to Peru can be pricey, the rest of the trip won't be -- and a visit to this historic citadel is mind-blowing. While many people choose to hike to the site with a tour operator, the route can be traced solo and there's also a train from Cuzco. The trip requires time to acclimate to the altitude and an entrance ticket for about $50.
The little-known islands halfway between Scotland and Ireland are lush, green, and isolated -- getting there is expensive. But for those who've always wanted to ride in a helicopter, it may be worth it. The government subsidizes helicopter travel, which means a trip between islands costs about $20. However, tourists are encouraged to take a return ferry.
Country music's biggest stage has been launching careers since 1925, when the Grand Ole Opry began as a humble radio show. Fans can still listen on the radio, but seeing a show in person is a bucket-list-worthy experience. Most performances showcase at least eight country artists -- a mix of Opry members and guests ranging from rising new acts to established stars. Consider sticking around after the show for a behind-the-scenes tour.
Enjoy the Mediterranean vibe, architecture, and culture in Porto, Portugal, a coastal city best known for port wine. Hotels cost around $45 a night. "The historic city of Porto is a must-see," says Dominique Scarlett, chief editor of TravelPirates. "Try to go between March and May or September or October, when prices are lowest."
Athens, home of the Acropolis and the National Archaeological Museum, is more affordable than the Greek islands, and the enduring fiscal crisis is keeping costs low throughout Greece. Hotels given 4 out of 5 stars on TripAdvisor charge less than $30 a night, and great food is everywhere. "Greece is the perfect combination of classy and affordable," says TravelPirates' Scarlett, who adds that November is an ideal, less crowded time to go.
Taking a cruise doesn't have to be expensive if you're sailing to Mexico from Southern California. Seven-night cruises starting at $600 a person ($86 a night) travel through Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan, and Puerto Vallarta, offering a chance to relax on board and still see the many sights at the ports of call.
A flight from Los Angeles can be as expensive as $800, but it's easy to stick to a budget after arriving in Malaysia. Reviews on TripAdvisor give high marks to hotels that cost $15 a night, and the world-renowned street food is also inexpensive. Be sure to see the Thean Hou Temple and walk around the Petronas Towers, one of the world's tallest buildings.
Most everyone wants to go to Disney World at least once, and there's no cheap way to get into "the happiest place on Earth." Still, there are ways to keep costs down, such as restricting travel to weekdays during the offseason. Rates at the least expensive Disney resort, Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground, start at $79.
The highest peak in the Northeast, New Hampshire's Mount Washington is infamous for its weather extremes. The mountain regularly sees hurricane-force gusts, and below-zero temperatures are possible in late fall, winter, and spring. Guided weather station tours let visitors see how scientists live and work on the mountain. There's also a multitude of ski resorts within driving distance. At the 1785 Inn overlooking Mount Washington, room rates start at $99 a night, including breakfast for two.
While Thailand has become an increasingly popular travel destination, it's still one of the best travel values, says Ivy Chou of DealsPlus. "With great sightseeing, gorgeous beaches, and a unique culture, the Thai people show more than 20 million visitors a good time by providing a wide range of experiences. Enjoy $7 massages, $3 Pad Thai meals, and 5-star hotels for $80 or less."
Bolivia is more about natural beauty and native culture than touristy gloss. Beyond the flight and the visa ($160), everything is inexpensive. Be sure to explore Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat. Budget hotels in La Paz with good reviews cost less than $40 a night. It's cheapest to go between July and August, when it's winter below the equator -- but freezing on the flats.
The Willis Tower (perhaps better known by its former name, the Sears Tower) is the nation's second-tallest building, with sweeping views of Chicago and Lake Michigan from the Skydeck on the 103rd floor. Brave visitors can check out the Ledge, glass-bottom boxes that offer a hair-raising view 1,353 feet down to the ground below. The city is loaded with cheap eats, and flight and hotel prices tend to track the average temperatures.
While there are several places in the world where divers can swim alongside one of the largest fish in the sea, Utila is the best. Not only does it have year-round whale shark research centers, it's also cheap (read: hostels, not luxury hotels). The Underwater Vision dive center includes accommodation with its courses, which start around $100.
The U.S. State Department currently has a travel advisory for Egypt due to recent unrest. However, the Egyptian government is maintaining a strong security presence near tourist sites such as the Great Pyramids of Giza. For those willing to take their chances, crowds are smaller than normal now and hotel rooms can be found for as little as $60 a night. Those with time to venture beyond Cairo can explore the other ancient sites along the Nile.
Ecuador appears on many bucket lists in the guise of the Galápagos Islands, but there's much more to see that's much more affordable. The capital of Quito, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has retained much of its Baroque architecture and cultural charm. Tourists flock to a monument marking the equator (although the latitude is apparently a bit off). A complete lunch runs less than $3 and budget hotel rooms cost $25 a night.
If a wine country vacation would make your bucket list but Napa is too pricey, go next door to Sonoma County. The wines stand up to some of the best anywhere, and the food is just as appealing. Affordable lodging options include the Sonoma Creek Inn, El Pueblo Inn, and Best Western. Farther south, the quaint, Danish-style village of Solvang, in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley, is home to the Rideau and Rusack vineyards, along with charming hotels that charge less than $80 a night for a room.
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The Covington Inn is a former tugboat with just four guestrooms that sits on the Mississippi River with a view of the downtown skyline. With winter rates, guests can get into the Mate's Quarters for $140. While in St. Paul, check out freebies like Como Park Zoo, Harriett Island, and the Cathedral of Saint Paul.
The legendary canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific brings many travelers to Panama City. After taking a canal tour, take in the sights in the 17th-century Casco Viejo district and visit the nearby rainforest. Budget accommodations start at $65 a night.
The Big Easy is famous for beignets, voodoo shops, and jazz -- not to mention Mardi Gras. Strolling the French Quarter is free, as are self-guided tours of the city's famous above-ground cemeteries and the sculpture garden outside the New Orleans Museum of Art. Authentic Cajun cuisine, including po' boys and gumbo, is also inexpensive. Prices rise the weekend before Fat Tuesday, which falls on Feb. 28 in 2017, but New Orleans' biggest party is worthy of any bucket list.
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This wild, sparsely populated region at the tip of South America is brimming with rare animals, exotic birds, and stunning scenery. To save money getting there, consider traveling to Chile instead of Argentina. Bunking in a dorm in Bariloche or El Chaltén, Argentina, costs about $15 a night. Buying your own food instead of eating at restaurants is also doable.
The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in New Mexico (Oct. 7-15 this year) is the world's largest balloon festival and the largest international event of any kind in the nation. More than 500 balloons lift off from the launch field at Balloon Fiesta Park, which is the size of 54 football fields. From humble beginnings with just 13 balloons in 1972, Balloon Fiesta now claims to be the most photographed event on Earth.
The glitz and glamour of the Strip is the main draw for many people venturing to Las Vegas -- but it can be expensive. Consider staying downtown to indulge in the retro cool of what Vegas used to be. Hotel rooms can be as cheap as $21 a night, and the Strip's just a short drive away.
The Pacific coast of Oregon, along Highway 101, is worth putting on any bucket list. Stop off at sights such as the famous Cannon Beach and Thor's Well at Cape Perpetua, which appears to be a bottomless sinkhole in the ocean (although speculation says it's only about 20 feet deep). At the south end, Gold Beach's Pacific Reef Hotel has beach access and starts at $99 a night in summer.
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This quirky, LGBT-friendly town is known for Ernest Hemingway's home and its six-toed cats, sunset celebrations, and Duval Street's many bars, restaurants, and nightclubs. It's also known for pricey hotels. Seek out NYAH (Not Your Average Hotel) for rooms that take up to six guests -- without added fees. Off season, rates can be as low as $174 for four beds.
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Take advantage of cheap flights to the Caribbean island from New York, which can cost as little as $79 each way on the budget carrier Norwegian Air Shuttle. Visitors can hike, bike, snorkel, scuba, and enjoy exceptional food and live jazz. The food is expensive -- everything is imported, often from France -- but hotels in Pointe-à-Pitre can be found for less than $100 a night.
Known for its sparkling spas, Roman ruins, and stunning architecture, Budapest is a jewel of Eastern Europe. While prices have gone up since tourists discovered it, hotel rooms can be found for less than $100. Visit in spring, when prices are lower and crowds are thinner.
From Chicago to California, Route 66 has been replaced in segments by the newer Interstate Highway System, but enthusiasts can still navigate many of the original 2,448 miles. The route is littered with old hotels and roadside attractions from when the highway was at its peak. Seligman, Arizona, has 456 residents and was an inspiration for the 2006 Pixar film "Cars." The Harvey House Railroad Depot in Barstow, California, houses the free Route 66 Mother Road Museum.
Tuscany has become a bucket list cliché, but a little over an hour from Florence and Pisa, the Serchio Valley is a quiet, peaceful Tuscan retreat without a slew of tourists. Take a scenic hike in Parco dell'Orecchiella or go spelunking at the Grotta del Vento, a wind cave that descends more than 7,000 feet. Bike or walk around the medieval walls of nearby Lucca. Because this is not a tourism center, hotels are limited, but vacation rentals can cost less than $100 a night.
This laid-back beach town is rich in living history, from a 91-year-old wooden roller coaster at Belmont Park to the USS Midway, an aircraft-carrier-turned-museum. For an unforgettable outing, consider catching a spiny lobster. Get a lobster report card October through March for less than $10 (a one-day fishing license is an additional $15). Kids aren't interested? Visit in October for Kids Free San Diego Month to get deals on local museums and theme parks.
One thing Houston has is style, and the most stylish thing in the city is the Rothko Chapel. Both modern art and a sanctuary, the chapel designed by Mark Rothko has been called one of the world's most peaceful and powerful destinations by National Geographic. Stop by for a tour, a concert, a symposium, or even tai chi by the reflecting pool.
Keep an eye open for flights to Cuba now that travel restrictions have been loosened. JetBlue was recently advertising flights to Havana for less than $100 each way. It isn't hard to find accommodations for $150 a night or less. A trip to Cuba is an opportunity to absorb the country's art, food, and culture and take a step back in time.
A traveler can get by on less than $20 a day here, or live like a sheik for $40 a day and enjoy a mid-range hotel, three meals, and a few items from a spice market. Visitors should consider bringing a little extra money to spend on camping in the Sahara Desert, an adventure no one will forget. It's cheapest to go between October and December.
The first national park is still one of the best, and visitors to Yellowstone National Park will find much more to see than iconic Old Faithful. Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is a prime spot for hiking, while geothermal wonders abound in the Mammoth Hot Springs and Norris Geyser Basin areas. Hayden Valley offers dazzling views of wildlife, including elk, bison, and grizzlies. To avoid the crowds and save on accommodations, skip summertime and go in spring or fall.
Despite the devastation Haiti has endured in recent years, it is still a beautiful Caribbean island. Tourist dollars are very much needed, so visitors can do good while having their fill of sand, sea, water sports, and the unique arts and culture. Hotel options run less than $150 a night.
While this beach town has a reputation for high-end luxury, stick to a budget by focusing on the city's parks, botanical gardens, and beach. Walk or bike the boardwalk and stroll legendary State Street, where great food and drinks can be found at reasonable prices. The Museum of Contemporary Art is free, and other museums offer free days. Seek out budget hotel options like Castillo Inn at the Beach and the Franciscan Inn.
As one of the only state parks with dry caverns and the only cave sites in the state to offer tours to the public, this is rare and memorable state park is worth adding to any bucket list. Formations of limestone stalactites are both awe-inspiring and spooky, and camping is available on the grounds. Forty-five minute tours are offered Thursday through Monday.
Cabarete is known for excellent kite surfing, as well as sophisticated restaurants and beach dining at cheap prices. At the Extreme Hotel at Kite Beach, try beachfront yoga, a trapeze or circus class, or farm-to-table meals sourced from an organic farm on the property. Rooms start at $59 a night. Cabarete is a short distance from Puerto Plata Airport, which can be reached directly from Miami or New York.