Published January 28, 2013
One of the most common savings goals we hear from our readers is travel.
We tend to think that we need to save up thousands of dollars in order to justify taking those vacation days and heading out of town. But we might not need quite as much as we think.
Even with a tight budget, you can still score amazing travel memories at a great price–you simply have to choose the right place.
We combed the globe for memorable escapes that won’t require you to take out a second mortgage. They run about 20% to 70% cheaper than marquee destinations, with just as much to see, do and enjoy.
1. Lisbon, Portugal
Lisbon is a sumptuous European capital--at a discount.
With the façades of many of its buildings decorated with azulejos–tiles painted in flowery, intricate blue designs–Lisbon rivals the beauty of many other European capitals, and you’ll pay about 20% less for lodging.
The local economy is still reeling from the country’s financial crisis, which means that hotels are offering deep discounts on rooms to lure foreign tourist dollars. Despite the austerity, the city feels sumptuous, with its well-restored colonial-era castle, Castelo de São Jorge; colonnaded plazas and countless art galleries and museums.
Best Bargain: Lisbon has a major sweet tooth and is well known for its pastries. The typical price of its signature custard tarts will only set you back 0.75 euro (about $1.10). You’ll pay a little extra for the version of the dessert called pasteis de Belém at the city’s famous Antiga Confeitaria de Belém.
2. Québec City
This Canadian city offers stellar French cuisine and architecture for much less than Paris. The U.S. dollar is roughly equal to the Canadian dollar, so prices for our neighbor to the north are alluring when compared to the euro–the exchange rate of which puts a 30% premium on everything in France.
Inside Québec City’s centuries-old walls, you can check out glass-blowing factories, shops like La Petite Cabane à Sucre de Québec that sell maple syrup and the annual winter festival of Carnival, when towering ice sculptures and horse-drawn sleighs take over the city.
Best Bargain: Get a bird’s-eye view of the city by riding the finicular for just $2. The steep railroad line is open year-round, and shuttles visitors between the cliff-top portion of the city and its port town, known for having some of the oldest streets in North America.
3. Roatán, Honduras
The word is getting out about the first-class diving, ecotourism and zip-lining adventures available for discount prices in Roatán, a Bay Island off the coast of Honduras.
In November 2012, American Airlines began direct flights from Miami, and many other carriers have been increasing flights to its pink-and-white sand beaches via connections in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa. Once in Roatán, expect to pay approximately half the price of lodging on a higher-profile Caribbean island.
Best Bargain: A scuba dive in the local bay waters–through a tropical hallucination of colorful fish in the world’s second-largest barrier reef–typically costs a mere $40, roughly half the cost of an underwater plunge in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
4. Albuquerque, New Mexico
Hiking high in the hills is a cost-effective (and heart-healthy) getaway, but many of America’s most famous parks are located in hard-to-reach spots. The solution: Head to Albuquerque, a town in central New Mexico whose well-connected airport is a mere half-hour away from scenic parkland.
Trails cross vistas of red rock and aspen forest, Native American pueblo homes and fascinating desert plant life. Get the lay of the land by riding the Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway, which breezes visitors between the town’s northwestern corner and the top of the Sandia Mountains, lifting you 6,000 feet above the city skyline. Another don’t miss: the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, which is host to hundreds of hot air balloons each autumn.
Best Bargain: Artsy hotels in Albuquerque, such as the Andaluz and Hotel Parq Central, charge rates that are usually one-fourth less than the price of comparably stylish properties in major U.S. cities–delivering a touch of glamour at a discount.
5. Riviera Nayarit, Mexico
Our southern neighbor has always been a relative bargain, but the U.S. dollar’s exchange rate against the Mexican peso has become especially favorable over time, improving by about 30% over the past decade.
Your money should go far in Cancún, with its colorful beach resorts, as well as in Oaxaca, the gastronomic heart of the country. But you may find the best bang for your buck in lesser-known Riviera Nayarit, a Pacific resort area that’s north of Puerto Vallarta and a four-hour flight from Chicago. The 180-mile coastline has undergone a building boom in the past two decades, but its American visitor numbers are still down from 2007 highs, prompting locals to dish out discounts to woo visitors to their beachside resorts and whale-spotting boat tours.
Best Bargain: All-inclusive offers deliver the most value here. You can get condo-style lodging, all meals, local transport and flights for a single price from reputable travel agencies like Apple Vacations. Now get packing!