With smart planning (think: low-cost accommodations, plenty of free outdoor activities, and traveling during low seasons), far-flung destinations don’t have to be a thing of daydreams. Here, we rollout 8 cost-effective trips that don't skimp on experience.
Cinque Terre, Italy
Back in 2016, rumors swirled that Cinque Terre—a collection of 5 pastel-hued towns on the Italian Riviera’s rugged coast—would be capping the number of annual tourists it’d welcome with a ticketing system. While that fate was never sealed, visiting the seductive can cost a pretty penny thanks to its popularity. Flying into Corniglia, Manarola, Monterosso al Mare, Riomaggiore, and Vernazza is undeniably expensive, but once you’re on the ground you’ve got limitless options for exploring the area without whipping out your wallet. First, check into the family-run Hotel Pasquale in the main piazza of Monterosso al Mare. You’ll find comfy rooms with Ligurian Sea vistas and a location just steps from the sand which start at less than $100 a night. From there, hike your little heart out on the 2-mile footpath from Monterosso to Vernazza (full disclosure: the route is quite challenging—traversing the sheer, steep coastal ridge between the two towns); stroll around Borgo Antico, the scenic old town; and swim in the crystalline surf of Spiaggia di Fegina.
South African Safari
At $800-$1000 per person, per day, South African safaris can deliver some serious sticker shock. But if you’re smart when it comes to picking your lodge, you can get the full experience without dropping the cash equivalent of a four-year private school degree. At Karoo Lodge, on the Samara Private Game Reserve—near the Garden Route, about 40 minutes outside of Graaff-Reinet—low season rates (May through August) start at just $192 a day. With a suite skirting the homestead’s waterhole—where antelope, rhino, and buffalo gather for a drink—guests enjoy upfront access to wildlife as well as all meals, children’s programming (children 8 and under aren’t allowed on drives), WiFi, and two guided game activities (a drive or walk) per day.
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As one of Greece’s most glamorous, cosmopolitan, and—certainly—party hardy hubs, Mykonos can run up quite the vacation bill. During high season (July through August), hotels can cost you an arm and a leg, but drop by April through May or September through October and you’ll find favorable rates. Just a 10-minute drive outside of Mykonos Town, the charmingly rustic Pietra e Mare Mykonos Hotel delivers traditional Cycladic design (think: almost entirely white with just hints of blue and gray) at an astoundingly low cost (often less than $100 per night). A stay here is all about secluded beach days. Pick a strip, any strip—there’s Kalo Livadi, a relatively quiet, family-frequented spot, and Elia, the largest, often-celeb dotted option—each less than a mile from the hotel.
Loire Valley, France
Just a 2-hour ride south of Paris, the vineyard-cloaked Loire Valley lures travelers with rolling countryside, opulent feudal chateaux, and teensy, tiny cafes serving up the best in regional French specialties. With all the above, trips to the “Garden of France” often come at a high price, but start your romantic getaway in the heart of the region—Orléans—dropping your things at Hotel de L’Abeille, an old-fashioned stay in the center of the city, and you’ll find period-decorated rooms and modern amenities for less than $100 a night in off season (November through March). With money saved on your hotel, splurge on a rental car to zip around the valley on a self-guided tour of the cathedrals and castles. Heading south, stop at Château de Meung sur Loire; Château de Villandry; and Chateau de Chenonceau—all within 1.5 hour’s driving distance of Orléans and each charging less than €13 for entry. On another day, make sure to head north for the exceptionally-preserved, French Gothic-style Chartres Cathedral where original stained glass windows are spellbinding, and admission is always free.
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Flights to Southeast Asia may not be the cheapest or the shortest (NYC to Siem Reap is 20+ hours), but the destination packs an affordable punch. The first upset? Five-star stays for less than $100! Bed down at Le Meridien Angkor for airy, Euro-meets-tropical digs and an award-winning spa that doles out Eastern and Western treatments in tandem, just 10 minutes down the road from Angkor Wat. Tickets to the 12th-century temple complex come in at $37, but that gets you all-day access (5am to 6pm) and as the largest religious monument in the world, there’s plenty of auspicious sights to see. Looking to pick up some culinary cred while you’re in town? For just $15, you can unlock the secrets of Khmer-style cuisine during a 3-hour cooking class at restaurant/cooking school Le Tigre de Papier.
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Do a quick Google search and you’ll find that year after year Sydney makes the ranks of top 10 least-affordable cities to live in. But as a temporary visitor, we’ve got good news: there are plenty of things you can do to safeguard your savings. Opt for free and inexpensive activities like the scenic Bondi to Coogee or Split to Manly coastal walks; pick up insider tips on seeing the city like a local on I’m Free Tours; go sightseeing and people watching in Circular Quay and Sydney Harbour (hello, iconic Sydney Opera House); or meander the seasonal blooms at the Royal Botanic Gardens. When it comes time to sleep, head for retro Darlo Bar, an ultra-quirky Darlinghurst stay that does quadruple duty as a boutique hotel/public bar/rooftop bar/bottleshop. JS tip: if you plan on using public transportation, invest in an Opal card. For $15 a day, you’ll get unlimited metro, ferry, and light rail access for a fraction of what you’d pay per individual ride.
An ancient cave hideaway in Cappadocia, Turkey may not seem like the most affordable of vacation options, but somehow, the carved-out, atmospheric dwellings at The House Hotel Cappadocia cost less than your average Best Western. Great news for us, because visits to the region necessitate a balloon ride—no matter the price tag (usually $150-$200 per person, per hour). Coasting over Turkish fairy chimneys (the region's pointy volcanic peaks and rock formations created by lava), lush vineyards, and fruit orchards, you won't regret the money spent. Later on, if you’re looking for an activity that'll keep your feet firmly planted on the ground, explore Goreme National Park, an erosion-sculpted valley of subterranean troglodyte villages, monastic towns, and otherworldly volcanic rock formations. Best part? Admission is only $5.
Chances are you don’t make trips to Iceland as often as say, your in-laws, and for this reason, it’s easy to throw budgets out the window with a you-only-live-once mentality. But if you’re truly looking to keep your spending in check, cut costs by staying at a budget-friendly, but still design-forward spot like Hlemmur Square Hotel & Hostel—just a 10-minute walk from some of the city’s most notable attractions like the Hallgrímskirkja Church. Cultural institutions are abound in Reykjavik, and while the price of entry at each can add up, purchasing a $37 Reykjavik City Card (free for 18 and under) means comped admission to a handful of museums and art galleries (see: National Gallery of Iceland, Reykjavík Zoo and Family Park, and Reykjavík Maritime Museum, among others), free ferry rides and public bus rides, and discounts at restaurants around town. With money saved there, you won’t even flinch when it comes to dishing out the $50 entrance fee for Reykjavík's most iconic draw: a dip in the Blue Lagoon.