3. A national park. They’re beautiful, they’re inspiring, they’re cheap, and they’re yours. And with 392 national parks to choose from, you can customize your vacation endlessly by location, climate, activity and the like. Accommodations range from back-country camping to tent and RV sites to historic lodges.
Save crowded Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon for the off-season, and consider one of the system’s less-visited gems, such as Florida’s Biscayne for snorkeling and scuba diving; Maine’s Acadia for whale watching; or Maryland and Virginia’s Assateague Island for beaches and wild ponies.
Search the National Park Service website for individual parks, fees and contact info.
Pros: great natural beauty; ranger-led educational programs.
Cons: can get crowded in summer; must reserve at popular parks up to a year in advance.
Cost: Entrance fees vary. An America the Beautiful—National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass costs $80 a year, $10 (lifetime pass) for people 62 and older. Tent camping starts at $15 per night in Biscayne National Park, $20 in Acadia ($14 for walk-in sites), $20 at Assateague. At Yosemite, lodging ranges from $400 and up for a room at the historic Ahwahnee Hotel to $74 for a cabin or tent cabin.
4. An unsung European capital. If you crave the cathedrals and cobblestones of the Old World but can’t afford the high prices of Rome or Paris, consider Central or Eastern Europe. Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, is as charming as they come, with a medieval castle, plenty of culture and nightlife, and great natural beauty in the surrounding countryside.
Pros: fewer crowds; a more authentic experience.
Cons: Former communist standards of “service” may prevail.
Cost: Summer high-season flights to Ljubljana are not cheap—more than $1,000 from East Coast gateway cities—so travel in spring or fall. Sign up for e-mail fare alerts with an online travel aggregator such as Farecompare.com or SmarterTravel.com, and consider flying to a hub such as London or Paris, then connecting to a low-cost European carrier.
The cost-of-living site Numbeo.com estimates Ljubljana’s per-day travel cost—including mid-range meals, transportation and hotel—to be $230, compared with London’s $334, Paris’s $437 and Rome’s $371. And consider the bragging rights!
More options: Riga, Lativa; Talliin, Estonia; Zagreb, Croatia.
5. A Caribbean beach. Contrary to what you may think, “cheap Caribbean vacation” is not necessarily an oxymoron.
The secret to an affordable trip: Focus on islands that have lots of all-inclusive packages and attract crowds and therefore have lower prices. Consider booking a package from a volume discounter. When airfare and lodging costs are bundled, savings can be dramatic.
Pros: all decisions are made for you.
Cons: all decisions are made for you.
Cost: Varies. For example, CheapCaribbean.com was recently charging $1,459, including fees and taxes, for a four-night trip for two in mid-December from Miami to Punta Cana, Dominican Republic—including nonstop air on American and lodging at the all-inclusive Dreams Punta Cana resort. If purchased separately, airfare would have cost $494 per person and the hotel for two (booked through Expedia) $749, for a total of $1,737. That’s a savings of 16 percent.
K.C. Summers, former travel editor of the Washington Post, is a freelance writer and editor in Washington.