By Jamie Beckman
Sure, we love Paris, London, Cancun—who doesn’t?—but before you click the “book” button on a trip to one of the pricey “usual suspects,” you MUST consider one of these budget alternatives, where you’ll get more space, better perks, fewer crowds, and luxuries you never dreamed you could afford!
Go to Montreal, Not Paris
Europe? Nope—check out that maple-leaf flag. It’s Montreal, where you can practice speaking French, get your crepe on, and save a bundle while having the time of your life. (Photo: Mario Beauregard/Dreamstime)
Mon dieu! Overseas flights and City of Light prices can blow a budget pretty quickly; immerse yourself in French language and culture in Montreal instead. The city’s brand-new, streamlined Alt Hotel is très chic and doesn’t do low-season or high-season rates: Rooms are $131 per night, every night. Je voudrais un croque monsieur, you say? Grab one to stay or to go at Café Grévin by Europea downtown ($7. Psst—they have wine, too. Afterward, learn all about “New France” at the historic site and museum Château Ramezay and take a stroll through its replica French colonial garden (about $9). For dinner, hit the bar at Laloux for modern French bistro fare. The special “intermission menu” offers two entrees and a dessert for each person—we’re talking roasted quail with chanterelles, and maple profiteroles with vanilla ice cream and hazelnuts—for about $17.50.
Go to Warsaw, Not London
Warsaw’s reconstructed city center is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. (Photo: Jacek Kadaj/Dreamstime)
Rich European history, mesmerizing museums, and quality time at the pub can all be had in Warsaw for less than you’d pay in London. The capital of Poland is an eminently walkable city, with cheap public transportation (about $5 for an all-day pass) and museum admission prices that top out at about $6.50 on days they’re not completely free. Boutique Bed & Breakfast, near the Chopin Museum, has a charming, old-world feel and hosts piano concerts on the second floor ($70 per night). Fish around in your pockets for $1.20, and you’ve got entrée into the Warsaw Fotoplastikon, one of the few turn-of-the-century 3-D photo theaters left in the world. View original historical photographs of subjects ranging from WWII-era Warsaw to the Radio City Rockettes high-kicking in the late 1960s. When your inevitable pierogi craving hits, stop into one of the city’s “milk bars,” known for serving dairy-based items and traditional Polish food. An order of dumplings will run you less than $3 at Mleczarnia, a popular milk bar chain with locations in the city center. Kicking back at a Warsaw bar for happy hour comes cheap: A pint of beer is usually less than two bucks.
Go to Playa del Carmen, Not Cancun
No high-rises here! Hotels in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, are limited to four stories and spaced wider than Cancun’s. (Photo: Atanasbozhikov/Dreamstime)
Get more breathing room for your money — and rub elbows with fewer sunburned tourists — in sustainability- and preservation-focused Playa del Carmen. Hotels in the Riviera Maya are designed around the existing mangroves, limited to four stories, and more spaced out than Cancun. Go all-inclusive for less: The recently renovated Barceló Maya Beach , for example, starts at $95 per person. Cheap eats are basically synonymous with “tacos” in Playa Del Carmen. Get your fix in town at Los Aguachiles , a hip joint where the seafood tacos are fresh and the Dos Equis is cold (tacos from $1.89), then take a seven-minute stroll to Ah Cacao Chocolate Café on 5th Avenue for a hot cup of Mexican cacao direct from the plantation, with a luscious, pillowy brownie on the side (from $1.50). But back to why you’re really here: Scenesters, gorgeous Mamitas Beach is calling your name. It’s a popular spot for both locals and out-of-towners, and the site of the free Riviera Maya Jazz Festival in late November.
Go to Eleuthera, Not Nassau
Lighthouse Beach, famous in Eleuthera for its beautiful stretches of pink sand. (Courtesy: paulsoncall/myBudgetTravel)
Most tourists’ Bahamas journeys stop at Nassau, but consider going one step farther and hopping a small plane to the nearby Out Islands for privacy and unspoiled beauty. The draw of the long, crescent-shaped island of Eleuthera is its pink-sand beaches and still-rugged charm. The Bahamas tourism board is keen on drawing travelers to the islands, so check its website for deals like buy-one-get-one-free airfare and scuba-diving resort credits. Tippy’s restaurant is where the social action is: Located in the Pineapple Fields beach hotel right on the Atlantic Ocean, Tippy’s has ever-changing lunch and dinner menus heavy on local produce and seafood, like cracked conch and grouper tacos (lunch entrees from $12). Staying overnight at Pineapple Fields is on the pricier side, but every unit is a condo with full kitchen, veranda, and easy pool and beach access (from $170).
For fewer frills, but a rustic feel and your very own cottage on the beach, Northside Inn & Restaurant, in south Eleuthera, touts its ocean views and its food — jerk chicken, grouper fingers, homemade mac and cheese, and conch dishes, all cooked by proprietor and native Bahamian Rose Gibson (from $100 per night). Wherever you go for dinner, if you see a dessert menu, pick the pineapple tart. Pineapple plantations are plentiful on Eleuthera; the annual Pineapple Festival in June celebrates pineapple farmers with events including a pineapple-eating contest, a swim/bike/run “pineathlon,” and a Little Miss Pineapple Pageant. If you can’t make the festival, for another type of party, hit the local Anchor Bay fish fry in Governor’s Harbour, held every Friday night at 6, for a meal of fried fish, barbecued chicken, sides like peas and rice, and the “rum bubbas”—especially potent fruit-juice cocktails that have been known to inspire earnest killer dance moves ($10).
Go to Moorea, Not Bora Bora
Tropical, verdant, volcanic-ridged Moorea is more affordable than its sister island Bora Bora. (Courtesy andreahumm/myBudgetTravel)
Choose tropical, verdant, volcanic-ridged Moorea over its more expensive sister island Bora Bora, and you’ll immediately save about $950 on interisland airfare just in taking the ferry from Papeete to Moorea ($70 per couple round trip). For a classic “Bora Bora-esque” resort experience at a good value, go off-season and select a lanai room at the InterContinental Resort & Spa (from $245 per night), or DIY most of your meals and take over a Polynesian bungalow with full kitchen at Hotel Le Tipaniers (from $180 per night). Tahiti.com has airfare-included package deals for both. Resorts often offer free activities like snorkeling equipment rental and kayaks for exploring the island’s lagoon and waterfalls. For a special meal out, take the free shuttle to new hot spot Moorea Beach Café to sample its modernist cuisine amid sweeping lagoon views; restaurateur Bruno Jamais once worked under fine dining deities Daniel Boulud and Alain Ducasse. The food isn’t cheap, but you can try the plat du jour lunch special for $17.
Go to Palm Springs, Not San Francisco
There’s a desert view—and a pool—around every corner in Palm Springs. (Courtesy Saguaro Palm Springs)
San Francisco has the skyline, but Palm Springs has the deals. U.S. history is alive and well in the desert: Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack pals — plus a certain politician or two — were known to carouse around town in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s a modern-day millennial haven too, especially for summer Coachella concert-goers. Retro-chic digs are affordable at the rustic Sparrows Lodge , originally a 1950s movie star retreat that’s been restored to its former glory and updated with an outdoor fire pit and saltwater pool (from $129). Cheeky’s is a new favorite spot for breakfast or lunch—and there’s a Bacon Bar! (entrees from $8) Spending at least an afternoon marveling at the otherworldly geological formations and desert vegetation in Joshua Tree National Park is an essential pit stop. A weeklong pass to the park for a carload of people is only $15. Spiritual enlightenment doesn’t get any cheaper.
Go to Galway City, Ireland, Not Dublin, Ireland
Follow Shop Street south and you’ll eventually hit 1 Quay Street, home of the tiny Claddagh Ring Museum. (Gunold Brunbauer / Dreamstime.com)
True, you could head to Dublin brave the big city (and the $23-a-ticket Guinness Storehouse) with other tourists, but if you’d rather unwind and explore Ireland on a smaller scale, consider touring Galway City, on the west side of the island. The medieval Spanish Arch in cobblestoned Galway City is an extension of the town’s wall and a passageway that allowed ships carrying goods from nearby countries to pass. Find out more about the city’s historic sites on a free two-hour guided walking tour that meets in Eyre Square three times a day. A few blocks from the square, Griffin’s Bakery has made homemade bread and yeasted brack (cake) like mom never used to since 1878 (from $2.50). If you can’t resist bringing a little Irish heritage home, the free Claddagh Ring Museum tells the story of those quaint little hand, heart, and crown baubles; the attached shop sells souvenir claddagh jewelry at multiple price points. The Park House Hotel is centrally located, and its in-house restaurant cooks up a full Irish breakfast of grilled bacon, sausage, tomato, black and white pudding, and free-range eggs (from $140 per night). And, let’s be honest, of course you’ll want a Guinness draught in Ireland: Look for nightly specials and live music at the local pubs — both are plentiful.
Go to Portland, Not Seattle
Find your gastronomic bliss in Portland, Oregon, where the foodie scene is exploding. Come dinnertime, head to Division Street for a trendy row of restaurants with names like Son of a Biscuit. (Josemaria Toscano/Dreamstime.com)
Riding up into the Space Needle is bucket-list-worthy for sure, but if it’s a quirky vibe and zero sales tax you’re looking for, Portland’s your city. The famously hip Ace Hotel chain started in the Pacific Northwest; its Downtown Portland outpost offers free bikes for borrowing and bargain-priced rooms if you don’t mind sharing a hall bathroom—an en suite W.C. is higher (from $129). Have you ever wanted to bunk in a tiny house with wheels? You will now. At Caravan, on the west side of the Willamette River, each of the hotel’s six rooms is its own 100- to 200-foot abode with bathroom and kitchen (from $125 per night. Wash down a hearty sandwich (like the pork meatball banh mi) with a cold microbrew at local favorite Lardo — the pork-and-beef-steeped joint began as a food truck and now has three locations (sandwiches from $9). Burn off those calories on the free Secrets of Portlandia city walking tour, then wind through the seemingly never-ending stacks at Powell’s City of Books, the world’s largest new and used bookstore. You still have room for something sweet, right? Jump smack into the middle of the Portland vs. Seattle doughnut rivalry by sampling a Butterfingering doughnut from Voodoo Doughnut and/or a Cointreau-infused crème brulee brioche doughnut from newcomer Blue Star Donuts. Last but not least: Portlandia fans, this is your mecca. It’s hard not to bump into a location where the TV show has been shot, but Travel Portland has a breakdown of locales by season, including Land Gallery, where the unforgettable “Put a Bird on It” sketch was filmed.
Related: Thursday Night: Portland, Oregon
Go to Twin Falls, Idaho, Not Niagara Falls, New York
ake in gorgeous views of Shoshone Falls while you fish, hike, or picnic at the Shoshone Falls/Dierkes Lake Complex. (Courtesy jcjlkrebs/myBudgetTravel)
Niagara Falls will always have a classic romantic cachet; Idaho’s Shoshone Falls, however, is not only 45 feet taller, but the Twin Falls area is also much less expensive than a traditional vacation destination, Niagara included. The quaint brick Tudor-style Fillmore Inn, originally a counterintuitively flashy Depression-era residence built by a Standard Oil man, is appointed with vintage furniture, hemmed in with honeysuckles, and located minutes from Snake River and Shoshone Falls National Park (from $99). After a full breakfast on the garden patio, take your whole crew fishing, hiking, or picnicking at the Shoshone Falls/Dierkes Lake Complex in full view of the falls ($3 per car April through September, no charge other months). Just when you thought the vistas couldn’t get any better, have dinner on the rim of the Snake River Canyon next to an outdoor fire pit at Elevation 486, which serves up local catches like grilled Idaho ruby-red trout and fresh Northwest steamer clams (entrees from $10).
Go to the Cinque Terre, Not the French Riviera
The village of Manarola is one of the five towns that make up the Cinque Terre in Italy. Hiking between the villages is a popular activity, but be prepared to climb steep stone steps. (Jenifoto406 / Dreamstime.com)
Someday you’ll find yourself flush with cash and lying on private beaches in Cannes with the glitterati, but until then, for high-drama cliffside coastal scenery and a slow-paced Italian vibe, the UNESCO World Heritage site Cinque Terre is a less expensive but highly picturesque alternative. Hotels can be pricey in the area, but the very basic Hotel La Zorza , housed in a 17th-century building located in the Riomaggiore Village (one of five that make up Cinque Terre), starts at $40 a night. Bring your swimsuit in warmer months: The beaches are pebbly but egalitarian — and free. Hiking between the villages is an extremely popular activity; just be prepared to climb steep stone steps. Check the park’s website for trail closings, difficulty ratings, and a schedule of guided walking tours, which will set you back less than $4. Fresh-caught anchovies and pesto, which originated from the Italian Riviera, are two local specialties you’ll want to check off your foodie list, and Trattoria dal Billy , hidden up in the hills of Manarola, dishes out both amid sweeping views from the balcony (entrees from $14).
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