6 Bargain Secrets for Bucket-List Travel

Sometimes the cost of travel keeps the destinations on your bucket list from moving to your “been there, done that” list. With our penny-pinching tips, you can start packing your bags.

Woman looking out over the water through a camera at Rex Lookout on the highway between Cairns and Port Douglas, Australia

by NEA Member Benefits

The trips on your bucket list are bound to offer priceless memories, but most of us can’t ignore the price tag of an ideal vacation. If you have a major destination as a New Year’s resolution, take heart. With these thrifty strategies, you can turn your dream escape into a reality.

1. Find the right flight

With airfare often taking the biggest chunk out of your wallet, it pays to look for bargains. Compare airline reward programs to see which companies offer the best deals. Sign up for newsletters and social media from the airlines flying to your chosen destinations. They often spotlight specials.

Be flexible with your travel dates. It’s often cheaper to fly midweek and after major holidays.

Websites such as Kayak, Expedia and Orbitz that once led the pack on bargain rates have been joined by the likes of Hipmunk, Google Flights, Bing Travel and The Flight Deal. The Flight Deal claims to publish fares at around 6 cents a mile.

As an NEA member, you can find great deals on flights through NEA Travel: Flights.

2. Sleep cheap

A first-rate hotel or inn is a wonderful treat but won’t help stretch your dollars on a dream trip. Home rental company Airbnb has become wildly popular worldwide, and not just for urban neighborhoods. If you’re ready to splurge a little (but still save by choosing something other than a high-priced hotel), how about a French castle like Château de Barnay in South Burgundy or Augill Castle near England’s Lake District?

For more home rental options in the U.S. and abroad, Tripping.com aggregates a host of sites including VRBO, PerfectPlaces and WaytoStay.

With Cultural Homestay International, you have the opportunity to get to know the residents of your chosen destination. For a normally modest fee, you can stay with a local family in countries worldwide, including Brazil and India.

3. Choose voluntourism

Volunteering in a foreign land is a great way to give back and also can be economical. With a nonprofit like Global Volunteers (which has connected participants with at-risk kids for 30 years), you can deduct your travel costs and program fees from your taxes, fundraise for your expenses or even apply for a grant. Then, for example, when you finally take that longed-for trip to Ecuador, you can lend a hand at a daycare. Or if Vietnam is on your list, help out at a school there.

If you have a green thumb and a passion for organic food, check out WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), which matches travelers and farmers. With more than 100 countries to choose from, surely you’ll find one from your bucket list. Yearning to visit Ireland, not as a tourist but more like a local? St. Tola, an organic goat farm in County Clare, could be the basis for many interesting classroom discussions.

4. Use the local public transit

In some destinations, you don’t want the trouble of driving in an unfamiliar or jam-packed location, not to mention the expense of car rental and insurance. Cities around the world have excellent public transportation from the airport to the center of town. Once you’re there, buses, light rail and trains are usually affordable and often provide a front-row seat to the sights. If Scotland is on your bucket list, consider ScotRail as a relaxing way to admire the country’s lochs and moors.

Multiday bus and rail passes normally save you over single-day tickets and are farther-reaching. For that dream trip to Switzerland, the all-in-one pass covers trains, buses, boats and some mountain trams so you can experience the Alps and Lake Lucerne (and more!) in an exciting way.

For traveling longer distances between cities, find deals on small in-country airlines like Virgin Australia, which can get you between the spectacular Great Barrier Reef and iconic Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.

5. Rent a home on wheels

Camper van travel offers big savings by rolling your accommodations and transportation costs together. Smaller and more efficient than traditional RVs, camper vans are easier to drive and can be parked at almost any campground. Because you’re traveling with a kitchen, you can economize on meals but still shop for local cuisine and splurge at restaurants when you feel like it.

Van rentals are available for exploring in Germany, Sweden, Spain and the United Kingdom as well as Canada, Hawaii, Australia and many other desirable destinations. In many countries, daily rates start at around $100.

6. Travel during the “shoulder season”

Consider taking your trip in the shoulder season—the time between the peak and off-seasons. Prices and crowds are highest during peak season. But for a once-in-a-lifetime trip, you want to avoid the off-season as well so that when you finally go to Costa Rica it’s not raining the entire time (May through November) and so you won’t swelter in New Zealand at its hottest (January and February). Traveling during the shoulder season can get you good deals on everything: airfare, lodging, guide services, attractions and transportation. You won’t have to fight the crowds and can enjoy a laid-back experience, like Hawaii’s quieter beaches in fall.

But sometimes the off-season can be the right choice. Just make sure that what you’re interested in will be open and conditions will be tolerable. For instance, if you yearn to see the Aurora Borealis, Iceland in winter serves up dramatic views. And, as a bonus, the Icelandic Opera only performs in winter.

Closer to home, national parks top many bucket lists. If Yellowstone is on yours, consider spending your winter break there for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, ranger-led programs, snowy geyser basins and wildlife viewing.

If you’re looking for ideas on where to go, tips for savvy travel and special member-only discounts, subscribe to the always inspiring and helpful NEA Travel newsletter.

Exclusive travel savings for NEA members