Go Here, Not There: Affordable Alternatives to Bucket List Trips

You have options when a tight budget—and coronavirus—sidelines your dream trip. Use your imagination to find similar, less costly experiences closer to home.

Couple Embracing On Beach

by NEA Member Benefits

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Editor’s Note: NEA Member Benefits understands how much you love to travel and how much you’ve missed it. As states begin to relax their regulations with regard to COVID-19 and more Americans become vaccinated, travel is opening up more and more. Before planning a trip, read the health and safety protocols and requirements for visitors to any destination, as well as those of airlines, car rentals and hotels before booking and again before traveling.

If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would it be?

We all have that one destination we would jet off to if money, time and other factors—such as the current coronavirus travel restrictions—weren’t issues. But what you might not realize is the experience you’re looking for in your dream destination can often be found at a location that’s closer to home and at a price that’s much more appealing.

While you’re saving up to cruise the Mediterranean, ski the Swiss Alps or snorkel in Hawaii, here are a few Plan B options to try for now that are just as cool but less expensive and more manageable.

When your Mediterranean cruise was canceled due to COVID

What's so special about a Mediterranean cruise: Boarding a cruise ship headed to the Mediterranean allows passengers to visit many European cities on one trip. And since these itineraries embark from major ports such as Barcelona, Venice, Athens, Lisbon, Istanbul and Rome, you can tack on a pre- or post-cruise stay to explore the destination in-depth.

Cruises, even those to the Mediterranean, are often a terrific value. For instance, a seven-night round-trip Rome itinerary aboard MSC Fantasia is only $449 to $879 per person (depending on dates), a 10-night round-trip sailing from Marseille, France, aboard Costa Magica costs $899 to $999 per person and a 12-night round-trip Rome voyage on Royal Caribbean’s Odyssey of the Seas starts around $1,000 per person.

Don't forget that you can book a cruise through NEA Travel. Pair that with an affordable flight and you've got an incredible European vacation at a fair price point. Curious about sailing? See what precautions cruise lines are taking to keep their guests safe.

Where to go instead: For significant history, amazing views and delicious seafood-based cuisine that’s closer to home than the Med, book a New England cruise. The region is composed of several states that share a Colonial past, fantastic fall foliage and good food. A great time to sail is during the fall when trees don their autumn robes or anytime during the summer. (With several COVID-19 vaccines rolling out now, it's possible fall sailings may happen in 2021 or put this on your list for summer 2022.)

Boston is a wise starting point for a New England cruise. Steeped in history, the city offers cruisers a glimpse into American history with its historical sites and landmarks, such as the Freedom Trail and Faneuil Hall Marketplace. Typical ports of call on a New England sailing include Bar Harbor, Maine, your gateway to Acadia National Park; Halifax, Nova Scotia; Quebec City and Montreal in Canada.

A seven-night Boston round-trip cruise on Norwegian Gem starts at $706 per person and $939 on Royal Caribbean’s Jewel of the Seas. Holland America’s Zaandam has a similar itinerary (seven-night Boston to Montreal cruise) for $899. A 12-night Boston round-trip cruise on Celebrity Summit costs around $1,500 per person.

If you’re pressed for time, a day cruise out of Boston Harbor will allow you to see or visit several local sites. Boston Harbor Cruises will take you to visit Old Ironsides in Charlestown Navy Yard. The USS Constitution cruise is 45 minutes long and includes a tour of the ship, the Naval Museum, the Boston Tea Party site and more (about $25 for adults and $22 for kids ages 3–11). There’s also a sunset sightseeing cruise where you’ll sail past lighthouses, landmarks and historic islands, with the gorgeous sunset in the background ($about 37 for adults and $33 for kids 3–11).

For outdoor enthusiasts, there’s a whale-watching cruise that visits Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary and is accompanied by New England Aquarium naturalists ($55 per adult, $35 for kids 3–11 and $18 for children under 3). You could sail to the Boston Harbor Islands National and State Park, the largest recreation area in Metro Boston. Or, go on a wild but fun ride on a Codzilla cruise, which speeds through the water at up to 40 mph, plus hairpin turns and 360-degree spins

When Amsterdam is out of reach

What’s special about Amsterdam: Millions of tourists visit Amsterdam annually to get a taste of gezelligheid, a Dutch term that can roughly be translated as “warm and friendly,” or that wonderful feeling of contentment. Known for tulips, the Anne Frank House, Van Gogh Museum and its bike-friendly city streets, the Dutch capital offers much to visitors. The “Venice of the North” enthralls visitors with its colorful fairytale houses situated alongside busy canals, good food, rich history and artsy culture. But, all these come at a high cost—Amsterdam is one of the most expensive cities to visit in Europe. A couple would spend about $4,000 on coach airfare and a seven-night stay in a four-star hotel in Amsterdam.

Where to go instead: If walking or biking along canals for miles is your idea of a wonderful vacation, look no further than the Venice of America”: Fort Lauderdale. The Greater Fort Lauderdale region has 300 miles of inland waterways, 165 miles of which are in the city of Fort Lauderdale. Ride a gondola or hop aboard an amphibious boat tour of Las Olas Boulevard, historic districts and Millionaires Row, where the rich live in mansions with their yachts moored at private docks.

With millions of tourists visiting the city or passing through its port, Fort Lauderdale has become an urban destination for all types of travelers. The pedestrian-friendly city is a historic and cultural hub, and at the center of this buzz of activity is the Riverwalk, winding along the New River and featuring restaurants, the Museum of Discovery and Science and more.

You can drive to Fort Lauderdale from all over Florida and nearby states, or you can choose to fly into the Ft. Lauderdale or Miami airports. (Check NEA Travel for airfare, as well as discounted prices on hotels and resorts.) Either way, Fort Lauderdale is a fantastic year-round destination at a quarter of an Amsterdam vacation price tag.

An alternative to the Swiss Alps

What’s special about the Swiss Alps: Everything about the Swiss Alps is practically perfect—from the idyllic Swiss chalets that dot the mountainsides to the long ski runs (without the long lift lines) and powder-like snow. The only thing not so charming about a ski vacation in the Swiss Alps is the price tag. Historically, Switzerland is an expensive place to visit and can cost a family of four anywhere from $7,000 to $13,000 for just hotel and airfare. That doesn’t even include food, ski rentals and lift pass or transportation. 

Where to go instead: If you know your history you might know that back in 1869, a creative journalist named Samuel Bowles published a guidebook to Colorado titled The Switzerland of America. The Rockies and the Alps are very different, but if a ski trip to the Swiss Alps is on your dream-destination list, a trip to the Rocky Mountains might be able to fill your mountain craving.

With mountains that are similar in height, the Rockies can offer a comparable ski experience for less than $3,500 for flights and accommodations. Loveland Ski Area (Dillon, Colorado) is a small local ski resort that’s close to Denver so it’s a manageable day trip, if needed. There’s no on-site lodging so expect cheaper prices for lift tickets than at nearby resorts. Plus, child rates are for kids up to 14 whereas other mountains usually make the cut at age 12. And while you won’t find the darling villages like you will in the Alps, you will find really cool mountain towns that look like they’re fresh out of the gold- and silver-rush era (but with much better food and accommodations) that offer unique lodging options in historic buildings or newer hotels, if that’s your preference.

Does anywhere to compare to Kauai?

What’s special about Kauai: One of the more relaxed and secluded Hawaiian Islands, Kauai is popular for its beaches and natural landscape. Outdoor lovers flock to the island to hike its rugged terrain, snorkel its underwater reefs, witness its natural wonders and completely check out from the real world. But all of that carries quite the cost for a family of four at $5,500 and up for hotel and airfare. 

Where to go instead: If the distance and new health screenings make Hawaii a no-go for now, consider Florida’s Key West instead. It can offer you the seclusion you crave as you relax and unwind in a beautiful natural setting without spending too much. For about $3,000 for airfare and hotel for a family of four, Key West is a much cheaper alternative to Kauai.

Disconnect from the world and relish nature’s beauty or immerse in history in Dry Tortugas National Park in Garden Key. This 100-square-mile park, nearly 70 miles west of Key West, is a remote destination that is accessible only by boat or seaplane. Here, you can explore the historic Fort Jefferson or engage in various watersports.

With less than 1% of the park being dry ground, snorkeling and diving are the best ways to see the park’s treasures. Passage aboard the Yankee Freedom III ferry includes snorkel, fins and mask so you can explore nearby snorkeling sites. Look for coral reefs, colorful tropical fish, seagrass and other marine life. Or, get a free boat permit at Garden Key and explore the park on your own vessel.

Beyond the reef, you can fish for tuna, tarpon, snapper and grouper. Swimming in the park’s crystal-blue waters is also a good way to spend the time. Or, get in touch with local businesses for stand-up paddleboarding, kiteboarding and wakeboarding in Key West.

Even if you’re not into watersports, you’ll still find beauty everywhere in Key West. Waterfront dining here is really special, with freshly caught local seafood, such as mahi mahi, conch and yellowtail tuna, often featured on the menu. Dine in a casual alfresco ambiance at Salute! On the Beach or the Southernmost Beach Cafe. Visit Latitudes or Louie’s Backyard for a romantic setting on the quieter Sunset Key. Or, head to the Commodore, Schooner Wharf or Half Shell Raw Bar for upscale dining in an “old Key West” vibe. In the evening, check out live music from local – and even nationally known – performers.

Anything similar to a Galapagos Island cruise?

What’s special about the Galapagos: The isolated group of volcanic islands off the coast of Ecuador is home to creatures found nowhere else on earth. The demand to visit the area is high and because of the strict rules and regulations on how many people can visit at a time, the cost to vacation there is also high. A cruise tends to be the best way to see the diverse areas of the islands but can cost you anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000 per person. 

Where to go instead: Costa Rica has a variety of ecosystems from rainforests and beaches to rivers and drylands, offering plenty of wildlife viewing and outdoor adventures for a third of the price of a Galapagos cruise. Cruises to Costa Rica start around $800 per person, with some itineraries even departing from U.S. ports. Once you get there, you can choose to explore a coffee farm via horseback, soak in a hot spring on the side of a volcano, hike through a cloud forest, zip line past monkeys and sloths hiding in trees and watch the famed “Jesus Christ” lizard run on water. Keep in mind that you can save on tour packages and cruises using your NEA Travel discounts!

Can anything wow like a Walt Disney World vacation?

What’s special about Walt Disney World: About the same size as San Francisco, Walt Disney World is more than a theme park. In fact, there are four theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom), plus two water parks and more than 20 hotels. Each park has its own rides and cast of characters, which you’ll usually see in shows, parades and meet-and-greets. There are plenty of food options, too. Classics include the Dole Whip frozen confection, roasted turkey legs and Mickey head-shaped ice cream bars.

Walt Disney World has reopened and is accepting a limited number of visitors. Most payments are now managed via a touch-free system, specifically using the My Disney Experience app that you can download to your smartphone.

To enter the park, you’ll need both a free park reservation (new in the age of coronavirus) and valid paid admission for the same date, have a temperature reading of less than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit and wear a face mask (that includes children ages 2 and up). Face masks may only be removed while eating or drinking, provided you are stationary and observing social distancing.

Where to go instead: While it's not the same sort of thrills as you'll find at a theme park, 2021 may be the perfect time to head to a national park. Visitors usually greet the iconic natural wonders of places like Yosemite and Yellowstone with “oohs” and “aahs,” and not without reason. Though not the world’s deepest or widest, the Grand Canyon is still that—grand, with towering cliffs and colorful rock layers revealing an incredible amount of the Earth’s history. And, a family vacation here will easily be filled with adventures worth remembering.

There are plenty of activities to choose from. Families can bond while hiking the various trails, such as the Rim Trail. Bicycle rentals are also available, and you can bike along the rim on the fully paved Greenway Trail. Or, enjoy a classic mule ride and sightseeing of the inner canyon. Visitors can also go white-water rafting along the Colorado River. Tours welcome kids aged 8+ on motor-powered rafts and 12+ on oar-powered rafting.

If you want to take it easy—and you’re ready to pay the price—you can view the Grand Canyon from above with helicopter or small plane tours. An alternative is the Grand Canyon Skywalk on the Hualapai Reservation, where you can look at the Grand Canyon from 4,000 feet above; there’s even a glass floor you can look down from. Or, ride the Grand Canyon Railway that departs daily from Williams, Arizona. Live musicians serenade you on the way to the Grand Canyon and actors perform a train heist during your return trip. (Check with the Grand Canyon Railway to see if it's operating during your planned visits.)

Of course, with this many activities to try, it makes sense to spend some time here. There are camping opportunities, but you can also book a hotel room, including one at the El Tovar, the oldest resort at the rim (from $275 per night).

Will a gamble against Monaco pay off?

What’s special about Monaco: Nicknamed “Billionaires’ Playground,” Monaco is a wealthy French principality, home to affluent residents, expensive real estate and lavish events, such as the Monaco Grand Prix and the Monaco Yacht Show.

But, it's perhaps best known for being Europe’s premier gambling destination and home to world-famous casinos. There’s the luxurious Casino de Monte-Carlo, built in the 1800s and is also famous for appearing in the James Bond movie “Golden Eye”; Casino Cafe de Paris, with its 480 state-of-the-art slot machines; the highly contemporary and very American Sun Casino, also known as Monaco's “Little Vegas”; and the modern Monte Carlo Bay Casino located in an exclusive resort.

And, while the glitz and glamour might have attracted you to come, the French Riviera—along with world-class cuisine, shopping and the vibrant, pulsating urban energy of the 2-square-kilometer principality—will tempt you to stay a little longer.

Where to go instead: Las Vegas is also well-known for its many world-class casinos, which offer something different for everyone. And with new COVID-19 safety measures in place, the hotels on the Strip and beyond are hoping to appeal to travelers at some point in 2021.

Caesars Palace is ideal for sports betting, Bellagio’s casino is great for poker, ARIA has nearly 2,000 slot machines and the casino at Stratosphere Tower, the tallest freestanding observation in the U.S., offers the best views of the valley. (Or, sign up for a helicopter tour to see the city from a different angle.)

Nicknamed the “entertainment capital of the world,” the city is abuzz 24/7 with plenty of choices when it comes to entertainment, from acrobats, magicians and music icons to neon lights, exotic shows and nightlife. Even the hotels here have unusual displays you’ll want to see. The Wynn Hotel, for instance, is filled with a wide array of artwork, including 18-century vases, glass tulips by Jeff Koons and more.

Of course, there are the famous Bellagio fountains, which display a unique water show every time you see it. Music and lights accompany the dancing waters of the fountains. The hotel also has a conservatory, just across the lobby. With its own horticulture staff, Bellagio transforms this 14,000-square-foot space into a rotating display that changes every season.

Plus, Las Vegas affords travelers quick trips to some incredible outdoor adventures within easy driving distances. Hoover Dam, an engineering marvel, is a short jaunt from the Strip. Death Valley, about two hours away, features dunes and the world’s lowest salt flats. For canyon views, trails and rock formations, the Grand Canyon Sky Walk is about a two-hour drive. And, don't miss Zion National Park in Utah, which is only 2.5 hours from the city. Or, go on a road trip through the Valley of Fire State Park, where sandstone formations appear to be ablaze when hit by the sun just right (in Overton, Nevada, about an hour away).

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