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

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

Couple Embracing On Beach

by NEA Member Benefits


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 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. So, while you’re saving up for strolling the streets of Amsterdam, snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef or skiing in the Swiss Alps, here are a few Plan B options to try for now that are just as cool but less expensive.

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.

Alternative Bucket List Vacations - Curacao Carnival

Photo courtesy of Curacao Tourist Board

Where to go instead: Curacao, situated in the Lesser Antilles in the southern Caribbean Sea, offers visitors an affordable taste of Dutch culture with some Caribbean flair. The capital city of Willemstad greets tourists with Dutch-style colonial buildings standing in formation on the waterfront of St. Anna Bay. Moving into the Otrobanda and Pietermaai neighborhoods of the “Amsterdam of the Caribbean,” colorful murals similar to the street art found in Amsterdam’s Spuistraat district await. Like its sister city in Europe, Curacao features a floating market but it sells fresh fruit instead of tulips. And, the old market Plasa Bieu—recently renovated—has plenty of local cuisine to sample. Don’t miss a taste of iguana stew with a side of bitterballen (a Dutch meat snack). 

Curacao’s location south of the hurricane belt eases any worry of weather ruining a perfect day at its more than 30 beaches. February, during the island’s carnival celebration, is a great time to visit. A wide range of accommodations from simple B&Bs to luxury resorts is available, and many airlines sell economical packages that include your flight and hotel stay. Check NEA Vacations for airfare and discounted prices on hotels.

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.

Alternative Bucket List Vacations - Rocky Mountains Skiing

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.

Alternative Bucket List Vacations - Wildlife of Sanibel

Where to go instead: Sanibel on Florida’s west coast is a small barrier island that offers beautiful Gulf of Mexico sunsets, shell-strewn beaches, bike trails and hiking paths, the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge and casual restaurants serving up delicious locally caught seafood. There are no chain restaurants or big box stores here but you will make the acquaintance of dolphins and manatees, roseate spoonbills and great blue herons. Shelling is world class here. Expect to find sand dollars, lightning whelks and sometimes even the elusive junonia. (Note: While Hurricanes Irma (September 2017) and Michael (October 2018) did brush by Sanibel, the area did not suffer the significant damage other Florida destinations did.)

Accommodations range from Old Florida beach cottages to ocean-side condos and inns. Sanibel Island is simply a slice of paradise and will cost less than half of what a trip to Kauai would cost. Fly into Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers and then use your NEA discounts to rent a car and drive 45 minutes to Sanibel Causeway.

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.

Alternative Bucket List Vacations - Costa Rica

Photo courtesy of Marc Cappelletti/Lindblad Expeditions 

Where to go instead: Costa Rica has a variety of ecosystems from rainforests and beaches to rivers and dry lands, offering plenty of wildlife viewing and outdoor adventures for a third of the price of a Galapagos cruise. On average, a cruise to Costa Rica ranges from $800 to $4,500, 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 also save on your tour packages Trafalgar using your NEA discount, or book a Costa Rican cruise with NEA Vacations.

Something in the vein of Queensland, Australia

What’s special about Queensland: Play in the turquoise-colored ocean, explore the capital city of Brisbane, befriend a kangaroo or dive the Great Barrier Reef. But between the 24-plus hours of travel time it takes to get there, the visa you’ll need to acquire and the $15,000 you’ll spend in just airfare and hotel accommodations for a family of four, Queensland, Australia, feels a bit out of reach.

Alternative Bucket List Vacations - Newfoundland

Photo courtesy of Newfoundland & Labrador Tourism

Where to go instead: Hauntingly beautiful natural scenery, rare wildlife and rich history only touch on the best-kept secrets of Canada’s east coast and, bonus, it doesn’t take 24 hours to get there. Different from the other provinces in Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador has its own unique vibe (and its own time zone): from the modern dining scene and foggy historic streets of St. John’s to the natural side with the wild animals—think puffins, whales and 150,000 moose—and massive icebergs floating past tiny fishing villages.

Hikers and outdoor adventurers will find plenty to see even if just at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Gros Morne National Park that includes hiking, fjords, glacial valleys, waterfalls and pristine lakes. Book at least one night in St. John’s but consider booking other nights closer to the attractions you want to see. The area is vast so your best bet is to rent a car and travel at your own pace; the trip will still end up being at least two-thirds cheaper than a trip Down Under.

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