It’s been a long time coming but you’ve finally decided to plan your dream trip. Maybe NEA Travel helped inspire you after reading our feature, “Make This the Year You Plan Your Dream Trip.” But how do you decide where to go? To help, we asked NEA members where they long to visit and then explored the top five bucket list destinations. With useful tips and resources, you’re sure to plan more effectively for that “once in a lifetime” trip to Hawaii, Barcelona, Paris, Costa Rica or Walt Disney World. And, don’t forget that you can always rely on the services of a good travel agent to help you pull off the vacation you have your heart set on.
Buckle up because here we go. First stop, Barcelona, Spain.
1. Barcelona, Spain
Barcelona can be explored on your own or enjoyed with a guided tour. And, perhaps the best way to get to know the Catalonian capital is through your sense of taste. Learn about the city’s history and heritage in one of several food and wine tours. We suggest the Tapas and Gourmet tours, if you’re finding it hard to choose, and sample Spanish delicacies such as paella, Catalan tomato bread, manchego cheese, Spanish ham and the deep-fried pastry, xuixo. You’ll sample Spanish cuisine as you walk through the city passing sights such as architect Anton Gaudi’s landmark buildings Sagrada Familia Basilica, La Pedrera (Casa Mila) and Casa Batllo.
Pick your hotel: To get the most of your Barcelona vacation, pick a hotel that’s within walking distance of the city’s popular tourist spots or within easy access to public transportation. Hotels located in Placa de Catalunya, which is the heart of the city; La Rambla shopping district that is home to the famous Boqueria Market; or the Gothic Quarter, where you’ll find Barcelona Cathedral, provide these benefits. For more affordable options, look to the El Poble-sec neighborhood and Placa d’Espanya area—both located outside the city center but nearby public transportation.
When to go: Summer is the most crowded and expensive season to visit Barcelona. You’ll fight for space with both local and foreign tourists. Try to schedule your vacation during spring break instead. Or, if you don’t mind missing a swim in the Mediterranean, come during offseason months in the winter for a significantly cheaper vacation.
2. Central Pacific Coast of Costa Rica
Costa Rica is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, hosting nearly half a million species. Can’t-miss attractions include the Marino Ballena National Park (a wide beach that looks like a whale’s tail), the small but popular Manuel Antonio National Park and the sea turtle reserve in Playa Tortuga. If history is your thing, visit the hundreds of mysterious stone spheres in Diquis Delta and Isla del Caño that date back to the Pre-Columbian era.
Pick your hotel: Costa Rica is a popular ecotourism destination, so ecolodges and rainforest hotels have become popular. Adrenalin junkies, in particular, head to Rio Perdido to explore its 240 hectares of forest while staying at modular bungalows. If you’re staying in or near the jungle, make sure to protect yourself from mosquito bites, which may cause dengue, malaria or Zika. Consult a travel doctor before you leave home.
When to go: The best time to schedule a trip to Costa Rica really depends on the type of activities you enjoy. If you love to surf, the rainy season (August to October) provides the best waves; otherwise, your activities will be limited because rivers overflow and roads can become impassable during this time. On the other hand, Costa Rica’s “dry” season (December to April) offers the best time for a swim, but beaches can easily get crowded and accommodations become expensive and harder to come by.
Plan your trip: Essential Costa Rica
3. Hawaiian Islands
Hawaii is easy to explore independently, but a guide can be useful at times. When visiting Maui, for example, you’ll want to wander the scenic Road to Hana, but this narrow roadway with its hairpin turns can be a challenge for visitors to navigate. While white-knuckling the steering wheel, you’re missing the natural beauty out your window. Instead, opt for a guide who’ll also act as your driver. Shop online for tours; booking in advance may net you a discount. Look to vendors such as Valley Isle Excursions, Blue Hawaiian Helicopters and Roberts Hawaii.
Pick your hotel: Before you book a room, learn the difference between oceanfront and oceanview rooms. Oceanfront rooms have direct, full-on vistas of the water. Oceanview indicates a distant view of the water or a partial view. Hawaiian hotels also sell rooms with various other designations, such as “mountain,” “garden,” “island” or “resort,” that will almost always be cheaper than oceanfront.
When to go: There’s no bad time of year to visit Hawaii, although holidays always see a peak in crowds and hotel rates. Rainy season is November through March, but it doesn’t generally rain all day, nor does it rain everywhere at once. If it’s raining where you are, drive to another part of the island. You’ll likely be rewarded with sunnier skies.
If you’ve never been to Europe, your best bet may be a group tour. NEA Travel has many options, and you'll get an NEA member discount! For DIYers, consider an afternoon food and wine tasting tour with Paris by Mouth.
Pick your hotel: This bucket-list city consists of 20 “arrondissements” or districts, each with its own unique style. Le Marais, consisting of Rue du Temple and Mairie de Paris, offers plenty of budget-friendly accommodations as does Porte Saint-Martin, Bibliotheque Nationale and Pere Lachaise. You can also find a few good options near Notre-Dame and the Louvre.
When to go: Spring is the best times to visit Paris. Flights and hotels are less expensive than during high season and the weather is pleasant (although sometimes a bit chilly in the morning). Consider using your spring break to travel to Paris. The summer high season is also a good time to go, but avoid August when much of the city—including restaurants, galleries and shops—shuts down for vacation. Paris by Mouth lists which restaurants are closed on what dates.
5. Walt Disney World
Most people explore the parks on their own, but tours can provide behind-the-scenes access plus exclusive perks for a more magical experience. Disney’s VIP Tour Services can get you an upfront view of parades, prime-time restaurant reservations, a scavenger hunt on Disney’s Family Magic Tour or a private safari with Savor the Savanna.
Photo courtesy of The Walt Disney Co.
Pick your hotel: Stay close to all the attractions by booking a room at an official Walt Disney World (WDW) hotel or 1 of its on-site partner accommodations such as the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort. Additionally, there are affordable hotels and motels along International Drive in Orlando and in nearby Kissimmee. Vacation home rentals, such as those from All Star Vacation Homes or HomeAway, are also an option.
When to go: Unfortunately for educators, the least crowded times to visit Disney World—the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and also after spring break but before summer vacation—are off limits to you since you’ll be at work. Summer is the next best time to visit. Although crowded and hot in June, July and August, the resort still delights guests that come prepared with a game plan. To maximize your fun, use Fast Pass+ to arrange appointment times at the parks’ most popular rides.