Oh, the places you'd go — if you could. While most people have exotic locales on their bucket lists, there are also many places in the United States and abroad that are just as enticing but won't cost your retirement kitty. Here are some ideas for where to take a memorable vacation now and still be able to afford to travel in your golden years.
Recognized as the culinary capital of Mexico, Oaxaca is irresistible to anyone interested in food and drink. It's the birthplace of mezcal, the agave-based ancestor of tequila, and mole, the family of rich sauces found throughout the country. This bustling, bohemian city has cobblestone streets, colonial charm, and low prices. At Las Brisas Huatulco, an all-inclusive resort with its own coral reef and myriad other amenities, rates start at about $120 a night. Other types of accommodation can be found for about $30 a night for a private room, breakfast included.
NASCAR'S OLDEST TRACK
Martinsville Speedway celebrated its 70th anniversary in 2017 and it's a must-see destination for car lovers, and there's more to see in this quaint, historic town. All but one of the museums are free, and the Smithsonian-affiliated Virginia Museum of Natural History is $7 for adults and $5 for seniors and kids 3 and older. Outdoor recreation is cheap and plentiful, and there's a free loaner bike program. Hotels range from $60 to $140 a night, although rates can be higher during Nascar weekends.
NORTHERN LIGHTS, ALASKA
Fairbanks, Alaska, is situated in the auroral oval, about 200 miles from the Arctic Circle, making this cold city a hotspot for travelers who want to see the Northern Lights. City officials recommend at least a three-day stay in fall, winter, or early spring for an 80 percent chance of successful viewing. Area hotels offer Northern Lights wake-up calls, but visitors can opt for a more quintessentially Alaskan experience like a cabin stay or sled-dog trip, too.
Getting to Hanoi, the architecturally diverse city sometimes called the Paris of the East, can be pricey — flights start around $450 from Los Angeles. Even taking that expense into consideration, a Vietnamese vacation can be remarkably cheap. Bahn mi sandwiches are less than $2, Vietnamese coffee is $1, and 4-star hotels can be as low as $40 a night.
A wave of new and renovated resorts have attracted many affluent visitors to Bermuda in the past year. An affordable and stress-free way to see the pink-sand beaches is to take a cruise to the island nation. For instance, a seven-night sailing from New York aboard Norwegian Cruise Line's Dawn starts at $599.
MAINE HUTS & TRAILS
Near the rustic ski town of Kingfield is a unique system of wood-framed, cedar-sided "huts" connected by trails. Visitors can hike, bike, ski, snowshoe, or even paddle between the secluded retreats. All-inclusive pricing starts around $95 a person and includes communal lodging and three meals a day, although prices and service vary by season.
Once the capital of the Khmer Empire, Angkor is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and includes the famous Angkor Wat, which dates back to the 12th century. Despite being rich in history, Cambodia is inexpensive, with a three-day pass to see the temples costing about $62 and most meals costing less than $3. Medium-range hotels start around $12 a night in the Siem Reap area.
EMERALD COAST, FLORIDA
From popular spring break destinations such as Panama City Beach to under-the-radar locales such as Navarre Beach, Florida's Emerald Coast offers bargains and beautiful scenery. Destin is a top beach destination with sugar-white sand, and "The Truman Show" put the pristine, almost bizarrely perfect beach community of Seaside solidly on the tourist map.
Ever since "The Wizard of Oz," there's been curiosity about Kansas. Head to Dorothy's home state to visit the Oz Museum in Wamego, dedicated to artifacts from the books and film, and hit the Oz Winery next door. The town also holds an annual OZtoberFest.
POÁS VOLCANO NATIONAL PARK, COSTA RICA
The main crater of this active volcano is one of the largest in the world, and it's definitely worth a hike to the rim. While getting to Costa Rica takes a pricey plane ticket, food is inexpensive and public transportation plentiful. A budget of $45 to $80 a day can accommodate thrifty travelers looking to explore this popular Central American destination. Visit during the cheaper rainy season from May to November if getting wet isn't a deterrent.
GILA CLIFF DWELLINGS, NEW MEXICO
The astounding cliff dwellings of the Mogollon people date back to the 1200s and are now a national monument thanks to President Theodore Roosevelt, who had them protected in 1907. The ruins are located on 553 acres, and guided and self-guided tours of the mysterious, abandoned dwellings are available. There's camping and also hot springs nearby.
MICHIGAN'S UPPER PENINSULA
Lonely Planet once named the Upper Peninsula of Michigan one of the world's best value destinations. Marquette is where much of the action is, Copper Harbor is known for mountain biking trails, and shipwrecks off the coast entice divers. Check out nearby Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore or venture to Isle Royale National Park to find lighthouses, dramatic stone cliffs, waterfalls, and more. Hotel rooms can go for less than $85 a night depending on the season.
With a little hunting, travelers can find affordable flights to Barcelona for $440 or less from New York, for example. This unrivaled spot for history, culture, architecture, and food holds bargains too. The first Sunday of the month all museums are free, and there’s a light rail line to the beach. Hostels in the central Eixample neighborhood can cost less than $30 a night, and tapas fans will find many bars serving small portions for less than $3.
MACHU PICCHU, PERU
Although airfare to Peru can be pricey, the rest of the trip won't be — and a visit to this historic citadel is mind-blowing. While many people choose to hike to the site with a tour operator, the route can be traced solo and there's also a train from Cuzco. The trip requires time to acclimate to the altitude and an entrance ticket for about $70. In recent years, the Peruvian government has launched measures to control the number of tourists. Since July 2017, visitors have been able to enter the site only with an official tour guide. This year, new visitation hours are in effect with tickets for specific time periods of 6 a.m. to 9 a.m.; 9 a.m. to noon; and noon to 3 p.m..
HELICOPTER RIDE, FAROE ISLANDS
The little-known islands halfway between Scotland and Ireland are lush, green, and isolated — getting there is expensive. But for those who've always wanted to ride in a helicopter, it may be worth it. The government subsidizes helicopter travel, which means a trip between islands costs about $20. However, tourists are encouraged to take a return ferry.
GRAND OLE OPRY, NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE
Country music's biggest stage has been launching careers since 1925, when the Grand Ole Opry began as a humble radio show. Fans can still listen on the radio, but seeing a show in person is a bucket-list-worthy experience. Most performances showcase at least eight country artists — a mix of Opry members and guests ranging from rising new acts to established stars. Consider sticking around after the show for a behind-the-scenes tour.
THE HOME OF PORT
Enjoy the Mediterranean vibe, architecture, and culture in Porto, Portugal, a coastal city best known for port wine. Hotels can cost as little as $45 a night. "The historic city of Porto is a must-see," says Dominique Scarlett, former chief editor of TravelPirates. "Try to go between March and May or September or October, when prices are lowest."
Athens, home of the Acropolis and the National Archaeological Museum, is more affordable than the Greek islands, and the enduring fiscal crisis is keeping costs low throughout Greece. Hotels given 4 out of 5 stars on TripAdvisor charge less than $70 a night, and great food is everywhere. "Greece is the perfect combination of classy and affordable," says Dominique Scarlett, who adds that November is an ideal, less crowded time to go.
Taking a cruise doesn't have to be expensive if you're sailing to Mexico from Southern California. Seven-night cruises starting under $500 a person travel to places like Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan, and Puerto Vallarta, offering a chance to relax on board and still see the many sights at the ports of call.
KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA
A flight from Los Angeles can be less than $400, so it's easy to stick to a budget in Malaysia. Reviews on TripAdvisor give high marks to hotels that cost less than $20 a night, and the world-renowned street food is also inexpensive. Be sure to see the Thean Hou Temple and walk around the Petronas Towers, one of the world's tallest buildings.
Most everyone wants to go to Disney World at least once, and there's no cheap way to get into "the happiest place on Earth." Still, there are ways to keep costs down, such as restricting travel to weekdays during the offseason. Rates at the least expensive Disney resort, Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground, start at $62.
MOUNT WASHINGTON, NEW HAMPSHIRE
The highest peak in the Northeast, New Hampshire's Mount Washington is infamous for its weather extremes. The mountain regularly sees hurricane-force gusts, and below-zero temperatures are possible in late fall, winter, and spring. Guided weather station tours let visitors see how scientists live and work on the mountain. There's also a multitude of ski resorts within driving distance. At the 1785 Inn overlooking Mount Washington, room rates start at $99 a night, including breakfast for two.
While Thailand has become an increasingly popular travel destination, it's still one of the best travel values, says Ivy Chou, former marketing director at DealsPlus. "With great sightseeing, gorgeous beaches, and a unique culture, the Thai people show more than 20 million visitors a good time by providing a wide range of experiences. Enjoy $7 massages, $3 Pad Thai meals, and 5-star hotels for $80 or less."
SALAR DE UYUNI, BOLIVIA
Bolivia is more about natural beauty and native culture than touristy gloss. Beyond the flight and the visa ($160), everything is inexpensive. Be sure to explore Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat. Budget hotels in La Paz with good reviews cost less than $40 a night. It's cheapest to go between July and August, when it's winter below the equator — but freezing on the flats.
The Willis Tower (perhaps better known by its former name, the Sears Tower) is the nation's second-tallest building, with sweeping views of Chicago and Lake Michigan from the Skydeck on the 103rd floor. Brave visitors can check out the Ledge, glass-bottom boxes that offer a hair-raising view 1,353 feet down to the ground below. The city is loaded with cheap eats, and flight and hotel prices tend to track the average temperatures.
SWIMMING WITH WHALE SHARKS, HONDURAS
While there are several places in the world where divers can swim alongside one of the largest fish in the sea, Utila is the best. Not only does it have year-round whale shark research centers, it's also cheap (read: hostels, not luxury hotels). The Underwater Vision dive center includes accommodation with its courses, which start around $100.
GREAT PYRAMIDS, EGYPT
The U.S. State Department issued travel advisory for Egypt last year. However, the Egyptian government maintains a strong security presence near tourist sites such as the Great Pyramids of Giza. For those willing to take their chances, hotel rooms can be found for less than $70 a night. Those with time to venture beyond Cairo can explore the other ancient sites along the Nile.
Ecuador appears on many bucket lists in the guise of the Galápagos Islands, but there's much more to see that's much more affordable. The capital of Quito, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has retained much of its Baroque architecture and cultural charm. Tourists flock to a monument marking the equator (although the latitude is apparently a bit off). A complete lunch runs less than $4 and budget hotel rooms cost about $25 a night.
CALIFORNIA WINE COUNTRY
If a wine country vacation would make your bucket list but Napa is too pricey, go next door to Sonoma County. The wines made there stand up to some of the best anywhere, and the food is just as appealing. Affordable lodging options include the Sonoma Creek Inn, El Pueblo Inn, and Best Western. Farther south, the quaint, Danish-style village of Solvang, in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley, is home to the Rideau and Rusack vineyards, along with charming hotels that charge less than $100 a night for a room.
FLOATING B&B, ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA
The Covington Inn is a former tugboat with just four guestrooms that sits on the Mississippi River with a view of the downtown skyline. With winter rates, guests can get into the Mate's Quarters for $140. While in St. Paul, check out freebies like Como Park Zoo, Harriett Island, and the Cathedral of St. Paul.
The legendary canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific brings many travelers to Panama City. After taking a canal tour, take in the sights in the 17th-century Casco Viejo district and visit the nearby rainforest. Budget accommodations can be found for $65 a night or less.
The Big Easy is famous for beignets, voodoo shops, and jazz — not to mention Mardi Gras. Like many of the city’s attractions, strolling the French Quarter is free, as are self-guided tours of the city's famous above-ground cemeteries and the sculpture garden outside the New Orleans Museum of Art. Authentic Cajun cuisine, including po' boys and gumbo, is also inexpensive. Prices rise the weekend before Fat Tuesday, which falls on March 5 this year, but New Orleans' biggest party is worthy of any bucket list.
This wild, sparsely populated region at the tip of South America is brimming with rare animals, exotic birds, and stunning scenery. To save money getting there, consider traveling to Chile instead of Argentina. Bunking in a dorm in Bariloche or El Chaltén, Argentina, costs about $15 a night. Buying your own food instead of eating at restaurants is also doable.
ALBUQUERQUE INTERNATIONAL BALLOON FIESTA
The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in New Mexico (Oct. 5-13 in 2019) is the world's largest balloon festival and the largest international event of any kind in the nation. More than 500 balloons lift off from the launch field at Balloon Fiesta Park, which is the size of 54 football fields. From humble beginnings with just 13 balloons in 1972, Balloon Fiesta now claims to be the most photographed event on Earth.
The glitz and glamour of the Strip is the main draw for many people venturing to Las Vegas — but it can be expensive. Consider staying downtown to indulge in the retro cool of what Vegas used to be. Hotel rooms can be as cheap as $25 a night, and the Strip's just a short drive away. There are also many free attractions in Sin City, as well.
The Pacific coast of Oregon, along Highway 101, is a road trip worthy of any bucket list. Stop off at sights such as the famous Cannon Beach and Thor's Well at Cape Perpetua, which appears to be a bottomless sinkhole in the ocean (although speculation says it's only about 20 feet deep). At the south end, Gold Beach's Pacific Reef Hotel has beach access and starts at $99 a night in summer.
There are some surprisingly cheap attractions in San Francisco. Catch part of a Giants game for free from the waterfront promenade; tour the Mission District's street murals; walk across the Golden Gate Bridge for a panoramic view of the city; and make faces at the sea lions at Pier 39. In the fall, the tourist rush slows, the fog lifts, and hotel rates drop.
The Grand Canyon welcomes millions of visitors each year. Travelers who can tear their eyes from the astounding daytime scenery will find another treat at night. The Grand Canyon is a top spot for stargazing, because there's so little air and light pollution. The park hosts weekly ranger-led star-viewing sessions and an annual weeklong Star Party every June. While visiting, check out the free Kolb Studio art exhibits and be sure to walk the Rim Trail near the South Rim visitor center. Camping prices start at $18 a night per vehicle.
Known for its sparkling spas, Roman ruins, and stunning architecture, Budapest is a jewel of Eastern Europe. While prices have gone up since tourists discovered it, hotel rooms can be found for less than $50. Visit in spring, when prices are lower and crowds are thinner.
From Chicago to California, Route 66 has been replaced in segments by the newer Interstate Highway System, but enthusiasts can still navigate many of the original 2,448 miles. The route is littered with old hotels and roadside attractions from when the highway was at its peak. Seligman, Arizona, has 445 residents and was an inspiration for the 2006 Pixar film "Cars." The Harvey House Railroad Depot in Barstow, California, houses the free Route 66 Mother Road Museum.
SERCHIO VALLEY, ITALY
Tuscany has become a bucket list cliché, but a little over an hour from Florence and Pisa, the Serchio Valley is a quiet, peaceful Tuscan retreat without a slew of tourists. Take a scenic hike in Parco dell'Orecchiella or go spelunking at the Grotta del Vento, a wind cave that descends more than 7,000 feet. Bike or walk around the medieval walls of nearby Lucca. Because this is not a tourism center, hotels are limited, but vacation rentals can cost less than $100 a night.
This laid-back beach town is rich in living history, from a 91-year-old wooden roller coaster at Belmont Park to the USS Midway, an aircraft-carrier-turned-museum. For an unforgettable outing, consider catching a spiny lobster. Get a lobster report card October through March for less than $10 (a one-day fishing license is an additional $16.20). Kids aren't interested? Visit in October for Kids Free San Diego Month to get deals on local museums and theme parks.
ROTHKO CHAPEL, HOUSTON
One thing Houston has is style, and the most stylish thing in the city is the Rothko Chapel. Both modern art and a sanctuary, the chapel designed by Mark Rothko has been called one of the world's most peaceful and powerful destinations by National Geographic. Stop by for a tour, a concert, a symposium, or even tai chi by the reflecting pool.
Even though the Trump administration imposed new restrictions in 2017 on Americans visiting Cuba, cruise ship visits and direct commercial flights between the countries are still permitted. Most American visitors will again be required to travel as part of heavily regulated, organized tour groups run by U.S. companies. While there also limits on which hotels American can use, it isn't hard to find accommodations under $150 a night. A trip to Cuba is an opportunity to absorb the country's art, food, and culture and take a step back in time.
A traveler can get by on less than $20 a day here, or live like a sheik for $40 a day and enjoy a mid-range hotel, three meals, and a few items from a spice market. Visitors should consider bringing a little extra money to spend on camping in the Sahara Desert, an adventure no one will forget. It's cheapest to go between October and December.
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK
The first national park is still one of the best, and visitors to Yellowstone National Park will find much more to see than iconic Old Faithful. Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is a prime spot for hiking, while geothermal wonders abound in the Mammoth Hot Springs and Norris Geyser Basin areas. Hayden Valley offers dazzling views of wildlife, including elk, bison, and grizzlies. To avoid the crowds and save on accommodations, skip summertime and go in spring or fall.
The nation’s capital is one of the most tourist-friendly cities in the United States. Visitors will find year-round free entrance to historical monuments and museums, including the 19 that make up the Smithsonian Institution (the National Zoo is one). It takes some planning, but even visiting the White House is free. Pass on the downtown hotels, where rates are high, and opt for those on the periphery. Use the Metro to get around and save money on lodging and parking.
SANTA BARBARA, CALIFORNIA
While this beach town has a reputation for high-end luxury, stick to a budget by focusing on the city's parks, botanical gardens, and beach. Walk or bike the boardwalk and stroll legendary State Street, where great food and drinks can be found at reasonable prices. The Museum of Contemporary Art is free, and other museums offer free days. Seek out budget hotel options like Castillo Inn at the Beach and the Franciscan Inn.
FLORIDA CAVERNS STATE PARK
As one of the only state parks with dry caverns and the only cave sites in the state to offer tours to the public, this is rare and memorable state park is worth adding to any bucket list. Formations of limestone stalactites are both awe-inspiring and spooky, and camping is available on the grounds. Forty-five minute tours are offered year-round, except on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
STURGIS MOTORCYCLE RALLY
Even non-bikers will appreciate the spectacle of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, held every August. In 2015, it brought an estimated 739,000 people to Sturgis, a town of just over 6,600 in the Black Hills. Major draws include concerts, races, food vendors, and motorcycle merchandise galore — not to mention some of the best people-watching west of the Mississippi. Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, and Badlands National Park are easy, budget-friendly side trips. Hotel rates do rise during the rally. But staying in a rental house with multiple bedrooms and splitting the costs with friends can make this unforgettable trip affordable, as well.