Research suggests that 40 percent of American don't take all their vacation days. We're here to change all that! We've rounded up 10 brag-worthy places that are affordable and having their moment in 2015—the year we hope you'll take ALL your vacation days. Not sure which of these 10 amazing destinations is right for you? Take our QUIZ to find out!
1. Northern Italy
Best for: Big-city culture and natural beauty
Why 2015. If you've always wanted to go to Italy, this is the year to do it. Expo Milano (expo2015.org), a World's Fair event expected to bring in more than 20 million visitors, starts May 1 and runs through Oct. 31. The theme is Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life and so far more than 130 countries are participating in this global effort to promote a healthier lifestyle and sustainability worldwide.
What to do. There's so much more to Milan than shopping. Stroll the easy-to-navigate streets of Milan's historic city center and visit the Duomo, one of Italy's most spectacular churches—the view from the top is well worth the $15 price of admission. Craving the countryside? Don't miss Lake Como, a beautiful natural haven home to George Clooney and hundreds of tiny picturesque towns like Gravedona, Bellagio, Brunate, and Como that are begging to be explored. For a little adventure along the Italian Riviera, try Portofino, a beautiful seaside resort town just a two-hour drive from Milan—you can also get there by taking the train from Milan to Santa Margherita Ligure, Rapallo, or Genoa and connecting to Portofino by boat, bus, or taxi.
Where to stay. Hotels in Milan can be expensive, especially when conventions are going on. For a unique, authentic Italian experience, try staying in a local neighborhood rather than a pricey chain hotel—Airbnb has a number of options all over town starting at just $75 a night for a one-bedroom apartment in the city center. In Como, stay at Hotel Barchetta Excelsior for great views of the lake, the perfect spot to serve as your base for exploring the rest of the area by boat or funicular (hotelbarchetta.it, from $159). Stay at B&B Tre Mari Portofino for beautiful views of the Piazzetta and the Ligurian Sea below (bebtremariportofino.it, from $122).
Best for: Dreamy beaches and romance
Why 2015. If you've considered this Pacific paradise off-limits financially, this may be your year. Hotel prices on the Island of the Gods—the most popular tourist destination in Indonesia—are down 12 percent, according to the Hotel Price Index.
What to do. Take your pick: Relax on a distinctive black-sand beach (the color comes from iron, titanium, and other minerals deposited by Bali's once-active volcanoes), get in the water for world-class surfing and diving (if you're so inclined), explore the island's jungle interior with its volcanoes and 10,000 temples (including the popular hillside temple Pura Luhur Batukau), or just hang by a hotel pool in one of the friendliest, gentlest environments on earth. When you're ready for the Balinese version of a bustling metropolis, Ubud will delight you with its stunning royal palace and traditional market. (And you shouldn't miss a chance to hear the island's unique gamelan music, played primarily on traditional percussion instruments.) Whether you plant yourself on a beach or in the heart of Ubud, remember that you've come to Bali to be soothed into a state of perfect relaxation by the natural beauty and unique music and cultural traditions of this perfect island.
Where to stay. The Indigo Tree, in Ubud, is a short distance from the major sites but feels like a comfy cocoon, with coconut trees, a pool whose turquoise hue rivals the ocean's, and lovely views of the island's jungles and rice terraces. Want home-cooked meals served poolside? Just ask (indigotreebali.com, from $70).
Best for: Music and hip neighborhoods
Why 2015. The buzz about Nashville has reached a fever pitch for 2015. No longer a sleepy country music mausoleum, the newly hip city has reported 48 straight months of growth. Go now, and you'll be visiting the town at the height of its renaissance—but before everyone else is in on the secret.
What to do. Anywhere you wander in Nashville—whether you're ducking into historic Hatch Show Print letterpress shop downtown or waiting for your flight at the airport—you'll hear gorgeous live music wafting out of doorways. Free music is so prevalent in the city that there's an app for finding it: the Nashville Live Music Guide (free on iTunes, Google Play). Cello, guitar, or drum, Nashville is all about that bass: Just ask Music City resident Jack White, of The White Stripes, who built an outpost of his Third Man Records here. The Nashville Symphony wins Grammys, and the Country Music Hall of Fame isn't your grandfather's museum: Upcoming exhibit Dylan, Cash, and the Nashville Cats spotlights the city in the late 1960s/early '70s. Food-wise, fuel up with Nashville's signature hot chicken, cayenne-slathered fried bird proffered by several joints in town. Hattie B's generously provides diners with five heat options, from "no heat" to "burn notice."
Where to stay. Hotels in the heart of downtown are difficult to find for cheap, but the brand-new Fairfield Inn & Suites in the Gulch comes close (marriott.com, from $129). Plus, it's within walking distance of Party Fowl, a new chicken restaurant that pours $4 local drafts during happy hour and mixes craft cocktails like Kill the Wabbit. Up for something funky? Hotel Preston, halfway between the airport and downtown, can loan you a pet fish for the night (hotelpreston.com, from $101).
4. GREAT BARRIER REEF
Best for: Diving with beautiful coral and tropical fish
Why 2015. Flight prices to Cairns have dropped nearly 30 percent, and package deals are down more than 40 percent, according to Expedia.
What to do. Get up close and personal with the planet's biggest coral reef system, including more than 1,000 varieties of tropical fish, plus dolphins, reef sharks (totally harmless to divers!), sea turtles, and more. The Great Barrier Reef offers more than 1,400 miles of snorkeling and scuba diving, and you don't have to be an experienced diver to drink it all in. Hop aboard a catamaran or sailing ship from the coastal city of Cairns to the reef, then get as adventurous as you wish—explore in a glass-bottom boat or try snorkeling with the help of experts. Experienced scuba divers can sleep on a boat for several nights (known as a "liveaboard" excursion in these parts) and spend most of their days in the water exploring the depths that snorkelers can't. And don't forget that the nearby Whitsunday Islands offer sugary beaches that rival the underwater spectacle! (For day trips and liveaboard
trips from Cairns, visit reeftrip.com. To explore the Whitsunday Islands, including snorkeling and kayaking the reef, visit isailwhitsundays.com.)
Where to stay. Cairns is the closest major city to the Great Barrier Reef, and airfares to Cairns from Cali, though always pricey, are as low as they've been in years. In between reef adventures, relax at the Hotel Cairns, which feels like a traditional Queensland plantation, with elegant rooms and some private balconies (thehotelcairns.com, from $97).
Best for: High style and world-class shopping
Why 2015. Istanbul was named the world's No. 1 travel destination by TripAdvisor, but paradoxically, hotel prices are falling because of unrest in other parts of the Middle East, according to the Hotel Price Index.
What to do. Immerse yourself in the intoxicating environment of Istanbul's Grand Bazaar (a souk that includes dozens of ancient streets and thousands of shops) and you'll realize that there's a whole other level of shopping to aspire to! The city so nice they named it thrice (Constantinople, Byzantium, and now Istanbul) straddles Europe and Asia and is the world's greatest coming-together of Eastern and Western cultures, food, and music. Don't miss the Hagia Sophia, a cathedral-turned-mosque that's now a UNESCO World Heritage site; the iconic minarets of the Blue Mosque; and gorgeous Greek and Roman ruins. Take your pick of cuisines, including Asian fusion and Italian—but to truly savor Turkish food like a local we strongly recommend authentic kebabs and fresh-caught fish. And don't forget to get outside the big city, too: We love the Turkish Riviera on the country's southwestern Mediterranean coast (long popular with Eastern Europeans), and the wild, otherworldly mountains of Cappadocia—where you can hike from village to village filled with structures that were carved out of volcanic rock, or get above it all in a unique hot-air balloon ride!
Where to stay. The Ascot Hotel, on Istanbul's Büyükada island, delivers affordable opulence and a resort-like vibe, with crystal chandeliers, private balconies, a beautiful pool, and a Finnish sauna, just a short ferry ride from the city's bustle (ascot.com.tr, from $118).
Best for: Food and art
Why 2015. Americans finally seem to be flocking to a sweet spot that's long been a great vacation getaway for Europeans: Cataluña (Catalonia), a region in southern Spain that includes trendy cities like Barcelona as well as off-the-beaten-path places like Sitges, Figueres, and Montserrat. Rates are on the rise, but still more affordable here than in other parts of Europe.
What to do. Get your Gaudí on by visiting La Sagrada Família, Park Güell, and La Pedrera at Casa Milà—just be sure to book your tickets online ahead of time to avoid being locked out of something you came all the way to Barcelona to see. The options are endless: Stroll La Rambla, get your fill of tapas and sangria, visit La Boqueria market, relax on the beach at Barceloneta, watch the free Magic Fountains of Montjuic light, music, and fountains show, or see a flamenco show at Tablao de Carmen. Viator offers several day trips from Barcelona for those wanting to visit nearby Montserrat Mountain, Sitges, or artist Salvador Dalí's former home in Figueres (viator.com).
Where to stay. Use Barcelona as your base for exploring this part of Spain, as most places can easily be done as day trips from the city. Hotel Novotel Barcelona Cornella (novotel.com, from $87) is located midway between downtown and Barcelona-El Prat Airport, but there are lots of other Accor Hotels that offer budget-friendly options throughout the city, and the metro is really easy to navigate.
Best for: Exotic, spiritual sites like nowhere else
Why 2015. It doesn't get more exotic than Cambodia, with its enchanting ruins and intoxicating blend of cultures. The good news is that, according to the Hotel Price Index, hotels in Siem Reap, gateway to the unforgettable Angkor Wat temple complex, are down 10 percent, while hotels in the capital Phnom Penh are down 3 percent.
What to do. Angkor Wat, in northern Cambodia, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the largest religious monument in the world, covering nearly 500,000 acres. With archaeological relics that date back as far as the 9th century and Cambodia's distinctive Khmer architecture on display, Angkor Wat represents Cambodia's Hindu and Buddhist heritage. We suggest you set aside at least three days to take in Angkor Wat's splendor at a relaxed—and respectful—pace that leaves time for peaceful contemplation. Get there via taxi, which will run you about $25. And, yes, you can take an elephant ride around some of the structures for about $10 to $20. Cambodia offers at least two drastic contrasts to Angkor Wat: Spend a few days in Phnom Penh for the unforgettable sights and tastes of the big city, or get way, way, away from it all on Koh Rong, or "Monkey Island," said to be the site of a real-life King Kong and home to one of the most beautiful white-sand beaches in the world.
Where to stay. Hanuman Alaya Boutique Residences, Siem Reap, with its traditional Khmer decor, includes an outdoor pool (perfect for a post-temple cooldown!), and on-site spa and Khmer-style restaurant (hanumanalaya.com, from $81).
Best for: Kicking it "Amsterdam style"
Why 2015. Denver first made news back in 2013 when Colorado became the first state to legalize recreational marijuana; since then, a number of cannabis tours and "420-friendly" hotels have sprung up to accommodate the initial tourism surge. Also worth checking out are Denver's booming brewery and food scenes: Take a free behind-the-scenes tour at The Great Divide Brewing Co. or Breckenridge Brewery, or check out several neighborhood hotspots on the Denver Brews Cruise for $42 per person. Don't miss Denver Restaurant Week Feb. 20 through Mar. 1, where you can score fancy multicourse dinners from $30 per person.
What to do. Art lovers can view contemporary masterpieces by Matisse, Picasso, and O'Keeffe at the Denver Art Museum free of charge the first Saturday of the month (tickets are normally $13 for adults, $10 for students and seniors, $5 for ages 6–18). Get back to nature at Denver Botanic Gardens, a beautiful place to visit in every season—be on the lookout for intricate displays by visiting artists like Dale Chihuly ($12.50 for adults, $9 for children ages 3–15). Kids will love the Denver Zoo, which has several free admission days in 2015. Admission is $13 for adults, $9 for children ages 3–11.
Where to stay. The Hampton Inn & Suites Downtown Denver is located just three blocks from the 16th Street Mall, a 1.5-mile-long pedestrian plaza lined with more than 350 shops, bars, and restaurants—keep an eye out for street fairs and festivals here year-round. Sports fans will love the hotel's proximity to Coors Field, the Pepsi Center, and Sports Authority at Mile High (hamptoninn.hilton.com, from $149).
Best for: Adventure and colorful festivals
Why 2015. Vibrant festivals, exotic flora, acclaimed coffee plantations, and diverse terrain from rain forests to Caribbean beaches are all authentically Colombia. Security in large cities has improved in recent years, the U.S. State Department says, and thanks to increased supply, hotel prices in Bogotá are down 11 percent. Go now and use the hashtag #colombianotcolumbia to broadcast your whereabouts: Execs dreamed it up this year to promote a country eager for visitors.
What to do. Catch a glimmer of Colombia's mining tradition via pre-Hispanic artifacts at the Gold Museum in Bogotá before snapping a panoramic shot of the metropolis from Mount Monserrate's summit. Crime and cocaine have given Colombia a bad rap that tourism officials want to shake; that said, if the country's gritty history and/or TV's Entourage have piqued your curiosity, Pablo Escobar tours exist in Medellín. For a gentler experience, August's Medellín Flower Fair celebrates the "city of eternal spring" with a silleteros parade—participants carry blooms on their backs. Romance your partner amid bay views from the walled city of Cartagena, then scan its plazas for vendors selling arepas de huevo (fried cornmeal bread with an egg tucked inside). A packed itinerary calls for a swig of caffeine: Colombia's Coffee Triangle, in the rural Paisa region, has UNESCO World Heritage status. Tour a finca (coffee plantation) like Hacienda Venecia in Manizales to see beans go from plant to mug.
Where to stay. Go affordable, isolated, and eco-friendly by living on a coffee farm—Hacienda Venecia's shared-bathroom lodgings start at $35 a night; the Colombian Coffee Cultural Landscape guide has more options (rutasdelpaisajeculturalcafetero.com). In Bogotá, travelers like Hotel Augusta's central location (hotelaugusta.com.co, from $66). Five-star digs are a bargain at Cartagena's La Passion Hotel Boutique, a Spanish Colonial house with a rooftop pool (en.lapassionhotel.com, from $139).
Best for: History and brag-worthy sights
Why 2015. Recovering from political unrest after 2011's ousting of president Hosni Mubarak, Egypt saw its worst tourism numbers in decades in 2013, with hotel occupancy in some cities at zero percent. The country is poised for an uptick in visitors this year, and you can be a part of the recovery by taking advantage of rock-bottom hotel rates, bargains at bazaars, and short lines for legendary antiquities—as long as you take safety precautions.
What to do. Float along the Nile in a traditional sailboat called a felucca for a few hours—or a few days. Ask your hotel to book one, or negotiate a rate with a tout at the docks in Cairo, Luxor, and Aswan. Now that you have practice haggling, bargain with vendors at Cairo's Khan Al-Khalili market, a souk stocked with everything from exotic perfumes to toy camels; just be prepared to get the hard sell. Reward yourself with a cup of mint tea at El Fishawy café. Marveling at the Great Pyramids of Giza is a quintessential postcard experience, but indoor exhibits deliver too: The Egyptian Antiquities Museum in Cairo houses artifacts unearthed from King Tutankhamen's tomb, including his iconic blue-and-green-striped burial mask. Have a staring contest with its obsidian and quartz eyes...if the curse doesn't faze you.
Where to stay. Major hotel chains like the Marriott, Hilton, Fairmont, Starwood, and Radisson all have outposts in Egypt, many for less than $125 a night. Want an unforgettable vista when you wake up? The American-owned Pyramids View Inn B&B looks out onto the Sphinx and the Great Pyramids (pyramidsviewinn.com, from $30). One reliable way to ensure that you have a safe trip is by booking your vacation through an operator, like Your Egypt Tours (day trips from $20, youregypttours.com).
A special note on safety in Egypt: Although there is no current Travel Warning about Egypt in effect, staying alert and practicing good personal security measures is imperative, says a U.S. State Department official on background. Be vigilant in crowded tourist areas, and avoid demonstrations as well as dark isolated areas, especially if you're a woman—female tourists have reported being groped in public places and taxis. Traveling outside of the Cairo metropolitan area can be unsafe, and the northern Sinai area is dangerous. The Egyptian Tourism Authority recommends sticking to cities like Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor, and Aswan for cultural tourism and the beach town Hurghada for watersports. Before you go, read through the U.S. government's Traveler's Checklist (travel.state.gov).