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10 Affordable Alternatives to Luxury Resort Hotels

By Ashley Biggers
updated September 29, 2021
Mendocino, California, coast
Photoquest/Dreamstime
Get the same luxe vibes at budget-friendly prices at these U.S. accommodations

Sure, luxury accommodations have it all: picturesque locations, well-appointed guest rooms, full-service spas, and activities. But they also have enormous price tags to match.

From the hills of Massachusetts to the beaches of Hawaii, we scoured the U.S. for budget-friendly alternatives to some of the country’s top resorts. We sought accommodations with similar stand-out amenities, locales, and styles, but that clocked in around $250 a night (or even less). Here are some of our favorite resorts—at prices you can actually afford.

1. McCloud Mountain Lodge, TN

Family-run McCloud Mountain Lodge offers the kind of pastoral views and fresh cuisine you’d expect from the justly celebrated Blackberry Farm two hours to the south, but with a much smaller price tag, from $150/night. The adults-only McCloud Lodge perches on a cliff face above a valley dotted with farm fields, red barns, and the tributaries of nearby Norris Lake, one of the area’s recreational draws. Guest rooms’ private patios overlook this epic view—one only surpassed by the vantage from the restaurant’s glass gazebo, which cantilevers over the valley. At this restaurant you'll savor house-smoked meats; the purveyor is a competitive barbecue master.

2. Liberty Hill Farm & Inn, VT

Liberty Hill Farm & Inn boasts peaceful surroundings, and offers an authentic real-life farm stay at a price—$142 per adult per night—that is literally less than 10 percent that of Vermont’s only luxury, five-star resort, Twin Farms. Guests at Liberty Hill lodge in a 1825 Greek Revival farmhouse with maplewood floors and country furnishings. Nearly 300 Robeth Holsteins graze on the farm, and their fresh milk goes into creamy butter and aged Cheddar used in many of the family-style meals served here. Hiking and cross-country skiing are close at hand; the farm connects to one of the best Nordic ski trails in the Northeast.

3. Ka’anapali Beach Hotel, Maui, HI

Ka’anapali Beach Hotel offers an activity lineup focused on Hawaiian cultural classes, including hula dancing kapa (cloth making), lei making, Hawaiian farming, and ukulele classes, to name a few. The resort’s oceanfront rooms and 11-acres of tropical gardens complete the island vibe, and the rates, from $256/night, are less than a third of those at Maui’s posh Montage Kapalua Bay Hawaii.

4. The Lafayette Hotel, San Diego

The Lafayette Hotel has one of the most iconic—and photogenic—pools in Southern California, designed by former Tarzan actor and one of the top competitive swimmers of the 20th century, Johnny Weissmuller, in 1946. Ever since, Hollywood royalty like Ava Gardner have gathered poolside. Colorful, chic guest rooms and private bungalows wrap around the pool. Don’t miss the chance to grab a cocktail at the bar; it was the setting for the bar scene in Top Gun. And raise a glass to paying a fraction—from $109/night—of what you’d pay at nearby Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa.

5. Jekyll Ocean Club, GA

South of the tony private beach of Georgia’s Sea Island, Jekyll Ocean Club is Jekyll Island’s newest addition. The modern suites are truly oceanfront; the only thing standing in between guests and the beach is the pool deck. Guests can opt for kayaks and stand-up paddle boards for tours of the island’s tidal creeks, a big savings—with room rates from $239/night—over nearby sailboat-focused, five-star The Cloister Sea Island.

6. Blantyre for Seven Hills Inn, Lenox, Massachusetts

Seven Hills Inn is set on 27 acres of stunning gardens. Guests lodge in a renovated Gilded Age mansion and enjoy small-plates and craft cocktails at the in-house Plunkett Lounge. It offers easy access to the best of the Berkshires from outdoor recreation to fall foliage viewing, from farm-to-table restaurants to art institutions, like the Norman Rockwell Museum. At $99/night, you’re getting Berkshires elegance for a quarter of the price of the nearby luxe Blantyre.

7. Lakeway Resort and Spa Austin, TX

Lakeway Resort Spa has great offerings: a full-service spa, three large swimming pools (one with a swim-up bar), and a restaurant with Southern comfort fare overlooking Lake Travis. In the heart of Texas Hill Country, Lakeway is a short drive—and, at $135/night, many dollars—away from the celebrated Lake Austin Spa Resort.

8. Sweet Grass Ranch, MT

At family-run Sweet Grass Ranch, guests join daily rides through big-mountain country and rolling meadows, as well as casting for trout in the ranch’s streams and lakes. It’s a working cattle ranch, so accommodations are decidedly country-style. Cozy rooms are available in the historic lodge or individual cabins. Enjoy the pinch-me views and the pinch-me rates—from $225 for riders, from $180 for non-riders—especially when compared with rates at the posh Ranch at Rock Creek nearby.

9. MacCallum House, Mendocino, CA

The boutique MacCallum House offers views of both the Pacific Ocean and the town of Mendocino comparable to those from the celebrated Brewery Gulch Inn, but with rates starting at a more affordable $199/night. Guests book into a charming Victorian home with a nearly wrap-around porch or rooms in the surrounding cabins or restored barn. The MacCallum House restaurant is rated one of the best on the coast, and stays include gourmet breakfasts, as well as in-room mini bars stocked with local wine.

10. The Standard Miami Beach, Miami, Florida

Steps away from South Beach, The Standard features clean, modern lines and peaceful, tropical gardens. Many of the guest rooms have private terraces overlooking the beachy pool area. The spa channels the best of global wellness with a Turkish-style hammam, Roman waterfall hot tub, Finnish sauna, and an Arctic plunge pool, to name a few of the offerings. All this from $180/night, a big savings over Miami Beach’s posh Setai.

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Travel Tips

Best Places to See Modern & Contemporary Art in NYC While MoMA Is Closed for Renovations

For art lovers who call New York City home or who visit frequently, the next few months are a good-news-bad-news situation. The bad news: The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is closed until October 21 for a $450 million renovation. That means that Van Gogh's "The Starry Night," Mondrian's "Broadway Boogie Woogie," and other iconic works of modernism are out of reach for New Yorkers for the next three months. But take a deep breath... The good news: When MoMA reopens, it will display more of its stunning permanent collection than ever before thanks to an additional 40,000 square feet. More good news: The renovation coincides with an overhaul of the way MoMA tells the story of modern art, which promises to be more inclusive of groundbreaking artists of the past 150 years or so who did not happen to be male or of European descent. A City of Galleries & Museums And one more piece of good news for those craving a modern- or contemporary-art fix right now: Even with MoMA temporarily closed, New York City still boasts an unparalleled array of places to see impressionist, cubist, abstract, pop, conceptual, and every other conceivable variety of “modern” visual art that has happened or is happening. Some of the world’s most successful galleries are either headquartered or represented in NYC. To see what’s cooking in the art world at this very minute, stop by: David Zwirner Gallery (537 W. 20th Street, davidzwirner.com), the Brant Foundation Art Study Center (421 E. 6th Street, brantfoundation.org), Gagosian Gallery (555 W. 24th Street, gagosian.com), or other galleries recommended by NYC & Company. Here, to tide you over till MoMA reopens, NYC’s "other" major collections of modern and contemporary art. The Met & Met Breuer The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, metmuseum.org) houses New York City’s largest art collection, ranging from ancient artifacts from Egypt and Assyria to a wealth of important work from the late 19th century through the 20th and beyond, including the eye-popping experiments of Monet, Van Gogh, and Cezanne. Contemporary photography is a fixture here, as are the immense, colorful paintings of modernist Ellsworth Kelly, and Jackson Pollock's "Autumn Rhythm." The Met Breuer (945 Madison Avenue, metmuseum.org) is devoted entirely to modern and contemporary work, a great place to see the work of 20th-century masters and also of living artists. The Guggenheim The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1071 Fifth Avenue, guggenheim.org) is as well-known for its unique spiral design, by iconic architect Frank Lloyd Wright, as for its great collection, much of it displayed along the winding, rising surface of the interior spiral. Don’t forget to look up at the incredible ceiling, and, through November 6, catch “'Defaced': The Untold Story,” about the remarkable work by Jean-Michel Basquiat. The Whitney The Whitney Museum of American Art (99 Gansevoort Street, whitney.org) boasts a wonderful collection of 20th- and 21st-century American art, and visitors to NYC this summer can catch “Spilling Over: Painting Color in the 1960s” through August 18 and the Whitney Biennial 2019 through September 22, spotlighting some of the most cutting-edge contemporary artists working today.

CruisesTravel Tips

First-Time Cruisers: 11 Biggest Mistakes (and How Not to Make Them)

A record-high number of travelers are taking cruises. According to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), about 28.5 million people set sail in 2018, up 7% from 2017. Americans, in particular, are fueling the industry: 14.2 million U.S. citizens took a cruise last year. However, many first-time cruisers make mistakes that can cause them undue stress or drive up the costs of their vacation. If you’re planning your first voyage, you don’t want to be one of them. Here are 11 blunders to avoid on your maiden cruise. Mistake #1: Waiting to reserve excursions till you’re on the ship Many seasoned cruisers book land excursions far in advance, since making a reservation ahead of time guarantees they’ll reserve a spot. (Popular excursions, unsurprisingly, sell out!) Also, many cruise lines offer deals for early bookings. The caveat? Depending on the cruise ship’s policy, some excursions may be nonrefundable. Mistake #2: Overlooking cruise line loyalty programs Most cruise lines, including the four largest in the world—Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, and MSC Cruises—have free loyalty programs that reward customers with points that they can use to receive reduced cruise fares, cash back to spend aboard their ships, or other perks, such as priority boarding, member parties, private concierge services, and complimentary meals. Though some cruise lines automatically enroll members following their first sailing, others require travelers to opt into the program—sometimes before they board. So, find out what the sign-up process before you make a reservation. Mistake #3: Only booking directly through the cruise line Booking a cruise directly through a cruise line is convenient, but it’s not your only option. Plus, travelers can nab cheaper rates by exploring deals on discount websites like Expedia, Cruise.com, Priceline, and Travelocity. Another perk: if you find a cheaper price after you book a reservation, many discount travel providers will match the lower rate and refund you the difference. That being said, it may make sense for loyalty members to book directly with the cruise line in order to receive rewards points. It ultimately depends on whether the lower fare from a third-party booking service offsets the numbers of points you’d get by booking with the cruise line. Mistake #4: Assuming the cruise is all-inclusive Typically, cruise fares only cover your cabin, meals, and onboard activities and entertainment. Be prepared to pay extra for drink packages, Internet, and gratuities. (Note: many cruise lines, today, use an automatic gratuity system that tacks on 15% to 20% tips) Find out what these costs are ahead of time so that you can budget accordingly. Mistake #5: Not switching your cellphone to airplane mode Even if you don’t make a single phone call or send a text message while you’re cruising, international roaming rates can cost hundreds of dollar. Also, you may get charged for simply receiving text messages. Thus, either turn on your cellphone’s airplane mode, or contact your carrier to inquire about getting a short-term international plan. (Turning off your phone when you board the ship works, too!) Mistake #6: Buying trip protection from the cruise line If you’re the type of person who likes to purchase travel insurance, look into buying an insurance plan from an independent insurance provider. Oftentimes, third-party insurance plans offer better coverage—and may be cheaper—than trip protection sold by cruise lines. Pro tip: Some premium credit cards offer trip protections—the Chase Sapphire Reserve, for example, provides not only trip cancellation insurance but also emergency medical and medical evacuation coverage. Mistake #7: Presuming your health insurance policy covers you abroad Put simply, your primary health insurance may not pick up the tab for hospital treatments or emergency medical expenses while you travel internationally. That explains why a report from Allianz Global Assistance found that 67% of all cruise related “billing reasons” for insurance claims are the result of an illness or injury. The morale: talk to your insurance provider to learn what your policy does and doesn’t cover abroad. Mistake #8: Not selecting your cabin’s location Obviously, when you book a cruise, you choose what type of cabin you want (e.g., an interior room, a room with a balcony, a suite). However, many people don’t consider where their cabin is located. If you’re prone to seasickness, health experts recommend staying in a cabin in the middle of the ship on a low floor, where you’re less likely to feel the “sway” of the boat. Booking a cabin that’s located near an elevator—or, heaven forbid, a night club—can also sting, especially if you’re a light sleeper. Mistake #9: Under-packing Over-packing, of course, isn’t good. (After all, why schlep around more stuff than you actually need?) However, under-packing is also a common mistake first-time cruisers make. Many ships have formal or smart-casual nights that require certain attire (some even enforce black-tie dress codes!), so pack accordingly. Also, pack some cool-weather clothes—a strong breeze can make it chilly on the deck at night. Mistake #10: Parking at the port Cruise lines tend to charge top dollar for guests to park their car at the ship’s first point of departure. To find cheaper parking, look for deals at nearby lots that are a short Uber or Taxi ride away. Plan to stay in town the night before your cruise? See if your hotel offers guests a special rate for you to park your car there during the cruise. Mistake #11: Not packing a carry-on for the first few hours On many cruises, especially large ships, you’ll hand off your luggage when you climb on board, and the ship’s staff will deliver it to your room a few hours later. Which is why you’ll want to pack a small carry-on bag with any essentials you’ll need during the first few hours, like a bathing suit, sunscreen, or medications.

Travel TipsBudget Travel Lists

11 Fabulously Free Things to Do in New York City This Summer

We wish we could find you a free plane ticket to New York City—and a complimentary hotel room when you get here—but once you're in town, NYC rolls out a never-ending supply of amazing activities that most travelers would be more than happy to pay for, but don't have to. Whether it's world-class Shakespeare, a refreshing boat ride, an unforgettable evening at a museum, or just stretching out on the lawn at a relaxing Midtown oasis, summer in the city has never been more affordable. 1. Shakespeare in the Park The Bard's Coriolanus (July 16 through August 11) will give audiences the opportunity to hear Elizabethan drama presented in the open air, as it was in Shakespeare's day, at the outdoor Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. All tickets to the play, a harrowing tale of democracy under siege by a despotic leader, are free and are distributed in a number of ways, including a line at the theater and online ticketing. To find out how to nab your tickets, visit shakespeareinthepark.org. 2. Staten Island Ferry Did you know that you can get a boat tour of New York Bay, complete with views of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, and cool off in the salty breezes? Stop—there's no need to reach for your wallet. New York's iconic Staten Island Ferry makes regular trips between lower Manhattan and the borough of Staten Island free of charge. For schedules, visit siferry.com. 3. The High Line (Francoisroux/Dreamstime) Psst! In recent years, when you mention how much you love, say, Central Park or Bryant Park to a New Yorker, they may reply, with just a touch of smug, "Well, have you been to the High Line?" This former elevated freight rail line has been converted into a unique public park that runs down the West Side of Manhattan from 30th Street to the West Village, with multiple access points, including wheelchair accessibility, along the way. Although you may not find free Shakespeare or a carousel up there, the chance to see the city from a different angle—included guided walking tours and Tuesday-night stargazing—is priceless. And free. Visit thehighline.org to learn more. 4. New York Botanical Garden All day each Wednesday, and from 9 to 10 a.m. each Saturday, the New York Botanical Garden, in the Bronx, opens its grounds to visitors free of charge. You can hop a subway train or Metro North's Harlem line from Grand Central Terminal to get there, and walk the winding paths among the trees and flowering plants. You'll have to pay to get into the greenhouses or special events—but on a lovely summer's day, the grounds will likely offer more than enough flora to keep you satisfied. Learn more about the botanical garden's summer programs at nybg.org. 5. Central Park Every single day of the summer, Central Park's calendar is packed with activities like catch-and-release fishing, guided tours of gardens and wild spaces, concerts, theater, and more—not to mention the fact that the park also hosts the charmingly manageable Central Park Zoo, a carousel, puppet theater, and, oh yeah, a museum you may have heard of... the Metropolitan Museum of Art (not free, but residents of the Tri-State area can pay what they wish, and the museum is always free to students with ID). But, honestly, the best way to enjoy Central Park is to wander its paths with someone you love, discovering its ponds (including the one where Stuart Little competed in a miniature-boat race), bridges, and public sculptures (such as the breathtaking Bethesda Fountain, where the closing scene of Angels in America takes place) as you go. If you're the type who must plan ahead, you'll find maps and a somewhat overwhelming schedule of events on the park's official site at centralparknyc.org. 6. Summerstage Got a little time on your hands? How about a free concert? Or dance recital? Or how about dozens of free performances in public parks across all five of New York City's boroughs (The Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island)? Summerstage arranges an incredible array of free entertainment each year, including music, dance, and comedy. Find a few—or a few dozen—that sound good to you at cityparksfoundation.org/summerstage. 7. Grand Central Terminal At the corner of 42nd Strett and Vanderbilt Avenue in Midtown, you'll find an architectural treasure that's worth a visit even if you're not planning on hopping on a train. Grand Central Terminal's main hall has the open, uplifting feeling of a cathedral interior, and if you're lucky enough to visit on a sunny, day, you'll see the classic image of sunlight pouring in the building's iconic windows, illuminating the bustle below. For a schedule of the building's award-winning, absolutely free walking tours, visit grandcentralpartnership.org. 8. New York Public Library Not just a collection of books—though it is quite a collection of books—the New York Public Library's main building at the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue also hosts numerous free art and history exhibits with materials from its extensive collection of drawings, paintings, maps, manuscripts, and bound books. If you're a fan of the film Ghostbusters, the building will feel eerily, and comically, familiar. And don't forget to pay the sculpted lions outside a visit. Visit nypl.org for a schedule of exhibits and special events. 9. Bryant Park (Stuart Monk/Dreamstime) Right behind the main library, Bryant Park is an oasis of green—and blood-pressure-lowering serenity—in the midst of Midtown. A children's carousel imported from France plays Edith Piaf recordings as the kids whirl around on beautifully carved and painted horses, bunnies, and cats, and there are a few spots to buy lunch or dinner in the park. But a seat by the fountain on a hot summer day is just about all it takes to relax and recharge—as many New Yorkers do on their lunch hours. The park's summer film festival presents a free movie every Monday night—bring a blanket and a picnic dinner, and get there early to nab a spot on the lawn where you can enjoy a classic like Coming to America, Goodfellas, and Anchorman. To find out what's going on at the park, visit bryantpark.org. 10. St. Patrick's Cathedral As long as you remember that you're stepping into a house of worship (hats off, voices low), a stop at St. Patrick's is a lovely way to escape the summer heat and hoards of shoppers on Fifth Avenue. Religious sculptures, stained glass windows, and soaring architecture can almost convince you that you've stepped into a time machine—or been transported to a European capital. Visit saintpatrickscathedral.org for a schedule of events, including masses and concerts. 11. National Museum of the American Indian New Yorkers who envy Washingtonians for their free access to the Smithsonian museums are forgetting that Manhattan has a Smithsonian museum of its own: the National Museum of the American Indian. Located downtown at the Alexander Hamilton Custom House, the museum is devoted to the history and culture of America's native peoples and in addition to permanent exhibits also offers regular music and dance presentations. Visit nmai.si.edu/visit/newyork to learn more.

Travel Tips

Money Exchange: 8 Things to Know Before You Go

Traveling abroad? Nabbing a great exchange rate is one of the best ways to save money. Unfortunately, many international travelers make mistakes when converting their dollars to foreign currency. But, with a little planning you can find a great exchange rate and make the most of every dollar you spend abroad. Here are eight things to know before exchanging money overseas. 1. Check what the official exchange rate is before you go This will give you a benchmark that you can use to compare exchange rate offers. To see what the current exchange rate is, simply Google “currency converter” and select the currency at your destination. 2. Avoid currency exchanges at airports A big flub international travelers make is exchanging money at an airport. Sure, it’s convenient, but that convenience comes at a price. Indeed, exchange kiosks at airports tend to charge significantly higher rates, since travelers who just touched down at their destination often need local money ASAP. Some airport exchange centers charge as high as a 15% premium. Thus, your best approach is to exchange for foreign currency at a local bank or credit union before leaving the U.S. 3. Find a bank that doesn’t charge commission Be prepared to shop around if you’re truly determined to find the best exchange rate you can get. Some U.S. banks and credit unions charge commission and extra fees when exchanging currency, while others don’t. Find one that’s going to give you a fair shake. 4. Consider withdrawing cash from an ATM abroad Withdrawing money abroad using a debit card means typically you’ll get a better exchange rate than you’d get from a bank or credit union, a recent study from WalletHub of the most popular currency exchange services found. But, make sure you’re bringing a debit card with low international ATM withdrawal fees. This NerdWallet chart shows that the foreign ATM and debit card transaction fees are at more than 20 national and online banks. Some financial institutions (Alliant and Ally) charge fees as low as 1%. Pro tip: bring a small amount of cash with you so that you have a little money to pay for any expenses you’ll have to shoulder before you can access an ATM, like taxi fare from the airport to your hotel. Also, don’t forget to notify your bank of your travel plans before you go—if you don’t, your bank will likely freeze your account when you start making withdrawals or purchases abroad. 5. Only exchange as much money as you’ll need Ideally, you want to only get as much foreign cash as you need for your trip. Why? Because you’ll end up paying an exchange fee again to convert any money you have leftover back to U.S. dollars when you get home. Also, you don’t want to be carrying around a ton of cash; cash is untraceable, meaning if it’s stolen there’s no way to get it back. Granted, this entails figuring out roughly how much money you’ll have to spend on your vacation. The best way to do this is to use a spreadsheet. There are a number of travel-budgeting spreadsheets that are available online for free. Our favorite is this easy-to-use template from Vertex42.com. As you enter your travel costs into the worksheet, the handy pie chart will show you exactly where your money is going based on spending categories (e.g., hotels, meals, flights). Pretty nifty. 6. Forget about using travelers’ checks Though travelers’ checks were once a popular option for exchanging money, they’ve largely been replaced by debit and credit cards, especially those with no foreign transaction fees. Another reason to steer clear travelers’ checks: they can be a hassle to exchange, often requiring you to hunt down a bank at your destination that accepts them. And, FYI: many banks no longer accept travelers’ checks, and some banks charge a fee of 1% to 3% for cashing them. Also, fewer stores and hotels accept travelers’ checks than in the past. 7. Find out what form of money is widely accepted How you pay for things while on vacation depends on where you’re going and what form of money is commonly accepted there. In some countries, such as Sweden, cash is on the verge of extinction, as more hotels, shops, and other merchants are only accepting debt or credit cards. However, in countries like Germany, cash is still king. Cuba, for example, doesn’t have the infrastructure in place for widespread acceptance of credit cards. (Also, American dollars are subject to an extra 10% fee in Cuba on top of all exchange rates!) 8. Use a credit card with no foreign transaction fees when you can No matter how much research you do, chances are you’ll essentially “lose money” when exchanging dollars for foreign currency, since you’ll get hit what some type of fee. That’s why Bill Hardekopf, a credit expert at LowCards.com, recommends international travelers rely on a credit card with no foreign transaction fees when making purchases abroad, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard, or United MileagePlus Explorer card. The caveat? Because credit cards with no foreign transaction fees often have higher interest rates, they’re not right for everyone. “You shouldn’t have a rewards card unless you’re going to pay off the balance each month,” Hardekopf says.