These easy under-the-radar escapes deliver world-class vacations that won’t break the bank.
It’s “where to go” season, when we roll up our sleeves and, bucket lists in hand, scour the latest intel from our network of travel writers, photographers, and videographers, our social media audience, and our online readers. Like you, we’re always on the lookout for great destinations that we haven’t yet heard of (or haven’t yet realized are worth a visit) and, most importantly, that we (and you) can actually afford. Get ready to add some must-see spots to your list. Here, the 10 best bargain trips for 2018.
1. SAN JUAN ISLANDS, WA
Why you’ll love it: Situated in the waters between Puget Sound and Vancouver Island, just on the American side of the U.S.-Canada border, this unique archipelago is a beautiful escape from crowds, cookie-cutter hotels, and chain restaurants where you can instead embrace open water, wild beaches, marine mammals, and laid-back, friendly locals. For inspiration, watch our video tour of San Juan Island, shot by Budget Travel contributor Whitney Tressel, above.
What to do there: Hop a ferry from Anacortes, WA, to San Juan Island, with its Whale Museum (focusing on the endangered orcas of the region, the only museum of its kind devoted to a species living in the wild), the San Juan Historical Society & Museum, and the San Juan Islands Museum of Art. Chow down on breakfast sandwiches and burritos at The Salty Fox Coffee, and don’t miss The Market Chef, an artisan deli that delivers locally grown fare. Hit the Scenic Byway along the island’s amazing coastline, across farmland, and the Cattle Point Lighthouse.
Why it’s a bargain:Lodging in Friday Harbor, on San Juan Island, average well under $150 in spring and under $200 in summer and fall.
2. THE BRONX, NY
Why you’ll love it: Sometimes cultural whiplash is a pleasant experience, and the Bronx, which we named one of the 51 best budget destinations in America, delivers everything from a New England-style fishing village to NYC’s largest stretch of parkland to America’s finest Italian food and hip-hop heritage. Exhausted already? Welcome to the Bronx!
What to do here: To shake up your expectations of what the Bronx can be, start at City Island, where fishing boats, seafood joints, and a laid-back way of life feel more like a New England island than an NYC neighborhood. On your way to and from City Island, you’ll pass through Pelham Bay Park, the largest in NYC. Then head to the South Bronx, once a synonym for urban decay, now the buzz-worthy home of the Bronx Museum of the Arts (devoted to the work of local artists, especially those of Latin and African-American heritage, and always free). The South Bronx is also the place to book a Hush Hip Hop Tour to meet some of the local hip-hop artists who helped create the movement that now rocks the world. The Bronx is also home to some not exactly under-the-radar points of interest: You may have heard of, say, Yankee Stadium, the Bronx Zoo, the New York Botanical Garden, and Arthur Avenue, in the Belmont neighborhood, where restaurants serve the best traditional Italian food in the United States.
Why it’s a bargain: Chain hotels starting under $150, Opera House Hotel is a unique experience well under $200 in spring.
3. JASPER & BANFF NATIONAL PARKS, CANADA
Why you’ll love it: Alberta’s Highway 93, known as the Icefields Parkway, links two of North America’s most jaw-dropping national parks, which, in spring and fall, offer affordable hotel rates along with wildlife, natural beauty, and relative seclusion.
What to do there: A road trip from Jasper to Banff starts with Athabasca Falls, Sunwapta Falls, Tangle Falls (lots of snow melt means lots of beautiful waterfalls), and the incredible Columbia Icefield, where you can ride a “snowcoach” to ogle massive glaciers stop by the Discovery Center, and walk on the glass-floored Glacier Skywalk (if you dare). In Banff, you’ll see beautiful Lake Louise and continue your Icefield Parkway adventure. Keep you eyes peeled for grizzly, bighorn sheep, and other wildlife.
Why it’s a bargain: Hotels are well under $200 in spring and fall, with some lodging starting under $100.
4. MORRO BAY, CA
Why you’ll love it: Be the first person on your street to brag about “discovering” this charming little town on California’s central coast, where fresh seafood, chic shopping, and outdoor adventures come without sticker shock or attitude.
What to do there: Options range from doing absolutely nothing on a beautiful Pacific beach (Beach Butlerz will deliver a catered meal if you’re really feeling like being indulgent), to surfing (visit AZ.HI.AZ.I.AM Surf Shop for gear), to hiking in Morro Bay State Park. You’ll also love kayaking in the bay (or piloting a “bay cruiser”), or selecting your activity from Kites & Surreys. Eating can also become a full-time occupation in Morro Bay, with mouthwatering menus at Bayside Cafe (try the crab cakes at sunset with a local white wine), Frankie & Lola’s for breakfast burritos, and Tognazzini’s Dockside Restaurant on Embarcadero, with a fresh seafood market on the marina behind the eatery.
Why it’s a bargain: Lodging well under $150, starting under $100. Even in summer high season, charming hotels such as The Landing at Morro Bay are well under $200.
5. MESA, ARIZONA
Why you’ll love it: Just outside Phoenix, this culinary hub is dishing up some of the finest meals in the Southwest, making it a magnet for agritourists and foodies.
What to do there: Pack your appetite and eat, eat, eat. The Fresh Foodie Trail makes it easy to dive into the area’s offerings, which include the Italian-inspired Queen Creek Olive Mill, Schnepf Farms with its numerous festivals, pies, local honey, and homemade jams, and Hayden Flour Mills for fresh snacks made with heritage grains.
Why it’s a bargain: Lodging is available for well under $150, starting at $50.
6. CLEVELAND, OH
Why you’ll love it: Long live rock! Also, Cleveland is home to exceptional restaurants, craft beer, and some of the friendliest locals you’ll find in any U.S. city.
What to do there: Spend at least one day at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (if you opt for a second day, bring your previous day’s receipt and receive half-price admission), with its fun displays of instruments, outfits, and memorabilia, an entire room devoted to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and riveting live footage of some of rock’s greatest performers. Once you’ve had your fill of music, get your fill of artisanal food at West Side Market, with its emphasis on Northern and Eastern European favorites like sausages, bratwursts, cheeses, and pierogis. Sterle’s Country House dishes up Hungarian, Slovenian, and other Eastern European cuisines. Sokolowski’s dishes up Polish favorites like stuffed cabbage. Be prepared to wait for a table at Mabel’s BBQ, with a great bourbon list in a design-forward industrial space. Grab a local beer at Great Lakes Brewery, Market Garden Brewery, or Collision Bend Brewery, right on the Cayahoga River.
Why it’s a bargain: Lodging starts well under $200 for upscale hotels such as the Westin and Intercontinental.
7. WICHITA, KS
Why you’ll love it: You’ll never hear “We’re not in Kansas anymore” the same way again. Wichita, in fact, is a gorgeous mosaic of international cultures, cuisines, and design-forward shopping.
What to do there: Explore Wichita’s cool, diverse neighborhoods like Clifton Square with upscale shops and the must-do Wichita Escape Room (a “live action” escape game), the Douglas Design District with its murals and small shops, including Reverie Roasters. Don’t miss the Kansas Aviation Museum, and. when it’s time to refuel, take your pick of Latin American, Lebanese, Korean, and Vietnamese fare, or good old-fashioned American comfort food like Midwest-sized burgers or Wichita’s signature Nu Way meat sandwich.
Why it’s a bargain: Lodging is available for well under $150, starting at $50.
8. LOUISVILLE, KY
Why you’ll love it: A creative culinary scene, a great selection of Kentucky’s signature beverage, bourbon, and a welcoming vibe that makes you want to stay a while.
What to do there: Hit the Urban Bourbon Trail, which provides a map to help visitors find more than 30 of the city’s best whiskey bars and restaurants, each of which offers at least 50 bourbons, sampling flights, and a knowledgeable staff. Outstanding local cuisine includes Bourbons Bistro (where meals, unsurprisingly, pair well with whiskey), Jack Fry’s, a thriving restaurant since 1933, an an array of Southern, Latin, and other menus.
Why it’s a bargain: Lodging is well under $150, with some hotels starting under $100.
9. NEW BEDFORD, MA
Why you’ll love it: Local pride means everyone you meet is going to want to tell you about New Bedford’s history and recent renaissance. Go with it - this convenient, affordable little city between Providence, RI, and Cape Cod, MA, packs tons of fun into a handful of cobblestone streets.
What to do there: You must see the New Bedford Whaling Museum, which, trust us, celebrates the beauty, fragility, and importance of the massive sea mammals, not the historical whaling trade that once made New Bedford a wealthy city. The New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park includes restored 18th-century buildings, a fine visitors center, and charming streets that make you feel as if you’re stepping back in time. The Rotch-Jones-Duff House is a restored mansion that once belonged to a family that made a killing in both whaling and oil. The New Bedford Museum of Glass and the Buttonwood Park Zoo round out the cultural offerings. Get a taste of New Bedford’s melting-pot of culinary cultures, including Cork Wine Bar and Tapas, Izzy’s for traditional Cape Verdean fare like shrimp Mozambique, and Tia Maria European Cafe for Portuguese favorites such as egg-topped steak.
Why it’s a bargain: Lodging is well under $200, even in summer, starting around $100.
10. QUEBEC CITY, CANADA
Why you'll love it: Romantic boulevards, great wine, French food, and a beautiful river. Paris? Nope. But Quebec City is the closest you’ll come in North America.
What you should do there: Situated along the Saint Lawrence River, Quebec City offers visitors a historic, European vibe with narrow, winding streets and delicious, reasonably priced bistros on every corner. Take time to relax and stroll the city’s Old Quebec area. Make time to pay a visit to La Citadelle de Quebec, a historic site and museum, and grab a drink at the bar at Chateau Frontenac for gorgeous views and a splash of affordable indulgence.
Why it’s a bargain: Lodging under $150 in spring, under $200 in summer and fall.