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How to Do Adventure Travel Trips on the Cheap

Find out how to plan an adventure of a lifetime without breaking the bank.

U.S. News & World Report

How to Do Adventure Travel Trips on the Cheap

Hiker on mountain trail.

Skipping the tour company and planning an adventure yourself can save you a lot of cash.(Getty Images)

These days travelers, aren't looking to just go on vacation – they're craving an adventure. Not only are Americans traveling abroad more, but the adventure travel industry is booming. In 2013, the Adventure Travel Trade Association reported a 65 percent yearly uptick in this niche travel market since 2009. This year, the ATTA reported a 10 percent increase in adventure travel tourism revenue in North America compared to the previous year.  

For those unfamiliar with the term, adventure travel encompasses any hands-on activity that enables travelers to get out and experience the world around them. It's a type of travel that challenges people to get out of their comfort zones by directly engaging with a destination and its culture. For Christine Sarkis, senior editor at SmarterTravel, adventure travel is physical. "You're not only seeing it but you're sweating it and feeling it." Kevin Raub, a writer at Lonely Planet, said it can also be emotional. "The relationships you forge with other travelers, as well as the interactions with locals, are both priceless and unforgettable."

Aspiring adventure travelers won't have any problem finding plenty of bucket list-worthy trips for all ages with a quick Google search. However, adventure travel can often come attached to a high price tag, as the average international trip can cost thousands of dollars. But an affordable adventure is possible. U.S. News spoke with travel industry experts to find out how to plan an adventure of a lifetime without breaking the bank

Look locally

For those looking to grab adventure travel by its horns but don't have the funds to support a trek to Machu Picchu, consider seeking domestic opportunities. Christopher Cohen, associate editor at Outside Magazine, believes camping gets you the biggest bang for your buck. "A solid camping setup doesn't cost much, and you can use it over and over again," Cohen said.

Robert Firpo-Cappiello, editor-in-chief of Budget Travel, said national parks are a great place for aspiring adventure travelers on a budget to start. "Opportunities to push your physical limits abound at a park nearby, and local outfitters and guides are certainly more affordable than flying halfway around the world," Firpo-Cappiello said.

The U.S. boasts more than 400 areas designated as national parks, totaling more than 84 million acres of land. Only 127 of those national parks charge an entrance fee and there are select holidays where many of those parks, including the Grand Canyon and Yosemite, waive entrance fees. The National Park Service also gives visitors the opportunity to participate in a variety of free guided tours at select National Historic Parks, including Washington, D.C.'s National Mall.

Do it yourself

If you're still set on going abroad for your adventure travel fix, skip the tour company and plan it yourself. Raub finds this approach to be the most cost-effective route to adventure travel. "There is a premium to be paid for having the groundwork done by someone else," Raub said. "Plan the big stuff on the ground once you arrive, directly with the outfitter. With safari or national parks, for example, you can often pay daytrip entrance fees and arrange a guide in the nearest town or village. It's not only cheaper, but offers a more enriching cultural experience and helps the local economy."

Tim Leffel, a seasoned adventure traveler and author of "Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune: The Contrarian Traveler's Guide to Getting More for Less," suggested budget adventure travelers start by seeking out less expensive destinations. "For those [based] in the U.S., Mexico and Central America are quite cheap to get to … and a mountain hiking adventure in Switzerland is going to cost you far more than one in Ecuador or Bulgaria." Leffel added if you can skimp on anything, do so with lodging. "You usually won't be in your hotel all that much anyway if you're on the move, so downgrading the accommodation can make a big difference in the price," he said.

Wherever the destination, Outside GO President Sandy Cunningham recommended traveling during the low season for better deals, and advised booking one-way tickets for multidestination trips instead of round-trip fares. Firpo-Cappiello suggested signing up for a volunteer vacation. "If you're lacking funds, a volunteer vacation is an eye-opening way to push yourself, helping out the locals and getting to know the sights and travel destinations," he said.

Book a basic tour

Although planning an adventure travel trip by yourself is a surefire way to cut costs, experts agreed that it requires a lot of research. Those who are new to adventure travel, especially those looking to go to remote regions, may find that booking with professional guides is a better fit. "It's true that organized trips can be expensive, but you're often paying for safety and support to push your limits," Cohen said. "My parents, who are in their late 50s, did a bike trip to the Alps up some of the famous mountains in the Tour de France. They could have done it much cheaper by planning it themselves, but knowing they had the mechanical support and a van to ride in if they got too tired let them get the most out of their trip."

According to Sarkis, the reason adventure travel can be so expensive is because some companies organize amenity-driven trips, with features that may be considered unnecessary to some travelers. Another reason is the additional single supplement fee, which some companies require solo travelers to pay simply because they're going on a trip alone. Luckily, all of these expenses can be easily avoided.

There are a variety of travel companies that cater to budget travelers, including Intrepid Travel and G Adventures. Both companies offer trips with fewer inclusions and simpler accommodations, as well as trips for those who wouldn't mind paying a little extra for some luxury. Another bonus: For the majority of its tours, G Adventures waives the single supplement fee. Discounts can also help reduce the overall cost of the trip. Sarkis recommended looking out for early bird and last-minute booking deals, which are sometimes as high as 20 percent off.  

If you're still unsure of whether or not to book with a company, experts agreed that you should compare how much the trip will cost on your own against the price offered by the company. "There is no one-size-fits-all answer," said Sarkis. "The best thing to do is a huge amount of legwork." Comparing prices, researching what the company offers on its tours and assessing your own comfort level and travel needs will not only help you find the best deal, but help you figure out which type of trip is best for you.

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