Embark on the trip of a lifetime without busting your budget.
Taking a once-in-a-lifetime trip, particularly one in a far-flung locale, isn't always within reach for the frugal traveler. Perhaps, you're dreaming of heading on an adrenaline-fueled journey to Machu Picchu's famed "lost city of the Incas," or exploring the legendary temples of Southeast Asia. Or maybe your perfect trip involves immersive experiences, such as trekking across the Great Wall of China or admiring jaw-dropping views in Niagara Falls. While it's true that some exotic places aren't well-suited for the bargain hunter, there are many must-see destinations that cater to budgets high and low. To direct you to inspiring and affordable frontiers, we asked industry experts and seasoned explorers to share top trips to cross off your list.
The Great Wall of China
When it comes to extraordinary bucket-list destinations, it's hard to beat the Great Wall of China, which stretches across nearly 5,500 miles and has a history that dates back to about 200 B.C. "Every country has a must-see monument, but few of those monuments span the entire country," says Alex Howard, Lonely Planet's Western U.S. and Canada destination editor. Best of all, there are plenty of cheap dining options, moderately priced accommodations and easy public transportation in China, he adds. Beijing, which is only about 40 miles away from a popular stretch of the wall in Badaling, China, offers an easy and affordable starting point for your trip.
District of Columbia
Our nation's capital is home to must-see museums and monuments, a burgeoning culinary scene and plenty of vibrant neighborhoods. If you've never made the pilgrimage to D.C., the city is certainly one to cross off your list, whether you're a history buff, an art lover or simply looking to check out classic attractions such as the White House and the Washington Monument. As Robert Firpo-Cappiello, editor in chief of Budget Travel, puts it, "the not-so-secret magic of D.C. is that most attractions are free," he says, pointing out that the Smithsonian museums, the National Gallery of Art and the U.S. Capitol building offer free admission.
Grand Canyon National Park
With the National Park Service's 100th anniversary fast approaching on Aug. 25, there's no better time to explore Grand Canyon National Park. At 277 miles long, the Grand Canyon is "truly one of the wonders of the world and perhaps the wonder of the United States," says Clem Bason, CEO of goSeek. To trim travel costs, he suggests flying into top hubs in Phoenix or Las Vegas, picking up a rental car and driving to Flagstaff, Arizona, which is conveniently located near the North Rim of the park, he says. Howard also points out that because the park is in the desert, "you won't have to worry about bad weather," making it easy to cut costs by camping beneath the stars.
Yosemite National Park
With striking natural splendors – from majestic granite domes to dramatic waterfalls to massive sequoias – Yosemite Valley offers a myriad of wonders. Whether you have your heart set on checking out Half Dome, the John Muir Trail or the vistas from Glacier Point lookout, you'll find plenty of captivating points of interest. To optimize savings, Bason recommends visiting in late spring or early fall, when crowds and prices go down. If you have a tight budget, he suggests looking at options in nearby Sonora, California, which offers many two- and three-star hotels and vacation rentals. "You should be able to spend less than $150 a night, if not less than $100," he adds.
In the Emerald Isle, you'll find lush landscapes, history-filled enclaves and fascinating cultural traditions. Dublin, the country's largest city, offers a vibrant introduction to the country, with must-see sites such as Dublin Castle, St. Patrick's Cathedral and lively Grafton Street. "Dublin is closer, more affordable and friendlier than almost any other European capital, and we love how easy it is to explore its center city on a budget," Firpo-Cappiello says. Affordable flights are easy to come by, too, with Google Flights currently showing round-trip treks from New York City airports starting at $596 in August and $690 from Boston's Logan International Airport for the same period.
With three legendary falls – American, Horseshoe and Bridal Veil – Niagara Falls offers an awe-inspiring experience for spectators. Whether you want to soak in the scenery from the Maid of the Mist steamboats at the base of the falls or check out the plummeting water from unique vantage points behind the falls, there's no shortage of ways to experience Instagram-worthy views. To revel in the scenery without paying a hefty price tag, Bason suggests hitting the road to dodge expensive airfare. He also advises staying on the Canadian side to take advantage of the favorable exchange rate against the U.S. dollar. "You can find two- or three-star hotels for around $50 a night," he says.
Iceland's towering waterfalls, striking geothermal pools and otherworldly landscapes beckon to the adventurous traveler. You can't miss taking a dip in the Blue Lagoon, heading on a drive to remember on Ring Road or admiring the northern lights. Reykjavik, the country's capital city, offers an excellent home base for taking in Iceland's diverse natural attractions. Plus, you won't have to pinch pennies to get there. Firpo-Cappiello points out that budget carrier WOW Air offers affordable flight prices, and with manageable distances from place to place, it's easy to drive around much of the island.
While getting to Machu Picchu's famed ruins won't be easy or cost-effective, once you make the trek to Cusco, Peru, you'll find plenty of affordable dining and lodging options. Plus, there are a variety of moderately priced, small group tours available with reputable outfitters. G Adventures, for instance, offers a seven-day trek through Machu Picchu, Cusco and other points of interest in Peru starting at $1,249 per person. If you decide to plan a trip to the UNESCO site on your own, remember tickets sell out weeks ahead of time during the peak season, from May to September.
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Gazing at the centuries-old Angkor Wat temple is a sight to behold. "It's the world's greatest Hindu temple," Howard says. It is "quite literally a vision of heaven on earth," he adds. Reaching the city of Siem Reap, which is less than 4 miles from the temple complex, won't be an easy endeavor, and depending on your travel dates, airfare can be pricey. But Cambodia is an excellent budget destination that is packed with sophisticated urban centers and affordable places to stay, Howard notes. At the Golden Temple Residence in Siem Reap, for example, you'll find rooms starting at just $104 a night.
If you're based in North America and your perfect vacation involves strolling along cobbled streets, admiring graceful European-style architecture and reveling in old-world charm, Quebec City should be high on your list, Howard says. Plus, Old Quebec, a UNESCO World Heritage site, retains its storied 17th century colonial buildings and offers a myriad of historic sites, including the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame and The Battlefields Park. What's more, with the strength of the U.S. dollar, it's easy to pull off an affordable getaway.