The celebrated features of classic destinations — like the clean, fresh air of the Alps, the poetic countryside of Tuscany, the sophistication of the French Riviera and the paradisiacal beaches of Tahiti — are hot commodities whose popularity comes with a hefty price tag. Especially in the high season, hotel rates shoot skyward, airfares are bumped up, and prices for food and entertainment can cost you a limb or two at world-famous vacation spots.
With this in mind, we’ve worked out some excellent replacement places for the frugal traveler, with smaller crowds and even smaller costs. Of course, there’s no Tahiti other than Tahiti, and you won’t find the French Riviera anywhere except for, well, France. But you can seek a similar experience, whether it involves discovering the perfect stretch of beach or finding the most sublime sip of wine, in a comparable and less expensive location.
We’ve broken down some of the costs of budget alternatives versus their pricier counterparts and provided you with averages for airfare (roundtrip from New York), accommodations, food, activities and the dreaded exchange rate (or lack thereof). See for yourself whether it’s better to trek to that spot you’ve always dreamed of visiting or to save some cash and visit one of our unsung destinations that you never knew you were missing.
Editor’s Note: All prices and exchange rates are for sample purposes only and may change at any time.
Picturesque Vineyards and Wine: Tuscany vs. California Wine Country
You want to tour musty wine cellars, drive through rolling vineyard-covered hills, sit down to a fresh gourmet meal and stay at a historic country inn … so you might be inclined to plan a trip to Tuscany. This tourist mecca draws wine enthusiasts by the thousands to its famous hill towns, but its popularity has pushed prices for lodging through the roof — and high airfare plus a poor exchange rate equals an ultra-expensive vacation.
Replace your visions of Italy with dreams of California’s wine country. While certainly not dirt-cheap, Mendocino and Sonoma Counties in California are a far better option for budget-conscious wine lovers than tourist-mobbed Tuscany. Instead of medieval architecture you’ll find Victorian villages, and fresh-caught seafood and farm-picked apples replace Italian cuisine … but world-class winemaking abounds in both places, and each region offers beautiful rolling countryside.
Airfare: This is where you’ll save the bulk of your budget. Flights to Florence range from $650 in the winter to $1,100 in the summer, roundtrip from New York. Flights from the Big Apple to California cost just $250 to $400 roundtrip year-round.
Exchange Rate: Paying with dollars in California makes it easy to see exactly how much money you’re spending — and you won’t have to worry about racking up currency conversion fees.
Accommodations: Get out your credit card and prepare for sky-high accommodation prices in historic Tuscan hill towns. Average rates for high-season budget hotels in the Tuscan region range from $150 to $200 and most do not include breakfast. Opt for classier digs, like a medieval castle or Tuscan farmhouse, and pay between $300 and $1,000 a night. In California wine country, check into a bed and breakfast or mid-range hotel from $100 to $300 per night.
Food and Activities: Budget-minded foodies can enjoy Mendocino’s many festivals year-round, like the Boonville Beer Festival in May, which includes free unlimited beer samples with a $40 – $50 entrance fee. Meals can be expensive in Cali’s wine region depending on the restaurant, but menu prices won’t have to be multiplied by the current exchange rate. On average, a genuine Tuscan meal in Florence will cost $50 per person, including wine. Mass tourism has reduced the number of authentic Tuscan eateries, so you could end up paying more for a meal that you could find easily find in California.
One of the most popular activities in both destinations is to rent a car and drive the scenic roads from vineyard to vineyard, stopping for tastings along the way — but renting a car in Italy will cost you. We priced a two-day economy rental in Tuscany from $150, while a comparable two-day rental in Sonoma is roughly $64.
What’s the Catch?: We probably don’t need to remind you that California isn’t Europe. Medieval architecture doesn’t exist in California and you won’t find ancient villages offering centuries of history in Italy’s classic landscape. In addition, handsome Italian men and women with accents are largely indigenous to the Boot (but we hear Californians aren’t bad-looking either!).
Exotic Island Hideaway: Tahiti vs. Boracay Island, Philippines
To find an exotic island destination with a secluded, heavenly beach and nearly perfect weather, one need only look to Tahiti in the South Pacific. But for the traveler who can’t handle the steep airfare and expensive hotels in this island paradise, Boracay Island in the Philippines is a close second, if not an equal contender in the contest for the world’s best beach.
Tahiti is also known for its unique native culture, but Boracay offers its own culture rich in history and folklore; be sure to tour the dead forest — a mysterious lake with dozens of brittle, dead tree trunks rising from its waters — with a native islander and hear the local legends that explain how the lake came to be. Bat caves, butterfly gardens, golf courses and a stretch of pure white beach make this up-and-coming destination a true tropical paradise — but get there before the large-scale resorts move in and prices rise to match those in Tahiti!
Airfare: Fares to Manila, the capital of the Philippines, will run around $1,000 – $1,300 roundtrip from New York. Fly from New York to Papeete, Tahiti, and you’re looking at fares averaging $1,500 to nearly $2,000 roundtrip.
Exchange Rate: One dollar is currently worth 45 Philippines pesos; euros and dollars are widely accepted in tourist destinations as well. One dollar is 89 French Pacific Francs, but life in Tahiti is expensive and a dollar stretches a bit further in the Philippines.
Accommodations: Budget hotels in Tahiti start at over $100, on average. You will spend from $200 to $300 per night for average-grade accommodations. On Boracay, we found budget hotels from just $3 per night and nicer hotels from $60 per night. Luxury accommodations go for $150 to $250 per night for rooms that would cost upwards of $300 in Tahiti.
Food and Activities: Lying on the beach is free in both destinations — but on Boracay Island, $7 buys you a massage from a local islander and a three-hour sunset cruise is less than $25. (Similar Tahiti boat excursions could set you back nearly $100 per person.) While cuisine on Tahiti runs from $10 for a budget meal to $50 per person for a fancy sit-down dinner, most meals on Boracay will cost you less than $15.
What’s the Catch?: Boracay does not have the majestic volcanoes of Tahiti; the island is flat. In addition, the tourist industry is less developed on this island than on Tahiti, so you will find fewer luxury facilities, spas and gourmet restaurants.
The Fashionable Mediterranean Coast: French Riviera vs. Madeira, Portugal
Droves of tourists craving the exotic, European feel of the Cote d’Azur, which has attracted the rich and famous for decades, flock to this glamorous beach destination in the spring and summer months. Travelers would probably be less inclined to associate the glitz and glamour of the French Riviera with a Portuguese island, but Madeira, which has stunning mountains, beaches and sea cliffs, is slowly becoming another popular destination for the young and hip traveling set.
Madeira, a self-governing island of Portugal, has enjoyed a reputation as one of Europe’s most affordable destinations for years. Madeira has less razzle-dazzle than the French Riviera, but you won’t miss the thousands of tanning tourists and expensive resorts when you’re mountain climbing, wine tasting or enjoying the year-round sunshine. Meanwhile, the French Riviera has distinctive high and low seasons, so if you visit when the weather is warm and sunny you’ll deal with thick crowds and a thin wallet.
Air: A roundtrip flight from New York to Madeira runs from $800 to $1,350, depending on when you’re flying. Fares are high in the summer months (this is when you’ll find the $1,350 price tag), but fly in the winter or spring shoulder seasons and you’ll enjoy cheap flights and pleasant temperatures in Madeira, which is mostly sunny and warm year-round. Fly from New York to Nice and you’ll find similar fares — around $1,200 in the summer and $700 in the off season. However, if you choose a cheaper flight to the French Riviera in the winter, you’ll find many resorts and restaurants closed.
Exchange Rate: Both France and Portugal use the euro, so you’ll find the same exchange rate in both (currently $1 to about 0.75 euros).
Accommodations: We found budget hotels in Cannes from $100 to $200 per night, while classier beachfront lodging can run as high as $400 to $900 per night in the summer. Even scarier, smaller seaside towns on the Riviera charge higher rates for hotel rooms. Stay oceanside in Madeira from $70 for a budget hotel and between $150 and $300 for upscale accommodations.
Food and Activities: Entrance to private beaches and use of lounge chairs on the Riviera may require a fee. Public beaches are available, but these may be more crowded. When it comes to dining, many budget travelers can’t afford a splashy gourmet meal in the Riviera — some of the trendier hotspots charge around $100 per person and usually require reservations well in advance in the high season — but dinner at an upscale restaurant runs only about $30 on average in Madeira.
What’s the Catch?: The French Riviera has a distinctive in-vogue vibe; beautiful people, stunning scenery and lots of skin come to mind when people speak of its trendy towns. You probably won’t feel as fashionable telling your friends that you’re vacationing in Madeira as you would if you were staying in Monte Carlo or Saint Tropez, and you’ll have less of a chance to spot celebrities on the beaches and streets of Madeira (although we won’t say it’s never happened!).
European Ski Trip: The Alps vs. Jahorina, Bosnia
Jahorina hosted some of the ski competitions in the 1984 Winter Olympics and boasts a ski scene cool and challenging enough to rival any Alps mountain. When the whole point of your trip is to set sail down an impressive mountain with ski poles tucked beneath your arms, why pay sky-high prices for Western European ski passes and lodging when you can get above-par ski action in Eastern Europe?
Food, lodging and ski passes are all significantly cheaper in Jahorina than in the Alps thanks to the more favorable exchange rate and less popular tourist infrastructure. And Bosnia still has that alluring European charm — the 15th-century cobblestone streets in the nearby mountain town of Sarajevo are well worth exploring if you want a day away from the slopes.
Airfare: Fares to Bosnia won’t be the cheapest part of your journey. You can get a roundtrip ticket from New York to Sarajevo, the nearest airport to Jahorina, for about $1,000. Winter fares to Western Europe will generally be a bit cheaper, around $600. But the money you’ll save on hotels, meals and skiing will make up for the difference in airfare.
Exchange Rate: The Bosnian convertible mark is the local currency. Currently, $1 equals about 1.46 BAM — so while the dollar will struggle against most Western European currencies, Bosnia’s exchange rate actually boosts your spending power.
Accommodations: Mid-class hotels in Sarajevo cost from $35 per night. Compare this to slope-side hotels in the Alps, which can cost four times as much — we found little lodging in the French Alps less than $150 per night, and many hotels and chalets charge well over $300.
Food and Activities: A day ski pass costs less than $25 in Jahorina, while skiing in the Alps can run $60 on average for an adult.
What’s the Catch?: Since the end of the Bosnian War in 1995, the country has seen occasional political demonstrations and other minor signs of political unrest, and landmines still pose a threat in some regions (Jahorina is clear of landmines). Today, Bosnia can be a safe destination for the educated traveler; check the U.S. State Department Web site before your trip.
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