Go here, not there: Vacation alternatives for the budget-conscious
By Elaine Glusac
Inflation, high gas prices and soaring airfares are sponging up discretionary budgets, forcing Americans to rethink travel.
In a survey of 4,000 travelers, Destination Analysts, a market research firm, recently found that high prices kept 38% of respondents home in April, while some 23% canceled an upcoming trip. Unless gas prices fall, 60% said they would be staying closer to home on their road trips this spring and summer.
You can still travel affordably this summer, but you’ve got to get creative.
“My best advice is to book early, be flexible and don’t go where everyone else is going, when everyone else is going there,” said Rob Stern, a travel adviser based in Raleigh, North Carolina, who runs RobPlansYourTrip.com. “Be willing to go to offbeat places and think outside the box.”
With substitutes in mind, and a preference for closer-to-home destinations, the following alternative places bear some resemblance to farther-flung destinations but cost much less. Consider it stimuli for your own creative travel planning.
It’s hard to replicate Hawaii outside of the islands, but rising prices are forcing some travelers to try. The average daily hotel rate there has grown nearly $100 between March 2019 ($282) and March 2022 ($378), according to STR, the hospitality benchmarking analysts. And that doesn’t even address the high prices for rental cars.
Mexico, with its favorable exchange rate — currently about 20 pesos to the dollar — is a good place to search for deals on beach vacations. Like Hawaii, the Sea of Cortez draws humpback whales in winter. But in summer, the body of water that separates the mainland from the Baja California peninsula is a good place to snorkel and scuba dive in the Loreto Bay National Marine Park.
Rooms at the boutique Hotel 1697 in Loreto currently start at about $100.
In the Caribbean, St. Lucia does a credible job standing in for Hawaii when it comes to the volcanic Pitons on its southern end, where you’ll also find lush jungles and waterfalls. For a close encounter, hike up Gros Piton, the squatter of the two peaks, a thorough exercise that can take between three and six hours one way, according to Real St. Lucia Tour guides who will lead the way ($50).
While the island is often associated with luxury resorts and all-inclusives, the island’s tourism office has made it easier to find the destination’s small hotels under a collection called “Pepites,” which includes the short-term rental Vista Del Piton near the mountains starting at $80 a night for two bedrooms. You may save on flights, too, especially in the Caribbean shoulder season; a recent search for a June trip from New York City to the island turned up nonstop flights starting at $343, versus $840 to Honolulu.
Beyond beaches, outdoor lovers can find swaps for the fjords of Iceland in coastal Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland, or Europe’s Alps in the Kootenay Rockies of British Columbia. Instead of the lavender fields of Provence, France, drive the so-called Hood River Fruit Loop in northern Oregon to see lavender fields with Mount Hood in the background.
However, it will be high season in many of these alternative spots over the summer, which means savvy travelers should plan well in advance and be flexible with dates.
For example, if you wanted to swap the dark, star-filled skies in Scandinavia for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, an International Dark Sky Sanctuary in northern Minnesota, act now. There is a quota on entries, and while outfitters will secure your permit, you may have to be flexible with dates and routes.
Boundary Waters Outfitters in Ely, Minnesota, has canoe camping packages — they supply the gear, including boats and tents, plus maps and food — from $370 a person for two to four people for three days.
Travelers looking for the volcanoes, rainforests and sustainable ethos of New Zealand may find some of its appeal closer to home in Costa Rica, where summer is quieter. You may have to put up with some rain showers, especially in the mountains, but you’ll evade the crowds and the high prices of winter.
Some affordable lodges include Claro de Luna Hotel in the mountainous Monteverde area (rooms from about $106) and Dulce Uvita — The Small Resort in Punta Arenas on the Pacific shore (from $107).
One of the easiest ways to trick yourself into feeling like you’re elsewhere is through food, especially in multicultural corners of cities across the continent.
The sprawl of strip malls that comprises Houston’s Chinatown, for example, is the only tipoff that you’re still in Texas. These days, restaurants serving Chinese, Hong Kong, Vietnamese, Thai and other Asian cultures fill these shopping plazas.
If you’re looking to channel France, go no farther than the cafes and green markets of Montreal, including Jean Talon Market and the Atwater Market.
Toronto has a virtual United Nations of dining districts, from Little India to Little Jamaica. Suresh Doss, a Toronto-based food writer who focuses on the city’s multicultural pockets, grew up in suburban Scarborough, where he takes small groups to Sri Lankan restaurants, among other food tours throughout the greater Toronto area (250 Canadian dollars, or about $195).
Among affordable accommodations in Toronto, try the Hotel Ocho near Chinatown, where a recent search found rooms from CA$209.
The safest way to explore Ukraine right now might be to eat in Cleveland, which has strong Eastern European roots and a concentration of Ukrainian shops and restaurants in suburban Parma.
“Many restaurants aren’t specifically Polish, Ukrainian or Hungarian, but they do Eastern European food,” said Susan Chapo, owner of Relish Cleveland, which runs food tours. Her flagship tour visits the city’s West Side Market, opened in 1912, for pierogies, bratwurst, homemade ice cream and more ($71 a person for three hours).
“You can eat well here, cheaply,” she added.
That goes for lodgings too; an Airbnb condo near the market costs $97 a night.
Architecture and culture
When it comes to architecture, Spain’s history of colonization has left Spanish settlements throughout North America, including Casco Antiguo in Panama City, Panama, which dates back to the 17th century, and the San Antonio Missions in San Antonio, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
In northeast Florida, St. Augustine claims to be the oldest city in the United States, established in 1565, where visitors can tour the Spanish-built fort Castillo de San Marcos; the Peña-Peck House, built around 1750 for the King of Spain; and the oldest street in the nation, Aviles Street. The St. Augustine Music Festival stages free classical concerts in summer in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine.
The Local, a modernized 20-room motel, offers a balancing dose of Americana, with rooms from about $160.