Explore the mysteries of Angkor Wat
This temple complex, as big as a city in Siem Reap, Cambodia, was built as a Hindu temple for Vishnu 900 years ago, taking 37 years to construct. More than 6,000 elephants and five million tons of stone were used to create towering stone palaces crafted with faces, animals, and nearly 1,600 columns (you’ve probably seen Angelina Jolie famously standing in front of the Ta Prohm temple in Tomb Raider, and that’s only a fraction of the expansive temple complex). Although it may seem like you’d pay a fortune to stay in luxury near the largest religious monument ever built in the world, Anantara Angkor Resort, a lush oasis with air-conditioned suites set around an azure pool, offers rooms as part of a multi-night package that cost less than $190 a night. Anantara’s private Half-day Temple Tour will help you unravel the mysteries of the ancient Khmer capital, and includes a personal guide, air-conditioned sedan, entry fees, breakfast, and drinks for less than $150 for two people; you’ll feel like a movie star yourself as you tour the ancient site.
Go gorilla trekking
There are fewer than 900 mountain gorillas in the world, and nearly half of the highly endangered primates live in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Mount Gahinga National Park in Uganda. Not only was the East African nation of Uganda recently named one the friendliest countries in the world, but its gorilla trekking permits are one-third of what they cost in neighboring Rwanda, where many upscale gorilla trekking lodges are located (the highly coveted permits are $450 in the low season in Uganda compared to $1,500 in Rwanda!), so you can see these amazing animals, who can’t survive in captivity, in their natural habitats. Two of the top lodges to stay at in Uganda to experience a gorilla encounter are also incredibly affordable options: At Volcanoes Safaris Bwindi or Gahinga lodges, you’ll have a private chalet, luxury service, plus all meals and drinks for a low-season rate of around $200 (similar lodges in Rwanda cost $1,000 per night). In case you were curious, here’s what a 300-pound Silverback gorilla eats.
Sail the Caribbean
Picture this: The sparkling sea splashes all around you while the wind lifts the sails of the tall ship taking whisking you to a private golden beach in the middle of the Caribbean. Is it an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous? No, it only feels that way. StarClippers offers week-long itineraries on its stunning tall masted ship The Royal Clipper, which holds the Guinness World Record as the largest five-masted square-rigged ship in service (so you can cross “set sail on the world’s largest sailboat” off your bucket list too) starting at $300 per night, which includes all meals on board. Climb the mast to the crow’s nest, lay out in the bowsprit netting with the turquoise water rushing under you, and soak up the sun while you cruise into ports big cruise ships will never be able to reach. While in the Caribbean, check out these resorts that are actually affordable.
Ride the rails to Machu Picchu
The saying, “Getting there is half the fun,” definitely applies to a trip to the 15th century ruins of Machu Picchu that are found high in the mountains of Central Peru. To get to the closest access point in Agua Calientes, you need to take a train (or participate in a walking trek). Some rail options cost hundreds of dollars, but the best, and newest choice is on Inca Rail for just $61. The new Machu Picchu train features oversize panoramic windows and a dedicated observation carriage with a bar and outdoor viewing area for a unique view of the hidden beauty of the surrounding Sacred Valley. Once you arrive in Agua Calientes, a quick and inexpensive bus will take you up to the top of the mountain to explore the ancient Incan stone citadel. Peru is one of these cheap destinations that still feels like a VIP adventure.
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Say “oui” to Paris
The City of Lights sparkles like a diamond, but it doesn’t have to cost you a small fortune to soak up the culture, food, and joie de vivre found in this stunning city. Plan to stay at one of Paris’ newest hotels, CitizenM Paris Gare de Lyon; it’s centrally located near the Seine and Gare de Lyon train station, making getting around the city a breeze. With room rates starting at $150, the hotel is budget-friendly in addition to being trés chic! To save money while you’re exploring, stand at a coffee bar for your morning coffee (it’s more expensive if you pull up a seat), walk up to the second floor of the Eiffel Tower instead of taking the elevator to save 50 percent off admission (it’s less crowded this way too), and explore the Louvre on a Wednesday or Friday evening for cheaper admission (and fewer people in the queue with you), or for free admission the first Sunday of every month (when you definitely will be with lots of new friends). Want an insider’s tour of the city? Try one of the Guided Walking Tours from Set in Paris with local guides that focus on everything from Coco Chanel’s Style Influences to Hemingway’s Cocktail Tour for around $18. These are the French phrases every citizen of the world should know.
Marvel at the Taj Mahal
India is one of our top spots to travel cheap and live large, and even witnessing the epic beauty of the Taj Mahal is within reach for budget bucket list travelers. In Agra, you can experience the culturally rich city with royal treatment worthy of a Maharaja for less than a fancy dinner in New York at the luxurious ITC Mughal Hotel in Agra, where you can stay in the Mughal Chamber Suite for just $120 a night (breakfast is included!). You’ll have panoramic views over the Taj Mahal as the sun rises behind the shimmering white dome; and the hotel can arrange a chauffeured car to take you right to entrance for about $20.
Explore culture and cuisine in Cape Town
If flying to South Africa has seemed too prohibitive to keep you from visiting the Rainbow Nation, think again. Recently South African Airways offered $599 roundtrip, direct, nonstop flights from JFK to Johannesburg. From there, it’s a short hop to Cape Town, renowned for its scenic beauty, culture, and charm. With an exchange rate of 12 Rand to the dollar, luxury hotels, gourmet restaurants, and award-winning wines become affordable at every budget. Take in the views from the top of Table Mountain, visit history at Robben Island, explore the surrounding winelands, and then taken a day trip to Cape Point to see African penguins, zebra, and other wildlife. South Africa is also a great option for a vacation that will wow even the most jaded teen.
Live big in Bangkok
Book a trip to the mystical country of Thailand, known as the Land of Smiles, for the Southeast Asia trip of a lifetime—complete with relaxing, adventurous, culinary, and cultural experiences, all of which are totally budget-friendly. Base yourself in Bangkok, named the best city in the world, where golden temples and palaces line the winding Chao Praya River and travelers can take advantage of affordable luxuries such as authentic Thai spas, with prices starting as low as $10 for a 2-hr massage, incredible local cuisine for just a few dollars, and a ride on a tuk-tuk is just $1.50 an hour. Stay in the lap of luxury at Anantara Baan Rajprasong, where plush one- and two-bedroom suites with kitchenettes and living rooms at a hotel with lush gardens and a tropically landscaped pool in the heart of the city start at just $92 per night including breakfast.
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View the Northern Lights
Watching the winter night sky light up with the Aurora Borealis (one of the seven Natural Wonders of the World) is on the top of many explorers’ bucket lists. Even though it may sound like a prohibitively expensive trip to travel far north enough to witness the iridescent formation of glowing greens, purples, and golds lights, flying to Iceland, one of the premier viewing spots in the world, is now as inexpensive as hopping an Amtrak train. WOW air, a discount carrier based in Iceland, offers $99 flights from much of the United States to Reykjavik (and even offered half off those incredibly budget-friendly fares as a holiday special). When you’re not searching for the lights, you can spend time relaxing in the geothermal Blue Lagoon, exploring lava tunnels, and whale watching without breaking the bank. The Blue Lagoon is on our list of the world’s most beautiful destinations to add to your bucket list.
Go deep at the Grand Canyon
Visiting the Grand Canyon? Cool. Going to the bottom of the Grand Canyon? Epic! Although it’s one of the most unique experiences in the national park system, it’s not the most expensive; it just takes time, and some luck, to be able to go down deep.
Phantom Ranch, the legendary and only accommodations located below the rim of the Grand Canyon, is the Holy Grail of accommodations at the Grand Canyon due to the fact that Phantom Ranch has only 92 beds (bunks) that are used exclusively by hikers and overnight mule riders from the South Rim down to the Colorado River. Demand is so intense that Grand Canyon National Park has a new online lottery; register to win a coveted slot 13 months in advance of when you want to visit. Win, and you’ll be able to stay the night at the bottom of the canyon in a private cabin for about $75 per person. (You can even order a steak dinner to have waiting for you when you arrive—talk about a meal with a view!) The only catch, you have to hike down 7.5 miles to get to your cabin, which takes about 5 hours, so start training now. These spectacular photos of America’s national parks may be just the motivation you need.
Hit it big in Las Vegas
Flights to Las Vegas are affordable year-round from most gateways, according to CheapAir.com, which recently named the fantasyland city as one of its “top spots for culture, cuisine, and adventure that you can you visit in the new year without breaking the bank.” Dining and accommodation can be had for a song even if you’re not a high roller, and you don’t even need a rental car during your stay, according to CheapAir. While you’re there, check out these top tourist attractions that have nothing to do with gambling and are free—including the Bellagio Fountains.