Each year, we choose our top destinations that offer exceptional experiences at an incredible price. From the mountains of Georgia (the country, not the state), to the southern charm of Memphis, here are our top choices.
San Luis Obispo County, California
Paso Robles Wine Country/htrnr/iStock
Situated halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles along California’s Central Coast is quaint, value-packed, San Luis Obispo County (SLO CAL for short). Not only does it have a catchy moniker, but the area also features 80 miles of stunning coastline along the endlessly Instagrammable Highway 1. It's is also home to 3,616-square miles of vineyards; charming towns with breweries, wineries, and distilleries; and an abundance of outdoor recreation (elephant seal spotting, whale-watching, ATV excursions). The best part? It’s a lot more affordable than its neighbors. Check out the Inn at the Pier, a 104-room luxury hotel opened in November of 2017, or the Shore Cliff Hotel, which was transformed into a swanky boutique hotel back in December, 2016. If you’re looking for super budget-friendly accommodations, there’s the Avenue Inn Downtown San Luis Obispo (rates starting at just $79), as well as the Seaside Inn Morro Bay (rates starting at truly fantastic $52). Plus, the region is now more accessible than ever, with new nonstop flights to the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport (with its new $35.4 million terminal) from Seattle and Denver.
Windsor Castle, chrisdorney/iStock
Often passed over by American travelers in favor of flashy London or studious Oxford and Cambridge, Windsor is a charming destination that’s worth a visit. And fresh off the buzz from the Royal Wedding, there’s no better time than now to check it out. (It’s also the location of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s new home.) While in Windsor, you can’t miss a free visit to Windsor Castle to learn about its 1,000-year history. For a look at more contemporary British culture, there are quaint pubs and restaurants nearby that offer inexpensive meals and pints. Windsor is also an incredibly green city and home to Windsor Great Park, which spans a sprawling 4,800 acres. Five hundred red deer roam free here alongside its lake, serene walking tracks, and lush gardens. For the younger travelers in your own royal entourage, there’s also Legoland Windsor Resort, where tickets start at about $45 USD per person. We recommend staying at the Chequers Inn, which is just a short ride from Windsor, where rates start at $150 for a king room including breakfast. Windsor is easily reachable from three airports (Windsor International Airport, Heathrow International Airport, and Gatwick Airport), so public transportation is a snap and ride shares are cheap.
The Mississippi Gulf Coast
Biloxi, MI/Sean Pavone/iStock
The Gulf Coast of Mississippi, which has 26 miles of white-sand beaches, feels like a good secret. We love that each coastal community across the region has a different feel, from artsy Ocean Springs to charming Bay St. Louis. With loads of inexpensive lodging options, guests can stay in beachside boutique hotels, luxury casino resorts (and for much less than in, say, Vegas), and coastal inns. This wallet-friendly stretch of coastline lets you kayak, hop on a standup paddle board, or go boating and fishing for less than in higher-profile beaches in Florida or Texas. If you prefer museums and art, check out the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi, or the Walter Anderson Museum of Art or Shearwater Pottery Workshop and Showroom in Ocean Springs. A range of the area’s attractions can be found in the Mississippi Gulf Coast Attraction Pass, which includes one entry to seven must-see attractions for $32, and it never expires. Plan a visit around one of the region’s free festivals held throughout the year, which showcase local crafts, fresh seafood, and live music.
Hawaii for Cruisers
With lush mountains, sapphire seas, and exotic marine life, Hawaii is a true bucket-list destination. In spring, 2018, the eruption of the Kilauea volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island destroyed homes, displaced residents, and disrupted travel to the entire state. With a pause in eruption activity, Hawaii is welcoming visitors back with big discounts that make the islands accessible for budget-minded travelers. The most notable among many value-packed deals is Norwegian Cruise Line’s ongoing Free at Sea promo, which includes a choice of freebies — such as third and fourth guests sail free (ideal for families), or free roundtrip airfare for two — for those who book a trip on its Hawaii-based Pride of America. The free flights are available from West Coast cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle; and discounted flights are bookable from some 200 other airports, including New York City. Plus, considering the ship spends more than 100 hours in port and hits Maui, Hawaii (the Big Island), Kauai, and Oahu, you'll save lots of time and money.
Georgia Trinity Church/Dmytro Kosmenko/iStock
Atlanta, we love you, but please step aside. A different Georgia is stealing the spotlight — that is, the Eurasian country sandwiched between Russia, Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. After years of political turmoil, Georgia has found its footing and is greeting visitors with its stunning natural landscape amidst the Caucasus Mountains and Black Sea, inexpensive food and wine, and friendly locals. The picturesque capital of Tbilisi has a cobblestone city center, a super cheap-to-use metro system, and vibrant nightlife. Consider a stay at the top-rated Stamba Hotel, a former printing factory that was recently converted into a five-star property and has been recognized as one of Time's 100 Greatest Places. For super inexpensive eats, try the signature fluffy khachapuri breads filled with cheese, which will run you just about 40 cents per loaf. Sample fresh produce from local markets and wash it down with an excellent local wine that will only cost you about $5 USD for a bottle. In addition, the country recently made headlines for legalizing marijuana, making it the first former Soviet Republic to do so.
Idaho Wine Country
Idaho Wine Country/Laura Motta
With Washington's and Oregon's wine regions enjoying higher profiles than ever, it makes sense that fans of high-quality, affordable domestic wines — and wine-related travel — would start looking a little further west for their next big discovery. With three official AVAs (American viticultural areas) in the state, Idaho is now home to more than 50 wineries. Get acclimated in this destination in the Snake River Valley AVA, which partially borders Oregon and is within easy driving distance of Boise. There are plenty of wineries using grapes from this region within Boise itself. As you make your way out of town and get closer to the Sunnyslope area, you’ll find beautiful rolling fields of vines, handsomely designed and ultra-approachable tasting rooms, plus fantastically low prices. Good bottles at the Cinder or Sawtooth wineries, two local favorites, start at about $20. Lodging, even in the highest of high seasons, doesn’t tend to top $200 per night at the city’s best hotels — now that’s something to toast. Want to experience this wine region in a different way? Snake River cruises, which begin in Portland, often end in the town of Clarkston, Washington, which an eleven-minute drive to the Idaho border and the town of Lewiston, where you’ll find wineries that belong to Idaho’s newest AVA, the Lewis-Clark Valley. American Cruise Lines, American Queen Steamboat Company, and UnCruise Adventures all offer this itinerary.
Puerto Rico and the Caribbean
The 2017 hurricane season left Caribbean islands like Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, St. Martin, Tortola, Dominica, Antigua, St. Barts, and Anguilla battered and facing a heartbreaking loss of life and property. Now, as 2018 comes to a close, all of these destinations are continuing to pick up the pieces, especially when it comes to tourism infrastructure. In all of these destinations, rebuilding has meant improving structures and in some cases, completely starting over. Cruise ports across these islands have been active for months, and dozens of resorts are reopening in time for the January travel rush. Here are just a few smart luxury reopenings that offer excellent value:
- The orange-roofed Divi Little Bay, which sits on its own peninsula on the Dutch side of St. Martin, re-opened in December after months of rebuilding. Prices range from $189 to $249 per night based on the season. Right behind it is the significantly souped-up Sonesta Maho Beach Resort and Spa, also in St. Martin, in February. Right now, the hotel is offering discounted rates as part of its re-opening promotion. Prices here range from $218 to $302 per night, depending on the season.
- The luxury Belmond Cap Juluca on the island of Anguilla reopened in December, and rates start at $1,600 per night.
- Cooper Island Beach Club in the British Virgin Islands, a favorite among private boaters and overnight island guests alike, is now reopened. The hotel has 10 beachfront guest rooms, and prices vary from $235 to $290 per night depending on the season.
- The glamorous Eden Rock on St. Bart’s, which was all but destroyed in Hurricane Irma, is slated for a 2019 reopening.
- The Dorado Beach Resort, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve, reopened in October. Rates start at $1,575 per night.
Memphis, TN/Sean Pavone/iStock
If you recommended Memphis as a travel destination fifteen or even ten years ago, you might have gotten some skeptical looks (or even a question about Graceland, the area’s most well-known attraction). But a new energy is humming in this southern city, all while it retains the things that made it great in the first place — a deep-rooted sense of history, live music everywhere, and startlingly good restaurants that go way beyond barbecue (though, that's great, too). Whether it’s impeccably prepared Italian at Catherine and Mary’s, or themed cocktails in the plush upstairs speakeasy Dodici, or just the classic brisket at Central Barbecue, eating and drinking here is its own transportive experience, and for far less than in Nashville or New Orleans. A spate of hotels, too, are newly opened or gearing up to open, led by the boutique Hotel Napoleon (rates start at $170 per night) which is situated in a historic building that dates back to 1902. Next up is a candy-colored Hotel Indigo (from $146), which is opening in January, and The Central Station, which Hilton is developing in Memphis’ historic train station. All of these are situated close to Beale Street, but the latter is next to another storied local attraction: Ernestine and Hazel’s, a classic dive bar among dive bars, complete with memorabilia from the days when Ray Charles and B.B. King were invited to the after-party. There are also several resident ghosts.
If seeing the pyramids, sailing down the Nile, or walking through the Valley of the Kings has ever been on your must-visit list, now might be the time to cross it off. With travel to the country beginning to normalize after years of political and security issues, tour groups in particular are venturing back to popular tourist areas. What will they find? Smaller crowds and more affordable prices. (The U.S. State Department ranks travel to Egypt at a 2 on its Advisory Scale, indicating that visitors should exercise caution in planning a trip.) Traveling with a group tour guarantees that you’ll stay on a well-beaten path and also lets you steer clear of language and cultural barriers. Gate 1 Travel's five-night tour (including flights from the U.S.) costs just $1,200 per person, and Indus’ 10-night tour starts at $1,699 per person (which includes 18 meals, a three-night cruise, and flights within Egypt).
With the perfect combination of sprawling metropolises and idyllic island escapes, South Korea is a distinguished destination that will save money compared to pricier countries in Asia such as Singapore or Japan. Plus, now that there’s peace between the the two Koreas, there’s no better time to explore South Korea than now. In the middle of metropolitan Seoul, get lost on the grounds of palaces that date back to the 14th century — all from $3 USD in entry fees. Also, be sure to take in the breathtaking views from N Seoul Tower for around $9 USD. Dig into meals with endless banchan (the collective name for small side dishes that accompany a Korean meal) for less than $10 USD. Besides Seoul, the nation is teeming with other enchanting locales. While on your trip, we recommend making a stop in Jeju Island, where you’ll find gorgeous waterfalls, picturesque mountain trails, serene beaches, and more. Flights from Seoul to Jeju Island will cost you no more than $50 USD roundtrip, making it the ideal change of pace after long days exploring the hustle and bustle of Seoul.
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
San Miguel de Allende/bpperry/iStock
We're thankful that one of Mexico's best kept secrets still feels like a secret (despite garnering a myriad of recent accolades, including being named an American Capital of Culture for 2019). Although it's tucked away in the country’s central highlands, San Miguel de Allende has made it onto the international tourist radar, while also remaining refreshingly untouched, authentic, and affordable. Accommodation and dining options offer both incredible value and local flavor, and there’s plenty of great things to do entirely for free. Although traveling to the city and its UNESCO-designated historic center is a bit of a trek (the nearest airport, Querétaro Intercontinental, is an hour and 15 minute drive away), it's becoming easier to reach, with new direct flights to León’s Del Bajío International Airport from Chicago, Sacramento, and San Jose. Particularly cheap flights (from $115, each-way) are available on the latter two routes, thanks to Volaris, a budget-friendly airline. To add to the excitement, a five-star Live Aqua Urban Resort just debuted in the city this autumn, with rates starting around $380.