The places on your bucket list likely aren’t cheap. Most are coveted because they are special and often not easy to get to. But travel expert Donna Heiderstadt says that with some savvy planning and bargain hunting, these dream trips don’t have to bust your budget. These six options, which could—and should—be on your bucket list, include tropical islands, culture-rich cities and whirlwind cruise adventures. Here are some affordable ways to experience them.
Antarctica, the seventh continent, is not owned by any individual country but instead is protected by the scientific research stations of dozens of nations. The spectacular landscape is the playground of multiple penguin species, and its frigid waters are home to humpback and minke whales as well as ethereal blue icebergs. Over the past decade, about a dozen luxury expedition ships, some equipped with fancy submersibles and helicopters, have been launched to take adventurous cruisers on guided itineraries to Antarctica. The price tag? Typically $10,000 per person and up.
Less expensive option: Several mainstream cruise lines now offer Antarctic sailings for a fraction of that price. From January to March, you can experience Antarctica on Celebrity (CelebrityCruises.com), Princess (PrincessCruises.com) and Holland America (HollandAmerica.com) for fares starting at $1,199 per person for an inside cabin. The catch? You don’t actually set foot in Antarctica. Instead, you enjoy several days of scenic cruising among the South Shetland Islands along the tail of the Antarctic Peninsula, as well as port calls in South American cities and even the Falkland Islands. If seeing Antarctica’s stunning landscape is enough to check this destination off your bucket list, scenic sailing could be the answer.
The island of Tahiti, gateway to the South Pacific nation of French Polynesia, epitomizes romantic travel, attracting honeymooners with its azure lagoons and iconic overwater bungalows. From the Tahitian capital, Papeete, couples ferry over to neighboring Moorea, known for its craggy emerald-green peaks and breathtaking bays…or fly to Bora Bora, famous for its surreal blue water and luxury resorts with overwater bungalows costing more than $1,000/night.
Less expensive option: Wholesale club Costco (Costco.com) offers its members affordable vacation packages to Tahiti. Example: The Manava Beach Resort & Spa–Moorea Package includes roundtrip airfare from Los Angeles to Papeete, Tahiti…catamaran transfer to neighboring Moorea…five nights in an overwater bungalow…and daily buffet breakfast—all starting at about $2,100 per person (deals to Bora Bora are a bit pricier, starting at about $4,000 per person). Feel like island-hopping? Consider a seven-night cruise from Papeete with Windstar
(WindstarCruises.com). You’ll visit Moorea, Bora Bora, Taha’a, Huahine and Raiatea, with fares starting at about $2,400 per person, excluding airfare.
The cultures of ancient and modern Egypt are well worth experiencing. From Cairo, home to the new Grand Egyptian Museum (set to open in late 2023 or early 2024) and the landmark Pyramids of Giza to the Red Sea coast dotted with beach resorts, Egypt offers exceptional experiences. Nile River cruising has become particularly popular, with visits to Luxor, Aswan and the Valley of the Kings allowing you to step back in time thousands of years—but often at a hefty cost of $5,300 per person or more.
Less expensive option: Tour Radar (TourRadar.com), an adventure booking platform that connects users with tour operators, lets you search for tours by length, departure date and tour type (private or group, guided or unguided) and by age range. Choose a 60+ package, and the site shows more than 180 options, many with excellent reviews that are priced around $1,000 per person (without airfare). There are also dozens of slightly pricier tours that include a four- or five-night Nile River cruise.
Do Paris, Rome and London top your must-see cities in Europe? Or maybe you’ve dreamed of visiting Prague, Berlin, Budapest or Vienna? While Europe isn’t a budget destination, there are ways to avoid overpaying to explore its top historic and cultural centers. With the right timing and a bit of research, you can easily check off one or more dream cities in neighboring European countries.
Less expensive option: Consider a group tour. You can find budget-friendly options at TourRadar.com and Costco.com, especially if you search for deals in the shoulder (early spring and late fall) and off seasons (winter). You can take a cheap Mediterranean or Northern Europe cruise from late fall to early spring. Prices start at less than $400 per person for seven nights on MSC Cruises (MSCCruisesUSA.com). Christmas Market river cruises in November and December are more expensive but offer a memorable way to visit several festive cities along the Danube and Rhine rivers in Hungary, Austria and Germany. Seven-night sailings start at around $2,500 per person on AmaWaterways (AmaWaterways.com), Avalon Waterways (AvalonWaterways.com) and Viking River Cruises (Viking.com).
If independent land-based travel is your style, book flights with low-cost carriers such as Norway-based Norse Atlantic (FlyNorse.com), Iceland-based Play (FlyPlay.com) and New York–based JetBlue (JetBlue.com), which now is flying nonstop to London, Paris and Amsterdam with roundtrip fares as low as $500 to $700. Then use Priceline.com and Booking.com to find highly rated budget properties, or join AARP (AARP.org) to get a 10% discount on dozens of hotel brands. You also can book affordable short-term rentals on Airbnb.com or VRBO.com.
An African safari, may seem out of reach, but safari camps come in all price ranges, so if you want the thrill of seeing lions, giraffes, elephants and other big game in the wild, it is possible. The animals you’ll see on a more modest budget are the same you would spot at pricey private game reserves that cost upward of $1,000 per person per night. All you sacrifice are the frills of a five-star stay.
Less expensive option: If you want to combine a three- or four-night safari experience with a city stay and perhaps some wine tasting, South Africa is a great choice. The exchange rate for the country’s currency, the rand, is quite favorable (recently around 20 rand to the dollar), and Kruger National Park is home to an array of camps. It’s possible to book affordable accommodations near Kruger and then hire a safari guide at a daily rate to help you spot wildlife. South Africa also has a number of budget safari lodges and tented camps in the $200-to-$300 per-person per-night range, searchable on Booking.com. Budget-priced safari package deals (starting around $2,500 per person) also are available in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Kenya. Prices vary with high and low season, so search for deals on Go2Africa.com, which works with more than 1,000 safari partners.
You can check off multiple destinations with a three-to-four-month world cruise that takes you to several cities on five or six continents. But many of these cruises—truly trips of a lifetime—are offered by premium and luxury cruise lines—with cruise fares that easily top $60,000 per person.
Less expensive option: Lately, more mainstream cruise lines are offering world cruises. While they aren’t cheap, these itineraries cost a lot less than their luxury counterparts. Examples: Sailing in January 2025, Princess Cruises (Princess.com) has a 116-night roundtrip world cruise from Los Angeles on the 2,200-guest Island Princess. It starts at less than $17,000 per person for an inside cabin (just $146 per person per night, including three meals daily). The 124-night Grand World Voyage on Holland America (HollandAmerica.com), sailing roundtrip from Fort Lauderdale in January 2025 aboard the 1,964-guest Zuiderdam, starts at about $25,000 per person and visits 32 countries with 10 overnight stays. Europe-based MSC Cruises has a 116-night world cruise sailing roundtrip from Rome (Civitavecchia) in January 2025 on the 2,518-guest MSC Magnifica—it visits 50 destinations in 21 countries and starts at around $17,200 per person.