The world’s big, exotic bucket-list destinations have surely earned their places on all the top travel rankings. Paris, London, Geneva, Miami. For jet setters checking cities off their must-see lists, the planet’s cultural epicenters are worth every penny — the problem is, you have to have a whole lot of pennies to enjoy them.
The good news is that each and every one of the world’s big draws has an equally satisfying doppelganger that’s achievable for people on reality-based budgets.
Visit Lyon Instead of Paris
- Daily Costs: About $88 less per person, per day
- Airfare: About $150 more
The third-largest city in France, Lyon offers a combination of urban culture and famous French romanticism that easily rivals Paris. Rather than the Louvre, take in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon for about half the price. And it won’t cost you anything to check out incredible cathedrals like the Basilique de Notre-Dame de Fourvière and the Basilique de Saint-Martin d’Ainay.
Lyon’s smaller airport variety makes it more expensive to get to than Paris, but you’ll more than make up the difference and then some with just two days’ worth of savings on lodging and expenses.
Visit Santa Barbara Instead of Napa Valley
- Daily Costs: About $100 less per person, per day
- Airfare: About $30 more
Napa Valley’s reputation as the original American Wine Country attracts nearly 4 million tourists a year– but you’ll save a lot of money if you’re not one of them. Instead of Northern California, head south to Santa Barbara, Calif., which offers a climate that’s just as perfect.
You’ll almost always find yourself a hop, skip and jump from the beach, and the Mission-style architecture gives Santa Barbara a local flavor that’s not quite present in Napa. But let’s talk wine: Santa Barbara County grows 50 different varieties of grapes and is home to more than 200 wineries. So, you can save money without cutting corners on the vino.
Visit Athens Instead of Rome
- Daily Costs: About $30 less per person, per day
- Airfare: About $190 more
You’ll have to spend the better part of a week in Athens for its affordable lodging and activities to make up for Rome’s cheaper airfare, but you’ll want as much time as possible in Greece. Though Rome tends to get top billing for Age of Antiquity, Athens doesn’t skimp on no- to low-cost attractions like the Acropolis, the Parthenon, Kerameikos, Erechtheion, the Temple of Poseidon and the Theatre of Dionysus. Take that, Colosseum.
Visit Chiang Mai Instead of Bangkok
- Daily Costs: About $23 less per person, per day
- Airfare: About $200 more, so you’ll only save on longer stays
Think of Chiang Mai, Thailand, as the chiller northern cousin of Bangkok. Though neither are cheap in terms of airfare, the day-to-day cost of visiting Chiang Mai is around half of what it is in Bangkok.
It might not have Bangkok’s nightlife, but Chiang Mai shares a penchant for open-air markets — like the Saturday Walking Street on Wua Lai Road — and ridiculously cheap, over-the-top tasty street food. Airfare is a bit more expensive, but every day you stay represents a discount of roughly 50%.
Visit San Jose Instead of Managua
- Daily Costs: About $12 more per person, per day
- Airfare: $327 less
Though Managua in Nicaragua and San Jose in Costa Rica are capital cities, neither are bank-breaking vacations. Although San Jose is the more expensive of the two, the city still costs the average traveler only about $56 per day to visit — and San Jose’s savings start at the beginning of your journey with substantially cheaper airfare. After two days, you’ll have saved more than $300 without any shortage of postcard selfies by the Caribbean Sea, the Pacific Ocean, and the rainforests of Central America.
Photo for illustrative purposes only.
Visit Warsaw Instead of London
- Daily Costs: About $86 less per person, per day
- Airfare: About $50 less
Think of a famously foggy, history-rich European city rife with museums and known for both its excellent walkability and public transportation options. London’s probably on your shortlist — but you’d be remiss to discount Warsaw, Poland, as the royal city’s equal.
Among a London-like mix of Gothic architecture and thriving modern cityscape, you’ll find Warsaw’s own Royal Castle, as well as museums that rival London’s selection. The Warsaw Rising Museum, the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews and the Neon Muzeum top the list.
Visit Hanoi Instead of Singapore
- Daily Costs: About $77 less per person, per day
- Airfare: About $870 less
Like Singapore, Hanoi in Vietnam boasts an eclectic mix of ancient temples, modern buildings and exquisitely cheap street food, and all at substantial savings — but airfare is what really settles this contest.
Singapore’s urban areas are a lot more modern and utopian-looking than Hanoi’s, but Vietnam’s capital is no slouch — there are more museums than you can count. Temples like Bach Ma and the Temple of Literature satisfy your needs for pagoda photo ops but don’t leave without spending barely anything on street foods like fried dumplings, snail soup and Vietnamese coffee.
Visit Abu Dhabi Instead of Dubai
- Daily Costs: About $67 less per person, per day
- Airfare: About $50 more
If the United Arab Emirates is on your travel bucket list, chances are you’re hankering to take in the opulence, modernity and luxury of Dubai. Unsurprisingly, though, all that sort of stuff comes at a rather high vacation cost. Here’s the secret to luxurious experiences without luxurious spending: UAE’s capital, Abu Dhabi.
Though it doesn’t get as much press, Abu Dhabi has nearly as many impressive travel hot spots as Dubai, including the fastest roller coaster in the world, the planet’s biggest “cluster of cultural buildings of the 21st century” (according to Lonely Planet) and the leaning-ist tower on Earth (sorry, Pisa). All that for a per-day savings of nearly $70.
Visit Zagreb Instead of Cape Town
- Daily Costs: About $25 less per person, per day
- Airfare: About $450 less
Cape Town, South Africa, is quickly climbing the ladder of the best exotic travel destinations, mostly thanks to its balance of cultural richness and striking landscapes. But for a lot less dough, Zagreb, Croatia, offers all the bustling art, music and gastronomy, as well as the natural attractions.
Cutting-edge galleries like the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art lend the perfect balance to the stunning greenery of Maksimir Park. And like Cape Town, Zagreb certainly doesn’t lack in the coastline department.
Visit St. Augustine Instead of Kingston
- Daily Costs: About $39 less per person, per day
- Airfare: About $385 less
Like Kingston, Jamaica, St. Augustine, Fla., is a tropical paradise that was formerly a European settlement. This lends both towns a similar laid-back vibe — and they both share an embarrassment of beaches.
The Florida town, however, costs about one-third of the money to fly to if you’re traveling from the mainland, and it offers many more family-friendly attractions, like numerous trolley rides, ghost-hunting tours for kids and themed attractions that offer value prices compared to the big hitters like Disney World and Universal Studios.
Visit Maribor Instead of Lucerne
- Daily Costs: About $92 less per person, per day
- Airfare: About $100 more, comparing Graz, Austria to Zurich
Instead of visiting Lucerne, Switzerland, travel to Maribor, Slovenia. In general, Slovenia makes for a great alternative to some of the more popular European destinations, but its often staggering airfare prices might scare folks away. Fly into nearby Graz, Austria, to cut back on that shell shock. Though ticket prices are still high, you’ll recoup most of your losses in one day because Switzerland is one of the most expensive countries in the world to visit.
But now that you know about Maribor, Slovenia, you don’t need to get a loan to experience that fairy-tale-like provincial charm or that world-famous skiing. In fact, Maribor hosts one of the largest ski resorts in Slovenia on the Pohorje mountain range, which features the longest night-skiing route in the country.
Visit Manila Instead of Honolulu
- Daily Costs: About $146 less per person, per day
- Airfare: About $150 more
The Philippines has a reputation for giving tourists a lot of bang for their buck, and that reputation is well-earned. The surf and the picturesque beaches are free, and both definitely stack up to the Hawaiian alternative.
What you might not know about is Manila’s burgeoning hipness. Cubao vibrates with vintage clothing stores, galleries and music venues, and the foodie scene — including craft beer and pour-over coffee — is off the charts.
Visit the Ozarks Instead of Denali
- Daily Costs: About $62 less per person, per day
- Airfare: About $410 less, comparing Fayetteville, Ark. and Fairbanks, Alaska
Alaska’s Denali National Park is viewed as something of a mecca for outdoorsy adventure in America, and no one can doubt its majesty. But look south — way south — to Ozark territory, and you’ll find some of the most underrated natural beauty in America. Fly by way of Fayetteville into Eureka Springs, Ark., and you’ll pay about three-fifths of what you would for that expensive Alaskan ticket. You’ll also find a quirky, New Age-y, progressive town that shows a whole different side of the South.
But let’s talk about that majesty. Fish, swim and boat down Table Rock Lake and Buffalo River, or hike and bike to your heart’s content at the Withrow Springs State Park and Buffalo River National Park. If you’d rather spelunk, Arkansas has you covered with more than 2,000 documented caves.
Visit Galway Instead of Dublin
- Daily Costs: About $22 less per person, per day
- Airfare: About $100 more, flying into Shannon
Two weeks in Galway, Ireland, rather than Dublin will save you more than $300 in daily expenses. Along the way, you’ll experience Dublin’s hipper, artsier, more Bohemian cousin, a colorful city that offers heaps of local crafts, street performers and theater among the characteristic pubs and pie shops. Famous for its walkability, Galway’s cobblestone streets are packed not with cars, but with students, locals, pubgoers, and visitors like you.
Visit Maldives Instead of Montego Bay
- Daily Costs: About $77 less per person, per day
- Airfare: About $500 more
As a more remote location, the South Asian island country of Maldives is naturally more expensive to reach than Jamaica. Put down the higher upfront costs, though, and you’ll recover them and start racking up major savings in less than a week, thanks to the hefty gap in daily expenses.
Both Montego Bay and the Maldives are known for white sandy beaches and strikingly blue ocean waters, but the Maldives packs another advantage that’s not related to price: It’s unspoiled. Sure, it’s rougher around the edges, but why not pay less for a more authentic experience, one where you can go swimming with whale sharks and ethereal ocean rays without having your newfound sea creature friends scared off by a thousand tourists?
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Andrew Lisa contributed to this article.
Daily cost estimates include accommodations, food, local transportation, entertainment, tours, communication, tips and other costs typically associated with travel.
All round-trip airfare prices are from Skyscanner’s least-expensive economy rates departing on July 25, 2022, and returning on August 1, 2022, via the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. All daily cost estimates are according to Budget Your Trip. All prices are subject to change. All currency conversions were made with Google Currency Converter.