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5 affordable alternatives to lavish vacation destinations
Why splurge when you can save?
 
Greetings from Chicago!
Greetings from Chicago! (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

We seem to be living in an era of high-low.

A-list actors who once starred only in Oscar-worthy films now have no compunction making appearances on pulp TV shows. Celebrity chefs oversee both fine dining establishments and fleets of food trucks that serve up more affordable street fare. Even couture fashion houses regularly design collections for the likes of Target and Kohl's.

And the world of travel is no exception. For every swanky vacation, there's an equally fabulous but less pricey counterpart — whether you just want to unwind on the beach or crave a more adventurous getaway.

"You can experience a great vacation in many locales," explains luxury travel expert Vikram Seshadri of New York–based Protravel International. "It just depends on your budget and what you consider relaxing."

So we presented Seshadri, who has spent nearly 15 years working with high-end properties, with a challenge: round up his top picks for comparable high- and low-priced destinations for five different types of trips, from memorable family getaways to the best off-the-grid escapes.

Best secluded beach retreats

The splurge destination: Hamilton Island, Whitsundays, Queensland, Australia
When to go: April to September, when the weather is mild to warm
Sample economy airfare: $2,400 from Los Angeles to Hamilton Island
The allure: If the impossibly turquoise waters, white sands, and lush greenery aren't enticing enough, perhaps the diving, snorkeling, sailing, whale watching, and wildlife spotting — koalas, wallabies, and dingoes, oh my! — will lure you in.

Seshadri says the best time to visit is when it's summer in the U.S., which is Australia's winter — and when the weather in Queensland is most ideal. In August you can catch Audi Hamilton Island Race Week, one of Australia's biggest regattas. Another great draw? Hamilton Island is the only Great Barrier Reef island with its own big commercial airport, so there are direct flights from hubs like Sydney and Melbourne.

For an unforgettable hotel stay, try the splurge-worthy Qualia, on the northernmost tip (from $995 per night). It's the most upscale resort in the area — the property was ranked best in the world by Condé Nast Traveler in 2013. With its 60 private, beachfront pavilions, this is heaven on earth.

The budget-friendly alternative: Peninsula Papagayo, Costa Rica
When to go: January to April (peak season), when you're likely to get the most sun
Sample economy airfare: $692 from New York City to Liberia
The allure: Located on the country's north Pacific coast, the Peninsula Papagayo offers a good balance of resort life and pristine nature — at affordable prices. Plus, "a brand-new, first-class international airport and a bevy of new hotel openings has made the peninsula much more accessible," Seshadri says.

That said, 70 percent of the peninsula must legally remain untouched, so overdevelopment isn't an issue. Beaches are unspoiled, and the region's tropical dry forests are home to over 400 species of animals, which you can explore via zip lines and canopy tours. Water activities range from windsurfing to kayaking, and you can catch some major waves at Ollie's Point at the Santa Elena Peninsula.

Hotel rooms are often open-air and nestled in nature — and reasonably priced. A couple of new properties to consider: the Andaz Papagayo ($350 per night for a standard room) and the Hilton Papagayo ($278 per night for a room with a king bed).


(Facebook.com/Hilton Papagayo Costa Rica Resort and Spa)

Best family trips

The splurge destination: Kauai, Hawaii
When to go: Mid-April to mid-June or September to mid-December, when the weather is good but it's less crowded.
Sample economy airfare: $950 from Seattle to Lihue
The allure: Seshadri's splurge pick is dubbed "The Garden Island" because the landscape is lush and green, with rolling hills of taro fields, seaside cliffs, tropical rainforest, and waterfalls.

But what really makes it great for families is the abundance of group activities, including kayaking, hiking, golf, exploring small towns (like art-focused Hanapepe), and feasting at luaus. Kids may especially enjoy riding the Kauai Plantation Railway at the Kilohana Estate or climbing the wooden playground at Lydgate State Park.

The beaches — like famed spot Hanalei Bay — are considered some of the most idyllic in the world. And resorts like the 9,000-acre St. Regis Princeville offer upscale service without stuffiness. An ocean-view suite can start from $900 per night, but you can save by booking a family vacation package starting at $650 per person, per night.

The budget-friendly alternative: Miami
When to go: March to May, when the barometer stays within the 70- to 80-degree range, right before hurricane season hits.
Sample economy airfare: $385 from New York City to Miami
The allure: Miami may be known for its spicy nightlife (something parents with a babysitter may appreciate!), but with tons of beaches, beach-worthy temperatures year-round, and an abundance of resorts — like the family-friendly Loews Miami Beach Hotel ($285 per night) — South Florida is a perfect getaway for parents traveling with kids of all ages, says Seshadri.

Aside from the obvious activities (jumping in the pool, paddle surfing in the ocean, or just lying under an umbrella with a good book), families have an array of fun outings to choose from, including the Everglades Animal Farm, Zoo Miami, or the 30-acre Monkey Jungle reserve.

Best foodie getaways

The splurge destination: Barcelona, Spain
When to go: May to June and September to October, when the weather is the mildest and sunniest
Sample economy airfare: $1,200 from New York City to Barcelona
The allure: Catalan food is incredibly eclectic and communal — every meal is a social event, which is what makes it Seshadri's splurge pick. Regional specialties include Serrano ham and paellas made of seafood and botifarres, locally made sausages. To sample some of these goodies, check out the famous La Boqueria food market. Barcelona-bred chefs, like the Adrià brothers, owners of the famed El Bulli restaurant, are also whipping up some of the most innovative dishes in the culinary world that are paired with some of the best wines, to boot. Would you expect any less from the region that brought you cava?

Add lauded architecture (Gaudi, anyone?), high-end properties like the Hotel Arts (from $370 per night), museums, and festive nightlife — and you've got enough to keep you busy in between meals.

The budget-friendly alternative: Bangkok, Thailand
When to go: November to February, when there's less rain and humidity.
Sample airfare: $1,100 from Los Angeles to Bangkok
The allure: "Thailand is über-cheap, and Bangkok is the epicenter of the nation," says Seshadri. This means that hotels are simultaneously luxurious and affordable — like the Sofitel So Bangkok (from just $150 per night!) — and meals won't pinch your wallet, either.

In this foodie mecca, travelers can sample all types of Thai cuisine — from the traditional to the reinvented, hawker stalls to five-star eateries — as well as some of the best international restaurants. One don't-miss food experience? The world's highest open-air restaurant, the Greco-Roman-style Sirocco, which is as known for its breathtaking views (63 floors up!) as it is for its Mediterranean food and signature Hangovertini, a green-tea-liquor-based cocktail.

In between meals, check out other unique local activities, like the ancient Wat Pho temple, khlong rides down the river, and the Nang Loeng market, which also provides ample opportunity for capturing the local flavor.


(Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

Best urban adventures

The splurge destination: Hong Kong
When to go: Hong Kong is a popular year-round destination, but late September to early December is ideal for visiting, when the humidity drops — just be aware that you could still experience a typhoon or two!
Sample economy airfare: $1,250 from San Francisco to Hong Kong
The allure: "Exploring this urban jungle is one of the most exhilarating experiences a city enthusiast can have," Seshadri says. Hong Kong continues to grow vertically at a fast clip to accommodate its ever-increasing population of locals and expats, creating an architectural wonderland of skyscrapers and breathtaking views.

Hong Kong is jam-packed with Michelin-starred restaurants and luxury shopping malls, so visitors can spend countless days wandering this metropolis and still not see it all. Spend a day antiquing on Cat Street, visiting Man Mo Temple, or browsing galleries on Tai Ping Shan Street before stopping for lunch at a café in the trendy hidden neighborhood of PoHo. Then call it a night at the architecturally stunning Peninsula Hong Kong ($900 per night).

The budget-friendly alternative: Chicago
When to go: April to May or September to October, before it gets too hot or too cold.
Sample economy airfare: $250 from New York City to Chicago Midway
The allure: Yes, it's a little gusty, but that may be a small trade-off for access to the Windy City's world-renowned art, architecture, and food scenes (think farm-to-table, tons of bacon, and craft beer). "There's good food everywhere you turn, and beautifully restored neighborhoods where you can walk for hours on end," Seshadri says.

Areas like Wicker Park and Bucktown are perfect for exploring on foot, and the state-of-the-art Millennium Park is a great place to catch concerts and view public art.

Theater enthusiasts shouldn't pass up a show at the Steppenwolf Theatre, and for improv and comedy there's no more storied place than Second City, which has birthed famed performers like Bill Murray, Tina Fey, and Steve Carell, to name a few. And history buffs, here's a challenge: See if you can nab Al Capone's favorite booth at the well-known jazz and poetry-slam cocktail lounge, The Green Mill.

Finding cool places to lay your head also shouldn't be a problem: A slew of new spots from the Godfrey Hotel to the upcoming Soho House Chicago are part of the myriad options. Another great stay is the Allegro, which runs just $200 per night.

Best off-the-grid escapes

The splurge destination: Reykjavik, Iceland
When to go: Mid-June through August is the peak season, but if you visit between September and March, you can glimpse the Aurora Borealis.
Sample economy airfare: $1,300 from Boston to Reykjavik
The allure: "Iceland is a remote, eco-adventure haven," Seshadri says. In the summer, there are around 18 hours of sunlight a day and mild temperatures. In the winter, you can snowmobile, backcountry ski, or hike across glaciers — and the weather is milder than you would think.

Even though Reykjavik is an urban city, it's very nature-focused, so you can spend your days exploring all sorts of unique terrain — like diving into the Silfra Tectonic Fissure or traversing Landmannalaugar's lava fields and colorful mountains. For slumber, you can retire to a cozy spot like the 1010 Hotel Reykjavik (from $550 per night) — and spend your evenings sampling such classic Nordic cuisine as salted cod and smoked lamb, washed down with local beers like Einstok Pale Ale.

The budget-friendly alternative: Tulum, Mexico
When to go: Mid-December to April is the peak season, but October to early December, right after hurricane season, still offers good weather and lower prices,
Sample economy airfare: $500 from New York City to Cancun
The allure: Tulum is best known for its pre-Columbian Mayan ruins, but it's also home to the Sian Ka'an biosphere reserve, which attracts adventurers and eco-travelers to this lesser known Mexican enclave for snorkeling, hiking, kiteboarding, and more.

Affordable thatched beach bungalows abound along Tulum's turquoise coast, like the Design Hotels, Papaya Playa Project, comprised of 80 open-air cabanas that line the beach (from $105 per night). The hotel is a member of the Rain Forest Alliance, which works to conserve biodiversity and ensure environmental sustainability. "This is truly an experience that's as off the grid as possible," Seshadri says.

This story was originally published on LearnVest. LearnVest is a program for your money. Read their stories and use their tools at LearnVest.com.

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