Nine bucket list trips on a budget, from US city breaks to alternative safaris

Next year is set to be a bumper one for travel. Passenger traffic across the continent stood at just 1.7 per cent below pre-pandemic levels in October, according to recent data published by Airports Council International Europe, while Heathrow had almost seven million passengers in the same month (making it the fourth-busiest airport in the world for international travel).

The World Tourism Organisation estimates that 2023 will end with international travel at almost 90 per cent of peak 2019 levels. UK travel agency Barrhead Travel anticipates closing 2023 as its best ever trading year.

British travellers are not limiting themselves to short-haul trips. Tour operators report that customers are spending on extended long-haul holidays despite the cost of living crisis and high interest rates.

Hazel McGuire, Intrepid Travel’s general manager for UK and Ireland, tells i: “Our top-booked trips this year include Vietnam Express Southbound, Explore Jordan and Classic Costa Rica – itineraries that involve those [once-in-a-lifetime] experiences, such as Petra or sailing through Ha Long Bay.”

Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay (Photo: Digitaler Lumpensammler/Getty)

Other travel companies have experienced a similar trend. Brian Young, managing director Europe, Middle East and Africa at G Adventures, says: “We’re still seeing a lot of travellers checking off those big ‘bucket list’ trips, with many still making up for lost time [from during the pandemic].”

Peru, Thailand and India are among the destinations for which G Adventures reports strong interest.

For those who want to try some of the world’s most coveted travel experiences while keeping costs low, here we suggest how to stick to a budget – from tips for reducing costs in classic dream destinations to the alternatives that offer a similar feel, for less.

The ultimate city break

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New York City’s High Line (Photo: Alexander Spatari/Getty)

Nothing beats New York for the superlative city break experience. World class institutions (such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art and Guggenheim), trend-setting, multicultural culinary credentials, an ever-evolving skyline and an influential cultural scene that includes theatre, comedy and music all add to its appeal. Yet a trip to the city can seem out of reach for many Britons due to the price of accommodation, dining out and entertainment – not to mention transatlantic air fares.

In December, New York was named the third-most expensive city in the world in which to live, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Worldwide Cost of Living report. These expenses also have an impact on tourists – the cost of a night in a four-star hotel in the first week of December increased by almost 14 per cent between 2022 and 2023, according to hospitality data specialists Lighthouse, for example – but there are ways to dodge the most exorbitant costs.

Your holiday money won’t stretch as far as it once did: you would have got around $1.56 for every £1 in 2013, now, the exchange rate has fallen to $1.27. However, you can avoid the sales tax when clothes shopping in New York if you choose clothing or footwear that costs less than $110 (£87).

Hotels are typically cheapest from the start of January to mid-March, the months in which the city tends to be coldest. Lighthouse data shows that the average price for a double in the fourth week of January was £110 less than in the last week of August. The month-long NYC Hotel Week, from 3 January to 4 February, brings discounts of up to 24 per cent at participating hotels, from the luxury to the mid-range.

There are deals available over summer, too. i found a double room at The Bogart by LuxUrban in East Williamsburg-Bushwick, Brooklyn for £104 a night in August, for example. The property is minutes from the L train into central Manhattan and popular pizzeria, Roberta’s.

Alternatively, Long Island City in the borough of Queens, directly across the East River from Manhattan, offers skyline views, buzzy restaurants and breweries. It is also home to bigger, cheaper hotel rooms than on Manhattan Island – a spot search unearthed a double room at Boro Hotel, a four-star, for £135 in August.

To see New York from a different angle, take a stroll along the High Line, a 1.45-mile former railway track packed with plants, trees and views of the West Side. Free tours are run by volunteers.

Other free things to do include a trip on the Staten Island ferry between Lower Manhattan and Staten Island, taking in Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty and the city’s skyline; summer kayaking on the Hudson River; and a day on Coney Island beach. Those who wish to visit ticketed tourist favourites could opt for combined entry to several attractions. Options include The City Pass, The New York Sightseeing Pass, Go City New York, The New York Pass and NYC Borough Pass.

Safari holiday

Two giraffes in Serengeti.
Go giraffe-spotting in Senegal (Photo: David Lazar/Getty)

If a safari is on your wish list for 2024, but your budget is tight, consider swapping Tanzania or South Africa for The Gambia or Senegal. At Senegal’s Fathala Wildlife Reserve, you can spot rhinoceros, giraffe, zebra, warthog, crocodile and the endangered giant eland. Or take a cruise on the Gambia River and you might see hippopotamuses, crocodiles and an abundance of colourful birdlife.

i found seven nights in The Gambia, including return flights, from around £1,200pp in May. It is an opportune time to visit, with fewer tourists than in peak season, but before the start of the annual heavy rain.

Or you could enjoy 13 days on a Senegal Wildlife Holiday from around £3,000pp, without international flights. For comparison, nine days on a Tanzania safari can cost around £6,000, with accommodation and international flights.

If watching the great migration in Serengeti National Park or seeing the big five in Kruger National Park is your dream, it is still possible to economise.

A huge African Elephant crossing the plains of the Serengeti against a lone Acacia tree and two safari vehicles in the background.
An African elephant crossing the plains of the Serengeti (Photo: Vicki Jauron, Babylon and Beyond/Getty)

The average cost of Newmarket Holidays’ South Africa safari packages in low season (Jan-Apr) is £906 less per person compared with the same package in the firm’s high season (the UK summer holidays). These prices are on a full-board basis, with flights.

Indeed, to safari on a budget, timing is everything, according to Alex Bentley, head of product at tour operator Audley Travel. He tells i that clients travelling next year are increasingly booking popular destinations and experiences in the off season, when they can take advantage of lower prices and better availability.

He adds: “Booking a safari trip in this way can mean better rates in hotels and fewer people travelling at the same time – it also gives the experience of seeing wildlife in the green season, when the rain will mean the plains will be lush, with animals drinking at water sources.”

Santa’s Lapland

Reindeer at the Santa Claus village in Lapland (Photo: Elena Liseykina/Getty)

Regardless of age, a trip to Santa’s Lapland retains a pull on the imagination. Lapland is the most sought-after Christmas destination among adults, with one in three surveyed wanting to visit in the festive season, according to recent research by John Lewis Travel Money.

Rather than selecting an expensive package, which can work out at around £1,000pp for three or four nights, book flights, accommodation and activities separately. Fly to Helsinki and take the overnight Polar Express train (children under 10 go free) to Rovaniemi on the Arctic Circle, home to Santa’s Village (free, though some activities come with a fee) and residence of the big man himself.

A basic room for four at Hostel Tikka in central Rovaniemi costs £257 for three nights, rising to £428 for a week.

Alternatively, opt for a skiing trip to Ylläs in northern Finland next January. Seven nights’ self-catering with Inghams costs from £639pp with reindeer, snow-shoeing and husky excursions. Ski passes start from £45pp a day.

Northern Lights

Aurora Borealis over Northumberland.
Aurora Borealis over Northumberland (Photo: Lakeland-Photos/Nathan Atkinson/Getty)

Seeing the Northern Lights was rated the top travel bucket list experience in research from the Post Office. In the new year, take advantage of the solar maximum (the period of greatest solar activity during the sun’s 11-year solar cycle, the next beginning in 2024) and spot the lights from the UK. According to scientists, the next 10 months are set to bring the best displays of the aurora borealis in lower polar regions and further south in Europe. There were sightings as far south as Cornwall in September.

Dark-sky regions are some of the best spots for aurora displays. In the UK, designated areas include Scotland’s Galloway Forest Park and Moffat, Northumberland’s Kielder Water and Forest Park, and the North York Moors and Yorkshire Dales. The Dales are the backdrop for 2024’s Dark Skies Festival (9-25 February), which will include stargazing with astronomers, night photography, after-dark cycling, hikes, yoga and music.

Alternatively, head to Kielder Waterside for pet-friendly cabins with heated floors, hot tubs, saunas and dark skies from £599 based on four sharing for a week. Activities include mountain biking, hiking and fishing. By way of comparison, a seven-night aurora-hunting trip in Norway starts from around £2,350pp, excluding flights.

Orient Express

The storied train is set to return as the Orient Express La Dolce Vita in 2024, more than 150 years after the original was launched. Most trips will start in Italy, with some itineraries set to cover eight countries, linking Rome to Paris, Istanbul and Split. The opulent, refurbished original cabins will take style cues from the 60s and 70s. However, with a single night starting at around £2,000pp, it will be beyond the budget of many.

How about another rail journey to Istanbul – the atmospheric capital that concluded the original route from Paris? Options include the romance of a sleeper route, such as the Bosphorus Express night train from Bucharest. The journey costs from €18.48 (£16) for a second-class ticket, plus a €15 (£13) supplement for a bed in a two-bed sleeper.

BUCHAREST, ROMANIA - Church of Saint Nicholas at downtown (old town) of city of Bucharest, Romania.
Bucharest’s Old Town in Romania (Photo: Michael Blanki/Getty)

Bucharest’s old town, which dates to the 16th century, is filled with cafes and restaurants. A mid-range, three-course meal for two costs around £39, according to cost of living comparison site Numbeo – almost half the cost of London.

By taking the night train, you can pair Bucharest with a city break in Istanbul, where an itinerary might feature a lunch of fresh seafood by the Bosphorus, wandering the Grand Bazaar and a visit to the Hagia Sophia. Visitors might also venture to Maiden’s Tower. Stationed on an islet in the strait, its history dates to the Byzantine era, and it reopened this spring after two years of restoration.

Hotel stays are cost-effective at either end of the rail journey. The average price of a night at a three-or-four star hotel is £98 in Bucharest and £115 in Istanbul, according to Lighthouse.

Greek islands

Greece. Tinos island of art, Cycladic architecture at Pyrgos village, bougainvillea on whitewashed wall, blue door and windows, sunny day.
Pyrgos village in Tinos, Greece (Photo: Rawf8/Getty)

The sunset view over the caldera in Santorini is a classic picture postcard, but, in person, the site can be sullied by smartphone-wielding crowds that push up prices on the island. Around two million people added to its 15,500 residents in 2019. Mykonos’s windmills are another photographer’s favourite.

Given Santorini and Mykonos can each receive a similar number of tourist arrivals each year, think about enjoying similar views on the quieter streets of Tinos. It is accessible by ferry from both Athens and Mykonos. Departures from Athens to Tinos operate year-round, take between two and three and a half hours and cost from £30 one way. Mykonos to Tinos ferries also run throughout the year, with the journey taking 20 to 30 minutes and costing from £8.60 one way.

Expect whitewashed towns (Pyrgos, Panormos, Tinos Town), laid back beaches (Santa Margarita, Kavalourko, Agios Ioannis Porto, Kolimvithra), fresh seafood (try Maistros in Panormos) and a languorous pace of life.

Vincenzo Family Rooms in Tinos Town is available from just £89 in June on a B&B basis. Compare this to the average price of a three-or-four star hotel room in Santorini, which, in summer, is £407, according to Lighthouse.

Maldives escape

The Maldives is home to clear, turquoise waters (Photo: Stuart Westmorland/Getty)

The Maldives tops the list of the world’s most popular travel bucket list experiences, according to a study this year by Kuoni. The archipelago can be costly for visitors, but it is possible to experience its clear sea, sunsets and marine life for less.

Skip the all-inclusive resorts and head to a guesthouse, such as Tides Dhigurah on the island of Dhigurah, home to white-sand beaches and whale sharks year-round; i found rooms from £81 B&B, based on two sharing. The peak season cost of a night in a typical mid-range resort island, meanwhile, is around £500-600, according to a spot check by i – and that is unlikely to include all meals and activities.

Visit during the low season (May to September), when prices plummet. Humidity means the temperature remains warm, while rain clouds are prone to blowing over reasonably quickly due to the islands’ low elevation.

A stopover in India, from where there are low-cost flights to the Maldives capital of Malé, could further reduce costs. The starting price for return London to Malé flights next July is around £1,000, whereas return flights from London to Mumbai, plus return flights from Mumbai to Malé are around £700 in total during the same month. You could also factor in time in one of India’s most cosmopolitan cities at the start or end of your trip.

Australian adventure

Mrs Macquarie's Chair, Sydney, NSW Sydney New South Wales Australia Picture supplied by Mike Swain
Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, Sydney (Photo: Hugh Stewart)

Australia topped Flight Centre’s list of its most popular destinations in 2023, as many people travelled back to see friends and family. They are set to be joined by an increasing number of holidaymakers in 2024, particularly when stubbornly high air fares begin to fall.

Most British travellers would want to spend at least a fortnight in the country, given the almost 23-hour direct flight time between London and Sydney. A two-week package holiday starts from around £2,500pp, including flights. However, if you wish to travel independently, and you are prepared for a stopover or two, you could save on travel costs. i found return flights from London to Sydney in high season (January and February) for £743 with China Southern Airlines.

Soaking up the sun and splashing in the surf on one of the city’s 100-plus beaches is a free and fun way to enjoy Sydney. Travelling in low season (May to August) affords cheaper flights and accommodation, as does advance booking.

And you don’t have to spend to see the sights. Walk the picturesque 6km Coogee to Bondi coastal trail, enjoy a guided tour round the city’s botanic garden, visit the Museum of Contemporary Art, or gaze up at the Opera House and Harbour Bridge – all are free.

bondi to bronte walk Sydney New South Wales Australia Picture supplied by Mike Swain
Bondi to Bronte walk, Sydney (Photo: Ellenor Argyropoulos)

Visitors could add on a trip to the Blue Mountains, a 90-minute drive from Sydney or two hours by train. Here, there are around 87 miles of hiking track, ancient rock formations and opportunities to try abseiling, rock climbing and canyoning.

Cairns offers an option for a second centre, with a flight time of just under three hours from Sydney and return fares from around £130. The city is the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, with boat rides for snorkelling or diving trips taking between 45 and 90 minutes.

Other attractions include Cairns Botanic Gardens, swimming in waterfalls (try Josephine Falls) and hiking between Queensland’s highest peaks in Wooroonooran National Park, which is around half-an-hour’s drive south of Cairns city.

Antarctic voyage

Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina (
Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina (Photo: Javier Ghersi/Getty)

With a growing number of cruise lines and operators offering trips to the seventh continent, Antarctica has become more accessible to the average traveller.

And it is a popular addition to our bucket lists. Tour operator Polar Routes has seen its sales for Antarctica holidays grow by 47 per cent year on year between 2022 and 2023. Felipe Francisco, senior marketing manager at Polar Routes, says: “Travellers seeking new wildernesses, more experiential travel and a greater environmental awareness are perfectly catered for by an expedition cruise to the polar region.”

Chile, Patagonia. Tierra del Fuego, Darwin National Park, Beagle Channel, Pia Glacier, MR.
Pia Glacier, Tierra del Fuego (Photo: Sergio Pitamitz/Getty)

Antarctica is remote and unsuitable for independent travel as a tourist, so it is unsurprising that the price of a cruise can easily rise to five figures for a few days. But with the number of operators and departures growing to meet demand, prices are falling.

For now, a far cheaper icy voyage is on offer: a Patagonian sailing to the Pia Glacier (around the size of Chile’s capital, Santiago) and Glacier Alley, a series of five tidewater glaciers.

Polar Routes includes these sites in its Fjords of Tierra del Fuego expedition. This four-day trip incorporates glacier hiking, Zodiac trips to see elephant seals, penguins and dolphins up-close, and a Cape Horn landing (from £1,665pp).