Think dream trips to Machu Picchu and the Great Wall of China are financially out of your reach? Think again. We've got the inside scoop on these and other super-affordable bucket list items--like hot air ballooning in Albuquerque and taking a jeep safari ride through the buffalo herds in Custer State Park--that are great for every budget.
UNDER $100 (per person)
Hiking a volcano and walking on a dried lava field in Hawaii
Remember all those earth science classes you took about volcanoes and lava rocks? Visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to see the real thing in action. Not only will you get the chance to drive right up to the caldera--don't miss the Crater Rim Drive, an 11-mile road that passes through the various volcano landscapes from tropical rainforest to the desert-like crater itself, with scenic overlooks all along the way--there's also the opportunity to walk inside the Thurston Lava Tube, no longer an active part of the volcano, that allows you to walk 1/3 mile inside Kilauea where lava once flowed a few hundred years ago. Expect to pay $10 per vehicle that enters the park, or $5 per individual if you enter by foot, bicycle, or motorcycle. Don't forget to get a park map from staff on your way into the park, and stop by the Kilauea Visitor Center and Jaggar Museum to learn more about what you're viewing. Free camping and hiking opportunities are also available, as are park ranger-led walking tours, but be sure to check the website for updates on volcanic activity in the park before you head out. Always stick to the marked paths and never try to get closer to the lava, no matter how great you think your photo might turn out. You're still on an active volcano, after all.
About an hour's drive outside the park along Highway 130 in Puna is the entrance to Kalapana, a town that was completely covered by a 1990 lava flow. Miraculously, no one was injured and the town actually got together and hauled their church to a nearby town to escape the wrath of Hawaiian volcano goddess, Pele --you can still visit the Star of the Sea Painted Church today, now located along Highway 130 just before Kaimu Park. Park your car where the road ends (it's literally blocked by a wall of hardened lava), grab a sturdy pair of shoes, and go for a hike on the dried lava field. The hike can take anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours depending on how much of a hurry you're in, but it's best to tread lightly and slowly, as lava can be very sharp if you fall. The trail, which ends at a gorgeous black sand beach (swimming is not permitted due to the proximity to the active volcano, Kilauea) is open daily from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. Parking and hiking are free, thought the last car is allowed to park at 8 p.m., so plan accordingly and bring a flashlight if you plan to do the hike at night.
Zorbing in New Zealand
Americans first encountered zorbing--the art of rolling and bouncing down a hill while inside a giant, hamster-wheel-like plastic ball contraption--when teams competing on The Amazing Race a few years ago faced it on TV as one of their big challenges. An adrenaline junkie's dream come true, Zorbing has been popular since 1997 and is definitely one of those "only in New Zealand" types of experiences to write home about. You have two options: Zydro, a sort of water-ride version of the Zorb, and Zorbit, the dry version. Zorb Rotorua then offers four track options and eight ride variations--some strap in just one person, others up to three for a crazy head-over-heels trip down the half-mile track. Prices for one Zorb ride (either wet or dry) are $45 per person; pay $70 for two people to ride in the same globe; pay $90 for one person to ride three times.
Zip lining over alligators in St. Augustine, Fla.
While regular zip lining may already give you a heckuva rush, there's nothing quite like zip lining and completing an aerial obstacle course over a park full of crocodiles, alligators, and hundreds of other reptiles. At the St. Augustine Alligator Farm's Crocodile Crossing, located along Florida's northeast coast just outside the historic town of St. Augustine, you can do just that. Not to worry, everything is totally safe. (I have to admit I was a little skeptical myself when I tried this, but figured the bragging rights and bucket list story would be more than worth it in the end). You are trained by the experts before you go about how all the ropes and pulley systems work, and even get to do a small practice zip line before you set off on your adventure. Choose from the 45-minute long Sepik River Course that takes you 20 feet up and gives you three zip lines to go through, or the longer, higher, 90-minute Nile River Course, an aerial obstacle course 60 feet above the park that takes you through a total of nine zip lines. (The 45-minute course costs $30 per person while the 90-minute course costs $65 per person). Both courses are self-led, but there are trainers beneath you to come to the rescue should you get stuck or require assistance. Once my knees stopped shaking (I wasn't used to being so high up), I tried to concentrate on the view around me and not on the giant, toothy reptiles underfoot, and had a great time!
Driving among the buffalo in Custer State Park
Custer State Park is located just an hour's drive south of Mount Rushmore and is one of those places where reaching it is half the fun--there are plenty of twisting mountain roads, gorgeous views, and incredible wildlife encounters to keep you on your toes, and very few places on earth where you can actually get stuck in traffic because a herd of buffalo decided to cross the road, so keep those cameras handy! Once inside the park, opt to spend the night camping in the South Dakota wilderness or visit one of the Custer State Park Resorts-I stayed at The Game State Lodge, a beautiful historic property that once served as the "Summer White House" for President Coolidge in 1927 and was later visited by President Eisenhower in 1953. The best part: it's the launching point for Buffalo Safari Jeep Tours, a spectacularly intimate way to get up close and personal with the park's diverse wildlife--we drove right up to a grazing herd of bison, past fields of noisy prairie dogs, and ended the night with a traditional chuck wagon cookout. Admission to Custer State Park costs $4 per person per day, or pay $15 per vehicle for up to seven days. Children ages 11 and under get in free. Rooms at The Game State Lodge start at $115 a night. Adults pay $82 each-children ages 12 and under pay $62-for the Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour plus Chuck Wagon Cookout. Prices for just the Jeep Safari are $43 for adults, $36 for kids 12 and under. Prices for just the Chuck Wagon Cookout are $47 for adults and $37 for kids 12 and under.
UNDER $150 (per person, per day for packages)
Dog-sledding in Mont Tremblant, Canada
One of the best ways to really get out there and experience nature at its finest is by dog-sledding through the wide open wilderness of the Laurentians in Canada's Québec province, about a two-hour drive from Montréal. At outfitters like Pourvoirie Mekoos in Mont-Laurier, you'll get to meet the dogs before you ride along with (or drive) the dog-sledding team through the Canadian wilderness. You'll have a beautiful cabin-in-the-woods style cottage to stay in (or opt for a room within the main lodge), delicious home-cooked meals in the main lodge, and a wealth of activities to choose from no matter what season you're visiting in--choose from hunting, fishing, hiking, mountain biking, volleyball, bird watching, berry picking, and nature hikes during spring, summer, and fall, and snowshoeing, snowmobiling, ice fishing, and dog-sledding during the winter. If you can't make it out to the Canadian countryside, you can also try dog-sledding in the ski resort town of Tremblant, located about an hour and forty minutes from Montréal. Visit this website to view additional dog-sledding options in the Upper Laurentians region. Dog-sledding at Pourvoirie Mekoos costs $100 per person for a half-day adventure, and $200 per person for a full-day adventure. Two people are required per sled and both options include lunch. Their accommodation and meals package includes one night at the lodge or in a cottage, dinner, breakfast, and use of the spa and sauna for $120 per person per night. Dog-sledding prices at Tremblant start at $95 per person for a two-hour ride.
One of the most popular bucket list spots on everyone's list is Machu Picchu, the mystical land once ruled by the ancient Inca tribes of Peru. It's definitely one of those places where once you bite the bullet and pay for the airfare to get to Cuzco, the rest is super-affordable. Our friends at G Adventures have several guided trips to Machu Picchu--choose to take on the four-day Inca Trail hike or simply take the train to the top, it's up to you. G Adventures is actually giving Budget Travel readers a special 30 percent discount off one of their most popular tours, Absolute Peru, a 21-day adventure that takes you to Lima, Paracas, Nazca, Arequipa, Colce Canyon, Lake Titicaca, Puno, Cuzco, the Inca Trail, Machu Picchu, Ollantaytambo, and into the Amazon Jungle, from $2,309 per person (after the 30 percent discount off the original price of $3,299), including 13 nights' accommodations, several guided tours, six breakfasts, six lunches, six dinners, all transportation within the country, and all taxes and fees. Translation: you get a whole three-week Peruvian adventure (excluding international airfare) for about $110 per person per day. Must use promo code G13BT30A when booking the Absolute Peru tour with G Adventures. Book by Nov. 30, 2013, for travel by Dec. 31, 2014. Valid for new bookings only. Cannot be combined with any other offers, promotions or discounts and are subject to availability.
Visiting the Great Wall of China
Another must-do bucket list item is making a pilgrimage to the Great Wall of China. I know, you're thinking it's going to cost too much to go all the way there, right? Luckily, there are some really great travel deals, packages that include airfare, hotels, and guided trips to the Great Wall from Beijing--if you know where to look. China Spree has a package to Beijing from San Francisco, L.A., Houston, or New York City, starting at $888 per person for an eight-day trip including round-trip airfare, six nights' accommodations in a four-star hotel, an extensive sightseeing program including a guided day-trip to the Great Wall, most meals, and all taxes and fees. Another package by China Spree gives you airfare from the U.S., a total of seven nights' accommodations, many of the same tour perks as the Beijing trip (including the Great Wall day-trip), and tacks on tours and time in Shanghai, from $999 per person for a 9-day trip. The best part: no matter which one you choose, you'll only be spending about $111 per person per day, including airfare.
UNDER $200 (per person per day)
A hot air balloon ride in Albuquerque
Hot air ballooning is not just a fun bucket list item in Albuquerque--it's a way of life, and it's fairly affordable compared to hot air ballooning opportunities in other parts of the world. Rainbow Ryders operates out of Albuquerque and Phoenix, offering sunrise and sunset flights where you can watch the intricate process that takes place as the enormous balloon is inflated and set up by the team before taking off on your 3.5-hour epic adventure high above the city. A special treat the Albuquerque crew likes to do is called a "splash and dash," where the balloon is lowered onto the surface of the Rio Grande, briefly skims the surface, floats along the river, and dashes back up to the height it just came from. Hot air balloon rides in Albuquerque start from $159 for adults (they're currently running a fall special but rates are normally $195 per adult), $125 for teens ages 13-17, and $99 for children ages 5-12. Adults riding in Phoenix pay $149 as part of their fall special. If you'd rather watch from the sidelines, be sure to visit this part of New Mexico during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, a phenomenal festival held every year in early October that features thousands of colorful hot air balloons with participants from all over the world.
A scenic train ride through the Alaska wilderness
While an Alaska vacation may seem pretty far away both geographically and financially, the Alaska Railroad is trying to make it easier to turn that dream trip into a reality. Like many sought-after locations, it's a good idea to travel during the shoulder season, and in this case, that's during May and September, to make your trip more affordable and experience the destination when crowds and temperatures are more tolerable. Alaska Railroad offers a variety of vacation deals, but our favorite is the Just the Basics package, a five-day adventure available June thru September each year. Upon arrival in Anchorage, you'll spend the night in town, giving you a chance to explore the area, visit local sites like the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, or go for a scenic walk along the Tony Knowles Coastal trail. Next, you'll ride the rails of the Denali Star Train from Anchorage to Talkeetna and spend the night in rustic cabins surrounded by the spectacular Alaskan wilderness before continuing the next day to Denali. Spend a day checking out the wildlife and views of Denali National Park before returning to Anchorage later the next day. Adults pay $839 per person, and children pay $189 per person for the five-day, five-night package in September; packages June thru August start at $899 per adult and $219 per child. Packages do not include airfare and start at roughly $168 per person per day.
Snorkeling Australia's Great Barrier Reef
The world's largest coral reef definitely deserves a spot on our list. Keep an eye out for airline sales to Australia that usually happen during the shoulder seasons (remember, if it's fall up here, it's spring down under), and once you snag the perfect flight, the rest is easy thanks to a great travel package by G Adventures, East Coast Encompassed: Sydney to Cairns. This 17-day joyride up the eastern coast of Austraila includes a tour of the Hunter Valley winery with a wine tasting, a chance to pan for gold at a working mine, time to explore Yuraygir National Park and Byron Bay, a hippie surfer's paradise. You'll get to see Australia's Gold Coast, visit Brisbane and Fraser Island, snorkel the Great Barrier Reef, and spend a three days sailing around the scenic Whitsunday Islands before hopping a train to Cairns, and experiencing the rich culture of the Aboriginal people. Package is priced from $2,999 per person excluding airfare for a 17-day trip, breaking down to about $176 per person per day.
WORTH THE SPLURGE (less than $400 per person per day)
It's interesting to think that I wouldn't have been able to even write this last part a few years ago, but now travel to Cuba has become more accessible to Americans, and though it is at least right now a bit on the pricy side to visit this mysterious island, there are budget-friendly (and legal!) options out there that are definitely worth the splurge. While travel to Cuba is still greatly limited to American citizens--you must be part of a religious organization, educational group, or people-to-people guided tour for the most part--Friendly Planet Travel offers several packages that include chartered flights from Miami, all transfers and transportation within the country, accommodations, extensive cultural people-to-people experiences with the locals, guided tours, and best of all, all the visas and paperwork necessary to visit Cuba. Friendly Planet Travel's Colors of Cuba tour takes you through Havana, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Cojimar, and Santa Clara--a nine-day trip for from $3,099 per person, breaking down to about $344 per person per day. Friendly Planet Travel offers several other tours to Cuba. These two are within our budget guidedlines for the purposes of this story: Discover Havana, a six-day trip including airfare for from $2,299 per person, or $383 per person per day, and Highlights of Havana & Vanadero, a seven-day trip including airfare for from $2,499 per person, or $357 per person per day for a trip that was once nearly impossible for American citizens to make.