Affordable Alternates to Expensive Retreats | T+L Family
Published: April 2009
By Heather Smith MacIsaac
Affordable alternatives to the blockbuster getaway.
What traveling family doesn’t long to see Paris?Explore Africa on safari?Luxuriate on a dreamy Hawaiian island?But these trips require a boatload of cash, not to mention a raft of vacation days—you can’t get to Tanzania if you only have a weekend. Don’t let such constraints keep you grounded. Instead, conquer the world starting closer to your own doorstep. Here, our favorite substitutes for the classic big-ticket trips
Instead of an African Safari, a Californian Safari
No wonder giraffes look sleepy: they get by on about 20 minutes of shut-eye a day. And the oryx, a desert antelope, can survive for 10 months without a drink. Even more astonishing?You can pick up tidbits like these, while satisfying your gang’s Serengeti longings, with a stopgap trip to Santa Rosa, California’s Safari West (3115 Porter Creek Rd.; 707/ 579-2551; safariwest.com; safari, adults $62, kids $28; tents from $225). Tucked into the hills of Sonoma’s wine country, this privately owned wildlife preserve is devoted to research, breeding (check out the baby buffalo, cranes, and giraffes), and public interaction. On arrival, you’ll head out in a vintage jeep driven by one of the khaki-clad guides—some of them sporting bona fide South African accents. Your mission: to explore 400 acres of hilly, muddy savanna, home-away-from-home to some 400 exotic creatures. Look, there’s a zebra...and a stampede of wildebeests!
Expeditions last three hours, but for the full faux-Africa experience, stay on in one of 31 canvas tents, imported from KwaZulu-Natal and equipped with wood floors and full bathrooms. After a barbecue dinner on a veranda with a fire pit, tuck yourselves into zebra- and leopard-patterned sheets and doze off to the howling of the lemurs. Best souvenir: several new big-point words, including addax and gazelle, for your next Scrabble Jr. match.
Fossil Rim Wildlife Center (2155 County Rd. 2008, Glen Rose, Tex.; 254/897-2960; fossilrim.com; drives, adults $22, kids $16; tents from $200, including breakfast). Pilot your own vehicle around a central-Texas range where more than 50 species roam—and 100 cheetahs have been born since 1986. The seven tent-cabins are gathered around a watering hole that draws waterbuck and sandhill cranes.
San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park (15500 San Pasqual Valley Rd., Escondido, Calif.; 619/231-1515; sandiegozoo.org; adults $33, kids $22; caravan tours $90, ages 8 and up; overnights, adults from $109, kids from $89). Bump around this 1,800-acre sanctuary, an hour north of the zoo, by open-air truck. Overnight adventurers stay in windowed tents overlooking the East Africa Exhibit. Was that a roar out there?
East African Safari
Round-trip Flight from New York City: $1,500
Night for a Family of Four: $380
Round-trip Flight from New York City: $1,624
Night for a Family of Four: $275
Instead of the Orient-Express, All Aboard Amtrak’s Empire Builder
Amtrak will never be as glamorous as the Orient-Express, but the Rockies can stack up against the Alps any day. The Empire Builder (800/872-7245; amtrak.com; $779 for a family of four, including two nights in a sleeper car and meals), a Chicago-to-Portland or -Seattle route named for James J. Hill, who founded the Great Northern Railway, exposes travelers not only to the stirring peaks but also to the sheer breadth of the American landscape. The 46-hour journey unfolds as a string of astonishing snapshots: Chicago’s 1925 Union Station; the Great Plains; the snowy expanse of John Denver country; Washington’s eight-mile Cascade Tunnel, longest in the Western Hemisphere; and the giant snow cone that is Oregon’s Mount Hood.
Just before the final stretch, extend the experience with a layover in Glacier National Park, at the Izaak Walton Inn (406/888-5700; izaakwaltoninn.com; rooms for three from $165), in Essex, Montana. Built by the rail company in 1939 to house snow-removal workers, the lodge makes a great base for cross-country skiing.
Back on board, you and your crew can roam from sleeping compartment to dining car (which serves surprisingly tasty burgers and seared salmon, freshly prepared in the galley) to the Sightseer Lounge, with windowside swivel seats—IMAX will never top these panoramas. Along the way, the whole family can’t help but absorb a bit of geography, geology—and a Lewis-and-Clark sense of adventure.
The Canadian (888/842-7245; viarail.ca; Vancouver-to-Jasper leg, $1,946 for a family of four, including a night in a sleeper car and meals). This silver 1950’s classic runs across the country, from Vancouver to Toronto, three times a week. Jump aboard for the 17-hour leg between Vancouver and Jasper, when the train traverses the Canadian Rockies. You’ll stare out at 360-degree vistas of glacial lakes, alpine tundra, and caribou herds, your binoculars in one hand and a hot chocolate in the other.
Two-day trip for a family of four: from $11,320
A cocktail in the dining car: $17
Two-day trip for a family of four: from $779
A cocktail in the dining car: $5
Instead of Paris, Montreal, Mais Oui!
Take Paris, stir in some maple leaves, drop the temperature 10, 20—or 30—degrees, and you’ve got Montreal, one of the world’s largest French-speaking metropolises, complete with its own Notre-Dame and Latin Quarter, not to mention pâtisseries galore. Stroll the cobblestoned streets of Vieux Montréal and set off by horse-drawn sleigh through the 500 acres of Parc du Mont Royal (lemontroyal.qc.ca), the hill for which the city was named. The chill in the air is the perfect excuse for frequent pastry and chocolat chaud pitstops— locals swear by the palmiers from Olive et Gourmando (351 Rue St.-Paul Ouest; 514/350-1083) and the croissants and quiche across the street at Marché de la Villette (324 Rue St.-Paul Ouest; 514/807-8084).
Time your trip to coincide with the Fête des Neiges (fetedesneiges.com; Jan. 26–Feb. 10, 2008), Montreal’s annual winter festival, which camps in Parc Jean-Drapeau on Île Sainte- Hélène, for three weekends of ice sculpting, snow tubing (down 14 runs!), and dogsledding. Need to thaw out?Get lost underground—there’s a subterreanean world with 21 miles of walkways that connect metro stations, shops, and hockey arenas. Or make a beeline for the Insectarium (4581 Rue Sherbrooke Est; 514/872-1400; ville.montreal.qc.ca), a museum devoted to bugs, on the grounds of the Montreal Botanical Garden.
For dinner in this exceptional food city, have steak frites, served with a jar of cornichons, or a croque monsieur, at L’Express (3927 Rue St.-Denis; 514/845-5333; dinner for four $99). Or introduce your American-cheese fans to a menu of 60 fromages at Chez Gautier (3487 Ave. du Parc; 514/845-1245; dinner for four $74). Come bedtime, hang your hats in Vieux Montréal’s 31-room Auberge Bonaparte (447 Rue St.-François-Xavier; 514/844-1448; bonaparte.com; doubles from $169, including breakfast). Its balconies overlook the basilica of Notre-Dame, home to a 7,000-pipe organ (which trumpeted Celine Dion’s nuptials) and maybe even a hunchback.
Quebec City The oh-so-Gallic enclave is celebrating its 400th anniversary in 2008 with a year’s worth of events (see myquebec2008.com), including a show of 271 pieces on loan from the Louvre at the Musée National des Beaux-Arts. Take it all in from the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac (1 Rue des Carrieres; 418/692-3861; fairmont.com; doubles from $399), a castle hotel overlooking the St. Lawrence River.
Round-trip flight from Atlanta: $914
Average hotel room: $235
Typical bistro meal: $31
Round-trip flight from Atlanta: $538
Average hotel room: $110
Typical bistro meal: $18
Instead of skiing at Jackson Hole, cross the Grand Tetons to Grand Targhee
The bear went over the mountain to see what he could see. And all that he could see was snow—acres and acres of fluffy, dry, sparkling Western snow. Grand Targhee (Alta, Wyo.; 800/827-4433; grandtarghee.com; three-night ski-and-lodging package for four $688), a homey resort on the opposite side of the Tetons from happening Jackson Hole, gets little attention from travelers, but lots from Mother Nature: at least 500 inches of powder fall every winter.
That makes for exceptional back-country skiing and snowboarding, accessed via Sno-Cat. But this mom-and- pop place isn’t just for trailblazers: there’s the Eyeball Forest for beginners; two terrain parks; and plenty of runs unlikely to wreck anyone’s knees. Plus, Grand Targhee lets kids under 14 hit the slopes for free if their family is staying at one of the three base village lodges. Après-ski, there’s outdoor skating, sleigh rides, and bingo nights—plus the action in Jackson, just an hour’s drive away.
Badger Pass (209/372-4386; badgerpass.com; lift tickets, adults $38, kids $15). This classic ski area, California’s oldest, is located in Yosemite National Park. Stay trailside at Yosemite Lodge at the Falls (559/253-5635; yosemite park.com; doubles from $109), or 45 minutes away at the spectacular Ahwahnee Hotel (559/253-5635; yosemitepark.com; doubles from $439).Save a day for animal tracking in the giant sequoias.
Mountainside Lodging: from $420
Full-day lift tickets (adult/child): $79/$39
Day at kids’ ski school: from $130
Grand Targhee Resort
Mountainside Lodging: from $29
Full-day lift tickets (adult/child): $59/$36
Day at kids’ ski school: $85
Instead of a Hawaiian resort, a Hawaiian cruise
Welcome to the enticing land of the familiar (U.S. dollars), the exotic (black-sand beaches), the languorous (poolside napping!)—and the unavoidably expensive. Rather than settling in at a waterslide-stocked resort, or schlepping from island to island on your own, book a weeklong cruise with NCL America (866/234-7350; ncl.com; adults $679, kids $249), the sole company to offer Hawaii-only voyages. On an all-inclusive sail, you’ll shell out far less—and get to explore the four biggest islands (Oahu, Hawaii, Maui, and Kauai), without having to muster all the logistics yourself. Between biking outings in Volcanoes National Park and surfing lessons on Poipu Beach, you can hit the on-board spa, gym, and driving range—but you won’t get swallowed up by the casino, because there isn’t one. Meanwhile, your kids will be dashing off to the basketball court, hot tubs, Waikiki Beach Pool, and keiki-only smoothie bar. The ship glides right by Kauai’s stunning Na Pali Coast and its 1,000-foot corrugated cliffs (otherwise inaccessible except via an overnight hike). And no fireworks display quite compares to the nighttime drama of a torrid river of electric-red lava oozing down Hilo’s slopes until it disappears with a hiss! into the sea. The kids are likely to be so charged they might just fire off postcards to the grandparents—unless, of course, they’re already along for the ride.
St. Lucia For East Coasters, the island is a lot closer than Hawaii, and offers the dramatic twin peaks of the Pitons, a rain forest, and a drive-in volcano. Coconut Bay Beach Resort & Spa (cbayresort.com; family of four from $680, all-inclusive), on Savannes Bay, is loaded with family pools and water playgrounds.
Weeklong Trip: $5,000
Seven-day car rental: $209
Weeklong Trip: $2,300
Seven-day car rental: Not Provided
More ways to get out of town, without dipping into the college funds
You’ll score cheaper plane tickets if you blast off a day before school vacation starts and return several days before it ends.
Discover the off-season
Go to the Caribbean in summer, when it’s uncrowded and breezy and rates are deeply discounted because everyone else is migrating north.
Post your primary abode or vacation place on sites such as homeexchange.com, intervac-online.com, and digsville.com (for an annual fee of $100 or less). Then search your desired destination, chat with the owners, exchange keys, and go—for little more than the price of airfare. You’ll save thousands.
See Europe by boat
A cruise ship means food, lodging, and transportation bundled into one price—you’ll almost always pay less than you would if you booked everything piecemeal. Sign on with a major operator, such as Royal Caribbean International (royalcaribbean.com), and you’ll also save by paying in dollars rather than pricey euros.
Check out a second-tier city
Among our favorites: Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, and Little Rock. They pack in the culture, food, and history of major metros—with fewer crowds and lower price tags. Parking, anyone?
Forget boutique hotel, think boutique motel
Playful decorating and niceties such as kitchenettes make these roadside crash pads just right for families. Two we love: The Roxbury (607/326-7200; theroxburymotel.com; doubles $145), in New York’s Catskills, and the Farmer’s Daughter (323/937-3930; farmersdaughterhotel.com; doubles $209), in Los Angeles.
Trade downhill for cross-country
Say goodbye to $79 lift tickets and instead explore the woods for free. Or, at Nordic centers, glide across groomed trails for about $10 a day (rental equipment adds only a few dollars). Two cross-country resorts to try: Royal Gorge (Soda Springs, Calif.; 800/500-3871; royalgorge.com; doubles $110), near Lake Tahoe, and Devil’s Thumb Ranch (Tabernash, Colo.; 800/933-4339; devilsthumbranch.com; doubles $195), down the road from Winter Park.
Fly by the seat of your pants
Set aside a long weekend for a spontaneous trip, then browse last-minute package deals (available from two weeks to three hours before departure) at sites like lastminute.com, 11thhourvacations.com, and lastminutetravel.com. Most trips are nonrefundable and include round-trip flights and hotel rooms—and sometimes even car rentals.