Pack your bags. Hold the mail. It’s time to turn your dream vacation into a real trip. “I haven’t seen a buyers’ market like this in 25 years,” says travel expert Peter Greenberg. “Everything is on sale, whether it’s advertised or not.” Even the high end of the market is quietly offering add-ons: a free night here, a spa pass there.
In a bad economy, this qualifies as good news for many. A recent Reader’s Digest poll shows that 58 percent of Americans are planning to take a family vacation. And almost 75 percent of them are traveling more than 250 miles from home, with nearly half budgeting at least $1,000 for the trip.
We asked 25 travel experts—who’ve been there, done that—for their ideas on where to go and how to get the most mileage out of each dollar. Whether you want to fly across the country or drive across the state line, here are destinations that offer plenty to do (or not much at all, if you prefer), along with advice on plotting the ultimate getaway and a last-minute escape.
HOBBIES & HELPING DESTINATIONS
“Travel is no longer just about vacation,” says Keith Bellows, editor of National Geographic Traveler. “It’s about self-discovery, opening yourself to the world. That’s why learning vacations are becoming so popular.”
Cooperstown, New York, and St. Louis, Missouri: “If baseball is your passion, plan a trip to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, or make your way to St. Louis during the all-star break for the Major League Baseball All Star Fan Fest (July 10 to 14). This five-day family event gives you a chance to live out your baseball fantasy by pitching against life-size video images of your favorite sluggers or recording your own play-by-play.”
—Lauren Goldenberg, co-owner, Family Traveler
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina: “It’s called Golftown U.S.A. because it’s probably the No. 1 golf destination in the States, with over 100 public courses. Grande Dunes has the best course in the region. Two older clubs—the Dunes and Tidewater—predate the golf explosion and are the area classics. They’re also the only two courses on the ocean.”
—Larry Olmsted, coauthor, Golf Travel by Design
Maine and North Carolina: “A lot of folks are following their hobbies on vacation and going places where they can improve their knitting, learn to quilt, make pottery, or do metalwork or woodworking. Consider the John C. Campbell Folk School (folkschool.org) and the Penland School of Crafts (penland.org), both in North Carolina, or the Hay Stack Mountain Craft School (haystack-mtn.org), situated on the Atlantic Ocean in Deer Isle, Maine. Prices start at $400; room and board are extra.”
The South: “Take the Southern barbecue tour if you’re a foodie. You can get fantastic food in small, affordable, out-of-the-way places. There’s the Blue Mist Barbecue in Asheboro, North Carolina, and the Dreamland Drive-Inn Bar-B-Que in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Dreamland has two locations, but make sure you go to the one at 5535 15th Avenue E: It’s a real shack, and the ribs are zesty and juicy. Mop up the sauce with sliced white bread.”
Wassaw Island, Georgia: “At the Wassaw National Wildlife Refuge, part of Georgia’s barrier islands, you can help tag loggerhead sea turtles when they crawl out of the sea to lay their eggs. Cost is $750 a week, including transportation to and from the island, a bunk in a rustic cabin, and all meals. Plus, you can sleep late: Beach patrols take place at night. Don’t forget to write off your experience as a charitable contribution.”
—Pam Grout, author, The 100 Best Volunteer Vacations to Enrich Your Life
The world: “Volunteer opportunities exist worldwide. Tutor kids in Ghana or paint a classroom in Peru through Global Volunteers (globalvolunteers.org). Build playgrounds on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana with Visions (visionsserviceadventures.com). Or help out on an organic tea farm in Japan through Service Civil International (sci-ivs.org).”
Old Orchard Beach, Maine: “There’s an old-fashioned boardwalk and amusement park that’s a fraction of the cost of one of the brand-name theme parks. We spent the morning playing in the waves and lying on the beach and the afternoon at Palace Playland.”
—Beth Harpaz, travel editor, Associated Press
Panama: “Stay in an over-water bungalow on Isla Colon, one of the islands in the Bocas del Toro archipelago, and get the feeling of Fiji for one quarter the price. Plus, the American dollar is widely accepted.”
—Stacy Rapacon, travel reporter, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance
BEST BIG CITIES
For anyone who can’t bear to sit still, big cities are the best bet for weekend trips. Zero in on cities that attract business travelers during the week—New York, Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco. The big-name hotels empty out on the weekends and will give leisure travelers a better deal, says Peter J. Frank, editor in chief of concierge.com.
Chicago, Illinois: “One of America’s best-looking urban centers, especially in the spring and summer. Take a docent-led cruise (tickets start at $28; architecture.org) and see more than 50 awe-inspiring skyscrapers and other architectural sites. Spend a sunny day in Millennium Park, or consider an indulgent evening at Grant Achatz’s Alinea restaurant in Lincoln Park. It’s a 12-course extravaganza for $145.”
—Heidi Mitchell, features and travel editor, Town & Country
Las Vegas, Nevada: “It’s never been so easy to score a deal on the Strip. Five-star resorts are marked down to three-star prices. The Trump International Hotel is offering a package through June called the Suite Escape. Book a luxury suite for $89 a night at trumplasvegashotel.com and get a $50 spa credit. The three-star Palace Station Hotel and Casino has rates as low as $24 per night.”
—Nina Willdorf, editor in chief, Budget Travel
Montreal and Quebec, Canada: “Can’t afford the City of Light this year? Consider Quebec and Montreal. They’re Paris in North America, at one fourth the price.”
—Pauline Frommer, creator, Pauline Frommer’s guidebooks
Nashville, Tennessee: “Everyone thinks of Nashville as honky-tonk, and yes, that still exists in spades, but it has this incredible emerging food scene with restaurants like Bound’ry, which offers lobster BLT pizza and grilled ostrich. And in newish neighborhoods like East Nashville, there are terrific galleries: The Plowhaus and the Art & Invention Gallery are just two.”
—Norman Vanamee, editor in chief, Sherman’s Travel
New York, New York: “It’s the best place for immigration history. My family chose the living history tour at the Tenement Museum and assumed the identity of newly arrived immigrants visiting a 14-year-old Sephardic Jewish girl, played by an actress. We stayed in character, asking her about adjusting to life on the Lower East Side. My kids (they’re 10 and 11) were riveted. Be sure to get your tickets for the ferry to Ellis Island in advance—or risk waiting in line up to three hours.”
—Mindy Goldenberg Valenci, co-owner, Family Traveler
San Francisco, California: “It’s rare for a major city to have such a spectacular physical setting—the views of the bay from the hills and the Ferry Building Marketplace are stunning. It’s also a compact, walkable city (those hills notwithstanding) with great museums. The new California Academy of Sciences building in Golden Gate Park features an aquarium, a planetarium, and a four-story rain forest. Go early! There’s also a long tradition of Bay Area bands (the Grateful Dead got its start here). Check out the Fillmore and Bottom of the Hill. And it’s an exceptional food city, with great eateries like Michael Mina and Restaurant Gary Danko—named after their chefs—and the pleasures of picking oysters at the counter of Swan Oyster Depot in Nob Hill.”
—Laurie Werner, contributing editor, ForbesLife
Seattle, Washington: “Three national parks protect the city’s natural beauty. It’s so enchanting that an entire vacation can be built on side trips. On the other hand, the city proper is brimming with fantastic restaurants and compelling sights. Seattle is a best-of-both-worlds destination. Fresh-caught Dungeness crab at McCormick & Schmick’s delicious. A day amid the fragrant wildflowers on Mount Rainier—intoxicating.”
—Eric Wechter, editor, Fodor’s Travel guidebooks and fodors.com
Portland, Oregon: “The International Rose Test Garden is the one place I never tire of visiting. It easily represents what the whole city of Portland is about—it’s green, friendly, and laid-back. There are over 10,000 rosebushes, and because it’s a test garden, the public has never seen many of these 550 varieties. The Rose Festival is one of the biggest celebrations in the city and runs May 22 to June 14.”
—Patricia Schultz, author, 1,000 Places to See Before You Die series
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