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Fun Summer Trips for Budget-Conscious Travelers

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As soon as that summer sunshine hits, everyone seems to crave a getaway, so it can often be hard to find good deals. High-season around most of the U.S. and Europe means higher prices, but TPG International Contributor Lori Zaino offers up some destinations that won’t break the bank.

A view of Crescent Beach at Ecola State Park in Oregon. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
A view of Crescent Beach at Ecola State Park in Oregon. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

For the Carefree and Spirited Adventurer: A U.S. Road Trip

Since gas prices are at a low, it’s the ideal time to grab your car (and your friends, family or partner) and embark on a road trip, complete with a visit to some  National Parks. There are plenty of remarkable road trips in America that won’t break your budget, but if you’re looking for something slightly offbeat, well-priced and relatively light on crowds, head out from Northern California and up to the Pacific Northwest, driving along the magnificent Oregon coast and into the dramatic beauty of Washington.

Just 30 miles north of San Francisco, stop at Point Reyes National Seashore Park to observe more than 1,500 species of plants and animals—or just stroll beside wild stretches of the Pacific. In Oregon, visit Ecola State Park for coastal views, spruce forests, and even an abandoned lighthouse. Once in Washington, explore the one-million-acre Olympia National Park, which sprawls across several different ecosystems, including a temperate rainforest, icy glaciers, rivers, lakes, and windswept beaches.

Along the way, consider visiting Seattle and Portland, where you could stay cheaply by using Hotel Tonight, an app which allows you to book discounted hotels last-minute; for an even greater discount on your first booking, use promo code BKELLY99. Several other apps can be useful during your journey, so be sure to see Ryan Gargiulo’s list of awesome (and free!) apps for road trips.

Finally, you can make your road trip even more economical by using the right credit cards. The Barclaycard Arrival Plus is ideal for rental cars, last-minute hotels, tolls, and more; you can simply pay for these expenses and then wipe them off your statement. You’re basically getting 2.2% back, because Barclaycard gives you a 5% rebate whenever you redeem points for travel. Right now there’s a 40,000 point sign-up bonus (after you spend $3,000 in the first 90 days), which is worth about $400.

I’d also recommend the Capital One Venture Rewards credit card, as those points work similarly. It currently has a 40,000 mile sign-up bonus (after you spend $3,000 in the first three months), which is worth $400 when redeemed for travel.

Since road trips clearly involve a lot of driving, it may be worth it to have a card that offers rental car insurance, like the Amex Platinum card. Or, you could get the Chase Sapphire Preferred card (which also has primary auto insurance) and get the 40,000 point sign-up bonus after spending $4,000 in the first three months.

Check out the Trakai castle near Vilinus, Lithuania. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Check out the Trakai castle near Vilinus, Lithuania. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

For the Curious Explorer: Off-The-Beaten-Path Europe

The Euro is lower than it’s been in years, so spending some time this summer in Europe is favorable for the U.S. traveler. A trip to the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia is the perfect summer getaway. The Baltic region has warm and sunny weather in the summer, but won’t be quite as crowded as more popular European destinations like London, Paris, Rome or Barcelona.

The old town of Vilinus, Lithuania is a quaint medieval village (also a UNESCO World Heritage site) where you can visit over 40 churches of varying architectural styles. A side trip to Trakai castle and museum located on a tiny island just 18 miles west of Vilinus is a must-do.

Riga, Latvia is located along the scenic Baltic seaside and several canals run through the city. It’s also famous for its quirky art nouveau quarter. You can enjoy panoramic views of the city from the Skyline bar on the 26th floor of the Radisson Blu Latvia hotel.

Tallinn, Estonia offers one of Europe’s coolest flea markets, the Balti Jaama Turg, where you can purchase second-hand clothing, books and housewares, as well as unusual items like Soviet medals or bullet cases. The fairytale-esque town walls and architecture of Tallinn are stunning for a midday stroll. For an hands-on day trip, the Estonian Open Air Museum is a reconstructed rural 18th-century village just outside Tallinn, including farms, windmills, watermills, church, fire station, tavern and schoolhouse.

Budget travelers can check out no-frills low-cost carrier Ryanair for cheap flights connecting the Baltic nations with the rest of Europe.

Koh Tao is one of the best spots in the world to get PADI certified, or simply relax on the beach. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Koh Tao is one of the best spots in the world to get PADI-certified, or simply relax on the beach. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

For the Beach-Bum: Thai Islands

Thailand’s just plain cheap once you arrive, and the islands in the Gulf of Thailand—Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao—aren’t hit by the same monsoons that other parts of this Southeast Asian country (such as Phuket) typically experience during the summer months, so you’re sure to have excellent beach weather. There are several options for getting from the U.S. to Bangkok using your miles, and once you arrive in there, getting to the islands is made easy with boutique (and budget) airline Bangkok Airways, or Star Alliance member Thai Airways.

If you’re hoping to relax, Mae Nam beach on the island of Koh Samui is tranquil and calm, with waters perfect for swimming or stand-up paddling. Windy days are great for kite-surfing as well, and there are plenty of sleepy little beach bars and huts along the beach where you can enjoy a beer or rent some equipment for water sports.

Koh Phangan is the place to be for party-animals, hosting the infamous Full Moon party, as well as lesser-known but just as wild waterfall and jungle parties. However, the island isn’t just about partying, it also has gorgeous cove beaches only accessible by boat, such as Bottle Beach.

If you’re hoping to get certified to dive, head over to Koh Tao. The eight-square-mile tiny island has over 60 dive schools (you can typically get PADI-certified for just a couple hundred dollars), and some of the best dive spots in the world. Recently, some of the dive centers have expanded to include surfing and yoga, making Koh Tao one of the best chill-out, water-sports islands in the world.

Devils Lake State Park, Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Devils Lake State Park, Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

For Nature & Music Lovers: Wisconsin

Yup, that’s right—Wisconsin. Don’t overlook this mid-western nature lover’s paradise, which has over 15,000 lakes, numerous forests, and plenty of amazing campgrounds. For example, in the Wisconsin Dells area, you’ll find prices ranging from only $10-$40 per night for camping at Devil’s Lake State Park, and the nearby Baraboo Hills have a variety of different outdoor activities and state parks where you can birdwatch, enjoy water activities, hike and go horseback riding.

Wisconsin also offer one of summer’s most enjoyable festivals: Milwaukee‘s Summerfest. Held this year from June 24-28 and June 30-July 4, Summerfest hosts a huge variety of musical events, with this year’s lineup featuring The Rolling Stones, The Kooks, Sheryl Crow, Keith Urban and Ed Sheeran. Hotel rates are still low (just over $200) for prime dates during the Summerfest at hotels like the Aloft Milwaukee or the Hilton Milwaukee, so book soon.

About 40 minutes southwest of Milwaukee in East Troy, music lovers can also catch some concerts at the Alpine Valley Music Theatre, which is famous for it’s pre- and post-concert tailgating and its laid-back, hippie vibe. This summer’s concert calendar features Phish and Dave Matthews Band. (Be aware that while the Alpine Valley Resort is set conveniently adjacent to this venue, concert season rates start at a budget unfriendly $244 a night.)

If you’re looking for a place to take the kids near Milwaukee, The Wisconsin State Fair (August 6-16, 2015) is only about 15 minutes from the city and makes an ideal outing for the whole family. Children will love playing with the farm animals, playing games and rides, and adults will enjoy a great selection of music and cuisine. Suggested lodging near the fair includes a Radisson, a Crown Plaza, two Sheratons, two Courtyard by Marriott properties, and a DoubleTree by Hilton.

If you are hoping for a sexy scene and some beach time, Miami is much cheaper in the summer (if you can stand the humidity). Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
If you are hoping for a sexy scene and some beach time, Miami is much cheaper in the summer (if you can stand the humidity). Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

To See and Be Seen: Miami, Florida

South Florida is a tropical, sweaty mess in the summer—and that’s precisely why it’s cheaper. If you can manage to stand the intense heat and humidity, Miami can be the ideal spot if you want to stay in a sexy, trendy hotel or eat gorgeous, modern cuisine. Beaches and hotels will be noticeably emptier, but you’ll most likely be able to get reservations at all the best restaurants (try SeaGrape at the Thompson hotel, or you might even get seated without a wait at Joe’s Stone Crab ), since many locals are off to more balmy destinations and tourism is low throughout the season. But don’t worry, there’s always a “scene” in Miami, even in the summer.

Compared to about $600 in the winter months, summer rates at the new-ish Marriott Edition Miami start at $399, so by visiting in the off-season you can stay at a sexy, trendy hotel for almost half the price. Obviously, cooling off with beach and pool time is preferred; for swimming, try the 85th Street Beach in the North Shore Recreation Area (there are lifeguards), and for people-watching and more of a scene, South Beach is the way to go. Nature-lovers will enjoy fishing and walking trails at the Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park.

Just keep in mind that summer is hurricane season in Miami, so it’s advisable to purchase some trip insurance in case you need to cancel your plans due to an actual hurricane.