Escape on a budget: 13 domestic destinations with an international feel
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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with additional destination suggestions.
From the lakes of Minnesota to the hills of Tennessee, across the plains of Texas and from sea to shining sea, there’s so much to see, do, taste and experience in this country — and it’s not all apple pie and hamburgers. In fact, there are dozens of destinations within the United States that feel like an international escape.
Travel is starting to rebound, but checking out your favorite international destinations may not be in the cards until later this year or next — both because of continued travel restrictions and our recovering budgets from the past year. However, there are domestic cities that give you the feeling of being outside the U.S. while in most cases being a little cheaper than a flight across the pond and easier to get to during the era COVID-19.
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Tarpon Springs, Florida
Here’s something we really love about traveling across the United States: Each destination reminds us of all the people from across the globe that left their homes behind and traded it all in for a chance to live a different life here. And, we don’t just mean in the places you might expect, such as New York, which welcomed immigrants through Ellis Island. Heritage is found all throughout our nation. Take Tarpon Springs, on Florida’s Gulf Coast (about 20 minutes north of Clearwater), as an example.
In the early 1900s, Greeks came to the area to work as sponge divers in the then-booming industry. These families stayed and the area grew to have more of a Greek island feel than a Floridian vibe. In fact, the City of Tarpon Springs proudly tells travelers that they can “visit Greece without leaving Florida.”
The Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, off Pinellas Avenue, was built in the 1940s with incredible stained glass artwork and a Grecian marble altar.
Visitors usually begin their exploration at the sponge docks situated on the Anclote River. Then, head to the riverfront Dodecanese Boulevard to check out the gift shops and authentic Greek restaurants. Just a short walk away is Tarpon Avenue, which is lined with antique shops. For the little ones in the family, visit the Tarpon Springs Aquarium to see stingrays and baby sharks.
The Jolley Trolley can help you easily get around town and it’s cheap; $5 for an all-day pass or $2.25 per ride. Children younger than 5 are free and there are reduced rates for seniors.
Getting there: St. Petersburg Airport (PIE) is the closest airport to Tarpon Springs. Allegiant offers flights to PIE from more than 50 U.S. cities, including places like Toledo, Chattanooga, Dayton, Albany and more.
I’ve been to the Maldives, Tahiti and Bora Bora. The Hanalei area on the north shore of Kauai doesn’t quite match the feeling of those places, but it also gives the distinct impression that you’re no longer in the U.S. It’s laid-back, slow-paced, health-focused and breathtaking.
To enter Hanalei, you’re going to cross over a one-lane bridge, which just sets the stage for a town where no one is in a hurry … unless, of course, you’re rushing to get a bowl of organic shave ice at Wishing Well, since they close at 5 p.m.
Otherwise, grab your boogie board and don’t miss sunsets over Hanalei Bay. A great viewing spot is actually at the Princeville Resort (formerly known as the St. Regis Princeville). Based on some recent reports, I wouldn’t recommend staying there until they undergo a major planned renovation, but I’d fully recommend buying a day pass to the resort’s pool and staying to enjoy the sunset.
Getting there: Hanalei Bay is about a 40-minute drive around the island from Kauai’s Lihue airport (LIH), and again, don’t even bother being in a hurry; no one else will be. Here are the best ways to get to Hawaii using points and miles.
Where to stay: The Westin Princeville is very close to Hanalei and can be booked for 50,000 to 70,000 Marriott points per night.
Petersburg is a working fishing village on Frederick Sound along Alaska’s Inside Passage. If you want to know what it’s like to live in Alaska, visit Petersburg and talk with the locals — some of these families have lived there for generations. The community has deep roots you can trace back to Scandinavia and, if you visit on Norwegian Constitution Day (May 17) during the town’s Little Norway Festival, you may just think you’re back in the old country.
Petersburg is the gateway to nearby LeConte Glacier, a quick boat ride from town. The shimmering blue ice is mesmerizing — as are the seals that often sun themselves on passing icebergs. If you visit in the summer, you’ll be rewarded with countless humpback whale sightings along Frederick Sound, the feeding ground for these incredible creatures. Whether you love marine life, birds or flora, you’ll find it all in Petersburg.
Getting there: Since Petersburg is on Mitkof Island, you’ll need to arrive by plane or boat. Alaska Airlines serves Petersburg James A. Johnson Airport (PSG) with twice-daily flights from Seattle (SEA) and Anchorage (ANC). You can also arrive via ferry. The Alaska Marine Highway System serves Petersburg from Bellingham, Washington; Prince Rupert, British Columbia, Canada; Skagway; and Haines.
Where to stay: Despite its rather remote location, there’s a surprising number of accommodations in Petersburg. We’ve stayed at Scandia House and loved how the innkeeper came to the airport to pick us up upon arrival. It was a nice gesture that made us feel welcome. Or, consider the Nordic House bed and breakfast.
None of the local establishments take part in a points program, so you’re best off paying for your stay with a card like the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card. One mile equals 1 cent and can be used to erase any purchase that codes as travel on your monthly statement.
Related: The best starter travel credit cards
When you want to travel somewhere that makes you feel like everyday living can be simple and carefree, head to Solvang in Southern California — a gem in the Santa Ynez Valley.
With numerous nods to its Danish roots, you can take a photo in front of one of the town’s five windmills, see a reproduction of the Little Mermaid Fountain (the original by Edvard Eriksen is in Copenhagen), pose with a giant wooden shoe or visit a local bakery for authentic Danish treats.
And, if you love wine, there are more than 125 vineyards to explore in the area. You can also go horseback riding, play golf or take a trolley or Segway tour.
Getting there: How you get to Solvang will depend on if you’re putting together a larger Southern California road trip or if you’re just spending a long weekend in the region’s wine country. You can fly to Santa Barbara Municipal Airport (SBA) from Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, Oakland, Portland, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, San Francisco and Seattle on Alaska Airlines, American, Contour Aviation, Delta and United.
You could also fly into any of the Los Angeles-area airports and drive (about 2.5 hours) or take the Amtrak Thruway Motor Coach from Santa Barbara or San Luis Obispo to Solvang.
Where to stay: There are so many charming hotels, resorts and inns, it will be tough to pick just one for your visit. The Landsby, Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort (an all-inclusive), Wine Valley Inn & Cottages and Svendsgaard’s Danish Lodge all get great reviews.
You can also stay eight minutes away in Buellton at the Category 5 Santa Ynez Valley Marriott (from 35,000 points per night on standard dates) or the Hampton Inn & Suites Buellton/Santa Ynez Valley (between 31,000 to 50,000 Hilton Honors points per night). Or, use Marriott points to stay at the Category 6 The Ritz-Carlton Bacara, Santa Barbara (from 60,000 points per night on standard dates) — just 45 minutes from Solvang — or use Hilton points at the Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort (60,000 to 80,000 points per night).
If you didn’t know any better, you might think you’re in Amsterdam when you visit this western Michigan town. Tulips bloom across the city come springtime, and you can snack on Dutch delicacies such as saucizenbroodjes (Dutch sausage rolls), croquettes and more. Every winter, the town also hosts a Dutch Winterfest, and in the springtime, a Tulip Time Festival.
A trip here isn’t complete without a stop at the DeZwaan Windmill, or learning how to Klompen dance at Nelis’ Dutch Village, a theme park designed to transport you to the Netherlands 150 years ago. We also recommend making a stop at the Holland Museum to explore the history of the city and its Dutch art collection. Whatever you do, don’t forget to take visit the DeKlomp Wooden Shoe & Delft Factory to pick up the perfect souvenir for your trip to Holland, Michigan: traditional Dutch wooden shoes.
Getting there: Holland is only a 40-minute drive from Gerald R. Ford International Airport (GRR) in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can fly there from major and secondary cities all across the country on all domestic airlines. Upon arrival, rent a car to reach Holland.
Where to stay: There are a handful of points hotels in Holland, including a Courtyard Marriott (rates start at 30,000 Marriott Bonvoy points per night) and a Hampton Inn (rates start at 29,000 Hilton Honors points per night).
Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah
You don’t have to go to Bolivia for the otherworldly experience of standing on a gleaming white stretch of salt. The Bonneville Salt Flats of northwestern Utah may not be as expansive as Salar de Uyuni, but you won’t be disappointed. Created at the end of the last ice age, when a prehistoric lake receded and left behind deposits of salt and gypsum, the salt flats of Utah stretch for 30,000 acres.
Depending on where you stop along Salt Flats Road, you’ll be able to see a perfectly flat, uninterrupted horizon in one direction and mountains punctuating the landscape in the other. There’s a popular rest stop here and areas where you can drive out onto the flats (this, after all, is the location of the Bonneville Speedway — famous for breaking land speed records). But you’re probably here for the photos. If you’re lucky, your trip to the salt flats will take place just after it rains, which creates the unmistakable mirror effect you’ve probably seen in salt flat photography.
Getting there: The salt flats are about an hour and a half long drive from Salt Lake City (SLC), which is served by most major carriers, including Delta, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, United, Southwest, JetBlue and Frontier. Salt Lake City is the fourth-largest hub for Delta Air Lines, so using SkyMiles will often be your best bet, depending on where you live.
Where to stay: For a trip to the salt flats, you’ll probably want to overnight in Salt Lake City. Consider a room at the Kimpton Hotel Monaco Salt Lake City (from 40,000 IHG points per night) or The Peery Hotel, a Tapestry Collection by Hilton property. Rooms here range from as little as 34,000 Hilton Honors points per night).
A charming snow-covered European ski village is worthy of a spot on your bucket list, but you don’t need a passport for powder, pierogies and potato pancakes. Vail was built in the 1960s, modeled after a pedestrian-friendly European alpine village.
In addition to the over 5,000 acres of Rocky Mountain skiing you’ll find at Vail, you’ll find many nods to Europe — a clock tower, outdoor ice skating rink, outdoor patios and, of course, the Hotel Gasthof Gramshammer, built by an Austrian ski racer in the 1960s.
Even if you don’t stay there, you can still stop by Pepi’s Restaurant located within the hotel. But, my favorite place to eat in Vail, if I want to feel like you’ve landed in the Alps, is Almresi. Located in a cottage and staffed by servers in traditional European Alpine attire, this has to be the coziest place in Vail. No matter what you order, be sure and start with the fresh-baked German pretzel with horseradish mustard. Trust me on that one.
Getting there: You can fly into Denver (DEN) and either drive roughly two hours into the mountains to reach Vail. Even better, you can book a seat on the Epic Mountain Express. Alternatively, you can fly into Eagle County Regional (EGE), about 20 to 25 minutes away.
Where to stay: Use your points to stay in the middle of it all in Lionshead Village at the Vail Marriott (50,000 to 70,000 Bonvoy points per night). The Grand Hyatt Vail is a bit more removed from the action but is still technically a ski-in and ski-out hotel (as long as you aren’t a brand new skier) available for 30,000 Hyatt points per night.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
The oldest state capital in the U.S. and one of the first European settlements in North America, the city of Santa Fe, New Mexico, transports you to both another world and another time. Santa Fe is a destination deeply connected to its past when early Puebloans began leaving ancestral cliff dwellings and building houses out of adobe — an architectural style still very much prevalent in Santa Fe today.
Discover the city’s distinct and vibrant art scene, or explore the surrounding cliff dwellings, Aztec ruins and historic Spanish missions. Whatever you do, make sure to eat at least one bowl of New Mexico-style green chile.
Getting there: The Santa Fe Airport (SAF) is pretty small, so you’ll probably fly into Albuquerque (ABQ) and make the one-hour drive north along the highway. This airport gets flights from most major U.S. cities via Delta, American, JetBlue, United, Southwest and Frontier, among others.
Where to stay: The 58-room Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi is filled with distinctly Southwestern design flourishes, including a gas-burning kiva fireplace and colorful handcrafted textiles. Travelers can also redeem points for a much more affordable stay at La Posada de Santa Fe. This Tribute Portfolio resort and spa is available from 30,000 Marriott Bonvoy points per night and shares many of the Rosewood’s Pueblo inspirations, including ensuite fireplaces and exposed beams.
When you think of German cuisine, rolling hills and wineries, you might not immediately think of Central Texas — but perhaps you should. Fredericksburg, Texas, has deep German roots dating back to the 1800s and whether you want to go to their (very authentic) version of Oktoberfest or simply make a trip on a slower-paced weekend, you’re in for a treat.
Visit wineries such as Messina Hof and Grape Creek and later, eat your fill of schnitzel, Belgian waffles and baked goods at the Old German Bakery and Restaurant. While you’re in the area, make the 15-minute drive out to hike Enchanted Rock or head about the same distance down to Luckenbach for live music.
Getting there: Fredericksburg is in the absolute center area of Texas, so while it doesn’t have its own commercial airport, you’ve got several options. Fredericksburg is about 90 miles west of Austin or 90 miles northwest of San Antonio, and I’d recommend spending some time in either of those cities while you’re in the area.
Where to stay: While you can use points at a Comfort Inn-type of property, I’d recommend booking one of the many small bed and breakfasts near Main Street, such as Hoffman Haus, for a more international experience.
Tangier Island, Virginia
This tiny island in the Chesapeake Bay has approximately 700 residents, most of whom speak a dialect that has been described as a combination of a Southern American accent and 17th-century British English.
If the local lingo isn’t enough to transport you to another destination, the unmistakable culture — dependent on the harvesting of crabs, oysters and fish in the bay — will remind you that, though the nation’s capital is less than 100 miles away (by straight-line distance), you are somehow much farther away.
During your visit, carve out time to explore the Tangier History Museum and save room (lots of it) for crab cakes. This is the so-called “soft-shell crab capital of the world,” after all.
Getting there: Leave your car on the mainland and take one of a number of ferries to Tangier Island — most likely from Ocancock, Virginia. But first, you’ll likely want to fly into Norfolk International (ORF), which is served by American, Delta, United, and Southwest, among smaller, low-cost carriers.
Where to stay: Historic inns and bed and breakfasts are your best bet if you want to bed down on Tangier Island, though travelers can also find a handful of cottages and homes available to book through vacation rental sites such as Airbnb. Just be sure to charge your stay with a great travel rewards credit card for Airbnb and other vacation rental sites.
St. Augustine, Florida
If you’re an armchair historian, you may know that St. Augustine — on the First Coast in Northern Florida — was settled by the Spanish in 1565. In fact, it’s even rumored to be the location of Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth. And, yes, there is a cheesy tourist attraction paying homage to that fact. But there’s so much more to see and do here.
If you love peering back in time, visit Castillo de San Marcos (a 17th-century fort made of coquina) and Fort Mose, known to be the first community of African Americans freed from slavery. And, if you fast forward a bit in time to the early 1800s, there are several grand hotels and architectural beauties built by railroad magnate Henry Flagler. When visiting Old Town, you get a sense of St. Augustin’s Spanish heritage and then move on through time as the architecture changes.
To see one of Henry Flagler’s contributions to the city, visit the Lightner Museum, built in 1888 as the original home of the Alcazar Hotel. It’s now filled with Victorian-era art and antiques.
If history isn’t your thing, don’t worry. Head instead to Anastasia State Park wildlife sanctuary or any of the nearby beaches where you can spend time just enjoying Florida’s beautiful sunny weather.
Getting there: Arrive via Jacksonville International Airport (JAX). Allegiant Air, American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit and United all fly to JAX. Then, rent a car for the drive to St. Augustine. It’s about an hour-long drive to Castillo de San Marco.
Where to stay: Some neat bed and breakfasts can be found in Old Town, and the new Renaissance St. Augustine Historic Downtown Hotel will open on West Castillo Drive in October. Or, you can stay near the beach. The Courtyard St. Augustine Beach, a Marriott Category 4 property, is a popular choice (from 25,000 points on standard dates). There’s also the atmospheric Casa Monica Resort & Spa, Autograph Collection, a Category 6 property costing 50,000 points per night on standard dates.
Vieques, Puerto Rico
For a tropical retreat that at times feels worlds away from the U.S. — especially when its bioluminescent bay is illuminated by tiny organisms that emit a striking blue glow when stirred or disturbed — head to Vieques.
This small, still largely undeveloped island seven miles from mainland Puerto Rico has the kind of untamed beauty you’d expect to find much farther from the continental U.S. (There are even wild horses roaming the island.) And after enduring significant destruction during Hurricane Maria, Vieques is finally emerging from a slow recovery period.
Getting there: Get a short, 30-minute flight from San Juan (SJU) to Vieques (VQS) with Seaborne Airlines (operated by Vieques Air Link) or Cape Air, which has a codeshare partnership with JetBlue, making it the obvious choice for travelers who have a stockpile of True Blue points. You can also save by booking a $2 one-way ticket for the hourlong ferry ride from Ceiba (about an hour east of San Juan) to Vieques. Just be warned, you’ll need to arrive at least an hour early to get a spot in line.
Where to stay: We love the Hix Island House, which has 19 loft-style apartments scattered across 13 acres. Best of all, there are no phones or televisions, so you can truly disappear off the grid.
New Orleans, Louisiana
Would this list be complete without mentioning New Orleans? Take a stroll through the French Quarter in downtown New Orleans, and you’ll feel like you’re walking the streets of Paris. Elegant balconies and galleries overlook the city streets, where musicians entertain passersby on nearly every corner.
Of course, no trip to Crescent City is complete without dabbling in the famous cuisine of New Orleans. We recommend Restaurant R’evolution (it’s one of the best restaurants in the city — period), Clancy’s and August.
Getting there: You can find nonstop flights to New Orleans (MSY) from cities all across the United States. Airlines that fly there include Alaska Airlines, Allegiant, American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit, Sun Country and United.
Where to stay: New Orleans has no shortage of great hotels, ranging from independent boutique properties to major chains and everything in between. We love the Ritz-Carlton, a Marriott Category 6 property. Rates here start at just 40,000 points per night on off-peak nights. Travelers with stashes of points to burn should also consider the Waldorf Astoria, Hilton Riverside, JW Marriott, New Orleans Marriott, W, Aloft, Sheraton, Westin, Le Meridien and Troubadour Tapestry Collection.
While it’s not a points hotel, we’d be remiss not to include the Windsor Court, especially for the European feel. It is, though, available through Amex’s Fine Hotels and Resorts program, so you can enjoy elite-like perks during your stay. Like we said: No shortage of great hotels.
Featured image by M Swiet Productions/Getty Images.
Additional reporting by Samantha Rosen.
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