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We’ve all met at least one world-travelers who says it’s “easy” and “cheap” to travel the world. And we’ve all probably thought the same thing in response: “Oh yeah? How much are YOU paying for student loans every month?”
For most of us, expensive flights aren’t an option, and we don’t have weeks of vacation time to make them worth it. With a little planning and a friend you love enough to drive with for hours, you can have a great vacation in Iceland, Canada, the American Southwest, or California with less than $1,500.
In just a few years, Iceland has gone from “Huh?” to hot spot. Full of natural hot springs, more waterfalls than any guide book could reasonably name, and otherworldly landscapes, this place is the stuff of dreams. For a jaw-dropping road trip through steaming, volcanic landscapes, past glacial flows and along black sand beaches, rent a camper van instead of booking both a car and hotels. Take the Ring Road, also known as Route 1, which runs the perimeter of the entire country.
Many of Iceland’s best attractions are free hot springs and hikes (and sometimes both; hiking to the hot river in the Reykjadalur Valley is epic). If you want to spend time in Reykjavik, get the City Card. For $35, you’ll have an all-access pass to city pools, transportation, and museums. If you want to splurge on hot springs, the Blue Lagoon is one of Iceland’s most iconic places—and priciest spas. Entry starts around $50. Other spas, like the Myvatn Nature Baths and Fontana Spa, cost about $35. You’ll find heated public pools nearly everywhere, often for less than $10 a person.
Look into budget flights from WOW Air, where you can occasionally find flights from coastal cities for under $350 round-trip. Aim for the shoulder season between summer and fall, when crowds of tourists start to get thinner. Prices drop sharply from August to September, and you’ll also have a shot at seeing the Northern Lights as the days get shorter.
Sleeping and driving
You can find vans for under $100 a day during the shoulder and low seasons. Expect to pay at least a few hundred bucks for gas, especially if you plan a lot of detours. If you want to plan your stops ahead, you can get the Camping Card for about $165, which gives you 28 nights at participating campsites. Otherwise, expect to pay $10 to $20 per person at campgrounds. Sleeping on the side of the road is frowned upon.
Restaurants are expensive (think $40 for two people to just get soup and salad bar access in a tourist town) so you’ll want to stop at a grocery store for staples like smoked arctic char, Skyr (Icelandic yogurt), and bread, or bring dehydrated backpacking meals with you in your luggage. Don’t be afraid to scour the “free” piles wherever you rent your van. You’ll likely end up contributing more than you take. Don’t be afraid of gas station food! Icelandic hot dogs are delicious and extremely popular—and cheap, at $3 or less.
Colorado and New Mexico
If you want to see stunning vistas from “fourteeners,” or mountains higher than 14,000 feet in elevation, Colorado is the place for you. And if what you’re seeking is art, culture, and southwestern food, you’ll find it in New Mexico. You can easily road trip for a week out here on $100 a day for a single person, if you’re willing to camp, stay in hostels, and cook some of your own food.
In Colorado, you won’t want to miss Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, home to North America’s highest sand dunes ($15 per-car entrance fee). At Rocky Mountain National Park ($20 per car), you can drive at 12,000 feet along Trail Ridge Road, and hike to high alpine lakes at the base of massive peaks. If you’re up for backpacking, trek to Conundrum Hot Springs for a dip in a natural hot pool in the Maroon Bells Wilderness near Aspen.
Taos, New Mexico, is just about five hours from Denver, and Santa Fe is about six. In both cities, you’ll find old, adobe architecture, artistic communities, and excellent southwestern food. Taos is near the Rio Grande Gorge, which offers rafting and hikes to natural hot springs. Outside the town are countless clusters of eco-villages made out of “Earthships,” which are off-the-grid homes made from trash and recycled materials. You’ll find them on Airbnb in abundance. In Santa Fe—one of the oldest cities in North America, complete with centuries-old churches to tour—don’t miss the Meow Wolf House of Eternal Return ($18). It’s an eclectic, immersive art experience you have to see to understand. Head to the Kakawa Chocolate House to satisfy your sweet tooth with thick, rich sipping chocolate.
You can typically score flights to Denver for about $200 round-trip from cities around the United States, including New York, San Francisco, and Boston.
Expect to spend $25 to $70 per night on a single bunk in a hostel—like the swanky Hostel Fish in Denver, starting in the mid-40s, or the brand-new Salida Hostel, starting at $25—or spend $20 or less per night on camping. You can camp for free on National Forest land; use a site like freecampsites.net to find GPS coordinates for free camping areas near attractions you want to visit. Camping for free every night is entirely feasible; find hot springs spas (or lakes) when you’re ready for a shower.
Rent a car for about $40 per day from the Denver International Airport.
Quebec City and Saguenay, Canada
The U.S. dollar is currently quite strong against its Canadian counterpart—75 American cents will get you one Candian dollar. That means it’s a great time to travel to Canada; your money will go much further. Plus, if you travel to Quebec, you’ll feel far from home. The dominant language there is French, and in many areas, you may find it hard to find someone who speaks English.
You’ll likely want to spend a few days in Quebec City, which feels like Europe with its old architecture and cobblestone streets. There’s a Hostelling International hostel in the city (you’ll get a discount if you’re an HI member), with bunks in shared rooms starting at $25 CAD.
Just three hours away is the gorgeous Saguenay-Lac Saint Jean region, rife with opportunities for paddlesports, rafting, hiking, and biking. Thrill seekers may want to try the Via Ferrata in Parc National du Fjord-du-Saguenay (trips start at $45 CAD). Campsites there start at $25 CAD.
Two hours from Quebec City is the “ghost town” Val-Jalbert ($28 CAD), which once thrived on making pulp for paper. Now, it’s a living history museum and popular campsite ($25+ CAD), thanks to hiking trails surrounding Ouiatchouan Falls, 65 feet taller than the more well-known Niagara.
Car rental starts around $25/day from Quebec City.
Drive to Quebec City in about 6.5 hours from Boston, or fly for $200 to $250 round-trip from New York and Boston. Flights are pricier from the West Coast, at $350+ from Los Angeles and San Francisco.