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12 Bucket List Vacations That Are Cheaper Than Disney

Where else can you head for that budget? We've got some amazing ideas for bucket list vacations that will amaze you.

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disney castle world floridaShutterstock

Vacation math: Disney vs. The rest of the world

It takes a substantial vacation budget to visit Disney. For a week at a deluxe hotel in the off-season (we looked at Animal Kingdom Lodge in October) with a family of four, including park tickets and the Disney dining plan (that includes three meals a day), the base price is $5,900. That’s without travel to Florida, which averages about $430 round trip, according to Friendly Planet Travel; bringing the budget to $7,600. Not to mention souvenirs (we know you’re not going home without mouse ears), or any additional snacks, entertainment, or transportation, which will add about $200 per day, or $1,400 for the week, for a grand total of $9,000, or $2,250 per person for a family of four, and this is just a basic estimate. Have your heart set on Disney? Find out our 14 top tips to save serious cash on your next Disney vacation.

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safari game drive with the elephants, masai mara reserve in kenya, Africaworldclassphoto/Shutterstock

Go wild on an African Safari

The travel experts at Friendly Planet Travel surveyed more than 1,000 people and discovered that a whopping 63 percent thought that an African safari trip is more expensive than visiting Disney’s Animal Kingdom…but that’s not the case. Friendly Planet actually has fully inclusive packages starting at $2,299 to top African safari destinations including Kenya and South Africa that offer everything from round trip airfare, accommodations in first-class hotels and remote game lodges, stunning safaris filled with amazing wildlife, and gourmet meals, to daily excursions. One example: On the eight-day Kenya Safari Express (starting at $2,299), you’ll see orphan elephants at Daphne Sheldrick’s Elephant Nursery, embark on a thrilling boat safari on Lake Naivasha, experience amazing game drives in the Masai Mara National Reserve and more. These are more affordable bucket list vacations that won’t break the bank.

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Traditional architecture of middle east mall, souks, DubaiKellySHUTSTOC/Shutterstock

Explore the Souks and Sands of Dubai

Glittering, cosmopolitan Dubai may seem like the last place to expect to be able to take an affordable bucket list vacation, but that’s exactly what you can do with the incredible Emirates Vacations packages that offer hotel and airfare deals to the fascinating Middle Eastern city for truly amazing affordable rates. How amazing? How about this one: For around $1,500 per person, you can fly top-rated Emirates to Dubai and spend five nights at the Emerald Palace Kempinski Palm Jumeirah, a kid-friendly resort that throws in breakfast every day, plus an early-check in at 8 a.m. and late check-out at 4 p.m. so you can fully enjoy your time in Dubai (add dinner every night at one of the six restaurants here for just $225 more per person, for a total of $1,725). While you’re in Dubai, despite all the ubiquitous high-end shopping opportunities, there’s plenty to do that’s nearly free, including enjoying the golden beaches at chic La Mer (no cost), taking a traditional abra boat ride across Dubai Creek (1 dirham, about ¢25), visiting the fascinating Dubai Museum housed in a 200-year-old fort (3 dirham), or exploring the stunning Jumeirah Mosque for a fascinating guided tour (25 dirham, about $6 including breakfast, coffee, and tea). For low-cost souvenirs, plus an opportunity to immerse yourselves in the authentic flavors of the city, don’t miss the textile, gold, and spice souks in Old Dubai.

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Poas Volcano, Costa RicaMichal Sarauer/Shutterstock

Adventure into the amazing outdoors in Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a year-round all-ages playground. From volcanoes to howler monkeys and sea turtles, the peaceful Central American country offers families myriad opportunities to explore, learn, and get closer to nature. Home to 5 percent of the world’s biodiversity, more than a quarter of the country is zoned for protection, which makes hiking and exploring at any of Costa Rica’s 28 national parks, reserves, and wildlife refuges an exciting experience. Some highlights include visiting Tortuguero National Park, which was created to protect endangered turtles; Poas Volcano National Park, home to one of the country’s largest and most active volcanoes; or Manuel Antonio National Park, considered Costa Rica’s crown jewel. Many lodges, like Playa Cativo Lodge, set on 35,000 acres of tropical rainforest at Piedras Blancas National Park, offer full meal plans and activities as part of your stay (about $3,500 for five nights); or for a guided adventure that takes the guesswork out of your journey, try Exodus Tours which offers a 25 percent discount for kids 12 and under; weeklong trips that explore Costa Rica start at about $2,000 for adults and $1,500 for kids.

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Aerial shot of Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque) surrounded by trees in Istanbul's Old City - Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey [Autumn/ Fall Colors]Nate Hovee/Shutterstock

Step into history in Istanbul

The great city of Istanbul straddles both Europe and Asia, so it’s an exciting meeting of the cultures of East and West, ancient and modern. As the capital of the Ottoman Empire in 1453, Istanbul has over 3,000 exquisite mosques including Sultanahmet, nicknamed Blue Mosque for its rich blue tile, and Süleymaniye, the largest mosque in Istanbul, with four stately minarets. The historical experience continues with a visit to Topkapi Palace, a luxurious sprawling complex (complete with a harem building) built by Mehmet the Conqueror in the 15th century, and the Basilica Cistern, an impressive underground reservoir built by Emperor Justinian in 532. Get a true taste of the Middle East at the bustling Spice Market and Grand Bazaar, where you can shop for Turkish Delights, hand-crafted jewelry, leather goods, traditional rugs, linens, light fixtures, and other local treasures. At the same time, experience the modern, European parts of this metropolis with a visit to the innovative Istanbul Modern museum and dozens of art galleries, a stroll through the artsy neighborhood of Pera and down Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Street), lined with contemporary shops and alive with street performers, and with meals at award-winning restaurants, including Meze by Lemon Tree. With a stay at the five-star Ciragan Palace Kempinski costing just $369 per night, and airfare on Turkish Airlines starting at $1,063, you’ll get to see real Europe (and Asia) for less than the cost of the simulated version at Disney’s Epcot Center.

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Fanned Lighthouse situated in Co Donegal, Ireland one of the country's most famous lighthouse dating back over 200 years.Sharon Williams/Shutterstock

See the treasures of Ireland with Brendan Vacations

For families looking to cross Ireland off the bucket list, the experts at Brendan Vacations provide the ultimate Irish experience at an affordable price tag on its six-day Treasures of Ireland itinerary. The chock-full of iconic Emerald Isle moments itinerary includes Dublin’s Trinity College, with priority access to see the medieval Book of Kells; the peaceful sixth-century monastic ruins at Glendalough; learning how crystal is made at the House of Waterford Crystal; stepping back in time to learn about traditional Irish farm life in Killarney; kissing the Blarney Stone; living a true fairy tale at Blarney Castle; and soaking up the lively atmosphere in the quaint city of Cork. There’s no shortage of stunning Irish landscapes on this itinerary, with a scenic coastal drive along the Ring of Kerry, a stop at the Torc Waterfall, and a visit to the spectacular Cliffs of Moher. The itinerary includes premier accommodations, multiple meals, local transportation, and an expert local guides starting at $1,415 per person (airfare on national carrier Aer Lingus starts at just $409 round trip).

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Old street in Trastevere, Rome, Italy. Trastevere is rione of Rome, on the west bank of the Tiber in Rome, Lazio, Italy. Architecture and landmark of RomeCatarina Belova/Shutterstock

Say “Ciao!” to Italy

Families can ditch Epcot and make unforgettable memories exploring the real Italy with Costsaver on their Jewels of Italy itinerary. On this seven-day trip, families will visit five Italian cities and centuries’ old historic highlights while enjoying delicious Italian cuisine along the way. The itinerary kicks off in Rome, with Vatican City and the awe-inspiring Sistine Chapel, Trevi Fountain, and the fascinating Colosseum. Families can skip the Mickey ears and take their best holiday card photo yet at the Leaning Tower of Pisa; peruse the quaint shops with gelato in-hand along Florence’s iconic Ponte Vecchio; visit the home of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet in Verona; watch craftsmen at work at a glassblowing workshop; and take a gondola ride down the canals in Venice. Tour highlights are led by local expert guides, and the itinerary includes accommodations, multiple meals, and local transportation starting at $1,250 per person. Although airfare is separate for this one, we’ve seen fares starting at $400 round trip from the United States to Milan on Emirates. Brush up on these Italian phrases everyone should know before your trip.

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Ait Benhaddou,fortified city, kasbah or ksar, along the former caravan route between Sahara and Marrakesh in present day Morocco. It is situated in Souss Massa Draa on a hill along the Ounila River.Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock

Uncover a mystical oasis in Morocco

From the dreamy city of Casablanca to the eclectic city of Marrakesh and vibrant medinas and souks throughout the cities, Morocco is truly a fairy tale destination. Trafalgar tours’ Best of Morocco itinerary connects travelers to intimate local gems with its renowned Be My Guest experiences, including bringing guests inside a traditional Riad for Moroccan specialties. The ten-day trip includes accommodations, most meals and excursions, in-destination transport and an expert tour director all for starting rates of $186, per day, for $1,755 per person.

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Rangali, Maldives islandMyroslava Bozhko/shutterstock

Immerse in the incredible underwater world of the Maldives

The Maldives is one of the world’s premier spots for beachside bliss and underwater exploration. Snow-white sands lead to warm vitrine waters filled with spectacular tropical fish. Known as a tropical paradise filled with luxurious resorts, these idyllic Indian Ocean atolls may seem like an unattainable bucket list destination, so you may be surprised that you can easily afford this storybook island vacation on a Disney budget. Swim, snorkel, and scuba dive your way to meeting colorful marine life with an Emirates Vacations package. Our favorite lands you in the lap of exquisite luxury at Anantara Dhigu Maldives Resort, which is still surprisingly family-friendly—there’s even a kids’ club! You’ll stay in a private beach villa (or upgrade to an overwater bungalow) and indulge in gourmet cuisine, complete with stunning views, with packages that include full board (meaning all meals), six nights hotel stay, and round trip airfare, from $2,150 per person. Hurry if you want to go on this one—the Maldives is one of the islands at risk for disappearing in your lifetime.

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Three geishas walking on a street of Gion (Kyoto, Japan)Sergii Rudiuk/Shutterstock

Head to Japan to explore the Land of the Rising Sun

Home to sumo wrestling, sake, ramen, karaoke, anime, and amazing street style, not to mention these weird things you can only find in Japan, the Land of the Rising Sun tops many travelers bucket lists (and that should only grow after the nation hosts the 2020 Olympics). From world-class sushi to legendary samurai, this enigmatic nation is a traveler’s delight, says Intrepid Travel, which has created the Japan Express itinerary. And no need to worry about the language barrier, or busting your budget; Intrepid Travel offers a nine-day Tokyo to Kyoto tour that includes accommodations, local transportation, and expert tour guides for just $1,800 per person (note, though, that airfare isn’t included).

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Eiffel Tower during spring time in Paris, FranceSamot/Shutterstock

Stroll the Seine and sample croissants in Paris

To quote Audrey Hepburn, “Paris is always a good idea.” We couldn’t agree more, especially when you can visit the City of Lights without spending big. Start your visit exploring the inexpensive bookstalls along the Seine, strolling through the free Luxembourg Gardens, munching on croissants from a corner bakery. Make Paris feel like home by staying in a chic apartment curated by Paris Perfect’s local experts. You’ll be within walking distance of all of the hotspots in the center of Paris, so no need to pay for expensive cabs, starting at just $300 a night for a gorgeous two-room apartment, complete with a contemporary kitchen you can stock with gourmet goodies from local markets. To save money while you’re exploring, stand at a coffee bar for your morning coffee (it’s more expensive if you pull up a seat), and book affordable guided tours with City Wonders that can allow you to skip the line at the Louvre (the family tour goes for $66 per adult) and Versailles (starting at $59). Want to see the Eiffel Tower? Combine it with a cruise on the Seine for $66. Extra bargain bonus: Iceland Air has round trip flights for $396 (yup, less than it costs to get to Orlando).

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New Zealand - Hobbiton - Movie set - Lord of the ringsTimo Kaestner/Shutterstock

Explore Middle Earth in New Zealand

Make like a Hobbit and get ready to ramble along a real Middle Earth itinerary that takes in the incredible natural wonders, and Hobbiton fantasy highlights, of North Island New Zealand. This self-guided itinerary from the New Zealand Tourism Board is a great seven- day, family-friendly adventure that costs approximately $1,800 per person including accommodations, a rental car, gas, meals, and all the activities listed (to make the budget work on this one, you’ll need to use some frequent flier miles to get there).

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colorful northern light in icelandSimon's passion 4 Travel/Shutterstock

Be dazzled by the Northern Lights in Iceland

Watching the winter night sky light up with the Aurora Borealis (one of the seven Natural Wonders of the World) is on the top of many explorers’ bucket lists. Even though it may sound like a prohibitively expensive trip to travel far north enough to witness the iridescent formation of glowing greens, purples, and gold lights, flying to Iceland, one of the premier viewing spots in the world, costs only $398 on Iceland Air, and a five-day guided trip including airfare, hotel, breakfasts, and transportation is $1,149. When you’re not searching for the lights, you can spend time relaxing in the geothermal Blue Lagoon, exploring lava tunnels, and whale watching without breaking the bank. The Blue Lagoon is on our list of the world’s 16 most beautiful destinations to add to your bucket list.

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Melissa Klurman
Melissa is an intrepid explorer and award-winning travel journalist with more than 25 years of experience. She covers topics ranging from family travel and Disney to honeymoons and romantic beaches, and everything in between.