Whether you’re a winter lover or the type who groans at the first sign of snowfall, it’s hard to deny the excitement of an oncoming spring. The sun is shining, the birds are singing and even better, spring break is around the corner. After all, who among us couldn’t use a spring break getaway after a long, blustering winter?
About 42% of families take a vacation over spring break, according to a 2017 study by New York University School of Professional Studies. And a 2018 TripAdvisor/Viator/Offers.com survey shows that number increases to 53% among millennials.
Travel is fun, fulfilling and can even teach you a thing or two. But it’s also a great way to spend more than you mean to, especially in the super popular destinations so many of us flock to in March and April. Considering that most students are already graduating with five-figure debt totals, it’s worthwhile to find the cheapest getaway possible.
So we decided to pair up some of the hottest spring break spots (based on a study by travel insurance firm Allianz Global Assistance) with alternative options, where you can find the same amount of fun for a fraction of the funds.
Ready to get going? Here’s where to set your sights — and your GPS.
Whether it’s Cancún, Cabo San Lucas or some other surf-and-sand scene, Mexico is a spring break classic for a reason. The tropical climate is sure to warm you up, even after months of icy weather, and let’s face it: Who doesn’t love margaritas?
But an international flight can be costly, even if you get an all-expenses-included resort package once you arrive. And if you’re looking for warm, sandy beaches, you don’t actually have to go south of the border.
Where to go instead: Key Largo
It doesn’t get more scenic than the Florida Keys, and by staying a few miles north of the popular Key West, you’ll avoid souped-up spring break prices. Caroline Savon, founder of Well and Often Travel, suggests using the money you save on the flight to rent a killer beach house.
And if you absolutely must get out of the country, she says, consider heading even farther south than Mexico.
“Belize is a good international substitute,” she said, and although the flight might run you about the same, the atmosphere will be way less chaotic. “The beaches are incredible, everything is laid back, prices are very reasonable and there’s some amazing diving!”
What destination inhabits the Venn diagram circle where young families, college students and retirees overlap?
It’s Disney World. And yes, it’s more expensive than ever.
Where to go instead: Tampa
If you’re looking for a Florida vacation and are willing to skip Chef Mickey’s, consider continuing southward past Orlando. Tampa offers the same fun-in-the-sun climate with much better beach access, and you can still get in some rollercoaster time at Busch Gardens, where a ticket starts at $79.99, as opposed to Disney’s $109+.
You can stash that extra cash for later or spend some of your savings on authentic Cuban cigars and cuisine. And as a native Floridian, this writer contends that Tampa beats the heck out of Orlando in the nightlife department. Tampa’s Ybor City neighborhood is not only a cultural gem, but a never-ending party, with clubs ranging from pop music dance halls to industrial and Goth hangouts.
3. Las Vegas
What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, they say, but so will a big chunk of your spring break budget if you’re not careful. Between expensive drinks on the Strip and gambling the night away, there are plenty of ways to make your carefully saved trip funds — or worse, your student loan check — disappear in Sin City.
Where to go instead: Reno
If you’re looking for a Nevada experience that might be a little gentler on your wallet, consider heading to Reno instead. A meal at an inexpensive restaurant, for example, could cost you 20% less than in Vegas, according to user-generated data at Numbeo. And you can still take your chance on the penny slots that show up at every gas station, grocery store and not-quite-so-famous casino.
“Reno is super close to Lake Tahoe,” Savon added, “and the Nevada side has casinos and gambling along with the insanely beautiful backdrop of the clear blue lake and mountains.” That makes this trip a home run for adventurers of both the indoorsy and outdoorsy persuasions.
4. New York
Although it’s no beatific beachfront, we’re not surprised that New York is a top spring break destination. After all, what can’t you do in the Big Apple?
Well, save money, for one thing. It’s true that there’s no place like New York City, but that goes for both its excitement and its expense.
Where to go instead: Montreal
This may sound like a strange switch, but hear us out. While Montreal may boast a fraction of the population of New York City, its many delights are also available at a fraction of Big Apple prices.
In springtime, the hard freeze the city is known for is starting to melt off, with daytime temperatures hovering between 35-50 degrees. In other words, it’s sweater weather, and you’ll still get to wear those cute, chunky booties — just like the fashionable Montrealers you’ll meet.
Although nothing can compete with Broadway, there’s plenty of live entertainment to be found in town, including live music and stage shows large and small across the city’s many venues. Plus, this Canadian city is renowned for its bagels, and you can exchange your Katz’s Delicatessen pastrami for a smoked meat sandwich from Schwartz’s. (Both are best served on rye.)
And finally: French accents. Need we say more, mon cher?
5. Los Angeles
The City of Angels is a popular destination for spring break and beyond. After all, the weather is pretty much always perfect.
But it’s also one of the most expensive and congested cities in America … and not the only southern Californian vacation option.
Where to go instead: San Diego
Who wants to battle LA’s infamous traffic when you could be spending your spring break with sea lions at La Jolla? There’s still plenty of nightlife to be had in the Gaslamp Quarter, plus the proximity to Mexico means the eats are authentic and the tequila is strong. ¡Disfruta!
Spring break doesn’t have to break the bank
As this article seeks to illustrate, the world is awash with great travel destinations. You can have a great time without choosing the spendiest on the list.
And considering that spring break’s popularity among college students and millennials, there’s good reason to choose a cheaper option: Today’s graduates average about $25,000 in student loan debt — and even more if they attend private or for-profit institutions.
Although everyone needs to cut loose from time to time, finding less expensive alternatives is a great way to get ahead of those staggering debt totals, which means you’ll be able to afford more adventures in the future. Plus, there are plenty of ways to save without wrecking your lifestyle. I mean, who can argue with a trip to Tampa or San Diego?
Bon voyage and happy saving!
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