Travel on a Dime: Tips for Planning a Dream Retirement Vacation Under $1,000
It’s getting expensive to get away.
Many people budget $2,000 to $5,000 for each vacation. A big chunk of that goes to airfare and lodging.
That’s a lot of money, especially if you’re a retiree on a fixed income.
But don’t despair. If you’re willing to be flexible, creative and plan ahead, you can make a $1,000 retirement vacation a reality.
We’ve profiled five unique destinations to explore. Prices are based on one traveler; couples will need to budget more.
We’ll also discuss some expert tips to save money on airfare and lodging, no matter your destination.
5 Low-Budget Vacation Destinations
Ready to start living your retirement travel dreams?
Here are five destinations with affordable lodging and airfare options.
1. Las Vegas, Nevada
It’s easy to go broke in Vegas.
But if gambling isn’t your thing (or you can at least avoid losing lots of money), Las Vegas can be surprisingly affordable.
It’s best to travel from late March through May and from September to November. Keep an eye out for major events that might bring thousands of extra visitors to the city, such as the Electric Daisy Carnival music festival in mid-May.
You can get round-trip flights to Las Vegas for a song, especially if you’re anywhere near the West Coast. Cities like Los Angeles and Dallas had plenty of round-trip flights for less than $75 in May. Even Denver, Salt Lake City and Kansas City offered budget-airline fares for under $100 round-trip.
Flights remained affordable (less than $150) for many East Coast locations, too, including Louisville, Atlanta and Orlando.
Leslie Carbone, a retiree travel blogger at Sancerres at Sunset, said staying at hotel casinos is a great way to save money in Sin City.
“You can many times find very nice rooms at low cost or even comped,” Carbone said.
This self-described Boomer blogger suggested signing up for the casino’s branded credit card to unlock discounted room rates.
“Those cards typically don’t have annual fees, unlike most hotel-branded cards,” Carbone said. “They can also give you higher status, which comes with discounts on items from souvenirs to show tickets.”
Casino hotels offer a range of restaurants — from inexpensive fast-casual spots to upscale steak houses — where you can snag happy-hour food and drink specials.
“And a good bartender can help you avoid tourist traps by filling you in on the more reasonably priced places the locals like,” Carbone added.
You might notice that Las Vegas hotel prices look too good to be true. We came across numerous rooms for $20 to $35.
Just keep in mind that a resort fee as high as $50 is usually tacked on at Vegas hotels.
But it’s tricky: Not all Vegas hotels charge a resort fee, so it’s worth asking about before you book. Several budget-friendly hotels in downtown Las Vegas, for example, don’t charge resort fees.
“The downtown area is much less expensive overall than the Strip, and has more of an ‘old-school Vegas’ vibe,” Carbone said.
The city is known for its extravagant shows and entertainment, but there are plenty of cheap and free things to do in Las Vegas. Here are some ideas:
- Explore the Strip: Walking down the Strip is an adventure in itself. You can take in all the sights and sounds of Las Vegas, including the towering hotels and casinos, street performers and colorful lights.
- Hike at Red Rock Canyon: If you’re looking for outdoor activities, Red Rock Canyon is a great place to hike and explore. The park has over 30 miles of hiking trails and stunning views of the desert landscape.
- Check out the Fremont Street Experience: The Fremont Street Experience is a pedestrian-only area in downtown Las Vegas that features live music, street performers and a giant LED canopy that displays a light show every hour. Admission is free.
2. San Juan, Puerto Rico
San Juan, the capital city of Puerto Rico, is a beautiful Caribbean vacation destination. And since it’s a U.S. territory, no passport is required.
From stunning beaches to historical landmarks and delicious food, there’s no shortage of things to explore in Puerto Rico.
The slow season is usually September through February, and January through March tends to enjoy the nicest weather.
East Coast residents will find more airfare deals (and more direct flights) than West Coasters.
When we checked, a non-stop Frontier flight from Baltimore, Maryland, to San Juan ranged from $235 to $250 roundtrip in mid-October.
We found similar prices for cities like Boston. Places like Miami and Newark, New Jersey, offered even more affordable fares, including a couple for less than $180.
To save money on lodging, consider one of San Juan’s well-rated hostels, which go for $40 to $65 a night depending on the season.
If bunk beds aren’t your thing, Airbnb is also an option. There’s also tons of budget-friendly motels and hotels in the $90 to $100 range per night.
Here are some free and cheap things to do in San Juan to help stretch your budget:
- The beaches: San Juan is known for its stunning beaches, and many of them are free to access. Some of the top beaches include Condado Beach, Isla Verde Beach and Ocean Park Beach.
- Old San Juan: This historic district is home to colorful buildings, cobblestone streets and plenty of Instagram-worthy photo ops. You can spend hours wandering the streets while browsing local shops.
- The forts: San Juan is home to two historic forts, Castillo San Cristobal and Castillo San Felipe del Morro. Both offer stunning views of the city and the ocean — and they’re free to visit.
- Take a hike: El Yunque National Forest is just a short drive from San Juan and offers plenty of hiking trails for all skill levels. Entrance to the park is free, and you can spend a whole day exploring the rainforest.
3. Mexico City, Mexico
From stunning colonial architecture to Aztec ruins to the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco, there’s no shortage of things to see in and around Mexico City.
The cheapest time of year to travel to Mexico City is from May through September. The weather is hotter and more humid, but you’ll find better prices on flights, hotels and activities.
Flights to Mexico City are fairly affordable, especially for West Coasters and some Southern residents. When we checked, you could snag a roundtrip flight in mid-September for less than $215 from cities like San Antonio and Houston. Places like Chicago and Los Angeles offered flights for less than $300.
Mexico City also makes it easy to save money on lodging and other expenses, if you’re willing to get thrifty.
It costs about $42 a day to stay in Mexico City on a backpacker budget, according to PriceofTravel.com. The estimate includes a one-night dorm bed at a cheap hotel, three budget meals, two public transit rides and a modest entertainment budget. It also factors in the U.S. to Mexico currency conversion rate.
If it’s your first time in a foreign country — or your Spanish isn’t quite as good as it used to be — there are lots of affordable hotels and motels in the city’s historic district, too.
A quick search on Expedia found several highly rated hotels in mid-September for $65 to $95 a night (before taxes and fees). You could opt for a shorter three- or four-day stay and still stick to your $1,000 budget.
Some of the best free things to do in Mexico City include:
- National Museum of Anthropology: The museum is free on Sundays, and it’s home to an extensive collection of artifacts from Mexico’s pre-Columbian civilizations.
- Chapultepec Park: This is the largest park in Mexico City, and it offers a range of attractions, including museums, a zoo and botanical gardens.
- The historic center: The historic center of Mexico City is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it’s home to many of the city’s most iconic landmarks, including the cathedral and the National Palace.
- Templo Mayor: The Templo Mayor is an Aztec temple located in the heart of Mexico City, and it’s one of the city’s most significant archaeological sites.
4. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is located between the border of Tennessee and North Carolina — which makes it easily accessible by car from big cities like Atlanta, Charlotte and Nashville.
Justin Hunter is a Wyoming-based journalist who’s visited over 40 countries and 20 national parks.
The Smokies were his top pick for affordable National Parks to visit because of its beautiful hiking trails, modestly priced accommodations and accessibility for road trippers.
“Whenever you can drive somewhere, you’ll save a lot of money you would have spent on airfare,” Hunter said.
Once you get to the Smokies, admission to the park is technically free, though you’ll need to pay for a parking tag: $5 for the day or $15 for the week.
It’s a small price for all the natural beauty the park offers.
Hiking is one of the most popular activities at the Great Smoky Mountains, with over 800 miles of trails to explore. Some of the most popular hikes include the Laurel Falls Trail, the Alum Cave Trail and the Clingmans Dome Trail. The park also has several scenic drives that offer breathtaking views of the mountains.
Camping is a great way to experience the park’s beauty while saving big on lodging. There are 10 developed campgrounds in the park for RVs and tents. Costs range from $17 to $23 per night, depending on the campground and the season.
There are also lots of budget-friendly hotels and cabins in nearby towns like Pigeon Forge, Townsend and Sevierville for under $90 a night during weekdays and the off season.
Stock up on essentials at one of several grocery stores near the park. Packing a cooler with sandwiches, fruit and snacks is a great way to stretch your $1,000 budget.
Hunter and his wife stayed at an affordable cabin outside Gatlinburg, the main vacation hub for the park, for less than $95 a night in April.
“We just went hiking and avoided the expensive touristy spots in Gatlinburg,” Hunter said. “If you’re there for the nature, you can keep costs low.”
Summer and holidays tend to be the busiest — and most expensive — times to visit the Great Smoky Mountains. Visiting during the shoulder season (spring or fall) can save you money with fewer crowds.
An America the Beautiful senior pass is just $20 for people ages 62 and older. It provides admission to more than 2,000 recreation sites managed by six federal agencies, including all national parks.
5. Montreal, Canada
Montreal, Canada, is a vibrant and culturally diverse city that attracts visitors from all over the globe. While it may have a reputation for being pricey, there are plenty of ways to enjoy Montreal without breaking the bank.
You’ll find the cheapest flights to Montreal during chilly and cold months (think October through April). Flights out of New York City consistently offered the best fares, at around $250.
Montreal is also accessible by car from several major U.S. cities. Upper New York state residents can reach Montreal in less than two hours, but even cities like Boston, Burlington, Vermont and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, are less than a five-hour drive away.
For budget travelers, you can expect to spend about $82 a day on lodging and expenses, according to Price of Travel. During the off season, you can find hostels for $45 to $65 in the city.
You can also find decent-quality hotels for about $75 to $100 per night during the week.
Airbnb is another option, with private rooms starting at around $30 per night.
The U.S. dollar is stronger than the Canadian dollar, which means your money goes further in Montreal.
The exchange rate in July 2023 was 1.32 from USD to CAD. So $100 gets you $132 in Canada. A little extra money for food and souvenirs is never a bad thing!
Here are some ideas for budget-friendly activities in Montreal:
- Old Montreal: Take a stroll through the neighborhood and admire the architecture or visit the Notre Dame Basilica, which offers free admission during certain hours.
- Mount Royal: Mount Royal is a park located in the heart of Montreal with stunning views of the city. Take a hike to the top of the mountain, have a picnic in the park or check out one of the many free events held there throughout the year.
- Visit a museum: Many of Montreal’s museums offer free admission on certain days. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, for example, offers free admission on the first Sunday of every month.
- Lachine Canal: The Lachine Canal is a historic waterway that runs through Montreal. It’s a peaceful escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. Take a walk or rent a bike and enjoy the views.
How to Stretch a $1,000 Vacation Budget
Lodging and airfare take out the biggest chunk of any travel budget. Plane tickets and hotel rooms for a week can easily cost $2,000 or more. And that’s before you even do anything.
With just $1,000 to spend for your entire trip, you’ll need to get creative. Consider destinations within driving distance or look for roundtrip plane tickets for under $300.
Aim to get accommodation costs under $500. Better yet, reach out to old friends and find a place to stay for free.
Kelly Johnson, the founder of travel blog Snap Travel Magic, shared some of her best tips to help make your $1,000 dream retirement vacation a reality.
Take Advantage of Reward Credit Cards
Many travel enthusiasts swear by reward credit cards — and for good reason. Racking up points for lodging and airfare is a great way to travel more for less.
“People should sign up for a travel credit card a year or more before their dream vacation,” said Johnson, who’s traveled to over 40 counties and worked abroad as an au pair. “For the next year, put every expense on the travel credit card and rack up points.”
Look for the best credit card sign-up bonuses, which offer thousands of free points. You’ll need to spend a certain amount within the first three to six months to get the bonus.
Booking through the credit card company’s travel portal is one of the best ways to get the most bang for your points.
Here are some other ways to maximize credit card rewards before your big trip.
“By the end of the year, you should have enough to pay for airfare and a hotel in a less-expensive destination,” Johnson said.
Using a rewards credit card to save money only works if you pay off your credit card balance in full every month. No amount of airline miles are worth racking up debt.
How to Find Lodging for Less than $500
Your $1,000 budget won’t survive if you stay in expensive hotels every night.
Consider which accommodations and amenities you really need. Thinking outside the box can save you big, and free up more money for other vacation costs, like food and car rentals.
Stay With Friends or Family … at Least for a Few Days
The easiest way to save money on lodging is to stay with people you know. It’s a smart way to save money and travel more. You might even consider planning your vacation destination around it.
Maybe you have an old college friend in California or a military buddy in Denver you’ve been meaning to visit. Asking if you can stay at their house — at least for a few days — can save you hundreds of dollars.
Plus, you’ll have a local tour guide to show you around the city and help you avoid expensive tourist traps. They’ll probably pay for some of your food, too.
Of course, you don’t want to spring the idea on your friend or family member a week before your trip — especially if you haven’t spoken in 20 years.
But reconnecting with old friends is never a bad idea. You might be surprised at how excited they are to hear from you and help you plan your visit.
Consider House Sitting
One great hack is house sitting for your stay.
“Sites like Nomador allow you to stay at someone’s home for free while they are away and do light housekeeping,” Johnson said.
Grabbing some mail and feeding the cats isn’t a bad trade for a cheap stay.
Book During the Off Season
You’ll find better deals during shoulder season, aka the less-popular times of the year. Visiting Chicago in February, for example, is frigid but frugal.
It’s also important to avoid booking a trip during the holidays or during major events in the city.
If the destination is popular with spring breakers or summer travelers, consider a snowbird trip in January or February.
People flock to the tropics to escape the snow, so you’ll usually find better deals in the Caribbean over the summer — just beware of hurricane season.
Adjust the Length of Your Stay
The longer your stay, the more you’ll spend on lodging.
If you want to stay in affordable hotels for seven days, you’ll still spend roughly $600 to $700 just on lodging.
You might consider a shorter three- to five-day trip instead.
Consider Hostels and Airbnbs — But Beware
If you don’t mind roughing it, hostels offer an affordable place to stay, usually for less than $40 a night. Certain cities have more hostels than others, and it isn’t an option everywhere.
“Hostels are a great way to stay in the center of a city,” Johnson said. “Unfortunately, you’ll most likely be sleeping on a bunk bed in a shared room with a shared bathroom.”
Airbnb also tends to offer much cheaper rates than hotels. Private rooms in a home will cost less than booking an entire apartment or condo, but it’s possible to find deals across the spectrum.
Just proceed with caution: Airbnb is infamous for hidden fees. Another drawback? Airbnb properties don’t have full-time staff to address issues. If there’s a problem with the rental, you’ll have to resolve it with the host — if they’re available.
If you want to save money on Airbnb, try negotiating a lower price with the host.
“You can usually get about 10% knocked off, especially if it’s during a less busy season or it’s a less popular destination,” Hunter said.
Getting closer to nature can save you tons of money on vacation.
Pitching a tent at a national park or renting a cabin at a KOA campground is a fraction of the cost of hotels. Some super minimalist campgrounds go for $10 or less a night.
It’s important to be honest about your comfort level with camping. If you know you want to take a shower in the morning, look for a campsite with shower facilities or book a cabin.
If you don’t mind roughing it, dust off your old camping gear in the attic and ask family and friends if you can borrow other equipment you might need. Or keep your eyes open for an RV or camper on places like Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist.
Campgrounds costs vary, but here’s a general overview:
- Primitive campground: You might get a bathroom, but don’t expect an electric hookup or water hookup. Cost ranges from $5 to $15 a night.
- National parks: Camping options range from tent sites to RV sites to cabins, with prices from $15 to $35 per night for tent sites and $30 to $60 per night for RV sites. The downside is that national park campgrounds can get crowded and often require advanced reservations.
- State parks: State parks can offer smaller crowds (usually) at a more affordable price. Tent sites range from $10 to $30 per night and RV sites range from $20 to $50 per night.
- Private campgrounds: Private campgrounds, like KOA, offer a range of amenities including full hookups, showers and laundry facilities. Prices range from $20 to $85 per night depending on the location and amenities.
You don’t have to camp your entire vacation, either. Camping for two or three nights could make the difference between a seven-day vacation and a four-day vacation.
How to Get Airfare for Less Than $300
Picking the right time to fly is just as important as picking the right destination.
Budget airlines offer great deals if you’re willing to pack light. A round-trip Spirit ticket from Orlando to New York City, for example, can be had for $110 in mid-February without any checked bags or carry-ons.
Here are some other smart ways to minimize your airfare costs.
Think Regional First
Traveling internationally is pricey. Airfare to Europe can cost $600 roundtrip — if you’re really lucky.
Picking a vacation destination a little closer to home can save you a ton of money.
If you’re on the West Coast and looking for a tropical escape in the middle of winter, you’ll usually find better deals on flights to Costa Rica and Panama City than someone on the East Coast. Similarly, it’s usually cheaper to fly to the Caribbean from New York, New Jersey and Florida than it is to fly from Oregon.
If you can drive to your destination in eight hours or less, the price of gas will almost always be cheaper than the price of plane tickets.
Let Google Help You Find the Best Flight Deals
So what’s the best site to find cheap flights?
Johnson said she lets Google decide.
“Google has a go anywhere feature — so does Skyscanner — where you can put in a range of dates and find cheap flights,” she said.
Google will aggregate results from major travel websites like Kayak and Expedia, so you can easily review them in one place.
You can also check sites like SkipLagged to find cheap flights.
It’s also wise to check the hotel or airline’s direct website to see if you can get a cheaper deal than what Google may pull up. Southwest, for example, only sells tickets through its own site.
You can track flights on Google, Expedia and Hopper to get email alerts when the price of your flight drops.
Get Creative With Your Luggage
Budget airlines like Spirit and Frontier offer incredibly cheap fares — if you don’t have baggage.
Taking a minimalist approach can literally save you hundreds of dollars. You can pack a backpack and avoid baggage fees.
“Don’t be picky about the airline, either,” Hunter said. “It’s just a way to get from one place to another.”
Consider how much you really need to take with you on your trip. Budget airlines let you take a personal item on the plane for free. As long as the purse, backpack or duffle bag can fit under the seat in front of you, you can usually avoid carry-on or checked baggage fees.
“The less you can live with, the cheaper and easier it is to travel,” Hunter added.
Some airline loyalty programs also offer free checked bags for members.
Your schedule is usually more flexible in retirement than it was during your working years.
Use that flexibility to your advantage. Consider flying midweek, as flights tend to be cheaper on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Book your vacation while everyone else is busy working or in school to beat the crowds — and save big.
You might also consider planning your trip “backwards,” where the airfare deal you find determines where you go. Sites like Skiplagged let you set your destination to “Anywhere” when searching for the cheapest flights.
You might have your heart set on visiting Jamaica or the Bahamas, but if a cheap flight to the Dominican Republic pops up, jumping on that deal and remaining flexible can free up money in your budget.
Rachel Christian is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance and a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. She focuses on retirement, investing, taxes and life insurance.