Which destination ranks highest on your travel bucket list? Maybe it’s the swank French Riviera, or the ancient ruins of Cambodia and Peru, or the maze-like urban landscapes of Tokyo and Istanbul. There’s your dream itinerary — and then there are the everyday realities that keep you from hopping on a plane tomorrow.
We know: When you live in New York City, satisfying your wanderlust can feel like an unimaginable splurge — mentally, physically, and financially; a recent StreetEasy study showed that the average New Yorker devotes 60% of his or her income to (you guessed it) rent. And if budget isn’t what’s standing between you and two weeks in Sri Lanka, it’s probably the unfathomable idea of two weeks completely off the grid — no email, no meetings, no nothing.
But don’t pack away your passport just yet; if you explore enough options, it can be surprisingly doable to plot a course for an unreal vacation. To help, we’ve sourced advice — not from travel experts, but from 14 New York women who have taken the leap themselves; women who have maneuvered the obstacles city life has thrown their way to take that retreat of a lifetime. Take their tips, revel in their stories, and keep mindfulness maven Elizabeth Gilbert’s words in mind: “People say they can’t afford to travel. But if you circle a date on your calendar and make that your single, greatest priority, I guarantee you that you can.”
The Destination: Tokyo, Japan
“I had always wanted to go to Japan during the sakura blossoms, so I decided to meet up with a friend who was traveling around Asia.
“I subscribe to The Flight Deal via Feedly, so I track when and where good fares are happening. I noticed some relatively inexpensive nonstop flights to Tokyo — I didn’t want to waste too much time getting there — so I booked a 10-day trip.
“We both wanted to feel a sense of immersion in Japanese culture and had no specific list of must-see destinations. We sat on the floor of a Barnes & Noble and looked through a stack of guidebooks, exchanging things that sounded interesting. (I tend to like Lonely Planet’s sidebar suggestions.) Then I got in touch with a friend who used to live in Japan and asked for suggestions for something that might not be super easy to get to, but was worth the trek. That’s when I learned about Koyasan, the birthplace of Shingon Buddhism in Japan. It’s a very spiritual place up in the mountains, and it’s home to the largest and most sacred cemetery in the country. On a whim, I also tracked down and emailed my brother’s middle school teacher, who since moved to Tokyo. He reinforced the Koyasan idea, and even invited us to stay at his home! I definitely wasn’t expecting that, but it was great to stay with a family.
“I’m not a heavy Pinterest user, but it is one of my favorite tools for travel research. For example, I searched the term “ikebana” and found myself scrolling through these beautiful images of arranged flowers. Then I noticed one that linked to a class and thought, Wouldn’t it be cool if I could attend a Japanese floral-arrangement course in Japan? That’s how I found the Sogetsu school, which is in a gorgeous building overlooking a park. For around $30, I get to spend 90 minutes in this tranquil space, learn about ikebana, watch demos, and arrange my own bouquet.
“Surprisingly, Japan was not as expensive as I thought it would be. The train pass was pricey (no way around that!), and we definitely lucked out with some free lodging. Otherwise, it reminded me of New York: It’s a city that can be extremely expensive, but with a bit of research and open-mindedness, it is very possible to find great, inexpensive food and lots of fun things to do.”
— Libbie Hayward, Senior Web Manager, Central Park Conservancy
The Destination: Palm Springs, California
“Earlier this summer, I rented a house in Palm Springs with a bunch of college and law school friends. There were about 15 of us, so we were able to rent a completely amazing place. The property was called Thirteen Palms, and it had five little cottages (or ‘desert flats’) — some one-bedroom, some two-, each lined in a semicircle around the pool and courtyard. We kept costs low by making it a ‘compound’
weekend: We hung out by the pool, read, played drinking games, and grilled. It was like a resort, but with only your very favorite people.
“I picked the location by scouring Airbnb and VRBO, and I purposely invited a crazy number of friends: the more people, the higher we could aim on the glam scale. Around 15 to 20 people turned out to be the sweet spot, and the per-person rate ended up being far less than a hotel. Before the trip, I emailed everyone and asked for any food allergies or restrictions, and any drink loves or hates. The responses came in, and then I used the info to do one big shopping trip, rather than letting people ‘bring whatever.’
“We bought all of our food and beverages at Costco, which meant that we could have pretty sophisticated taste on a budget (that’s another reason 15 to 20 people works so well: You can buy great materials in bulk). One of my friends is an amateur chef, so she took the trip as an occasion to plan out a full menu, with dishes like Greek salad topped with marinated salmon, and kebabs in garlic sauce. My contribution was more on the cocktail end of things: I made ‘signature cocktails’ — think vodka/grapefruit, orange juice/club soda, tequila/lime juice, which was another cost-saving measure, since we were buying a lot of a few great ingredients, rather than trying to ‘diversify.’
“At the end of the weekend, we added the cost of the house to the Costco bill and divided it up. It came to around $200 per person for the weekend. And I will say, swanning around the pool in a big hat and a cocktail definitely felt glamorous.”
— Julie Schechter, Founder, FitBallet
The Destinations: Lima and Cusco, Peru
“My dad, sister, and I have been lucky to embark on some amazing travels together, ranging from camping trips in Yellowstone to museum-hopping in The Netherlands. But when my dad announced he was planning to retire, we knew we had to do something truly epic to celebrate. We decided we’d hike the Inca Trail as a threesome; we were all (relatively) in good shape, enjoy the outdoors, and are huge fans of adventures, so we knew we’d have a blast.
“We arrived in Lima and had an amazing, altitude-themed meal at the world-renowned Central Restaurant (which involved eating clay, among other delicacies) and explored the city (and its Pisco Sours). Then we went to Cusco — the city of the Incas — to visit the ruins…and acclimate to the considerable altitude. There, we met our tour guide, Edgar, who briefed us and checked out our gear — the next morning, we were off! We spent four days hiking the trail, walking in the footsteps of the Incas, sleeping in tents, and enjoying the fantastically beautiful scenery. Luckily, we had hired porters to carry much of our stuff and cook our food — but don’t get me wrong, the trail is still quite difficult. It involves many ups and downs and very little flat land. Plus, altitude sickness is indiscriminate in its victims: My 65-year-old dad fared the best of us all. Oh, and did I mention there are no showers or toilets?
“But, my goodness, it was a trip of a lifetime for so many reasons. One, we decided that by the end, we would all be certified badasses — so I’m now certified. Two, the trail is so steeped in tradition and history, there’s no way to leave uninspired. I remember waking one morning to our view across the mountain range and thinking, I walked here, to this place. Three, there is nothing like hiking and the wilderness to give you time to connect with those on your journey. At the time of the trip, all of us lived in different cities, so those four days were the best family time I could have asked for. And lastly, Machu Picchu, the ancient city, is the best treat you could ever have at the end of that trek. I’ll remember my first view of it — after waking at three in the morning to hike in the dark and see the city with the sunrise — forever.”
— Katherine Kilpatrick, Corporate Communications Manager, Symphony
The Destination: Istanbul, Turkey
“I traveled to Istanbul by myself during the winter of 2011. I was on a break with my then-boyfriend, and I needed something to get my mind off of him. Because I was raised in the Caribbean, I’ve never been much of a How Stella Got Her Groove Back type — I wanted something as far from a beach holiday as possible. I’m fascinated by cities and love walking around and listening to music. Spending time with myself, reminding myself of my magic, is very restorative; I’m the most social introvert you’ve ever met. So I thought Istanbul was the perfect mix of somewhere far away and dreamy but still metropolitan and accessible. I just wanted to be alone, ride the ferry, eat great fish, see beautiful art, and go to a local movie theater. Those were my goals.
“The trip happened to coincide with Thanksgiving — I know, Turkey for Turkey Day — so the airfare was surprisingly cheap. In preparation for the trip, I read a lot of history books on the country and fiction by Orhan Pamuk.
“Thanks to my dad, who’s in the hospitality business, I got the hook-up at the Sheraton, which I found to be hilarious (since I was traveling alone, it was my dad’s way of watching over me). To offset the very corporate hotel stay, I spent a lot of time outside — I hit pretty much every museum and mosque you can imagine, and really loved eating baklava, marinated lamb, ayran (a local yogurt drink), and Turkish ice cream, which has the most amazing texture. I found the Grand Bazaar to be too overwhelming, but I loved the Spice Bazaar and even bought a Turkish rug nearby. I drank a lot of apple tea; I learned how to master the metro system; I saw a Turkish movie in a local theater; I even read five books, one being a biography of Princess Diana by Tina Brown.
“When I returned, I was surprised by the sound of my own voice — I had gone seven days completely silent, except for a bit of broken Turkish here and there. It was a great, albeit emotional, trip, and I would go back in a heartbeat.”
— Natalie Guevara, Senior Communications Officer, Genius
The Destination: Cannes, France
“Years ago, we wanted to visit the French Riviera during what we thought would be the most glamorous time: The Cannes Film Festival. Well, deciding to go to a popular resort destination during a popular time can definitely be difficult on the wallet. Plus, the Côte d’Azur is not known for being inexpensive anyway, so we had to be flexible on our accommodations, flights, etc.
“We booked our flights from the United States to London, which was the cheapest destination for us to fly to in Europe at that time. From there, we purchased tickets on a discount airline to Nice. While it was slightly inconvenient to have to switch airlines, terminals, and even airports on a layover, the ticket savings made up for it. To get between the towns, we opted for the train, which was way more affordable than driving (or, as some do, taking a helicopter). For accommodations, we stayed at a cute bed-and-breakfast in neighboring Nice, because hotel prices soar during the festival, especially in Cannes.
“We didn’t know this before booking the trip or arriving in Cannes, but the Cannes Film Festival is largely invitation-only, and tickets cannot be purchased. Luckily, there were two completely free portions of the festival that we were able to enjoy: Cinema de la Plage, where films are screened on the beach, and the Semaine de la Critique (Critic’s Week Section), which shows films by popular young directors. From this, we learned to do our research in advance.
“Traveling from town to town by train forced us to see a lot more than we would have, and we left with an appreciation for, and memory of, each town: We enjoyed Cannes’ sandy beaches (rare for the area), had dinner at Monaco’s famed Café de Paris, and wandered through the streets of Antibes. And it was every bit as glamorous as we expected.”
— Jamila Justine Willis, Attorney, and Jordan Claire Drosdick, Director, American Express; Co-founders, Wanderlust, Simply
The Destinations: Thalpe, Habarana, and Colombo, Sri Lanka
“I’ve been to Sri Lanka many times, since my heritage is Sri Lankan, but one of my favorite trips was hosting a group of about 30 friends on the island back in 2009.
“We went in December, which is a fantastic time to visit, since the temperatures are more comfortable. Everybody was flying in a couple of days after Christmas and planned to stay for two weeks, which is really the minimum duration you should plan on staying if you really want to see the island. Our flights were booked through a combination of scanning for online deals and grouping together with a travel agent to get the best fares.
“We started our trip on the south coast of the island in Thalpe, which is a stunning area close to Galle and Unawatuna (both very busy hubs of shops, restaurants, and beach activities). Since we were a large group, we opted for an all-inclusive hotel; now, six years later, there are a number of luxury villa rentals on the coast that I would probably book. On the coast, you can do water sports, take elephant rides, go whale and dolphin watching, visit turtle hatcheries where you can actually release baby turtles back into the ocean, and book lake adventures to see crocodiles and wild birds. We also got to spend New Year’s Eve on the coast at a party on the beach.
“Our next leg of the trip was the historical part of the island. We traveled by coach (which we rented for our entire trip) and went from the coast up to Habarana. We arrived in the early evening and stayed at the Cinnamon Lodge. This place was perfection — it was luxurious, yet blended with nature, and the food was impeccable. We stayed there for three days and took day excursions to Buddhist sites in the area, like the Sigiriya Rock fortress.
“Our final stop was Colombo, the island’s capital. Again, we traveled by coach, and broke the journey in Kandy, where my family is from (it’s a city that can be a little hectic, but if you are willing to look, you can find some amazing antique gemstones and jewelry). Colombo has a number of fantastic restaurants, like Gallery Cafe and Sugar 41, and amazing local shops, like PR boutique, where you can find many local designers, and Barefoot, where they create local textiles and home goods.
“It really was a great time, and my friends still regard it as their favorite destination. I’ve been many times, including this March, when I was the headlining designer for Colombo Fashion Week, but I think the route we took is the perfect way to really experience everything Sri Lanka has to offer.”
— Radhika Perera-Hernandez, Fashion Designer, Lois London
The Destination: Baka, Jerusalem
“Years ago, I read an article in an issue of Architectural Digest from the 1980s about the Israeli neighborhood of Baka, and it sounded so intriguing. After much research, late-night phone calls, and a little luck, we were able to stay at my 90-year-old aunt’s amazing house in the heart of it, with enormous, unrestored rooms, original tile floors, and ceilings that must have been 20 feet high. Fabulous casement windows opened onto a lush yard, filled with fruit trees and everything flowering — I could have unpacked my bags and stayed put for the entire two weeks! Her caveat was that you water her plants, which we happily did. She sold the house shortly after our trip, and I feel so lucky that we got to experience it.
“Since there was much to see, we used the Baka house as our home base and planned what were mostly day trips. We decided not to rent a car, and it was the best decision of the trip. Every morning, we would catch a taxi, and while we knew there were places we wanted to see, we also wanted to make sure that we were seeing things that only the locals knew about. We would ask our taxi driver to take us to his favorite spot for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and these are the meals we still talk about — the hummus, the labane, the schnitzel! And the woman who served Sabich out of her home for only those who knew to show up and knock! These meals weren’t in neighborhoods the average tourist would visit — in some cases, they weren’t even in neighborhoods a tourist should know about — but they were all amazing.
“We visited friends who live in Neve Tzedek, Tel Aviv; bought a tiny guitar for our daughter on the streets of Old Jerusalem; toured the fabulous Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art in Haifa; walked into Bethlehem (because our driver couldn’t come); got kicked out of a church in Nazareth, because my knee-skimming dress was a touch too short for their liking; and watched some folks ‘re-baptize’ themselves in the River Jordan. We did most of these things because we were there, and I don’t think you can go to Israel and not see the things that you’re ‘supposed’ to see. But we also learned more from the taxi drivers we’d flag down each day and from the adventures they took us on than we ever could have from a formal tour or traveler’s guide.”
The Destinations: Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, Cambodia
“The initial motivation behind our two-week trip to Cambodia was a pair of fragrances we were creating, AMARA and SAVANN. Our plan was to spend one week volunteering at a very rural orphanage just outside of Siem Reap and one week exploring the famed ancient ruins of Angkor Wat.
“We researched our volunteer location a lot before the trip, but wanted to keep the second week flexible. With seven people involved, it’s good to keep things open, as everyone ends up finding their own agenda.
“We flew into Phnom Penh via Seoul, which has literally the best airport in the world. They have clean showers and towels — for free! Phnom Phen itself was kind of divey, in a romantic way. We got in late and had a first meal of noodles and beer. The next day, we took a bus to Siem Reap and were met by the owner of the Working for Children Rainbow Orphanage, who took us all on the back of his pick-up through the darkness on a dirt road. We slept in huts without electricity or running water for the next week, and it was an eye-opening, heart-warming, challenging, and fun experience.
“Once back in the more commercial (and touristy) part of Siem Reap, we stayed at the Steung hotel, which, for $50 a night, was super-luxurious and had a pool — totally amazing for the hot, hot heat of Cambodia. Siem Reap offers a lot of services for tourists at much better prices than back home: We indulged in great massages at Frangipani Spa, but avoided the many stalls that offered fish pedicures; we rented bikes to explore Angkor Wat, and even tried to catch the sunrise there one morning (but it was cloudy). For food, the many markets we stumbled upon were the best for local fare. We admit, though, that we were craving some western-style food after a couple of weeks (something that’s not noodles!) — so we did stop into The Blue Pumpkin for croissants and fresh juice.”
– Anne and Katie McClain, Fragrance Designers, MCMC Fragrances
The Destination: Buenos Aires, Argentina
“I’m a traveller, and I travel a lot. It’s one of my biggest passions in life. But, I really don’t like planning — at all. I normally just buy a plane ticket: I have countries in mind that I want to go to, but if I can find a cheap ticket, to anywhere, I’ll take it. I never book a hotel room, or anything else. I feel like when you do set out on vacation, or on a journey to see something, if you have too much planned all the time, it just sets you up for disappointment (or, you end up running around and missing the good things you might find there).
“A couple of years ago, I bought a ticket to Buenos Aires, and I ended up seeing places in the city and staying at different small hotels that I could never have found online. I didn’t know anyone, and I speak hardly any Spanish. But, the people I met pointed out the amazing bus system in Argentina, so I ended up just taking that everywhere: I took buses up to Iguazu Falls, and I even went over to Mendoza, the wine region, for a couple of days. I just kept traveling and meeting local people who would ask me, ‘Have you been over there yet?’ and I’d say, ‘No, I had no idea!’
“It’s the same with restaurants. There are always these restaurants that you find that come with recommendations or are out there in the media, but if you just walk somewhere you can also find these little holes in the wall, where grandma is standing around cooking, and you don’t really have a menu — you just eat what they serve that day. I feel like those parts of a place are so easily missed! And I love to go see other high-end restaurants as well, for the experience, but I also want to experience the little places that don’t exist on the Internet or on social media.
“There was a place just outside Buenos Aires that I went to with a couple of friends I met there. They came in with this big grill that they put in the middle of the table, and they made — I’m not kidding — meat for, like, 20 people. And you didn’t get anything with it — you had to ask if you wanted potato or bread or sauce or something. Otherwise what you eat is meat. So I think we spent almost four or five hours just eating different kinds of house-made sausages and steak — it was just amazing. Definitely one of the best meals of my life.”
– Emma Bengtsson, Executive Chef, Aquavit
The Destinations: Paris, France, Cameroon, and Nigeria
“I follow @TheFlightDeal on Twitter, so I’m all about travel right now. Back in the day, I used to do Air Courier, and it was amazing — I went to Brazil for $250! But my most incredible travel story is when I went to Paris, Cameroon, and Nigeria in the same month-long trip over Christmas and New Year’s in 2009. That was certainly the scariest and most expensive plane ticket I ever bought, but it was the trip of a lifetime. Luckily for me, my friend’s family owns a travel agency, RA Travel, so I was able to charge it in five payments. Still, it definitely took a lot of financial planning before and after my travels. I spent Christmas in Paris with a friend, who has since passed away; then I went to Cameroon with 12 other people — we call ourselves the ‘Global Trot Society’ — for two weeks. Then I went to Nigeria to see my dad, who I hadn’t seen in 16 years, and to meet my siblings.
“At the time, I had two weeks off during Christmas and New Year’s, so I just book-ended two weeks. I was really lucky to have the flexibility to do that.
“Paris is my second home. It’s where I studied abroad for a year and made some of my best friends. I spent this particular Christmas with my friend and his family in Paris and Toulouse.
“In Cameroon, I met my 12 ‘Global Trot Society’ friends. We helped one friend’s family build a foundation there, brick-by-brick. His family knows a lot of people — we even visited a king. We also went to the coast in Kribi, which is gorgeous. We were there by ourselves, roaming the beaches. It seemed like something out of an issue of Condé Nast Traveler.
“Next was Nigeria. [My dad] lives in Ibadan, just outside Lagos (which is a crazy place, with the most intense energy, ever). I loved going to the market with my sisters; it’s fun to bargain or try to get what you need for a meal. I loved seeing all the different colors of the spices; I could look at them all day. They also have different fruits, different peppers, different everything there.”
– Folake Ologunja, Senior Publicist, School of Visual Arts
The Destinations: Tokyo, Hakone, and Kyoto, Japan
“[My boyfriend and I] went to Japan this past winter: We spent five days in Tokyo, then took the Shinkansen (the high-speed train) to Hakone, a mountain town, where we stayed in a traditional Japanese ryokan, then Kyoto. We were only supposed to stay in Kyoto for two days. but we loved it so much we extended it for another night. The trip ended with one final night in Tokyo.
“My boyfriend was between jobs, so he had two-and-a-half weeks off. He came home and said, ‘Let’s go to Japan.’ It was a very slow time for me at work, so I went on a whim and asked my boss: ‘If I get everything I need to do done in the next two days, would you be okay with it?’ And they were. My boyfriend booked his flight and left 24 hours later, since he had no reason not to; I booked mine and left 72 hours later. Part of what made it easy is we’re both young, have no children, and don’t really have anything tying us down.
“The non-splurge part of the trip was that my boyfriend has a friend who lives in Tokyo, so we stayed with him. Spending half our time staying with a friend made it easier for us to spend money on things like the flight, and staying in a much nicer hotel than we normally would have in Kyoto. If you can plan with a place to stay in mind, then you can use your money and think ahead for other parts of the trip.
“My flight was $1,200, direct from New York. Everyone I’ve told about our trip immediately thinks Japan is very expensive, because it has been in the past. But right now, the yen to dollar is extremely weak — and everything there is relatively cheap for Americans. On top of that, Japan is really encouraging travel right now; to give perspective of what things cost there right now, a water bottle in a tourist-y area was about 75 cents.
“A colleague put me in touch with a woman who runs tours of Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market, and she recommended Bar Gen Yamamoto. It’s very austere, very simple, and very quiet. The menu changes daily, but we had a winter tomato vodka cocktail — which was unbelievable — and a lychee cocktail. The great thing is that you can spend a lot of money at a place like that, one of the most special bars I’ve ever been to in my life, and then another night you can go to Golden Gai, which is made up of streets filled with really small, divey bars, and spend $15 to have three of the best Japanese whiskeys, ever.
“In Kyoto, Tempura Matsu was probably the best meal of my life. It was a kaiseki dinner, which is a traditional 10- or 12-course Japanese meal. They use ceramic dishes that are over 300-years-old, and it was an amazing, very special experience.
“Part of the pro of working at a food magazine is that a lot of our editors have been to Japan. So I emailed everyone — that’s how we discovered Tempura Matsu. I also posted on Facebook, ‘I’m leaving for Japan in 72 hours. What can you tell me?’ And I was flooded with information.”
– Kate Kudish, Brand Integration Senior Manager, SAVEUR magazine
The Destinations: Istanbul and Kapadokya, Turkey
“I am not a planner; I don’t like to plan. Aside from having a general idea in each place that I visit, I would rather leave the day-to-day to chance. This is when I meet the most interesting people and have the most memorable experiences. I want to be in the culture, not running around, ticking every cathedral off my list. I don’t have a specific travel savings account, but I do put money towards travel, because it is a part of my job, regardless of whether a client pays for the travel expenses or not.
“We rented a car and got lost trying to find the Whirling Dervish, because there were three roads with the same name. We happened to take the two wrong routes first. On the first wrong detour, we came across the tiny village of Yeşilöz, which has one of the oldest cave churches and the original frescoes still intact. Because the village rarely gets tourists, they knew why we were driving in, and the ‘keeper of the church keys’ came riding up on a tractor to meet us. It was amazing.
“We also had a rental car when we were in Kapadokya, and the first morning we were there, we woke up at 4:30 a.m. and chased the hot air balloons. I still laugh about how fast we were going on the unpaved roads and screaming at the top of our lungs. It was such a rush. We would find a good spot, jump out of the car, and run as fast as we could to the top of the hill, wave and take photos, and then run back to the car, laughing the entire way.
“The one thing that was booked way in advance was our balloon ride there. That was the only thing that I had to do. That’s usually how my trips are — there is typically one thing that I’m set on doing and will arrange ahead of time or spend more money on. And that balloon ride was so incredible. We had such fun chemistry with the staff, too, that we were able to even get involved with the balloon being packed up as well. One of the guides, without notice, picked me up and tossed me on the packed balloon to help get all the air out so they could tie it up for the next ride.
“Also, at the Hezen Cave Hotel (where we stayed), we were up until three in the morning drinking raki — a local liquor that tastes like black licorice — with the staff (who were off-duty), learning about the city and where we should go. We also explored a different part of the area and saw a ginger horse, which is exactly what you imagine it is. I promptly kissed him and took a thousand photos of him.”
– Sara Kerens, Photographer