When to buy, when to fly: Tips for checking off the most popular bucket list destinations

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Bucket lists are synonymous with travel. There are so many places to go that making lists of everywhere we want to travel is understandable. But lists are one thing – making those trips a reality is entirely another. So where do you want to go and how can you make it happen? We’re here to help. The travel experts at Cheapflights.com polled our readers to find out what tops Americans’ travel bucket lists and then we crunched our data and did the research to figure out the best way to make those goals a reality.

We took the top 15 most popular results from our bucket list survey and found the best (and cheapest) ways to get these items checked off your list. From hiking Machu Picchu to eating your way through Rome, here’s how to knock some top travel destinations off your bucket list.

1. Visit Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu
Explore Machu Picchu. Check! (Image: PROMPERU)

Make time to explore Machu Picchu, the ancient “Lost City of the Incas” that was built atop a mountain range 7,972 feet above sea level. Located in the Sacred Valley 312 miles from Lima, Peru, Machu Picchu is possibly the best example of Incan architecture. Only 2,500 visitors are allowed each day to visit this remote sacred sanctuary set atop grass terraces cut by nature along the mountain’s slope, so planning ahead of time is key. Most visitors start the journey by flying from Peru’s capital, Lima. After indulging in some of the best food in the world – at restaurants like Central and Maido, which topped the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2017 – fly to the Andean city of Cusco to spend the night and start to acclimate to the higher altitude. Then, take a train followed by a bus to reach the UNESCO World Heritage site. Peak season is May through October, which coincides with winter and the dry season.

Where to fly into: It’s generally cheaper to fly into Lima and then book a separate flight on to Cusco, which also gives you a chance to get acclimated and, if your schedule is flexible, affords the opportunity to time your travel to Machu Picchu for the best weather window. Check out flights on local airlines as they often offer better deals from Lima, even last minute, than you’d get by connecting Cusco on your ticket from the U.S.

When to fly: The last two weeks of August offer the lowest average airfare.

When to buy: Look for bargain buying windows in the last week of March and the last week of May.

2. Hit the beach in Hawaii

Hilo, Hawaii
Say hello to Hawaii. (Image: Hawaii Tourism Authority)

Located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, each of Hawaii’s six islands offers a unique beach experience. Whether you opt for Honolulu and Waikiki Beach in Oahu, the trendy beaches of Wailea, Maui, the untamed beaches of Molokai, the charmingly laid-back Lanai, the stunning black sand beaches of Hawaii Island, or the picturesque Napali Coast in Kauai, there’s a beach to suit every budget. Try to time your visit for low season, which is mid-April to early June and September to mid-December. For more tips on making that bucket list trip a reality, read up on how to do Hawaii on a shoestring budget.

Where to fly into: Choose your own adventure. But there are some great deals to be had for Hilo and Kona (both on the Big Island), as well as Honolulu.

When to fly: Hilo may be a particularly good option if you are looking to stretch your summer as some of the best fares of the year are for travel in October. For Kona, October is also promising. But for extra saving potential, travel in late April or early May.

If a winter escape is on your mind, consider Honolulu. It’s the gateway to all of Hawaii, so you’ll have the most choice of flights, and average airfares from mid-January through early February are among the most affordable of the year. (It’s also worth knowing that a number of airlines are upping their service to Hawaii in the coming months, which may bring extra low fares in 2018.)

When to buy: For Hilo, last-minute bookers rejoice as you may well be able to score October’s low fares by booking in September. Score spring flights to Kona on the cheap by booking in November or December. Partial to Honolulu? Look to book as early as September to score a good winter fare but there might be some last-minute deals, especially for a getaway in early February.

3. See the northern lights in Iceland

Iceland
Iceland is an easy bucket list item to achieve. (Image: Lauren Mack)

It might take more than one trip to Iceland to chase the Northern Lights, which appear between September and April. Since the Northern Lights can only be seen at night, fill your days with adventures like exploring Thingvellir National Park or soaking in the Blue Lagoon. (Tip: when you arrive on an early morning flight, pre-book a bus ticket that includes entry to the nearby Blue Lagoon to soak away jet lag. The popular geothermal spring books up quickly as do its special floating massages). While it’s possible to join organized Northern Lights tours that depart from Reykjavik, you might have better luck heading away from the capital. You’ll see much more of the country by driving the 828-mile Highway No. 1, a ring road that connects some of the island’s most popular attractions. Try to stay at least a handful of nights to up your odds of seeing the Northern Lights and check The Icelandic Met Service for the northern lights forecast. Numerous package deals and stopover programs via Icelandair also afford travelers the flexibility to make this a two-for-one adventure as you can include a stay in Iceland of up to seven days as part of a trip to another destination.

When to fly: Travel in the second half of January for great deals and the potential of catching the northern lights.

When to buy: Look to score those January flights in the last two weeks of August.

4. Take in the views at the Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon
Test your fear of heights at the Grand Canyon. (Image: Viator.com, Grand Canyon Skywalk via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

While many folks drive or opt to do a helicopter fly-over (some helicopter companies even land in the bottom!) to see the Grand Canyon, one of the most interesting ways to get there is via the vintage Grand Canyon Railway. Follow in the tradition of folks like U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt and actor Clark Gable on this two hours and 15 minutes ride from Williams, Ariz., to Grand Canyon National Park, arriving just steps from the Canyon’s South Rim. One of the most thrilling (and affordable) ways to take your breath away at the Grand Canyon is to walk the Grand Canyon Skywalk, a horseshoe-shaped glass bridge that extends 70 feet past the canyon’s edge in Grand Canyon West, an area of the canyon that is on the Hualapai Native American Reservation. The skywalk is a vertigo-inducing 4,000 feet above the canyon floor and is strong enough to support 71 million pounds.

Where to fly into: If you’re heading to the Grand Canyon West (home of the dramatic Skywalk), consider flying into Las Vegas. If you prefer to visit the South Rim (and seeing some great sights on the way), fly into Phoenix instead.

When to fly: Looking at Vegas? You can beat the summer heat and find affordable flights by aiming to visit in late January or at the end of November or early December. Prefer to fly into Phoenix? Average airfares and temperatures are both optimal in late November/early December.

When to buy: For Vegas, look to book in late July or early August for flight deals in late January travel or in mid-September for travel in late November or early December. For Phoenix, book in mid-July for a visit right after Thanksgiving. If you miss that window, look to book in late August for an early December trip.

5. Eat your way through Rome

Gelato
Larry Miller, Our first Italian gelato via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

You don’t have to walk far in Rome to find an excuse to stop and savor the flavors of Italy. From standing at corner coffee shops sipping espresso to indulging in refreshing gelato to sitting down to an opulent Michelin-starred dinner, there is no place quite like Italy. For seafood, head to the nautically themed La Rosetta near the Pantheon and, for Roman classics, head to Acquolina. For a splurge, head to the three Michelin starred La Pergola at Rome Cavalieri. There’s an extensive wine cellar with 50,000-plus bottles of wine, a cigar lounge, a candlelit terrace with views of the Eternal City and some of the most sublime suppers around. No trip to Rome is complete without visiting a bar or two. Sip a Bellini, an Italian cocktail that is one-part white peach purée and three-parts Prosecco, at the Hassler Bar at the top of Rome’s Spanish Steps. Aim for an Italian getaway April to mid-June when the weather is moderate as are the crowds.

When to fly: The best airfares, on average, are during the first week of May so get ready for springtime in Italy.

When to buy: Make sure to start looking for the above deals in late January.

6. See Old Faithful in Yellowstone

Old Faithful
Old Faithful is an oldie but a goodie bucket list item. (Image: screaming_monkey, Old Faithful – Yellowstone National Park via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

Yellowstone National Park is the world’s first national park and home to 10,000 geothermal features, including the ever-popular Old Faithful. Named for its consistent, predictable eruptions that occur about every 90 minutes, the geyser can shoot water up to 183 feet during eruptions that the last one to five minutes. Beat the crowds by visiting the park during non-peak hours (before 9 a.m. or after 3 p.m.) and during off-peak season in September or October. The Yellowstone National Park app is a helpful way to map and plan your trip.

Where to fly into: If convenience is key, fly into Yellowstone Airport (keep in mind it’s only served by Delta). Other options include Jackson, Wyoming, (a 45-minute drive from Yellowstone) and Bozeman, Montana, (a 90-minute drive from Yellowstone). Of the three, Bozeman is notably cheapest.

When to fly: Going with Bozeman? Mid-to-late October is the value window for a visit here. Aim to fly the last week of October for a particularly affordable trip.

When to buy: Book your October Bozeman flight in early August for the best deals.

7. Find inner peace in Bali

Bali, Indonesia
(Image: Thomas Depenbusch, Bali, Indonesia via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

For those looking for ways to see Southeast Asia without breaking the bank, Bali is a dream destination. It’s a great place to find inner peace via secluded beaches, tranquil temples and sensational spas that don’t cost a fortune. Skip the fancy hotels in Jimbaran and save big by bunking in Sanur on the south coast, which has equally alluring yellow sand beaches. Don’t miss taking tours of Bali’s opulent temples and ornate palaces, which serve as reminders of the ancient kingdoms that once ruled here. Surfers must visit the town of Kuta and shoppers should be sure to stock up on splurge-worthy souvenirs like Balinese jewelry expertly handcrafted by goldsmiths. Avoid the tourists by traveling in September and October before the rains start and after most tourists have departed.

When to fly: Mid-September is when you are most likely to find a flight bargain to Bali.

When to buy: Start looking for a deal in mid-April.

8. Take a Caribbean cruise

Western Caribbean Cruise
Set sail to cruise the Caribbean (Image: mbarrison. Western Caribbean Cruise via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

With so many to choose from, opting for a cruise is one of the best travel values for anyone wanting to explore the Caribbean. And, not only do you get that tropical getaway, but the ship itself offers entertainment, relaxation and an experience all its own. Each cruise ship comes equipped with luxury amenities and on-board activities for all types of travelers. Deal seekers will also enjoy the savings offered by cruise vacays. With so many options, sales are easy to find on many Caribbean cruises departing the southeastern U.S., particularly the cruise ports in Florida. Cruise your way to savings by booking last-minute, as the cruise ship companies are eager to fill any empty rooms. Avoid overspending and get inspired with our cruise ship tips.

Where to fly into: Many a Caribbean cruise sets sail from sunny Florida, Miami especially. Can’t find a Florida option that works for you? Check out other departure options like San Juan, Puerto Rico.

When to fly: Average airfares to Miami are actually at their lowest from mid-January to early February. For San Juan, your best bet may be to target a late October getaway.

When to buy: While some deals for January flights to Miami pop up as early as the first week in August, late September and early October can be a good window for shopping those winter bargain weeks. For San Juan, you can hunt for an October deal in late September.

9. See the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco

Golden Gate Bridge
Check the Golden Gate Bridge off your list. (Image: Jeffry, Golden Gate Bridge, via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

The Golden Gate Bridge, the dramatic 1.7-mile suspension bridge connecting San Francisco to California’s northern counties, is one of the dozens of things that are just so San Francisco. The orange Art Deco bridge has grand 746-foot tall towers and attracts more than 10 million visitors each year. Pictures of the famed bridge are enhanced when the fog rolls in (this occurs when hot air rises from the Central Valley, creating fog bank that blankets the Golden Gate Bridge). Be sure to visit the Welcome Center with exhibits on the engineering and history of the bridge.

When to fly: Airfares, on average, are at their lowest from the end of January through mid-February.

When to buy: The deal booking window for those winter flights falls in late September or early October.

10. Take in the views in Rio de Janeiro

Christ the Redeemer
Take a rendezvous to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Image: Liam Geoghegan, Christ the Redeemer via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

While Copacabana Beach is the first stop for many visitors to Rio de Janeiro, one of the best ways to see it is by air. Helisight offers seven different tours of Rio with flights lasting from six minutes to one hour. A highlight of most tours is a fly-by of the city’s iconic 98-foot Christ the Redeemer statue. “Flight #5” flies by the Art Deco Christ the Redeemer statue, a quintuplet of Rio’s most famous beaches (Leblon, Ipanema, Copacabana, Icarai and Vermelha Beach, which overlooks Sugarloaf Mountain), Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, Jardin de Alah, Guanabara Bay crossing and Santa Cruz Fortress. While winter falls from June to August (although winter temps are still typically around 70 degrees Fahrenheit), taking advantage of the early spring shoulder season can bring down crowds and costs.

When to fly: August and early-to-mid September is the best value window for a visit.

When to buy: Look to book in the end of April if you want to visit at the end of August. Plan a bit further ahead for a trip in mid-September, when the weather is a bit a warmer, by searching for a deal in late March. You can also take advantage of a late deal opportunity for a trip around Labor Day, which is right in the thick of the value window. Flights for that week look to be priced best around mid-June.

11. Walk the streets of New York City

Top of the Rock
Walk your way through the Big Apple. (Image: Jen Davis/NYC & Company)

New York City is a city of neighborhoods, with everything from the glitz and glamour of 5th Avenue to art-centric Greenwich Village to the hipster vibe of Bushwick. The best way to take in all the Big Apple has to offer is on foot. Whether you’re looking to take in the architecture, get your fill of people watching, want to snack your way across this foodie capital or just experience the city like a local, taking to the streets of New York is an unforgettable experience. It’s easy to save money in the Big Apple, with plenty to do on the cheap — start with these 20 things to do under five dollars.

When to fly: If you can’t wait to get to New York and want to keep flight costs to a minimum, visit in late January or early February. Or plan ahead for a trip in the midst of the holiday fun next year.

When to buy: Try booking in September for a visit in late January/early February, or book in June for a holiday season getaway after Thanksgiving.

12. See the Eiffel Tower in Paris

Eiffel Tower
Paris is for lovers and crossing off bucket list goals. (Image: John Sawicki)

Spring (April through mid-June) and fall (September through October) are the best times to visit Paris, but the off-season (November through March) can be great too if you don’t mind chilly temps. No trip is complete without stopping by the Eiffel Tower. Built by Gustave Eiffel in 1889 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, the Eiffel Tower is a symbol of Paris that has been visited by more than 250 million people since 1889. Standing 1,063 feet tall, the structure has 20,000 bulbs that sparkle at the top of each hour from nightfall to one a.m. daily. Skip the long lines to enter the Eiffel Tower by booking a table ahead of time at Le Jules Verne restaurant, where visitors are whisked to the second floor via private elevator without having to wait in line.

When to fly: If springtime in Paris is your goal, aim to go the first week in May. For even more savings, try the third week in January for your trip.

When to buy: For May travel, book at the beginning of November for the best deals. Looking at January? Find an exceptional deal in mid-October.

13. See Big Ben in London

Big Ben
Big Ben is on many a traveler’s bucket list.(Image: Phil Dolby, Blurred Lines (Explored – 11/03/15) via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Iconic Big Ben, the Great Bell inside the Elizabeth Tower that stands at the north end of Parliament, is one of London’s most recognizable sights. Since Big Ben first chimed in 1859, the 13.7-ton bell dutifully strikes an E note every hour on the hour. While it is possible to tour Big Ben and the Elizabeth Tower, tours are suspended until early 2020 while repairs and refurbishments are made to the Elizabeth Tower and Great Clock. Spring (April through mid-June) and fall (September through October) are the best times to visit London, but the off-season (November through March) can be great a great time to save if you don’t mind cooler temps and some rain.

When to fly: Traditionally summer is the height of travel season (and prices) in London. It can be more expensive to visit in July than over the holiday season. A visit in January or February is a good window for those shopping for a bargain.

When to buy: Try searching for flights in August for a late January visit or in the first two weeks of September for a February getaway.

14. Road trip the Pacific Coast Highway

Pacific Coast Highway
Hit the road. (Image: Daniel R. Blume, Pacific Coast Highway (US-1) via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

Thousands of locals and visitors annually drive the coast-hugging, 655.8-mile Pacific Coast Highway that stretches from San Diego to San Francisco. Be sure to take your time meandering along the route as it can start or end in San Diego or San Francisco and passes through Santa Barbara, Carmel, Monterey, Santa Cruz and other hot spots like California’s wine country along the way. Other reasons to make San Diego part of the journey include checking out the San Diego Zoo and Gaslamp Quarter, surfing at Windansea Beach, golfing at Torrey Pines Golf Course and hiking at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve in nearby La Jolla, Calif.

Along the PCH drive, stop at Huntington Beach for surfing and soaking up surf culture as well as star-studded Los Angeles, the entertainment capital of the world. From taking selfies with the Hollywood sign and strolling the Hollywood Walk of Fame to dining at famous spots like In-N-Out Burger and Pink’s Hot Dog, there are so many super cool things to do in Los Angeles (start with these 52). Stop off in Santa Barbara to admire the Spanish colonial architecture and original adobes like El Cuartel, the second oldest surviving building in California. Midway along the iconic drive, stop in Santa Ynez, Calif., to sample chardonnay and pinot noir from the area’s wineries and tour Hearst Castle. Stop for more picturesque photo ops, shopping and dining in the charming Monterey Peninsula and Carmel-by-the-Sea. And take time in surf town Santa Cruz to stroll the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and shop along Pacific Avenue. Make sure to take the time to explore San Francisco. The City by the Bay has so many iconic attractions and experiences, including the iconic Golden Gate Bridge and colorful cable cars. Before you hit the highway, check out our tips for a worry-free road trip.

Where to fly into: Where you start your road trip is up to you. Popular starting points include San Diego, Los Angeles or San Francisco.

When to fly: The last full week in October is the most affordable time to fly into both San Diego and Los Angeles. For San Francisco, airfares are at their lowest from the end of January through mid-February.

When to buy: Look for October deals to San Diego and Los Angeles in the first half of July. Shop for late January and February flights to San Francisco in late September or early October.

15. Explore Bangkok

Bangkok
Get more bang for your buck in Bangkok. (Image: Katherine Brunn)

Bangkok is known as backpacker heaven. There are numerous hostels, cheap (and delicious) street food and cheap bars along Khao San Road – all worth exploring. Bangkok is also home to many wats (Buddhist temples) like Wat Pho, which houses an impressive 150-foot-long reclining Buddha covered in gold leaf, and Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha), which is built on the grounds of the Grand Palace and houses an emerald Buddha carved into a 2-foot block of jade. Don’t miss the chance to take an inexpensive water taxi along the Chao Phraya River. Bangkok is also the perfect starting off point to head north to bucolic Chiang Mai or head south to the beautiful beaches of offshore island Phuket or get a sak yant tattoo at Wat Bang Phra temple in Nakhon Pathon province, 200 kilometers south of the capital. Thailand is also a paradise for spa lovers. The Thai massages here are so inexpensive you could opt to have one every day if you wish.

When to fly: Aim for a trip in the first three weeks of November. The weather is mild and sunny, and the airfares are at their most affordable.

When to buy: You can even book relatively last minute, with November deals often popping up in mid-October.

What’s on your travel bucket list? Share with us in the comments and start making your bucket list goals a reality.

When to buy, when to fly: Tips for checking off the most popular bucket list destinations was last modified: July 12th, 2017 by Lauren Mack
Author: Lauren Mack (270 posts)

Lauren Mack has traveled to 40 countries on five continents, including Cuba, New Zealand, Peru and Tanzania. For many years, she called China, and then Taiwan, home. Countries at the beginning of the alphabet, particularly Antarctica, Argentina and Australia are on her travel bucket list. Lauren is a multimedia travel and food journalist and explorer based in New York City.