How to do adventure travel trips on the cheap

Tips for Inexpensive Adventure Travel

These days travelers, aren't looking to just go on vacation – they're craving an adventure. Not only areAmericans traveling abroad more, but the adventure travel industry is booming. In 2013, the Adventure Travel Trade Association reported a 65 percent yearly uptick in this niche travel market since 2009. This year, the ATTA reported a 10 percent increase in adventure travel tourism revenue in North America compared to the previous year.

For those unfamiliar with the term, adventure travel encompasses any hands-on activity that enables travelers to get out and experience the world around them. It's a type of travel that challenges people to get out of their comfort zones by directly engaging with a destination and its culture. For Christine Sarkis, senior editor at SmarterTravel, adventure travel is physical. "You're not only seeing it but you're sweating it and feeling it." Kevin Raub, a writer at Lonely Planet, said it can also be emotional. "The relationships you forge with other travelers, as well as the interactions with locals, are both priceless and unforgettable."

Aspiring adventure travelers won't have any problem finding plenty of bucket list-worthy trips for all ages with a quick Google search. However, adventure travel can often come attached to a high price tag, as the average international trip can cost thousands of dollars. But an affordable adventure is possible. U.S. News spoke with travel industry experts to find out how to plan an adventure of a lifetime without breaking the bank.

Look locally

For those looking to grab adventure travel by its horns but don't have the funds to support a trek to Machu Picchu, consider seeking domestic opportunities. Christopher Cohen, associate editor at Outside Magazine, believes camping gets you the biggest bang for your buck. "A solid camping setup doesn't cost much, and you can use it over and over again," Cohen said.

Robert Firpo-Cappiello, editor-in-chief of Budget Travel, said national parks are a great place for aspiring adventure travelers on a budget to start. "Opportunities to push your physical limits abound at a park nearby, and local outfitters and guides are certainly more affordable than flying halfway around the world," Firpo-Cappiello said.

The U.S. boasts more than 400 areas designated as national parks, totaling more than 84 million acres of land. Only 127 of those national parks charge an entrance fee and there are select holidays where many of those parks, including the Grand Canyon and Yosemite, waive entrance fees. The National Park Service also gives visitors the opportunity to participate in a variety of free guided tours at select National Historic Parks, including Washington, D.C.'s National Mall.

Click through to see the top 10 family vacation spots:

Top 10 family vacations
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How to do adventure travel trips on the cheap

1. Atlantis Paradise Island Resort

Discover a lost civilization on your vacation, and let your family act as the explorers! The $850 million Atlantis Paradise Island re-creates the infamous lost continent, filled with adventure and intrigue. This mecca of family fun features more than 3,400 guest rooms, 21 restaurants and countless activities, including exhibit lagoons that house 50,000 animals, such as sharks, lionfish and stingrays.

Water enthusiasts can visit miles of beaches, take a dip in one of 11 pools or play on 18 different waterslides. Leave your fears at home, though: The Mayan Temple's Leap of Faith slide features a 60-foot drop into an acrylic tunnel that's submerged in a shark-infested lagoon.

Photo credit: Adina Tovy / Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images

2. Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort

If the sight of snow gets your family excited, grab the skis and head to Snowbird for a wonderful, wintry vacation. The resort, which rests in Little Cottonwood Canyon, offers 3,240 vertical feet and 2,500 acres of mountain to explore. Thanks to its proximity to the Great Salt Lake, it sees an average of more than 500 inches of snow annually.

More than forty years after being founded, the resort now features 10 lifts, 169 runs and an uphill capacity of 17,400 people. Beginners ages 3 and up can learn skiing and snowboarding at the Snowbird Mountain School. Love the outdoors but not a fan of the slopes? The resort also offers ice skating, snow tubing, snowshoe tours and luge sleds. Parents can unwind with a stone massage or herbal wrap at the luxurious Cliff Spa.

Photo credit: Gary Caviness / iStock / Getty Images Plus

3. Tanque Verde Ranch

The 640-acre Tanque Verde Ranch is a serene oasis nestled in the Sonoran Desert, near Saguaro National Park. With more than 120 horses, it's no surprise that this dude ranch offers ample riding opportunities. Specialty options available include breakfast rides (with a meal at the Old Homestead), 6-hour-long day rides, and picnic rides with lunch in Cottonwood Grove. Newcomers can take riding lessons at a variety of levels.

Naturalist guides offer hikes through the desert wilds, exploring canyons, cacti and even secret waterfalls. The popular kids' program offers little cowpokes (ages 4-12) the chance to "ride 'em cowboy!" Children are divided into 3 age groups — the Buckaroos, Wranglers and Outlaws — and treated to riding lessons, tennis, swimming and arts and crafts.

Photo credit: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

4. Hilton Waikoloa Village

In Hawaii, the Hilton Waikoloa Village promises endless activity and unprecedented luxury. Parents hoping to find a child-friendly haven can sign their tykes up for Club Keiki. During its day and night camps, kids can feed koi and swans, hunt for treasure and explore tide pools.

The resort's tropical gardens, saltwater lagoons and 2 golf courses are tempting, but the most popular retreat is Dolphin Quest. It provides guests with a variety of interactive dolphin programs, including training adventures, a family experience and kids' quest. Meanwhile, at Waikoloa's 4-acre lagoon, water lovers can schedule kayak trips, snorkel sails and seasonal whale-watching tours. After dark, attend the Legends of Hawaii luau to experience traditional island dancing and music, as well as a buffet dinner.

Photo credit: Edmunds Dana / Perspectives / Getty Images

5. Kingsmill Resort

Stretching over 3,000 acres of Virginia wilderness, Kingsmill Resort boasts its own long list of recreational activities, as well as close proximity to the fun found in nearby Colonial Williamsburg and Busch Gardens. Active families can enjoy the resort's 2 18-hole golf courses, 15 tennis courts and Sports Club, which features indoor and outdoor pools, exercise classes, personal trainers and a billiards and game room.

Stop by the concierge desk for special Junior Guest registration, and children will receive a Kids' Fun Pack introducing them to the resort. The kids' camp is the perfect opportunity for 5- to 12-year-olds to play tennis and golf, swim, fish, have theme days and make arts and crafts. Don't forget to sign little ones up for Kids' Night Out, a pizza and game party that allows parents to have a romantic date night at one of the 4 signature restaurants on-site.

Photo credit: Kingsmill Resort

6. Circus Circus

The biggest permanent big top in the world can be found rising in all its colorful glory in Las Vegas. More than 3.5 million people a year stop by to experience the live entertainment and whimsy that Circus Circus has to offer. The resort lies on 70 acres of land, and with nearly 3,800 rooms, it's the fifth-largest resort-casino in Vegas.

Photo credit: Mitchell Funk / The Image Bank / Getty Images

"Oohs" and "ahhs" fill the air every half-hour as performers engage in airborne stunts on the resort's center stage. Surrounding the stage is the Midway, an enormous carnival filled with 200 games and wandering clowns. Possibly the world's biggest funhouse, the indoor Adventuredome theme park continues the excitement with more than 20 rides, plus miniature golf and laser tag.

7. Out 'n' About Treesort

Nestled into treetops and branches is one of the world's most unusual bed-and-breakfasts. This high-in-the-sky treehouse resort proves that trees aren't just for the birds. Fifteen treehouses, which sleep anywhere from 2 to 8 people, make up the "treesort" (but because of legal issues, not all 15 are available for overnight lodging).

Guests climb stairs, ladders, even a 90-foot-long suspension bridge. At the Swiss Family Complex, a swinging bridge separates child and adult units, and a fire pole and rope swings provide kids with ground access. Luxury lovers will enjoy the Tree Room Schoolhouse Suite, which fits 4 and has a bathroom, kitchenette, master bedroom, sitting area and loft. Fun perks include lessons in treehouse building, horseback riding, rafting, ropes courses, pools and arts and crafts classes.

Photo credit: Out'n'about Treesort

8. Club Med Ixtapa Pacific

Take your family south of the border for some Club Med-style family fun. The charming Club Med Ixtapa Pacific quickly woos kids and parents with its seemingly endless roster of activities for all ages. Situated on 37 acres along Mexico's western coast, the resort hosts more than 20,000 visitors a year, 60% of whom are under age 11!

A variety of clubs are designed to entertain children throughout the day. Divided by age groups, Baby Club Med, Petit Club Med, Mini Club Med and Juniors Club Med keep kids ages 4 months to 17 years busy with outdoor activities, shows and crafts. Ixtapa Pacific offers adult activities including tennis, scuba diving, archery, kayaking, water polo, volleyball and picnics. Families venturing off the resort property can visit Ixtapa Island or take sunset cruises, fishing trips and even excursions into the Mexican fishing village of Zihuatanejo.

Photo credit: Club Med Ixtapa Pacific

9. Omni La Costa Resort and Spa

Most commonly associated with its 2 championship golf courses and its world-class spa, the Omni La Costa now earns itself a new reputation: family resort. Tucked among the property's rolling greens, renowned golf school and 17 tennis courts is a world of activities designed for little ones on retreat. 

At the Kidtopia children's club, young guests experience the resort's magnificent facilities in a kid-friendly environment, filling their time with tennis, croquet, hiking, swimming, nature walks, crafts and pingpong. While they're making friends and having fun, parents can indulge in the body- and soul-soothing luxury that defines the Omni La Costa. 

Photo credit: La Costa Resort and Spa

10. Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge

At Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge, families experience the thrills of an African safari without ever leaving their hotel. If a trip to the Serengeti is out of your price range, a visit to this wild lodge will more than suffice. Strolling throughout the property's 33 acres of savannas, guests will see more than 200 animals representing 100 different species, including antelopes and gazelles.

Rooms are decorated with a traditional African ambience: earth-tone walls, handcrafted furniture, tapestries and mosquito nets. But true historical value can be found in the 4,000 native handicrafts placed throughout the lodge. When it's time to dine, experience the tastes of Africa at one of the resort's inspired restaurants, including Jiko, which features wood-burning ovens, and Boma, a buffet under a thatched roof.

Photo credit: Disney


Do it yourself

If you're still set on going abroad for your adventure travel fix, skip the tour company and plan it yourself. Raub finds this approach to be the most cost-effective route to adventure travel. "There is a premium to be paid for having the groundwork done by someone else," Raub said. "Plan the big stuff on the ground once you arrive, directly with the outfitter. With safari or national parks, for example, you can often pay daytrip entrance fees and arrange a guide in the nearest town or village. It's not only cheaper, but offers a more enriching cultural experience and helps the local economy."

Tim Leffel, a seasoned adventure traveler and author of "Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune: The Contrarian Traveler's Guide to Getting More for Less," suggested budget adventure travelers start by seeking out less expensive destinations. "For those [based] in the U.S., Mexico and Central America are quite cheap to get to ... and a mountain hiking adventure in Switzerland is going to cost you far more than one in Ecuador or Bulgaria." Leffel added if you can skimp on anything, do so withlodging. "You usually won't be in your hotel all that much anyway if you're on the move, so downgrading the accommodation can make a big difference in the price," he said.

Wherever the destination, Outside GO President Sandy Cunningham recommended traveling during the low season for better deals, and advised booking one-way tickets for multidestination trips instead of round-trip fares. Firpo-Cappiello suggested signing up for a volunteer vacation. "If you're lacking funds, a volunteer vacation is an eye-opening way to push yourself, helping out the locals and getting to know the sights and travel destinations," he said.

Book a basic tour

Although planning an adventure travel trip by yourself is a surefire way to cut costs, experts agreed that it requires a lot of research. Those who are new to adventure travel, especially those looking to go to remote regions, may find that booking with professional guides is a better fit. "It's true that organized trips can be expensive, but you're often paying for safety and support to push your limits," Cohen said. "My parents, who are in their late 50s, did a bike trip to the Alps up some of the famous mountains in the Tour de France. They could have done it much cheaper by planning it themselves, but knowing they had the mechanical support and a van to ride in if they got too tired let them get the most out of their trip."

According to Sarkis, the reason adventure travel can be so expensive is because some companies organize amenity-driven trips, with features that may be considered unnecessary to some travelers. Another reason is the additional single supplement fee, which some companies require solo travelers to pay simply because they're going on a trip alone. Luckily, all of these expenses can be easily avoided.

There are a variety of travel companies that cater to budget travelers, including Intrepid Travel and G Adventures. Both companies offer trips with fewer inclusions and simpler accommodations, as well as trips for those who wouldn't mind paying a little extra for some luxury. Another bonus: For the majority of its tours, G Adventures waives the single supplement fee. Discounts can also help reduce the overall cost of the trip. Sarkis recommended looking out for early bird and last-minute booking deals, which are sometimes as high as 20 percent off.

If you're still unsure of whether or not to book with a company, experts agreed that you should compare how much the trip will cost on your own against the price offered by the company. "There is no one-size-fits-all answer," said Sarkis. "The best thing to do is a huge amount of legwork." Comparing prices, researching what the company offers on its tours and assessing your own comfort level and travel needs will not only help you find the best deal, but help you figure out which type of trip is best for you.

More from U.S. News:
Beginner's guide to adventure travel
Best adventure vacations in the USA
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