10 Life-Changing Travel Experiences That Cost Less Than the New iPhone

Bolivias salt planes
Bolivia's salt planes | public domain / Pixabay
Nana Van De Poel

At $999, Apple has put a steep price tag on their iPhone X. And while a flashy new phone might be just your cup of tea, there are those that see in this not-so-small sum the chance to embark on the trip of a lifetime. Chances are the memory of a seat on one of the most scenic train rides on earth or a bob in Jordan’s Dead Sea will stick with you far longer than any mobile device will.

Glasgow, Mallaig and a scenic train ride across the Scottish Highlands

When in need of a getaway that pushes modern-day stresses and tribulations out of the mind, a trundle on one of the world’s most scenic railway routes is just the thing. After spending a leisurely 48 hours exploring Glasgow’s gorgeous Victorian buildings, smashing curry restaurants and bright street art, hop on the West Highland Line for the train journey of a lifetime. As the coal-black locomotive burrows its way into the Scots’ untamed west coast, little stations form stops for hikers and sightseers to breathe in the fresh, earthy air. The train’s relaxed pace leaves precious admiration time of the expansive Rannoch Moor, the towering Ben Nevis (Britain’s highest peak) and the 21-arch Glenfinnan Viaduct across Loch Shiel (the very same that carried Harry Potter and the Hogwarts Express to the world’s greatest wizarding school). Once in the fishing port of Mallaig, your final stop after five and a half hours, check into a homey B&B for a warm night at the hearth and a hearty Scottish breakfast the morning after. Use the day to grab the ferry and take a hiking tour of the the wildlife reserve Rum, the most imposing of the Small Isles. Head back to urban life the next morning, soaking up more jaw-dropping views and, if you’re lucky, observing the wildlife roaming the Scottish Highlands you’ve come to adore.

Duration: six days, five nights

Cost: $891.30 (includes a $627 three-night stay at Glasgows’s snazzy Hotel du Vin, a West Highland Line advance fare starting at $41.50, a $211.80 two-night stay at Mallaig’s Moorings Guesthouse and a $11 ferry to Rum and back)

The West Highland Line

Go for gospel in Harlem

To the first-timer, few outings feel as transformative as attending a gospel service in Harlem, New York. Since quite a few of the churches have had bad experiences with individual tourists crashing their services, we recommend going with a member of the community. Harlem One Stop uses locals to lead their Hallelujah Gospel Wednesday! tour and to give a true feel for the spirit of the neighbourhood on a one-hour walking tour followed by an evening at church. Phones and cameras are best put away as your group is welcomed by churchgoers. You’re invited to jump out of your seat, cheer and cry Amen at the impassioned words of the preacher, at once soothing and reinvigorating in his handling of topical worries on the American mind, and you’re encouraged to whoop and howl at the glorious notes reached by the choir. Spend the rest of your time in the Big Apple dashing from one highlight to the other with the New York Pass. What do you think? An iPhone X or an ineffable experience of the gospel kind?

Duration: six days, five nights

Cost: $809 (including a $309 five-day New York Pass with free access to 90 attractions and tours, including Hallelujah Gospel Wednesday! and a $500 five-night stay at the historic inn The Harlem Flophouse)

Getting soggy at Spain’s La Tomatina

After over 70 years of this madness, La Tomatina participants know what they’re getting into: a food brawl unlike any other, with ripe tomatoes flung left and right and mush getting where the sun don’t shine. When it’s all over, the usually sleepy Spanish town of Buñol is left dripping in red goo. Every last Wednesday of August, the small village in the province of Valencia turns into a spirited battlefield for about an hour. 22,000 adults are allowed to participate (the organisation recently capped the event at this number to allay the tourist onslaught on a town of merely 5,000 people) and when it’s over, they’re left grinning wide smiles, dazed from the infantile joy of it all. The days after and before the food-fuelled fiesta are well spent exploring and strolling around Valencia, including its mind-boggling City of Arts and Sciences.

Duration: seven days, six nights

Cost: $573.20 (includes a $87.20 ticket to La Tomatina with transport from the hotel, paella and sangria, and a $486 six-night stay at Valencia’s beachfront Hotel Gabbeach)

La Tomatina

Find the epicenter of Buddhism at Tibet’s Jokhang temple

For over 13 centuries, Jokhang temple has been exercising a gravitational pull on Tibet’s monks. Part of capital Lhasa’s awe-inducing Potala Palace on a natural hill, Jokhang is considered the holiest site in the Buddhist fate and its central Buddha figure is worshipped as the most divine. The milling about of hundreds of pilgrims at 8am signals the opening of the rooms, though tourists can also use the afternoon entrance (though that would mean missing the monks). Round out your stay in the lap of the Himalayas with visits to the pilgrim circuit known as Barkhor Street and to other gorgeous monasteries such as Sera and Drepung. (Do keep in mind that booking with a local travel company is mandatory for non-Chinese nationals to attain a special travel permit.)

Duration: four days, three nights

Cost: $802 (including a $460 four-day Lhasa tour with Tibet Vista and a $342 four-night stay at Lhasa’s grand Shangri La Hotel)

Jokhang Temple

Take a float in Jordan’s Dead Sea and marvel at its ancient sandstone city

A new world wonder bathing in a deep pink hue, the ancient sandstone city of Petra is a glimpse into a world long gone. Chiseled by the Nabataeans out of soft rock cliffs in southern Jordan around 300 B.C. and only discovered by Westerners in 1812, Petra has every characteristic of a dazzling mirage, except that this lost city is real and has sat undisturbed in the mountainous region between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba for centuries. As if Petra wasn’t enough to wonder at, Jordan is also home to the Dead Sea, an intensely blue body of water in which swimming is out of the question. The most you can do here, dense as the water is with salt, oils and minerals, is bob around a bit. But what a place to bob in. With the capital of Amman as your home base, both are splendid day trips.

Duration: eight days, seven nights

Cost: $771 (includes a $99 Jordan Pass with a one-day visit to Petra, free entry to over 40 attractions and a visa waver, a $28 JETT bus from Amman to Petra, a $14 JETT bus from Amman to the Dead Sea and a $630 seven-night stay at Amman’s Harir Palace Hotel)


Try and spot the rare pygmy hippo at Sierra Leone’s Tiwai Island

On a patch of rainforest by the Moa River no bigger than 12 square kilometres, an extraordinarily diverse animal population lives in peace. Sierra Leone’s Tiwai Island – meaning ‘Big Island’ in the local Mende language – is essentially one big conservation and research project where travellers can go witness nature’s exotic fauna without making too much of a nuisance of themselves. While sea turtles, otters, diana monkeys and over a hundred species of birds are likely to come say hi during a canoe or daytime hike, nocturnal walking tours or river trips might have you meet the island’s rarest inhabitant, the small and illusive pygmy hippo. Spend the days before and after getting to known Sierra Leone’s chaotic capital Freetown, its yummy cuisine and its pearly white beaches (though not at night for safety reasons, mind).

Duration: six days, five nights (with one extraordinary weekend on Tiwai Island)

Cost: (includes a $118 weekend stay on the island, a $3.90 guided daytime forest walk, a $6.50 guided nighttime forest walk, a $13 guided downriver canoe trip, a $5.90 guided beach walk, a $450 three-night stay at Freetown’s Home Suites Hotel, around $10 for public transport to Tiwai Island)

Get struck by the beauty of the northern lights from Alaskan hot springs

When hunting the aurora borealis, hope is of the essence. Hope and thermic underwear. Because in Fairbanks, Alaska, chances of catching these spectacular lights dance – an ethereal phenomenon caused by charged solar particles making their way into our atmosphere – are highest when it’s coldest and darkest. In other words: bundle up and head to the north pole in the dead of winter. For a full-on experience, take the Aurora Express, complete with quaint sleeper cars. Rent a car from Fairbanks’ International Airport and drive 60 miles to the Chena Hot Springs resort. Make smores above roaring fires and lounge in natural hot springs as you wait for the magic to occur.

Duration: four days, four nights (including one spent on the Aurora Express)

Cost: $987.42 (includes a $165 suite on the Aurora Express sleeper, a $453 three-night stay at the Chena Hot Springs resort and a $369.42 Hertz car rental)

The northern lights at play in Alaska

Feel small next to Uluru and camp underneath the stars in the Australian outback

The indigenous people living in its shadow call it Uluru, Westerners refer to it as Ayers Rock and Australians simply stick to ‘the Rock’, but all are dwarfed by its presence. Further contributing to the ant-like feeling this sandstone monolith inspires is the fact that it sits in the heart of the outback, 450 kilometres from the nearest town of note. A 9-kilometre walk around its grass-surrounded base in the evening sparks even more appreciation for its grandiosity, as well as a front-row seat to the changing of its colours as the sun sets: from ochre-brown, to fierce orange, to red and purple tones that become deeper and deeper until only a hulking shadow remains. Nestle around the campfire that cooks you dinner and hunker down in your sleeping swags to doze off under the outback’s starry night’s sky. Wake up with a view of a now pink Uluru.

Duration: eight days, seven nights

Cost: $830.80 (includes a $325.80 three-day Uluru tour with Emu Run Experience and a $505 five-night stay at Alice Springs’ Desert Palms)


Slow down with the turtles on Costa Rica’s Tortuguero island

Life isn’t half bad as a green or leatherback sea turtle on the Playa Tortuguero. An especially lovely beach in Costa Rica, this national park is where they come in droves to lay and hatch their eggs. Originally only accessible to biologists and locals, travellers are now allowed to take in the epic sight of huge turtle moms taking to the Caribbean shore under the cover of dark. As the animals tirelessly swathe away sand for hours to create nests for their little ones to hatch, guides regularly warn tourists not to get too close. The nocturnal scene can’t help but leave a lasting impression. During the daytime this remote island sanctuary is alive with travellers enjoying canoe rides on its web of canals, spotting napping sloths and indulging in the Afro-Carribean cuisine.

Duration: five days, four nights

Cost: $918 (includes a $70 nighttime turtle watching tour with Gecko Trail and a $848 four-night stay at the exotic Tortuga Lodge and Gardens)

Get picture-happy at Bolivia’s salt flats

Like many of Mother Earth’s grandest displays, Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni is something otherworldly. Visible from space and sitting atop more than half of the world’s lithium reserves, this prehistoric dried up lake is every nature photographer’s idea of heaven. Over 10,000 square kilometers of geometric salt residue, coloured mineral lakes and lagunes flush with pink flamingos await in summer, while the rainy season (December to April) sees the vast desert topped with a sliver of water to mirror back your astonished face. A four-day exploration of this remarkable vista with the right guide – and the absence of altitude sickness – means certain bliss. Do pay special attention to the company you choose for your trip: some of the cheapest ones have been known to be unsafe in their driving.

Duration: three days, two nights

Cost: $887 (includes a $160 tourist visa for US travellers and a $727 three-day tour with Banjo Tours, if your trip is split between at least two people. More travel companions means a lower price each and the car fits five.)

Salar de Uyuni
landscape with balloons floating in the air


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