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Value travel

Expensive experiences, cheaper alternatives

Sarah Baxter

The world’s most iconic travel experiences don’t usually come cheap – but sometimes there are real alternatives. Here are some ideas for the budget-conscious, and expert advice on whether it’s actually worth paying the price for some of these bucket-list classics.

1. Orient Express vs InterRail pass, Europe

A steam train pulling the Orient Express A steam train pulling the Orient Express / Tim Stocker Photography / Getty Images

The plush Venice Simplon Orient-Express exudes an irresistible romance – it’s all that wood panelling and polished brass. But it’s not cheap: the classic six-day Paris-Istanbul train jaunt costs GB£11,000 per person. An InterRail Pass to cover the same stretch costs from GB£161 (five days travel in ten); upgrade to a First Class version for £386 for a glimmer of glamour.

Worth the saving? Undoubtedly. But if you win the lottery…

2. Harbour Bridge Climb vs Pylon Lookout, Sydney, Australia

The Old Coathanger offers the best views of Sydney harbour – for all budgets. The more hair-raising choice sees you suited up and strapped to the outer rim of the arch to climb to its 134m zenith. The alternative is to climb the 200 steps of the bridge’s South East Pylon for 87m-high budget views.

Worth the saving? Only want a panorama? Pick the pylon (A$11); the Bridge Climb (A$198-298) provides an adrenalin-boosting (but wallet-wilting) outlook.

3. Galápagos Islands vs Isla de la Plata, Ecuador

Isla de la Plata is known as the ‘Poor Man’s Galápagos’. It’s certainly easier and cheaper to access – just 27km off the Ecuadorian mainland, while the Galápagos is 1000km. Species here include whales, sea lions and birds, including boobies, frigatebirds and waved albatross; Galápagos faves such as giant tortoise and penguins are absent.

Worth the saving? A Plata day-trip (around US$35) is fine, but is no match. An eight-night Galápagos cruise costs from US$1500 plus flights – but find the cash if you can.

4. Mt Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, vs Mt Kenya, Kenya

Africa’s highest mountain, 5895m Kilimanjaro, steals the thunder of runner-up Mount Kenya (5199m). Both are challenging volcano climbs, with rainforest, strange plants and shrinking glaciers. Kenya has more wildlife and fewer people; it’s also cheaper, due to lower fees and the shorter duration needed for a climb (from four days). Kili’s main trails are chocker, and fees soon mount – factor on at least six days of US$70-a-day Conservation Fee, US$50-a-day camp fee, guides, food…but it remains the ultimate challenge.

Worth the saving? Yes: Kenya’s a satisfying ascent – it just lacks the bragging rights.

5. Nile cruiser vs felucca, Egypt

The Nile is busy with boats, from floating five-star hotels that can cost US$200 a night, to traditional lateen-sailed feluccas (more like US$12). Modern ships move faster and offer amenities from air-con to bars and spas – in short, comfort. Feluccas have a deck, no cabins and no bathrooms, and must amble with the wind, but offer a more authentic feel.

Worth the saving? Yes, if you’re not precious about loos.

6. Gorilla tracking vs chimp trekking, Uganda

Tracking mountain gorillas in Bwindi is a bucket list stuff, but comes at a price: US$500 for a sweaty slog and an hour in the great apes’ presence. To encounter chimps costs from US$30 at Toro-Semliki, although better sightings are in Kibale; here, fees are US$150 for a three-hour hike or US$220 for a Habituation Experience – where you spend all day watching the chimps forage, feed and breed.

Worth the saving? Few are disappointed by gorilla trekking, but do consider alternatives: there’s much more to Uganda.

7. Sabi Sand Game Reserve vs Kruger National Park, South Africa

Kruger is the most egalitarian safari spot. Entry costs R204 (US$23) a day, you can drive your own 2WD on its excellent roads and pitch a tent in its well-equipped campsites (R200 a night). You can also see Africa’s Big Five while you’re at it. Adjacent private game reserves, such as Sabi Sand, have the same wildlife, but also intimate, luxurious lodges, expert guides, activities such as night drives and bigger prices – think R3000 per person per night.

Worth the saving? Yes. Game viewing in Kruger is great – but remember that a good guide can transform a safari.

8. Glacier walk vs heli-hike, Fox & Franz Joseph, New Zealand

There are many ways to meet South Island’s mighty glaciers. You can hike up green valleys to the terminal faces of Fox or Franz Joseph (around NZ$50), or spend a bit more to strap on crampons and walk on the lower glacier (NZ$115). However, the most impressive ice-caves and crevasses are higher up; it costs NZ$400 to reach them by helicopter and hike across this shifting world of white.

Worth the saving? No, splurge – for the chopper ride and more extraordinary ice.

9. Sambadrome vs blocos, Rio Carnival, Brazil

The world’s biggest street party can command a hefty price-tag. To watch the main Samba Parade you need a ticket for the Sambadrome. Options range from grandstand space to luxury boxes; for all but the cheapest you’ll pay upwards of US$125. To counter increasing commercialisation, blocos – neighbourhood parties – have risen in popularity; to join in, buy a T-shirt (around US$10) and shake your bootie with the locals.

Worth the saving? Ideally, do both. Book early for best-value Sambadrome seats.

10. Yacht cruise vs Bateau Bus, Monaco

The pricey principality is the ultimate place to loll on a yacht with a cocktail and a celeb. But mooring alone can cost €1200 a day. A teensy taste of the high-life requires just €2 (and some imagination) – buy a ticket for the Bateau Bus ferry across the highfalutin harbour.

Worth the saving? Yes, for the views back to the world you can’t afford…