Sometimes you start planning the vacation of your dreams — and the cost compels you to second guess your itinerary. Other times, you realize the only way you’ll escape your backyard is if you somehow net a substantial cash windfall. You know, like a hefty tax refund check.
You see where we’re going with this, right? A tax refund vacation can be serendipitous whether you’re already planning to get away or simply feel the itch to travel, and now have the means.
With more than 80% of Americans receiving a tax refund, and the average estimated refund totaling more than $3,000, there may not be a need to settle for a lackluster destination or solely use Uncle Sam’s check toward a tax refund vacation.1 You can travel and still spread it around, paying off debt, shoring up your rainy day fund and even fast-forwarding that home renovation. It’s a win-win!
We’ve generated some ideas based on different tiers of refunds, beginning at $500 and extending to $2,500. So take a look, pack your bags and plot out your tax refund vacation before next year’s W2s start rolling in.
It wasn’t a fluke. When the American dollar surged past the Canadian dollar, more Americans started looking north of the border for vacations on the cheap. With the American dollar putting a hefty 30 cents back in your pocket compared to its Canadian counterpart, the flash mob of getaways has become a great migration.2 If you’re looking north for your tax refund vacation, then look no further than Toronto, Canada. The vibrant city offers a thriving musical theater scene, a professional baseball team with a first class stadium, and even surfing – Aloha Toronto, held in August, is a surfing and Hawaiian culture festival taking place on Lake Ontario. Other family attractions include ample hiking opportunities right outside the city, a drive-in movie theater, and of course, Old Toronto’s 553-meter-high CN Tower.
If you don’t have an up-to-date passport or are looking for something more relaxing than bustling city life, then consider a throwback trip to the Ozarks, more specifically, Branson, Missouri.
When happens in Branson doesn’t stay in Branson. It’s shared in family reunion slide shows and dozens of family-friendly postcards. Branson is the PG-rated second cousin of Las Vegas, a growing tourist destination steeped in nostalgia and fun for everyone.
The shows are one of the big attractions of this growing tourist destination, and they tend to cater to an older crowd. Often paired with meals, top-billed dinner theater entertainment includes Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede Dinner & Show, the Branson Murder Mystery Dinner Show, and famous crooners and cowgirls who have settled down or just stopped by Branson’s strip, from Paul Anka to Loretta Lynn and Tanya Tucker. But don’t feel you need stick to the theaters; Branson features some great outdoor experiences as well. Explore Marvel Cave, fish the many trout streams or jump on the Branson Scenic Railway, a 40-mile ride back through time with tremendous views of the Ozark foothills. If you’re truly committed to making this a turn-back-the-clock experience, saddle up at 1800s-themed amusement park Silver Dollar City.3
Branson can be explored for far less than your average tourist destination. Many of the dinner theater shows cost between $30 and $40, hiking the Ozarks is free, and you can fetch a room at the Welk Resort Hotel — sporting the namesake of Lawrence Welk — starting at $80 a night.4
It’s been a long road back for New Orleans, which was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But now that road is crowded with a resurgence of relocating residents and a boom of vacationers. The good news is that you don’t need to travel to The Big Easy during Mardi Gras or its famous Jazz Festival to have a good time; the French Quarter and beyond is a party 24/7, 265 days a year. With rooms available for $250 a night, the best time to make the trip is July and August if you can stand the heat.
What many travelers don’t appreciate until they arrive in New Orleans is the sheer diversity of activities available. The food and drink may be familiar, from catfish po’ boys and jambalaya to hurricanes and hand grenades. But the number of tours can almost be overwhelming. These range from cemetery voodoo tours led by “City of the Dead” author Robert Florence to Free Tours by Foot, which is a name-your-own-price tour marketplace of sorts. As a top-rated attraction on Trip Advisor, Free Tours by Foot offers bike and walking tours through all of New Orleans storied neighborhoods. Simply follow the leader and pay what you want.
If you’re the betting type, Harrah’s New Orleans is an upscale 26-story hotel and casino straddling Fulton Street. History buffs will enjoy moseying through the National WWII Museum and New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA), known for its collection of Japanese art. And there is always the Audubon Zoo, featuring an award-winning Louisiana Swamp exhibit, white alligators, jaguars and orangutans.
Now try cramming all of that into one long weekend.
If you're lucky enough to get a tax refund of $1,500, turn your good fortune into great memories with a family vacation to Disney World. The memories will last a lifetime; or when the kids convince you to return in two years. With Disney’s 2015 "Magic Your Way" packages, a family of four can stay onsite at a value Disney hotel and gain access to a single park each day for less than $200 per night. Lower price lodgings include Disney’s All-Star Resorts – Sports, Music and Movies – as well as the Pop Century Resort. Packages also include fun extras, such as free miniature golf and discounts on other activities.
Another consideration in this price range is a Washington, D.C. weekend, with a new twist. Take one day to soak up the most in-demand tourist attractions, from Chinatown’s International Spy Museum in to the National Mall’s newish National Museum of African American History & Culture. Just note that for the latter, you’ll need to reserve a timed pass or get lucky with a same-day pass. Admission is free, but big crowds have necessitated managing attendance in this fashion.4
Celebrate you big tax refund victory with an opulent night at The Willard, a historic 1850 edifice that’s neighbors with the White House. You can nab rooms for under $500 a night during the summer offseason, which is a deal in uber-pricey D.C. Complement your traditional DC sightseeing day with a trip to the luxurious new MGM National Harbor, a hotel, mall and casino located just 10 miles north of the District on the Potomac River. Again, rooms here can soar past $300 and $400 depending on a number of factors, but the hotel itself and neighboring National Harbor restaurants and attractions are a convenient bubble of waterfront entertainment. After you chow down at Voltaggio Brothers Steak House, you’ll still have plenty of money left in your pocket from your tax refund to take on the tables and slot machines. Good luck!
If you have $2,500 to spend on a vacation, why not make it an adventure? For $2,000, you can get a round-trip ticket for one person to Bangkok from Los Angeles and spend a week or more exploring the ancient city of Chian Mai and the stunning beaches of Koh Samui. It's possible to see Thailand for around $50 per day when you opt for budget accommodations and food. While there is a lack of registered hostels, there are many options when it comes to guesthouses and bungalows.
While both accommodation types often feature a no-frills restaurant and place to safely stow valuables and luggage, there is a distinction between the two. Rural bungalows tend to comprise detached dwellings, such as chalets and huts. Urban guesthouses most often resemble small hotels or take the shape of houses divvied up into multiple quarters. Note that you may have to pay more for a room with a TV, or more importantly, air conditioning.
Once you’ve determined your digs, you’ll find that your itinerary will quickly fill up with temples and tours. Mix it up with a trip to the Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute (aka, the Snake Farm) or explore the sprawling Klongs canals in a water taxi or rented long-tail boat – and skip Bangkok’s infamous traffic. So stay for a week and save room for souvenirs. Bring back some panang curry for us.
A tax refund, especially a refund you weren’t necessarily planning or counting on, is a great way to fund an impromptu vacation. And as this guide shows, reaching exciting domestic or even further afoot locations may not cost as much as you might have thought. Just consider a tax refund vacation a reward for getting all that paperwork done on time.