Affordable Luxury Travel

Consider these six dreamy ideas for your next vacation.
Renata Faeth

Sunrise breakfast on a seaside veranda. The hotel staff greeting you by name. Turndown service with a chocolate on the pillow. Your own private swimming pool.

These are the hallmarks of a luxury travel experience, ones we remember long after we’ve returned home. But unless you’ve recently won the lottery, value matters as much as luxury, because no one wants to overpay for opulence. Luckily, you can have both lux and value—here are some hand-picked dream vacations worthy of your consideration.

Uniworld Boutique River Cruises

Comparing prices and amenities of approximately 15 European river cruise lines can be daunting. They’re all lovely, but travelers looking for incomparable décor and service should consider what AAA’s first river cruise partner, Uniworld, brings to the table.

Regional sales manager Anne Mickey acknowledges that in-depth cultural exploration is best experienced on a “land-based” tour, especially those with a regional focus and relaxed pace. However, she says, “River cruising is the perfect marriage of a land tour with the convenience of a cruise. Each Uniworld ship is uniquely designed, right down to the stunning wall coverings and bedspreads, so they’re floating boutique hotels—luxury in every sense, yet with a casual and relaxed atmosphere.

Uniworld also offers farm-to-table cuisine, locally sourced regional wines, 24-hour room service, highly personalized shore excursions, original works of art and the most luxurious bed you’ll ever sleep in—all included in the price.” Add generous AAA member benefits, like on-board credit and in some cases, a 4-star, one night pre-cruise hotel stay, and guests have a splendid vacation waiting for them, paid in full before leaving home.

Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Suite
Uniworld Suite aboard the S.S. Antoinette. Photo courtesy Uniworld

Oceania Cruises

It seems like yesterday Oceania emerged on the scene to provide what cruise lovers had long been clamoring for: an intimate cruise experience with great food and a casually elegant atmosphere. Now entering its 16th year, Oceania is only getting better with time.

Tim Burtch, regional sales and marketing director, describes how Oceania has effectively carved out its niche as an upper premium cruise line providing a luxury experience. “Our focus has been threefold. We’re destination specialists, and we offer intimate, luxurious ships and the finest cuisine at sea. With Jaques Pepin as our culinary director from the start, we’ve established ourselves as a 'foodie' cruise line, where we deliver an incredible dining experience both in our main and specialty dining rooms—all included in the price. Bottled water, soft drinks and specialty coffees are also complimentary throughout the cruise.”

AAA Traveler and Oceania enthusiast Konnie Benson reflects on why she keeps returning: “As a passenger, you feel comfortable being yourself. Nothing feels pretentious or stuffy. Even in their elegant dining rooms, the staff is universally friendly and accommodating, and because the ships are smaller capacity, it’s easy to find camaraderie among fellow passengers on board and on excursions.”

Oceania delivers a product guests love, but they also entice newcomers with their popular O’Life Choice program, available on all sailings which includes free airfare (restrictions apply), plus the choice of one of the following for free: shore excursions, beverage package or shipboard credit.

Luxury Gold’s Treasures of the Incas

Machu Picchu, a highlight of Luxury Gold’s 12-day Treasures of the Incas journey, is just one of many magnificent sights visitors will experience during this tour. The 15th-century fortified city, perched high above the Andes, is a Unesco World Heritage site. Luxury Gold visitors also explore impressive Incan ruins in the Sacred Valley, including the Sun Temple of Ollantaytambo and small towns of Chincheros and Maras, where colorful markets offer a splendid contrast to the spectacular views of the Andes.

Lima, Peru's lively capital, is an epicurean’s delight, where servers in the local cafes offer time-honored Peruvian recipes, augmented with fresh combinations of flavors and spices, and local drinks complete with the traditional Pisco Sour cocktail. The 2019 starting price (with 28 meals and 21 included experiences) is $5,660 per person for double occupancy.

Luxury Gold journeys are tailored to smaller groups, offering exceptional dining and accommodations as well as a traveling concierge, who personalizes the trip to guests’ needs thanks to in-depth local knowledge and logistical expertise. (The 2019 AAA Member Benefit is a $150 Visa® Gift Card per passenger on select itineraries.)

Travel Trip to Machu Picchu with Luxury Gold
Machu Picchu, Cusco, Peru. Photo: Jeremiah Berman/Unsplash

Secrets Maroma Beach Riviera Cancun, Puerto Morelos, Mexico – Adults Only

At this AAA Five Diamond award-winning alternate universe just south of Cancun, guests enjoy the Unlimited-Luxury® all-inclusive experience, providing world-class service and indulgences that honeymooners, couples and spa enthusiasts swoon over.

Amenities include spectacular pools, breathtaking views, international and domestic top-shelf spirits, 24-hour room and concierge service, and unlimited access to eight gourmet dining venues. Guests can embellish the experience in the Preferred Club Junior Suite Swim Out, where the 624-square-foot rooms offer a massive luxurious bathroom, private balcony or terrace with an exterior soaking tub, and direct swim-out access to a tropical pool. (The 2020 high season price is around $6,300 for two, seven-night land cost.)

Simply put, there is something to love in every inch of this heavenly retreat. Even the most affordable rooms will wow the most discerning travelers.

Adults Only Resort Vacation at Secrets Maroma Beach Riviera Cancun Puerto Morelos Mexico
Photo courtesy AMResorts

A Transatlantic Voyage on Cunard’s Queen Mary 2

Founded in 1840 as a British and North American transatlantic steamship company, Cunard navigated the world’s oceans from the industrial age through the great World Wars carrying mail, cargo and military servicemen. Today, guests sail the legendary cruise line in modern elegance and style on their three ships, the “Queens” (Elizabeth and Victoria) and the world’s only remaining true ocean liner, the Queen Mary 2.

AAA Minneapolis veteran travel advisor Charlene Ihrig has sailed with Cunard 11 times, including five Atlantic Ocean crossings, so she knows a thing or two about this unique experience. “The Queen Mary 2 is huge—almost 150,000 gross tons—yet she carries only about 2,600 passengers, in contrast to similar sized vessels sailing with about 4,000. That extra space feels luxurious.”

On the matter of cruise ship versus ocean liner, “It’s not just semantics,” Ihrig explains. “The Queen Mary 2 has been carefully designed to sail in any sea conditions. I love the way she cuts through the waves and moves effortlessly; it’s a lovely ride.” The British-influenced onboard experience is renown, too. Ihrig points to afternoon high tea (a major event) and sumptuous libraries (the Queen Mary 2’s is ranked as the largest and finest afloat). “I especially love the Grand Ballroom, where, in addition to taking tea, I can hear live big band music and practice the waltz, cha cha and swing on the world’s largest floating dance floor. They even have gentleman hosts to dance with the ladies.”

Unlike most cruise lines, on Cunard, where one sleeps dictates where one dines. Most guests enjoy the impeccable service of the Britannia dining room, while Princess Suite guests dine in the more intimate Princess Dining room, and those staying in the best suites have access to the exclusive Queen’s Grill. Ihrig enjoyed this just once, on the Queen Elizabeth in Norway. “They offered me the option of butler-served dining in my room, so I thought, why not? Weinerschnitzel on our veranda while sailing along a fjord—what an experience!” Cunard’s seven-night one-way journeys start at around $1,200-$1,300 per person plus airfare.

Affordable Luxury Cruises
Britannia Restaurant aboard the Queen Mary 2

An Italian Villa Stay – The Villa Experience by Travel Impressions

Imagine a stately house with a red-tiled roof and trails of ivy encircling wrought iron fencing and flower boxes. An easy train ride from historic Florence, Italy, it’s near the epicenter of Renaissance treasures. The kitchen is stocked with essentials, everyone has their own bedroom, and the view from the living room picture window is a patchwork of rustic colored hills, bearing the fruits of locally farmed wine and produce. The dinner setting is a backyard table for a home-cooked meal and a toast to the good life. No noise, no traffic, no set agenda.

A villa rental is an upgrade from condo and apartment living, offering anywhere from one to 20 bedrooms and additional space, like living rooms, dining rooms, fully equipped kitchens, and sometimes a private veranda and swimming pool for relaxing outdoors. In addition, a dedicated staff can attend to travelers’ needs, providing services like meal preparation, entertainment arrangements, or even an in-villa massage or culinary lessons.

Villa owners usually ask for a commitment of a one week stay which is ideal for guests using the home as a base for day trips to explore the countryside. It’s an outstanding value when comparing the cost with multiple rooms at a resort or hotel during high season. Prices vary, but here’s an example: The Simonetta, a 19th century five-bedroom home located near Florence, starts at $827 per night and it sleeps 10.

A good travel advisor recognizes the importance of value, no matter how luxurious the trip. Have a conversation with a AAA Travel Advisor to see what’s possible—your dream vacation may be a brief snapshot in time, but the memories are worth it.