7 Bucket-List Trips to Blow Your Tax Refund On

See recent posts by Maria Teresa Hart

According to the IRS, the average tax refund is around $3,000. At Oyster, we like to think of these yearly windfalls as zero-effort travel funds. Let's just say $3,000 can cover some big bucket-list turf, making those far-flung places suddenly a "book now" button away. While we're waiting on that deposit, here's a dreamy list of seven trips and their budgets, so you can see the possibilities. Your biggest problem could be narrowing down these choices to just one.

1. Witnessing the Northern Lights in Iceland

Ring Road, Iceland/Oyster

Ring Road, Iceland/Oyster

There’s a reason Iceland is used as the backdrop for many popular TV shows: The landscape makes anything epic. From glaciers and hot springs to charging waterfalls, the vistas here are simply breathtaking. And if you time your visit around the end of the year, you might even be treated to the cosmic pyrotechnics otherwise known as the Northern Lights. A seven-night stay at the Frost and Fire Hotel gives travelers ample opportunity to explore the area (or, fingers crossed, see Aurora Borealis), and two geothermal hot tubs are on hand when you need to warm up from your expeditions. 

Hotel: Frost and Fire Hotel, $300/night; Airfare: $500

Grand Total: $2,600

2. Cruising by Glaciers in Alaska



With glaciers, snowy mountain peaks, and regular appearances from bears and bald eagles, Alaska is the Nature Channel come to life. It’s precisely this backdrop that makes it so bucket-list worthy. And while the terrain can be harsh and hard to cover, it’s easy to take it all in from a cruise deck. Cruise travel also makes it affordable, as the price tag includes travel, accommodations, and food in one number. A seven-day Alaska Explorer trip on Holland America’s Eurodam does a loop from Seattle to Juneau and back. Even if you’re flying in from the east coast, it isn’t a budget-buster, and you can spend the night in the city before heading out. 

Cruise: Holland America’s Eurodam, $1,080; Hotel: Kimpton Hotel Vintage Seattle, $200; Airfare: $300

Grand Total: $1,580

3. Hiking in Incan Footsteps at Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu, Peru/Oyster

Machu Picchu, Peru/Oyster

Considered one of the seven wonders of the world, Machu Picchu stands as an icon to a lost Incan empire. This massive complex of ruins reflects a full society complete with fountains, squares, royal houses, and even a cemetery. And its setting, up and away in the Andes Mountains, carries the type of mystical qualities that make it feel like a dreamscape. While airfare here can seem steep, comfortable hotel accommodations are affordable enough that even if you stayed a week, you’d have enough funds left over to hire a private tour guide.  

Hotel: Casa Andina Standard Machu Picchu, $130/night; Tour: $350; Airfare: $800

Grand Total: $2,060

4. Going on an African Safari in Botswana

andBeyond Xaranna Okavango Delta Camp, Botswana/Oyster

andBeyond Xaranna Okavango Delta Camp, Botswana/Oyster

Many travelers believe that safaris are strictly the domain of one-percenters. But trust us, you don’t need private-jet wealth to go on a safari; you just need a healthy tax return. Even a luxury outfitter like &Beyond can be booked, provided you can be flexible about your dates. If you’re able to book a last-minute April trip, a two-night safari in Botswana can run you just over $1,400. That price includes everything: lavish accommodations with a private plunge pool, outstanding food, and guided excursions to see lions, hippos, and other wildlife. 

Safari: andBeyond Xaranna Okavango Delta Camp, $1,420; Airfare: $1,402

Grand Total: $2,822

5. Seeing Temples in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chiang Mai, Thailand/Oyster

Chiang Mai, Thailand/Oyster

Yes, a plane ticket to Chiang Mai, Thailand, is almost guaranteed to cost a grand up front. However, like many destinations in Southeast Asia, the flight is the biggest expense. The hotels here are inexpensive enough that even one as lovely as the luxury Ping Nakara will only set you back $150 a night (or $1,050 a week). And Chiang Mai is cheaper overall compared to Phuket or Bangkok, and less crowded to boot. But you’ll still find the buzzy night bazaars, ancient temples, and street eats that make Thailand a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

Hotel: Ping Nakara Boutique Hotel & Spa, $150/night; Airfare: $1,035

Grand Total: $2,085

6. Trekking the Great Wall in Beijing, China

Keith Roper/Flickr

Keith Roper/Flickr

The multicultural action-adventure movie “The Great Wall” may have been a flop, but it proved one thing: This Beijing monument is always ready for its close-up. The wall itself, rolling over 13,000 miles of hillside, seems to undulate up toward the heavens. And while you’ll need some strong legs to cover all the stairs, you won’t need a ton of cash. Flights to Beijing can be just three figures, and pentahotel Beijing offers straightforward, modern digs that clock in at $100 a night. With those prices, there’s enough money left over to hire a private tour guide and pig out on this capital city’s legendary dumplings and noodles.

Hotel: pentahotel Beijing $100/night; Tour: $349; Airfare: $971

Grand Total: $2,020

7. Visiting Lavish Landmarks in St. Petersburg, Russia



No place does over-the-top opulence like Russia, and St. Petersburg is a master class in the “more is more” aesthetic. Whether it’s Catherine the Great’s art collection in the Hermitage Museum, the Peterhof Palace (a.k.a. the Russian Versailles), or the gilded top of Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, each site feels completely bathed in splendor. To see this pomp on a smaller scale, travelers should visit the Fabergé Museum. The Mariinsky Theatre is also a must-visit for ballet and opera lovers. A summertime flight to this city is just over a thousand dollars, leaving enough in the budget to stay in the preposterously grand Four Seasons for five nights.

Hotel: Four Seasons Hotel Lion Palace St. Petersburg, $350/night; Airfare: $1,036

Grand Total: $2,786

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