In an era when the exchange rates and airfares have combined to make expensive destinations completely outrageous, many people are deciding to give up and wait things out for better conditions. Forget that, we say, and just choose a different destination. Lots of North Americans feel their holiday choices consist of either European culture, or tropical resorts, but the world is actually filled with nice places that have always been much cheaper than those options.
If you flew to London or Paris in the summer the flight might cost US$1,000, and once you got off the plane you’d feel like you were constantly being assaulted because a basic hotel room for two starts around US$150, and even a simple lunch will set you back US$15 anywhere except fast food chains. What you may not realize is that flights to most of these places below can be found in the same general price range, or less, and then your daily expenses will be half, or even much less than that.
The prices quoted below apply to “budget travel,” so you can’t expect a posh 4-star hotel room for this little. The strange truth is that the cost of luxury travel is almost the same anywhere in the world, but if you are able to live a notch or two down the scale you can get by in these places spending just a fraction of what you would in Europe, or even in your home country.
1 – Thailand
If you have never really thought too seriously about visiting Asia because it seemed too foreign or intimidating, then Bangkok is an excellent first stop. It’s a sprawling and modern city that feels comfortable and safe, and it’s also jammed with amazing temples and golden Buddha statues to the point that the exotic meter will be constantly pinned. The tourist infrastructure is magnificent and getting by speaking only English couldn’t be easier. The city is known for its edgy nightlife, but that tends to be clustered in just a few areas so avoiding it easy if you don’t feel like sampling it yourself. Hotels in decent central neighborhoods start at around US$15 per night, and spending double that will buy you some luxury. Budget travelers can eat well for around US$10 per day, and oversize bottles of beer in bars and nightclubs can be had for around US$2.
You might not want to go all that way to just stay in one place, although Bangkok itself does have plenty to see. You can add a side trip to the spiritual mountain city of Chiang Mai, which is even more exotic and also noticeably cheaper, or you could head south to Phuket or one of Thailand’s resort islands, where you can enjoy 4-star beach luxury starting under US$50 per night.
2 – Buenos Aires, Argentina
The gorgeous capital of Argentina isn’t as cheap as several of the others on this list, but it’s still an incredible deal for what you get. Their 2002-currency crash made everything into a huge bargain for foreign travelers almost overnight, and even though consistent inflation has continued to whittle away at the crazy disparity, Buenos Aires is still much cheaper than similar destinations. Many first-time visitors are surprised that it feels like a clean and efficient version of Europe rather than like a part of Latin America.
Knowing some Spanish is a big help as English isn’t as common as it is in most other global tourist cities, but English-only speakers can still do fine. Well-located 3-star hotels can still be found for under US$50, although there are plenty of nicer and pricier places in the same areas that are bargains in their own right. Excellent meals are available for around US$5, and the city is a huge treat for lovers of quality beef, though plenty of other options are almost always available. You could take a side trip to the Mendoza wine country to change things up a bit, or you could just enjoy the great wine itself at prices starting under US$5 for a whole bottle in a Buenos Aires restaurant.
3 – Bali, Indonesia
Even if it weren’t dirt-cheap once you got there, Bali would still get raves from nearly everyone who has visited before. The southern tip of the island is filled with a new strip of international chain hotels in a purpose-built resort town called Nusa Dua, and while those are a bit cheaper than similar places elsewhere, the rest of the island is filled with absolute bargains. Great beaches and good nightlife are abundant in the surfer/backpacker village of Kuta, although that crowded area also lacks the charm and grace of the dozens of lesser-known towns and beaches found all over the island. Your best bet is to split your time between the relaxed beach community of Sanur, the interior art village of Ubud, and any one of a hundred small resort areas that have luxurious accommodations starting under US$30 per night. It’s easy to book most of the cheaper places on the day you arrive in a town, so you can build your trip as you go, but booking in advance does cut down on the possible stress of having to try a few places to find one that is available.
In nearly every corner of Bali, you can find basic and spartan guesthouses starting at US$5 to US$10 per night, and also super-luxurious resorts costing up to US$300 for 5-star service in paradise, but everything in between will be a bargain as well. Excellent local meals in nice restaurants start around US$2 each, and an ice-cold local beer won’t add more than US$1 or US$2 to your tab. The best and easiest way to tour the island is by hiring a private van and driver, which is still amazingly cheap in spite of gas price rises. The only real annoyance is that merchants and street vendors tend to be very aggressive, but their local handicrafts can also be weirdly cheap if you know how to handle yourself.
4 – Central America
Instead of choosing just one Central American city or country, we figured we’d point out that this large and varied part of the world is all pretty cheap by most standards. The tiny English-speaking country of Belize has been getting a lot of attention lately, and Costa Rica is very popular for many different reasons, so it’s a shame that those two are among the more expensive Central American countries. You can still find simple hotels on the beach even in those two countries for under US$50 per night, but they might be right next to a US$200 per night resort that gives your place an inferiority complex. Both of these countries have interesting jungle areas in their interiors, and plenty of resort areas on the coasts that range from backpacker-friendly to luxurious.
Once you get out of those countries the prices drop even more, although at least some knowledge of Spanish also becomes more critical. Guatemala has its famous Mayan ruins of Tikal in the north, as well as the postcard-perfect colonial capital of Antigua close to Guatemala City in the south. El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua each have their own interesting blend of modern local culture mixed with their colonial pasts, and hotel rooms for under US$20 per night are easy to find along with more luxurious options that are still bargains at higher prices. Panama has its large and cosmopolitan capital city as well as the Canal Zone that is fascinating in its own right. Beach resorts are sprinkled throughout the entire region, and prices tend to be much lower than in the better known Caribbean resorts they are similar to.
5 – Vietnam
Thailand is probably the easiest part of Southeast Asia to visit, and Cambodia and Laos are also amazingly cheap (forget about Burma/Myanmar for now), but Vietnam receives raves on its own for having a unique mix of things not found elsewhere. Since this was a French colony for many decades, ending in 1945, there are noticeable Franco influences on the architecture and food of modern-day Vietnam. Service can be elegant and the cuisine is widely acclaimed for its unusual combinations that stretch the normal definitions of Asian food. Many of the cheaper places can’t be booked in advance online, but there are endless decent budget hotels at prices starting well below US$20, although the country now also has a huge collection of 4 and 5-star resorts with typical international prices.
Hanoi is the capital and it has plenty of charm in its central area that has barely been touched by modern development, while the giant Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon) is a booming and modern center that feels completely different. But this isn’t a country where you want to spend all your time in cities. You can book a 3-day cruise from Hanoi to the stunning Ha Long Bay for under US$100 per person, including everything. Competition between hotels and travel companies here is fierce, and you have to keep your wits about you, but the whole place should be an incredible bargain by Western standards.
6 – Morocco
It’s hard to get this level of exoticness in such a convenient location anywhere else in the world. Most travelers arrive in Morocco by a short ferry ride from one of the ports in southern Spain, which itself is fairly inexpensive so it makes for a great combination trip. Ferry passengers will find themselves in the “border town” of Tangier, and most air passengers will land in the crowded and sprawling Casablanca. Both of those are best kept to a minimal visit (in spite of each having a romantic-sounding name), because the better attractions are in Fes and Marrakech, as well as in the nearby Atlas Mountains.
Budget travelers who aren’t too fussy can find acceptable hotels in most of the country starting under US$50, and delicious local meals for under US$5. Once you get out of the larger cities the prices tend to be even more reasonable, and you get a less packaged version of the fascinating Berber culture. There are also lovely beach resorts with modern hotels, so you can mix in some pure relaxation with your culture without breaking the bank.
7 – Mexico City
Many Americans completely forget that there is a huge, historic, and endlessly entertaining city just one country to the south. Mexico City is one of the world’s largest metropolises and is brimming with great colonial architecture, interesting sights, good nightlife neighborhoods, large street markets, and plenty more to keep visitors busy. It’s not as cheap as destinations in Southeast Asia, but nice hotels in safe and even glamorous central neighborhoods start well under US$100 per night, and the flight to get there will also cost much less than heading to another continent, so this can add up to a really nice and exotic “big city” trip for far less than you’d spend flying to, say, Madrid.
Some people are worried that Mexico City is extremely dangerous or dirty. There are certainly dangerous and dirty neighborhoods in this city of 20 million or so, but most of the central districts with tourist hotels are safe and clean, much like the tourist districts in Los Angeles or Miami. It helps if you speak some Spanish, and it’s best to be careful which taxi you climb into, but anyone following the usual urban cautions will have a great time and not feel threatened. Getting around is very easy, as the subway/metro goes everywhere, and each ride costs only about 20 cents. The artsy Condesa and Roma neighborhood is popular with tourists, and the Zona Rosa just to the north has tons of nicer hotels and unlimited entertainment options. You can, and should, visit the ancient pyramids at Teotihuacan, which are an easy 25 miles outside the city by private car or organized tour.
8 – India
The huge and mysterious country of India has earned a reputation as being one of the cheapest travel destinations on earth, with hotel rooms honestly starting around US$1 per night. But this is not a place that folks who couldn’t quite afford Hawaii this year should try as an alternative. There are a handful of 5-star hotels and resorts, and prices at those are strangely close to similar resorts elsewhere. And the two largest and most common entry points – Mumbai and Delhi – are both filled with hotels that are more run-down and more expensive than you would expect. But for adventurous and open-minded budget travelers, India outside its biggest cities is entrancing, fascinating, and amazingly cheap at the same time.
It’s not uncommon for people to actually hate India shortly after arriving, so it’s hard to stress enough that this is kind of the ‘traveling big leagues.’ Thousands of people have touched down with under $1,000 in their wallets, and left a month or more later with the most amazing experiences of their lives. Once you get off the main track you can find friendly people and stunning sights, mixed with nice hotel rooms at well under US$10 per night. The large state of Rajasthan in the northwest is particularly exotic, with its picturesque capital of Jaipur, and several small holy cities, like Pushkar, that remain extremely authentic even with a steady stream of foreign visitors passing through. The smaller coastal state of Goa in the south is one of the world’s great party destinations in season, and has an interesting culture that is very different from the rest of the country.
Read more about budget travel:
- 13 Budget Beach Destinations Around the World
- 8 Ways to Travel for Free on Your RTW
- Five of the World’s Most Expensive Countries and How to Visit Them on the Cheap
Photo credit: Bangkok by Mal Parkington on Flickr, Buenos Aires by David Berkowitz on Flickr , Bali by asma_qadah on Flickr , Guatemala by diskmix on Flickr , Vietnam by trippinlarry on Flickr , Morocco by Antonio Caselli on Flickr , Mexico City by worldsurfer on Flickr , India by Gaurav Trivedi on Flickr