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vacation rental

Sure beats a cheap motel

The first time I went to Salt Lake City for the Outdoor Retailer market convention, I was in a crappy Econolodge motel with stained carpets, intermittent Wi-Fi, barely working heat, lukewarm hot water, and a lumpy bed.

This time I stayed in a pristine room with a heavenly mattress, in a craftsman bungalow house in a quiet location. The Wi-Fi and hot water worked flawlessly and I had a table I could work at.

The interesting thing is, the latter was cheaper.

There are plenty of times a hotel is the best bet for where you’re going and the good ones can be excellent spots to roll into to get some work done or be right in the center of the action. If rates are at their peak though and there are not many empty rooms, you can really pay a premium. That’s how I ended up in someone’s spare bedroom in Salt Lake City two weeks ago: when a big convention comes to that city like the one I was attending, even the crappiest places like Motel 6 and Super 8 will raise their rates to $150, $200 or more per night.

I used AirBnB for that crash pad (with some lovely hosts) and got a beach rental place through them the month before in Puerto Escondido. We paid less than we would have for a very basic hotel, but had two bedrooms and a pool to ourselves.

They’re not the only game around though and when you’re looking outside of the United States, there’s often another dominant player or two you should pull up as well. In some Mexican towns, for instance, you’ll find more listings on the traditional sites like VacationRentals.com. When we still owned our beach house in the Yucatan state, you could rent it for $250 per week through there.

If you’re headed to Europe, HouseTrip has more than 300,000 places to choose from and is active almost anywhere you would want to go. They can save you some big bucks when you’re in an expensive European capital, or just give you some more space and a kitchen if you want to keep your expenses low and have more room to spread out. Unlike some of those rotten chain hotels, the owners aren’t going to charge you to use the internet signal.

Athens rental

Kitchen of a 47 euros per night European apartment for 4

I pulled up their Athens listings because the Travel Bloggers Exchange Europe–where I’m going to be a speaker—is happening there in October. I checked out what’s available for four people and there are some terrific values. Plenty of apartments are under 100 euros a night and there are quite a few that are half that. If you get a larger place for more people the cost per person would be getting a real apartment for less than a hostel dorm bed.

I like hotels a lot and my job has me reviewing a lot of them. When I’m with my family though, it gets old when all of us are sleeping in the same room, sharing the same bathroom. Renting two connected rooms can be inexpensive in some countries, but often not. When we went from a cramped Bangkok hotel room to an apartment we rented on one trip, the price was about the same but we had three times as much space.

How about you? Where have you found terrific vacation rental deals?

Guelaguetza Oaxaca

When dishing out budget travel advice, I usually tell people to avoid going somewhere when it’s high season. There’s a whole chapter on timing in Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune about finding the sweet spot of shoulder season where you’re going. When crowds are at their peak, prices are bound to be at their highest.

Sometimes it’s worth it though. Sometimes it’s high season not just because of vacation schedules, but because there’s really something fantastic going on. That’s what I’m experiencing right now during the week of the Guelaguetza Festival in Oaxaca. We didn’t even know this was going on when we first planned our vacation; we just lucked out. But now that we’re here during prime time, I’m really glad we made it when we did.

tamale festival

Woman making “tejate” drink at the tamale festival

I was originally going to call this post “Mole and Mezcal in Oaxaca” since we spent the first morning here at a tamale festival (many of the tamales featuring different kinds of mole sauces) and the next afternoon at a mezcal fair. In both cases we got to try a huge variety of them in one place. The tamales were less than a dollar each and the equivalent of $3 got us into the Feria de Mezcal where we could walk around sampling them or buying bargain-priced cocktails for a few dollars each. Both of these events were unique to the Guelaguetza week and would not be going on other times during the year.

The same goes for all the artisan stalls taking up the whole rest of that park, with each booth listing the Oaxacan village that artisan came from. You can buy direct from them at this time, with no middleman and no traveling out to some remote town and finding the workshop behind an unmarked door. Two other artisan areas were set up in different parts of the center, also temporary, coming down in a few days.

mezcal festival

But what’s Guelaguetza? It’s an incredible dance performance featuring groups from different villages around Oaxaca. It’s an elaborate affair in an amphitheater overlooking the city and was far more spectacular than I had expected. There were 16 dances in all, over several hours. That sounds kind of excessive, but it never got boring because they were all very different. My daughter was also more into it than I thought she’d be too due to one key factor: at the end of each dance they threw things into the audience. So besides the hat, seat cushion, fan, and t-shirt we got upon arrival, gifts were flying through the air every 15 minutes or so. We scored some things like cool little baskets, woven fans, fruit, rolls, chocolate, and packets of coffee.

Guelaguetza Festival dance

Guelaguetza is the reason to have lots of other things going on in Oaxaca the same week though. We saw Lila Downs one night in that same amphitheater and it was quite a production with all the extra dancers in town.

We had already planned to do some shopping to buy things for our house in Mexico, so we had a lot to choose from with all the artisans in town. Thankfully we’re taking a bus back instead of a flight because we have loads of extra stuff to carry.

Oaxaca City

There was one downside to being here in high season: we couldn’t rent an apartment to stay in near the center, so we ended up in a hotel. The hotel, Las Golondrinas, didn’t jack up its rates though and we paid 780 pesos a night for a triple. It’s a decent deal. We got into restaurants fine and no place felt packed out. This is a tourist city anyway, so Oaxaca can absorb the traffic okay. So in the end, I don’t think we paid a premium at all for being here during high season, despite renting a car for two days too. Everything was just more crowded than it would normally be.

For more information, see the Oaxaca Tourism site, where they’ll have info posted on the 2015 Guelaguetza Festival far in advance. See their festivals page in Spanish for others or get a good guidebook. You can also trust what you see on the About.com Mexico site because the writer Suzanne lives in Oaxaca and also works as a guide.

 

Puerto Escondido

There are cheaper places to sit on a beach in the Americas than Mexico, but it can still be a great value one country down from the USA. Many travelers visit one of the big resort areas and presume that’s how much things cost throughout the country. Those are oddities though, bubble places full of foreign tourists who fly in for vacation, spend freely, and then fly back out.

I just spent five great days in Puerto Escondido. This is a town discovered by, and still very much filled with, surfers. That makes it different from Tulum, a place that was once full of backpackers but is now full of moneyed tourists trying to act like backpackers while spending big bucks for a designer yoga retreat with no electricity.

This has happened in other spots too to some extent, from Sayulita to Loreto to Zihuatanejo—all destinations the budget travelers latched onto first. Mexico has a lot of sandy coastline though and even if the government would like to turn every pretty bay into a mass market tourism destination, it’s not going to happen. There are just too many places even if the numbers doubled.

So don’t worry, if you ask around and do some research, you can still find a nice beach spot in Mexico where you can chill for a week on a reasonable amount of money. Here in Puerto Escondido, prices are geared to surfers, backpackers, and average Mexicans. As in double hotel rooms right across from the beach advertised for 400 pesos ($30) and hostel beds for 80 ($6.25). All over town there are 2-for-1 cocktails (“happy hour all day long”) and two beers for $2.30. Food at the beach restaurants is reasonable and if you head into the center, everything is just as cheap as it would be in any other town in Mexico. You can get a meal of the day or a plate of tacos for $3 and a kilo of fruit for a buck.

Carazilillo Beach

Apart from the seriously overpriced rates at the airport if you fly in from somewhere, taxis are far cheaper than in places like Cancun and Ixtapa. We went from Carrizalillo Beach where we’re staying to La Punta at the far end on the other side of town and it was about $3.25. All the other rides have been $2. We bought tickets in an express passenger van up the long and winding road to Oaxaca City and they were about $16 each for seven hours.

I’m here on vacation with my family, so we’re in a rental apartment that’s $100 a night with all the fees, a few minutes walk to Carrizalillo Beach pictured above. There are only three of us, but the place can sleep six and there’s a huge TV with cable, a swimming pool, hammocks, and a full kitchen. Like a lot of places here it’s not air-conditioned though, so it’s deathly hot in the afternoon. Don’t underestimate the heat at a Mexican beach at the end of July. Or how fast you’ll get sunburned.

Carazilillo Puerto Escondido

We’ve tried to stay in the shade much of the time on the beach by renting chairs and umbrellas from one of the restaurants. The thing is, you don’t really have to rent them as long as you order something to eat and drink from the accompanying restaurant. They say 100 pesos each (about $7.80) but they’re pretty low-key about it and you can hang out there the entire day. If you want to gorge on seafood you can spend a lot, but you don’t have to: beers are two bucks and a plate of fish tacos about $5. With a gorgeous view of the water and surfers or learning surfers. But of course you can just plop on a sarong or towel for nothing. Bring a cooler if you want.

I’ve been buying a good cup of coffee in the morning for $1.60 and really good gelato from Italian immigrants for $2 or so a pop. Overall the prices here are pretty similar to what you find in central Mexico where I live, which means they’re a great value.

I’m off to Oaxaca City after this and between the mole, mezcal, and Monte Alban it might be a while before my next post, but I’ll be back with a report on that place then.

cheapest places to travel

$15 in London, $1 in India

Where are the cheapest places to travel in the world? And how does City A compare to City B? How well does perception match reality?

World's Cheapest DestinationsEvery few years I put out a new edition of the book you see to the right and if you’re about to embark on a year-long trip around the world, it’s the best $9 (e-book) or $16 (paperback) you’ll invest in your journey. It’ll give you rundowns on the best bangs for your buck around the world, as well as a quick overview of why you’d go there. It has real prices on what an average person can expect to spend as a backpacker or mid-range traveler in the cheapest places to travel that are worth visiting.

Beyond that though, if you just want to compare Vienna to Prague, or Chiang Mai to Hanoi, there are a couple of other good resources out there I use as a gut check now and then when working on articles or for media interviews.

Numbeo for Wisdom of the Crowd

The first is called Numbeo.com and it’s a crowdsourced platform where people input costs so the system can come up with averages. It’s not perfect of course since it’s dependent on volunteers to take time out to enter data, but close enough for ballpark numbers. They’ve had nearly 145,000 people put info in as I write this.

What I really like about it is it puts things in a ratio perspective, using New York City as 100. You find out, for instance, that renting an apartment in Nicaragua is a 10 on that scale of 100. So if you live in Manhattan and move to Managua, you’ll probably be able to get a place that would cost your $5,000 a month in New York for $500. On the other hand, you definitely do not want to move to Norway or Switzerland unless you’re getting a transfer and a huge raise:many of their cities are above 150 on the scale. Here’s a rundown from most expensive to cheapest.

This site is to compare living expenses though, so while it’s good to see what you’re in for if you want a better life for half the price, the data is mostly populated by expatriates and residents upper-crust enough to enter info in English. So you get some odd skewed results from people trying to live a first-world life in a country that may not have a huge selection of imported items for reasonable prices. Thus the outliers that look expensive but really aren’t for most people, like Caracas, Venezuela. Go to the other end and 24 of the 25 cheapest cities are in India and after that you start getting into some of the other places featured in my book. like Nepal, Indonesia, and Bolivia.

Take it all with a dose of skepticism though. No way in hell that Puerto Vallarta and Durban are cheaper than Cuenca and Plovdiv. It’s good for getting a general sense though of apartment prices, food prices, and what a taxi will cost you. To give you an idea, here’s the rundown on Medellin, Colombia.

Cheapest Places for Backpacker Travelers

While Numbeo wants to know what a lot of things cost, the PriceOfTravel.com site is aimed at backpackers trying to find the best deal. So here’s the basket of goods and services they used to compare A to B on their backpacker index:

A dorm bed at a good and cheap hostel
3 budget meals
2 public transportation rides
1 paid cultural attraction
3 cheap beers (as an “entertainment fund”)

There are inherent flaws in this one too of course, like the beer cost not mattering if you don’t drink and the “hostel” part being pretty meaningless in a country where most everyone gets a private hotel/guesthouse room since it’s so cheap. Some places you walk everywhere and never need public transportation, others may require expensive taxi rides to get anywhere you really want to go.

Pokhara Nepal

The very cheapest backpacker destination?

Again though, as a basic guide it’s pretty good, with 14 of their 15 cheapest being places I cover in my book. Sri Lanka is borderline cheap from what I’m hearing, but if I haven’t been there, so I could be wrong. Here’s their list, with a daily budget amount.

Pokhara, Nepal – US$14.32
Hanoi, Vietnam – $15.88
Chiang Mai, Thailand – $17.66
Goa, India – $18.25
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – $18.27
Kathmandu, Nepal – $18.46
Vientiane, Laos – $21.38
Delhi, India – $21.38
Luang Prabang, Laos – $21.71
Bangkok, Thailand – $21.78
Phnom Penh, Cambodia – $21.95
La Paz, Bolivia – $22.24
Quito, Ecuador – $22.30
Hoi An, Vietnam – $23.26
Colombo, Sri Lanka – $23.87

There’s a clear focus on cities, as you can see. There are far cheaper places than Delhi in India and far less expensive destinations than Quito in Ecuador, but hey, they’ll be a happy surprise when you get there.

When you click on an individual city, what you get is excellent: not just detailed price ranges, but also weather patterns, attraction prices, and a quick overview. Here’s the one from Budapest.

Like I said at the beginning, my book only features 21 countries and you’ll likely explore destinations that are your wish list that aren’t so cheap. But using these two sites, you can figure out that Australia is going to cost you far more than Canada, that London is more than double the price of Istanbul or Seoul.

traveling in Mexico

The Mexican gangs may not be busted, but Mexican tourism is going gangbusters.

Apparently 23.7 million tourists came to Mexico last year, up 3.5% from their previous record year in 2008. Yes, that was six years ago, so it’s been a climb up after a big drop, but a steady, fruitful climb in the face of tough circumstances at home and abroad. The vast majority of those visitors were from the USA.

I started this cheap travel blog back in 2003, when the word “blog” was still very much a novelty and I knew people still using AOL dial-up. Sometimes I like to go back and look at those original posts to see how much has changed. I may be reading the cues wrong, but it seems like in the past decade, travelers—especially Americans—have gotten a lot better about putting fear in perspective.

Ten years ago I wrote a post called How Safe is International Travel? It was spurred on by my father saying he and his wife were scared to get in an airplane to go to Europe so they were going to drive somewhere instead. That led me to ranting about how much safer you are in a plane than a car. But I was also addressing the larger issue of people watching too much TV news instead of getting the real story from more reliable sources. And not comparing the risk of where they’re going to the risk in their own home town. Fear of the unknown has a huge impact on travel plans.

But maybe, just maybe, it’s having less of an impact than it used to.

Last week I was at the annual Mexican tourism fair called Tianguis, and despite all the fear-mongering that goes on about my adopted home, Mexican tourism officials are very happy right now. They’re seeing steady increases from the traditional markets (US, Canada, UK) but downright dramatic increases from other countries, especially Latin American ones. Specifically, Mazatlan tourism is up 18% in three years, Los Cabos is up 25% in two years, Cancun/Riviera May hotels were running at nearly 90% occupancy levels the first week of May. That region alone hosted 36 thousand weddings in 2013. And on it goes with a dozen other destinations both coastal and in the interior.

Mexico travel fears

Sure, the Ciudad Juarez booth at that tourism fair had one poor lonely girl playing on her phone most of the time and you couldn’t pay me enough to be the tourism PR person for Tijuana. Overall though, considering all the inflammatory bad press the country gets and the constant news stories asking whether it’s okay to travel to this destination, no wonder the Mexican tourism industry is feeling fortunate.

Maybe travelers are getting less afraid of what lies beyond their borders. Just maybe they’re realizing that 81 total Americans killed in Mexico in an entire year–counting Mexican/American citizens in the drugs or guns trade—looks pretty darn good compared to D.C., New Orleans, or Chicago.

Next stop, Egypt…?