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Drinking what's local

“Yes yes, that’s all good advice,” she said, “but my editor really wants to focus on what’s new. What are people doing now to save money that they couldn’t have done a year or two ago? New social websites, apps, that sort of thing.”

This was from an interview I did with an ambitious young associate editor sitting in a desk in NYC who writes for a well-known women’s magazine. It happened a year ago, but I’ve had the same conversation four or five times since. Most publications want to appear as if they have their finger on the pulse, that they know everything months before you do and are bringing you the hottest tips, the latest trends. “What’s new?” is the daily mantra.

In the real world of travel though, things don’t move that fast. We can make all our travel plans online now and always find the best prices on hotels or flights, something unthinkable before the World Wide Web came along. But on a year-to-year basis, the best travel advice stays relatively tried and true. Occasionally there’s a game-changer, like Hotwire, Air BnB, Google Flights, or Trivago that can save you money. Others like Uber or TripIt can make your trip go more smoothly. But most new travel tech innovations are solving something they think is more of a problem than it really is.

In that spirit, here are some old articles from this blog—some very old—that could be run today with just a few pricing tweaks. Do these things and you’ll come out ahead, even if you drop your smartphone in a river and can’t get online for a week.

Find the Screaming Bargains – Every destination has a few items or services that are a better deal there than elsewhere. Find them, use them, consume them.

eat what's local

Slow Travel is Cheaper Travel – Related to the above post somewhat, eating and drinking what’s local is usually a smart move for your budget. And the more you’re moving around, the higher your daily budget needs to be. Help Mother Nature and your wallet at the same time: slow down! If you stay in one place for a month or more, your costs will really plummet. If you’re on a tight budget, it’s all about location, velocity, and distance.

Exchange Rates Matter a Lot – I’ve written about this at least once a year (like here, and more recently here) because if your  home currency rises or falls 25% against the one where you’re going, that’s going to greatly impact your costs, far more than where you’re going to eat lunch.

Where You Go Within a Country Matters a Lot Too – The price difference between big capital cities and small towns applies nearly everywhere in the world. Also, tourist magnets that draw short-term vacationers are always going to be a bad bet for backpackers. Don’t automatically head to the places you’ve heard of when you get to France, Spain, India, or Ecuador. Chances are there are better spots to hang out in for less money. Keep your options open.

Rural travel

Last, remember that just because you can now plan and set up everything in advance, it doesn’t mean you should. A person standing at the hotel front desk at 6 pm with money in their hand has negotiating power. A person booking on a website has zero negotiating power unless they’re bidding on Priceline. And besides, a lot of the best things happen when you allow time for interesting things to happen. The more your plans are tightly scheduled, the tougher that can be.

If you haven’t traveled much yet or have some clueless friends you’d like to enlighten, pick up a copy of my timeless book Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune. It’s full of key principles to follow in order to always find the best deal every time, regardless of what shiny new app the magazine editors are getting excited about at the moment.

Otherwise, here are another 8 great travel books for anyone setting off on a long-term trip.

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…?

craft beer Mexico

Last weekend I tasted a few wonderfully aromatic pale ales, German style Heifweizens, a Belgian-style whit beer, a couple red ales, and one of the best stouts I’ve had in years. All made within a few hours’ drive from where I was standing. There was only one unusual aspect of this tasting session: it was in Mexico.

In the not-too-distant past, finding a craft beer, brewpub, or micro-brewery anywhere in Latin America was next to impossible. If you were to drive south from Texas or Arizona, you wouldn’t be able to find something with an abundance of hops until you got to Santiago or Buenos Aires, down in the Southern Cone of South America.

microwbrew mexicoThe situation is still pretty bleak most of that stretch, a non-stop stream of monopoly producers’ yellow fizzy lagers, but a few cracks are starting to appear. In Mexico though, long the Latin American country with the best mass-market beers, there’s a full-fledged craft beer revolution going on. Last weekend there was an event in the medium-sized city where I live that would have been unthinkable just three years ago: a Mexican craft beer festival. For real!

After spending the past eight months choosing between what the giant Mexican beer producers put out, I was in heaven. Goodbye 4.5% Corona and Indio, hello full-bodied Gambusino and Brü. Gambusino is actually the home town hero where I live in Guanajuato, the first craft brewer to make a real dent in the marketplace, so I have had a few of their beers in between the usual suspects since I moved back. Microbrews are still a novel concept with bars and restaurants though. When I first moved here there was exactly one place I could order something different—then “imported” by an owner with a car who would load up on Minerva or Cucapa cases in Guadalajra or Mexico City. Now there are a smattering more serving good beer where I live, plus a full-fledged store (called “The Beer Store”) with a great selection from all over.

Guaajuato beer festival

Pent-up demand for craft brews.

Fortunately for us in Guanajuato, Gambusino has one of the best pale ales you’ll find in the country right now. (If you order one, be advised it’s pronounced “pah-lay ah-lay” here. And while we’re at it, If you need to go online while you’re drinking it, Wi-Fi often ends up as “Wee-Fee.”)

beer festI was extremely impressed with the quality of what I drank at this festival. I tasted more than a dozen different beers and there was only one dud in the bunch. That’s a better percentage than I’ve managed at similar festivals in Nashville and Tampa. Even the Las Mulas guys who were so new they didn’t have business cards, a website or a Facebook page were making surprisingly good beer. Nearly everyone had great packaging too: these beers may be expensive compared to their mass-market counterparts, but they sure look good sitting on a table in front of you.

My top choice was, surprisingly to me, a blonde ale made by 7 Barrios of San Luis Potosi. It was pretty much a perfect beer and appeal beyond the hop-heads. I bought a glass of their strong red ale too (7.5% alcohol) and it was also delicious.

clandestina beerThe stout from Embajador, a Guanajuato company I’d never heard of previously, was complex, robust, and just plain yummy. My other favorites were from Genuine Black (Zacatecas) Clandestina (Leon) and Puro Veneno (Mexico State), but I would gladly stock my fridge with what’s coming out from any of the companies that were attending.

This won’t likely be an everyday thing though: labor is cheaper in Mexico, but the ingredients, transportation, and equipment are not. So ordering a microbrew in a bar or restaurant in Mexico will usually cost you 35 to 45 pesos ($3-$4). Figure on $2 or so per bottle in a store. This is double what you’ll pay for a Pacifico, almost double what it costs for the best mass market brands: Bohemia and Negra Modela. But what you’re getting for the price is at a whole different level than the norm.

This is a point in time much like you saw in the USA 25 years ago, when Sierra Nevada, Sam Adams, Anchor Steam, and others were just getting off the ground. Support these guys and someday the Mexico selection will follow the same path. And hey kids—you only need to be 18 to order a beer here. (Or really just look like you are…)

Mongolia travel story

Ah yes, it’s a new month and there’s a new issue of Perceptive Travel online magazine, with the best travel stories from wandering book authors.

In May we travel to diverse spots on the globe and also highlight some worthy travel-related books and music. We welcome two authors making their first appearance in the webzine. Larry Zuckerman, author of The Potato, is an American Jew in Israel when he joins up with a tour company run by ex-soldiers to see how the politics of occupied Palestine play out on the ground in Hebron. See Make Hummus, Not Walls.

Marco Ferrarese, author of Nazi Goreng brings us a story on hard cheese and hard horse riding on a Mongolia steppes adventure. See Cutting the Cheese, Mongolian Style.

David Lee Drotar returns with another tale from Canada, this time exploring Quebec in the dead of winter for some outdoor activities of snowmobiling, dogsledding, and skiing. But with a twist… See The Blade Runners of Quebec.

Quebec winter adventure

William Caverlee reviews a few new and notable travel books: Ukraine before the conflict, overland Morocco by motorcycle, and travelers writers’ food experience around the globe. Graham Reid spins a few mash-up world music albums, but also the aptly named collection The Rough Guide to the Best African Music You’ve Never Heard. Perceptive Travel newsletter winner

Each month one of our loyal (and attentive) readers scores something useful for their travels for free. Here’s a picture of our March winner Jack with his Granite Gear pack. In April, reader Jen from New York state scored a nice pair of $90 water sneakers from Sperry.

A month from now somebody is going to have that old Timbuk3 song in their head when their future starts looking brighter. They’ll be sporting a new pair of Vibe sunglasses from Bolle with polarized lenses—a $100 value. If you want it to be you, get on the newsletter list or at least follow Perceptive Travel on Facebook.

travel sunglasses