Argentina travel

Why did you leave me all these pesos instead of dollars?”

Getting ready to travel somewhere for a few weeks or months of independent travel? If you want a great value, put these countries on your short list:

Argentina

India

Indonesia

Mexico

Why these? Not because of their “friendly locals,” “charming towns” or “pristine beaches,” yada yada yada. And not because they’re a hot destination this year. You should go if you like to get a lot more for you money there than you did in the past. If you like traveling well while spending less than you do just existing at home, a plunging exchange rate is a surefire ticket to savings.

Most travelers approach exchange rates backwards. They don’t even think about them until they get to where they’re going, then fret about how everything is more expensive than they expected. It makes a lot more sense to see where your timing will be right and go there. Heck, even if you’re going somewhere expensive this makes sense: the pain of Canada, Japan, or Australia stings about 10% less right now than it did a year or two ago.

Argentina’s Pain, Your Gain

I took Argentina out of the last edition of The World’s Cheapest Destinations because high inflation, high import duties, and a slew of nutty economic policies were making it an unfriendly place for tourists. You’ll still face a hefty visa cost before you even exit the airport if you’re American and there’s still a crazy small limit on how much you can take out of an ATM each day. If you arrive with U.S. dollar wads in your pocket though, you are going to tango your way across the land in much better shape than even just a few weeks ago.

That’s because the peso has plunged badly for a whole host of reasons and the government’s injection of $115 million to buy up pesos isn’t helping much. Here’s how Reuters put it:

“The local currency weakened on the black market to 12.15 pesos per U.S. dollar, while the official exchange rate was unchanged at 8 per dollar in thin trading. Last week, the official peso slid nearly 20 percent as investors scrambled to make sense of the new currency regime.”

rupee decline

India’s Rupee in Decline

Two years ago this month, a dollar got you 50 Indian rupees. Today it gets you 62. That’s a 24% increase in what you get for your money. And you could already get a lot.

The government is intervening to try to keep this figure from falling further, mostly by raising interest rates. Who knows how well that will hold or not. But if you’re already planning on going there, happy days are ahead. (If you were going to Nepal, you’ll also get more for your money there, in what’s already probably the cheapest destination in the world. As the Indian rupee goes, so does Nepal’s currency.)

Let me take you to Indonesia

Two years ago a buck got you 9,000 rupiah. Today that same greenback will get you around 12,000. For those of you who flunked math class, that’s a 1/3 increase in your purchasing power. Maybe not in a chic Bali resort priced in dollars, but you weren’t planning on doing that anyway, right?

Indonesia was already one of the world’s best bargains, especially as soon as you leave Bali and head anywhere else. Yes, the country is getting wealthier and the middle class is rising fast—thus the horrible traffic jams in Jakarta—but if you stroll in with an ATM card linked to a bank account in a country that uses the US dollar, Canadian dollar, Australian dollar, euro, or yen, you’ll be feeling flush. Head to Sumatra and you can check out for months on a couple grand.

Unfortunately, the flight price is going to kill you for any of these if you’re coming from the USA or Canada, so it’s better if you’re already on the move and can get there from somewhere closer. At this time of year it’s hard to find a flight to any of the three for under $1,000, so sometimes you’re better off with a package deal that includes hotels.

Which leads us to the backyard choice:

Guadalajara

Mexico, Mexico!

I guess I moved back to Mexico at a good time. The exchange rate hasn’t dipped below 12 to the dollar since I got here this past summer and it just hit a new high of 13.3 when I took money out of the ATM yesterday. That means my “What you can get for a buck or less” list keeps expanding. Here’s a partial list

Two kilos of oranges or bananas, a large beer in a store, 12 ounces of fresh squeezed orange juice, a kilo of fresh tortillas, 2+ local bus rides, a few street tacos, a bootleg DVD, an ice cream cone or fresh fruit popsicle, a tamale, four breakfast buns, four sandwich rolls, y mucho mas,

A cheap meal of the day lunch in the market here is 30 pesos, which is now less than $2.50. A taxi from one side of Guanajuato to the other is less than $3. The average museum admission is $2 or less. As I always say though, those are prices in the real Mexico, not Cancun or Los Cabos.

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first time around the world rolf potts book travel the world for chea

Sure, you can read travel blogs full of advice from the road for free and get loads of great information. But you’ll have a read a few dozen of them until you’re bleary eyed to get the kind of structure and comprehensiveness you can find in a good book. Here are a few that are worth plunking down some cash for if you’re planning months, a year, or more on the road.

The Rough Guide First Time Around the World” is a good primer if this will be your first trip circling the globe. The fourth edition was released this year and this book goes into far more detail than most, covering all the things you haven’t thought of but should: visas, vaccinations, cultural taboos, credit cards, and much more. Especially geared to those on a budget, it will certainly save you far more than the $14.50 the paperback costs on Amazon.

Vagabonding by Rolf Potts is about taking time off from your regular life to discover and experience the world on your own terms. This is an entertaining and inspiring read, as much a philosophy of travel guide as a primer. It came out around the same time as the first edition of my book 10 years ago and has never been updated, so details here and there sound kind of dated. If that bothers you, get the Audible version Rolf recorded recently as some of the anachronisms were removed. Mostly though, it’s evergreen, still as useful today as a decade ago.

How to Travel the World on $50 a Day is blogger Nomadic Matt’s guide to traveling around the world on a limited budget. He’s been doing it for years, so there’s plenty of advice from the voice of experience on all matters of long-term travel. See my detailed review here that I wrote when it came out.

career sabbatical travel working while traveling

The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World is from outspoken writer and travelers’ rights advocate Edward Hasbrouk. The author has spent a lot of time inside a travel agency selling round-the-world tickets and he knows the ins and outs of getting the best deals. This is the 5th edition, so it’s been through plenty of tweaks. It’s a detailed, well-researched guide that offers far more depth than most planning guides: one to dip into for guidance and education, not to just read in one sitting for motivation.

The Career Break Traveler’s Handbook is from Jeffrey Jung, who runs the Career Break Secrets blog. It’s not aimed at 20-something travelers trying to stave off the real world, but rather those who would like to step off the treadmill and take a break. A long break. Full of inspiration, planning and budgeting advice, and stories from those who have taken the leap and landed on the other side of the world.

Work Your Way Around the World: The Globetrotter’s Bible by Susan Griffith is the one to pick up if wanderlust is pulling hard but you’re not going to have enough money to last as long as you want to be away. Covering everything from fruit picking to hostel working to teaching English as a second language, it lays out all the ways to make a buck abroad. This is the 16th edition—16th!!—so there are all kinds of great examples readers have sent in over the years. Griffith is also the editor of Teach English Abroad, a book I used to guide my overseas exploits in Turkey and South Korea many editions ago.

off track planet book   cheapest places to travel

Off Track Planet’s Travel Guide for the Young, Sexy, and Broke is a silly, irreverant, satirical book about thrills and (beer) spills around the world. In other words, exactly what the YouTube party generation is looking for. From the website that gives you articles like “9 Places You Must Have Sex Around the World” and “Guide to Keeping Your Genitals Healthy Abroad,” you know this won’t be a dry, fact-filled travel book. If your priorities while traveling abroad are pretty much the same as your priorities were in college, this is your RTW travel guide.

The World’s Cheapest Destinations, now in its 4th edition, my guide focused on the #1 factor that impacts your long-term travel costs more than any other: where you go. Subtitled “21 Countries Where Your Money is Worth a Fortune,” it should save you exponentially more money than you spend on it by steering you to where your funds will really stretch or where you can upgrade your experience and travel better. Note that if you’re only going to one section of the world and want to figure out how to stretch a buck, there are regional editions too just for Asia, Latin America, or Europe.

What did you read before you took off or what are you reading now to prepare?

hot travel destinations

What does it mean when a place is #1 on a list of destinations you should visit this year? Why is this a “hot destination” on the cover of a major magazine on your local newsstand? Does that really mean anything for you?

Most of the year the covers rotate between Italy, France, and some beaches. But the transition to a new year always brings new hot lists and places you must visit.

Here’s the most obvious prediction for 2014: you are not going to be able to avoid reading about Brazil. You are going to read so many travel articles about this World Cup host that you’ll start reluctantly dreaming about the place at night. Why do you think they’re hosting? The travel media is certainly not enamored with Brazil because they have great hotels, well-built stadiums, or attractive prices. It’s because this and the Olympics (coming to Brazil in 2016) are two of the world’s greatest media magnets.

Sure, Brazilian service is some of the worst in Latin America, the infrastructure sucks, street crime is high, and you’ll have a tough time getting beyond the official event sites if you don’t speak Portuguese. But they have to write about Brazil because it’s “trending.” And yeah, they have to tweet about it too, so it’ll keep trending on Twitter as well. The beast keeps feeding upon itself.

It will all be rosy for Brazil until the World Cup is over. Then all those positive fluff articles from the travel press will come to a halt. (If they can’t say something nice, they won’t say anything at all—witness Sochi, Russia). The non-travel press will turn on the country like a wife who’s just found out her husband has a 21-year-old hottie on the side.

“You weren’t ready for us. You lied!”

“No,” Brazil could well reply. “You just chose not to pay attention.”

Panama hot destination

It’ll be just like this, but bigger!

Funny to me is that Panama showed up on a few hot destinations lists this year, not because of the plenty of good reasons to go there, but because the canal widening project will be finished and now container ships will be able to go through. Really? We’re going to travel all the way there because of that?

You’ll also read a lot about Mongolia later this year. Why? Because a new Shangri-La Hotel is opening there, that’s why. As one luxe travel editor said at a conference I attended last year, “There are a lot of destinations we would like to write about more, but there’s just no good place to stay there.”

Editors Love Trends, Events, and New Hotels

Robert Reid did a great article in Skift.com breaking down the “where to go” and “hot destinations” lists from multiple travel media outlets’ year-end round-ups. It’s all pure gold, but here’s a sample:

The most popular pick for editors is a place linked to a specific event, anniversary or news-related topic, like the World Cup or the 100th anniversary of WWI (almost half of the total). Next are secondary destinations that appear overdue for a shout-out (over a quarter of the total, including destinations like Nicaragua’s Little Corn Island, or Puglia, Italy).

Last is almost destination-agnostic, lists of new hotel sites or tours to plan a trip around (25% of the picks, including all of AFAR‘s list).

Cost or value only occasionally factors in.

What happens when a new luxury hotel opens somewhere? The magazines all feel a need to cover it, that’s what. And hey, if you want to keep getting $100K a month from Hyatt, are you really going to ignore their new Andaz Papagayo in Costa Rica? If Starwood Hotels is your biggest advertiser, are you really going to avoid writing about the St. Regis Istanbul when it opens? No, you are not.

I cover Latin America a lot, so I can promise, for example, you’ll read lots of hot destination stories driven by new high-profile hotel openings in Puerto Escondido, mainland Honduras, Bogota, Cafayate, Patagonia, Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos, and (as in the quote above) Little Corn Island, Nicaragua. Occasionally you might even read something from a writer who has been there.

If these hot destinations and places to go are all just a trend-grabbing exercise, should you just rely on what real people say on TripAdvisor? Sometimes that works. But then I get e-mails like this that were meant to go to a hotel owner:

fake reviews

To find your own best path, dig deeper. Be skeptical. Honestly understand and answer why you want to go where you want to go. Here’s a reliable shortcut: if some trusted expert you follow or well-traveled friend who knows what you like recommended the place, just go. You know their advice is legit.

It’s a terrible feeling to arrive somewhere and go, “Really, this is it?! This is not what I expected from the photos…”

If you saw too-great-to-believe photos somewhere and that’s your sole reason the place got on your radar, at least get a second opinion. You may have been duped. In half the over-processed travel photos I see on blogs and social media these days, everyone is getting duped.

As Flavor Flav would say, don’t believe the hype.

Do you want to really get a great travel deal? The kind of bargain you’ll talk about for 10 years? The kind of deal that is so great that when you tell a cocktail party couple what you paid, one person’s jaw drops and the other starts choking on their drink in disbelief?

I can get you a deal like that.

But I’m not going to ask you to buy anything, sign up for anything, or join some secret club. Anyone trying to sell you insider secrets that will unlock the hidden bargains is probably not to be trusted. There are no secrets anymore.

But there is a formula. It looks something like this: 6v – 0v = 10,000

That won’t hold up in algebra class, so don’t try to solve it. It’s really symbolizing a travel truth: 6 variables – 0 variables equals 10,000 possibilities. More than that in many cases, but let’s pick a number. Here’s the illustration of this truth.

travel variables

Whether they have expressly thought about it or not, this truth is what guides those travelers who always seem to find the cheap vacations, the fantastic deals, and the experience of backpacking around the world for a year. Often by trial and error, they’ve stumbled upon the way to get “lucky.” The more travel variables you leave open, the less you are going to pay.

Now let’s look at why I can barely help most infrequent travelers who ask me for advice on how to score better travel deals. After a little prodding, it usually ends up that they’ve already decided they’re going to fly to x place during y time period and are staying at hotel z they read about somewhere. They think, however, that there’s some secret I can tell them that will miraculously shave half off their trip cost, even though they barely have any variables left to work with. If they had a chart it would look more like this, with what’s already been decided grayed out:

traveling variables

Those two visual representations aren’t really even accurate though because not all travel variables are created equal. The 40 decisions they may have left are just fringe around the edge of the budget.

Most of the time, your destination will have an outsized effect on the budget because that will impact the cost of everything else on the list. If you can be flexible on one thing, make it that. If you’re flying to an international destination for a week or two vacation, airfare may be the biggest tangible budget line item. If you’re going domestic or not very far, then the lodging probably will be. Leaving what you’re going to have for dinner open will have a relatively small impact in comparison.

travel costs

You could revamp this quite a bit though depending on your particular situation. If you’re going skiing for a week, the “what you do” part will be a bigger expense and you could maybe cut that cost in half (and lodging too) by picking a smaller ski resort with better package deals. If you’re going from New York to New Zealand, airfare is going to be expensive no matter when you go. It’s just a matter of how much it’s going to hurt.

If you’re a long-term backpacker, a day at Petra is going to wreck the budget for days, whereas changing hotels to a worse one might only save you $2. If you are traveling through Southeast Asia overland, moving slowly will cost far less than staying in a different spot every night or two because transportation becomes a disproportionally high expense for backpackers taking a bus or train several times a week. Part of the reason multi-country Africa travel seems more expensive than it should be is because the vast distances are often best traversed by plane.

They key is to recognize these variables and leave as many as you can open—especially the ones that will have the biggest impact.

“I want to go to Paris the third week of July and then do wine tastings around Bordeaux” is going to be expensive, no matter how emphatically you say, “but I don’t mind staying in simple hotels.” Contrarian Traveler

“I’m thinking of heading to Central or South America sometime late this year and I’ll figure out an itinerary after we check flight prices” is a whole different story. If you’re that second person, let’s grab a beer because I’ve got lots of advice for you.

Or, if you’re an inexperienced traveler and want to learn more about this strategy in detail, I’ve got just the book for you, full of evergreen advice on this topic. Click on that cover to see it on Amazon.

Colombian woman

The country of Colombia is not in my World’s Cheapest Destinations book, but it will be in my upcoming one out later this year on cheaper living abroad. It has a whole lot going for it as a place to live and while it’s a country on a roll in terms of its economy and strong currency, it’s still a great value for those who settle there temporarily or permanently.

RTW DaveTo get the scoop on what they spend on a regular basis, I got in touch with two expatriates living in Colombia. David Lee, best known for his blog GoBackpacking.com, lives in one of the most popular cities for expats, Medellín. He often talks about his experiences there on another blog, Medellin Living, and has an e-book out for people traveling there.

I also spoke with Bogota resident Jeff Jung, who runs the great Career Break Secrets site and is author of The Career Break Traveler’s Handbook.

taking a career breakCompared to a big US city, your living expenses are significantly lower in Colombia. Jeff estimates that he spends about half what he did in the USA overall. Dave’s expenses rarely top $1,800 a month, which again is about half what many people of average means spend per month in the states, Canada, or Europe. And they probably go out far less on that budget.

What do you spend on rent living in Colombia?

“My last apartment in the north of Bogotá ran 1,100,000 per month + HOA fees (called administración) of of 100,000,” says Jeff Jung. That comes out to about $630 US. “Renters should find out both parts of the cost when looking for an apartment. You could find something decent (old but decent) for as low as 800,000 and spend up to 2,000,000 per month for rent only. In US dollars that’s a range of approx $400-$1000 (or more for higher end places). I’m quoting unfurnished prices so a furnished place might start closer to US$500. Gas and electricity will run about $15 and $50, respectively, per month. Cable and internet can run closer to US pricing at $50-80 per month. A common money-saving tactic of Bogotanos is to live with others so you can get a larger, nicer place with all common housing costs shared.”

Medellin view

Dave’s view

David Lee does just that in Medellin, sharing a spacious three-bedroom apartment with a view in a very desirable neighborhood. His share averages between $330 and $340 with utilities. Those utilities are a shade over $200 per month for the three of them for electricity, gas, cable TV, fast internet, land line phone.

Colombian parilla

Barbecued meats platter

What does it cost to eat out in Colombia?

travel living MedellinDave and Jeff agree that a decent “meal of the day” lunch will run you about $5. You can certainly pay less at places where local workers eat, or spend a few dollars more and get much better quality. That’ll generally get you a soup, a main meat dish with a side or two, dessert, and a fresh juice or something else to drink. “That can easily go up in Bogota to $10-15 depending on where you eat,” says Jeff.

Naturally dinners can run the gamut, from cobbled together street for for a couple dollars up to high-end restaurants that will cost nearly as much as you would spend in Europe.

How much does it cost to get around?

City buses are around 60 to 75 cents one way. A one way on the nicest “TransMilenio” in Bogota will run you about 90 cents. The Medellin metro is about 85 cents. See the “bargains” part below for taxis.

Intercity buses start at around $8 for a couple hours and can cost as much as $55 for long overnight routes, so sometimes it’s worth it to double that and fly. The two most expensive routes in the country are Bogota to Cartagena and Bogota to San Andres, Jeff says, but there are frequent specials if you book ahead. You can sometimes find internal flight fares as low as $55 and often the longest routes are going for around $100.

What are some of the best bargains in Colombia?

“Taxis are plentiful and cheap,” says Jeff. “The basic fare is about $1.80 and an expensive taxi ride will cost you $10—that’s traveling a long distance across Bogota. Taxi drivers are not tipped.” Dave says in Medellin he generally pays 4,200 – 10,000 pesos ($2.30 – $5.50).

Dave points to the great nightlife in Colombia as a bargain. He says going out to clubs and having a blast is not going to set you back very much in Medellin compared to a place like London, Las Vegas, or New York City. In a nightclub the usual routine is for the group to get bottle service. You pay $30 or so for a 750ml bottle of rum or aguadiarte (the favored anise flavored local spirit) and you get ice and mixers. “Colombians go out in groups,” he says, “so if there are five of you that’s $6 a person. Very few places have a cover charge. If they do its generally a couple dollars and at the most, maybe the equivalent of $12 at the very fanciest place.”

What can you get for a buck or less in Colombia?

A one way city bus ride; a whole lot of different street food (empanada, arepa con queso, boiled/salted potatoes); a 600ml bottle of water; a local mass-market beer; a tinto coffee or two; a glass of juice from a stall; a kilo of seasonal fruit or vegetables; an hour online at an internet cafe.

What are the pros and cons of living there?

Ask people what they like about Medellin and the weather usually comes first in this placed nicknamed the “City of Eternal Spring.” Dave says, “You can wear a t-shirt and jeans day or night pretty much all year. ” There are two rainy seasons though, which can range from mild to ongoing deluges from year to year and Dave says if expats complain about something, that’s usually it. Bogota is higher and colder. It has the big city attributes on the plus side (museums, great restaurants, the arts), but also more of the normal big city problems.

Bogota Colombia

Central Bogota

While the crime and personal danger situations have improved dramatically in Colombia over the past decade, Medellin and Bogota are still big cities in a country with substantial income inequality and lingering drug gang activity. “I have been robbed, so I can testify that it’s a real risk,” says Dave. “But that’s true in almost any city in the Americas.”

The music, the beautiful women, and the gorgeous countryside get high marks from visitors and residents, plus the relatively low labor costs mean that almost no expat cleans their own apartment or does all their own gardening work if they have a house.

The Colombian visa situation:

You get three months in Colombia upon entering the country as a tourist. To extend that another three months you can either leave the country and return or go apply for an extension for about $40. But you can only stay six months of a calendar year this way, so you have to get out after that. There are supposedly 17 different kinds of visas in Colombia, so if you want to stay longer, it’s best to hire an attorney to sort it out. Dave obtained a business visa by showing a steady stream of income and what he was working on. It’s good for 19 months. He says some digital nomads opt for an “independent activities visa” which is more ambiguous. Those who have found local love can apply for a “civil partnership visa.”

To find out more:

Career Breaks Jeff

Jeff Jung

Dave helpfully broke down his living expenses over three months a year ago in this blog post. He says he has since cut his gym membership cost in half through a promotion at the same place he was using before—the best in the city.  See lots of details in his Medellin Living website or get his Medellin Travel Guide book in PDF form or for Amazon Kindle. He’s on Twitter at @rtwdave.

Jeff has lots of advice for anyone ready for a career break on his Career Break Secrets website and in his Career Break Traveler’s Handbook, available in paperback or Kindle versions. Follow him on Twitter at @CareerBrkSecret.

Want to keep up on the progress of my living cheap abroad book coming out later and get tips for moving abroad? Get on the list.