Search for the Screaming Bargains

If you want to really stretch your travel budget, you need to uncover the local “screaming bargains” for each location.

When you are traveling to a foreign place, it is sometimes hard to get your bearings and you end up spending lots of money on things you didn’t realize were expensive until it was too late. Like buying tomatoes or strawberries in the wrong season, you end up missing the deals and paying a premium.

I just got back from Mexico, where I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year. Some people probably wonder why I included Mexico in The World’s Cheapest Destinations, since if you spend a week in Cancun or Cabo San Lucas, it’s really not very cheap at all. Those are gringo tourist spots though and not reflective of real costs across the country. As I walked through big box retailers like Costco and Carrefour there this past week, though, I found lots of other things are as expensive or more expensive than in the US: electronics, furniture, toys, and towels to name a few. I’ve found this to be true in a lot of “developing” countries and my gut instinct is that there are more middlemen and less competition, so people don’t benefit from the highly efficient pricing that a freer market entails.

However, as in most countries, there are lots of screaming bargains in Mexico once you figure out where to look. Filling lunch meals at a simple restaurant near the town square can be found most anywhere in the country for less than $2. Seasonal fruit and vegetables cost a pittance. A nice loaf of French-style bread is a few pesos and a whole kilo of freshly-made tortillas is less than one US dollar. Some handicrafts are a bargain outside the tourist traps, “dollar-store” type items are 30 cents instead of a buck. I bought a five-gallon jug of bottled water for US $1.25.

Conversely, transportation is no screaming bargain in Mexico. The buses are quite nice, but not really cheap. If you’re on the move a lot, it can get expensive being a backpacker. So what’s the strategy? Eat well and stay put.

Whereever you go, if you are on a traveler budget instead of a tourist budget, it is important to sniff out the screaming bargains and adjust your activities accordingly. When we were in the Philippines, for instance, the dirt-cheap items were cashews, rum, and mangoes. Often we had mangoes for breakfast, cashews for snacks, and bottles of rum shared with friends for entertainment. That left us lots to spend on not-so-cheap adventures. In India, the all-you-can-eat thali meals are as cheap as 25 cents in the south, so you pig out at lunch. Train prices are some of the lowest on the planet. Visiting many museums and sites is almost free. Alcohol, however, is expensive outside Goa.

If you are in Eastern Europe though, you should drink great pints of beer that are less than a dollar, eat inexpensive pub food, and go to lots of cultural activities and museums. They’re all a great deal.

Even among countries in the same region, there are wide disparities. Vietnam has some of the cheapest beer on Earth and beer is pretty cheap in Laos, but in Muslim-dominated Malaysia, one sin-taxed beer can easily triple the price of your meal. Clothing and handicrafts are a screaming bargain in Thailand, but head south to Malaysia and Singapore and it’s a different story. You can find a decent room for the night almost anywhere in Indonesia for $2 to $4, but in most of Vietnam you’re lucky to find one for twice that amount.

Even in expensive countries, however, you can find relative bargains. Japan is known for its $15 apples and $800 train tickets, but spending a few hours in a relaxing bath house is often less than $5. You can often have a fun dinner at a yakatori restaurant without totally draining your wallet. In expensive New York City, loads of attractions are free, the subway is cheap, and there are plenty of inexpensive places to eat if you know where to look.

So where you find out where the deals are? First of all, do your homework. Look at several guidebooks, read articles, check out the Thorn Tree message board on Lonely Planet’s site. When you first get into a country, spend some time looking at prices at the local market or in the grocery stores. Best of all, ask other travelers who have been there a while, “what’s cheap here?” There are always plenty of items or services that are a deal; find out what they are and then adjust accordingly. You will find your money taking you much further.

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