Big Corn Island, Nicaragua
As the end of the year approaches, I’ve been reading lots of articles on the cheapest places to travel in 2017 or the cheapest destinations. Most of them are poorly researched and written by people who don’t really travel much, sitting behind a desk in NYC or London. The idea is usually to focus on what sounds trendy (or who bought advertising that month) instead of what’s actually the best travel value.
Since I’ve got four editions of The World’s Cheapest Destinations under my belt and will be working on the 5th edition this coming year, I might know a bit about this subject. The changes usually aren’t very drastic from year to year or even over a period of three years. The strong U.S. dollar has made the best values and even better deal, however, and made some formerly borderline places more affordable to travel than they used to be.
A lot of this depends on your budget though. A person on a $40-a-day backpacker budget for a year is going to define “cheap” a lot differently than someone spending $400 a day for a week. So I’m dividing this into two sections: long-term travelers from the USA and American vacationers. The former group has more time than money. The latter more money than time.
The Cheapest Places to Travel for Long-term Travelers
When I published the first edition of The World’s Cheapest Destinations in late 2002, the cheapest countries in the world with decent infrastructure were India, Nepal, and Indonesia. Some 14 years later, those are still a safe bet overall. Within two of those countries though, there’s been more divergence. Bali has gotten too popular for its own good and is now a full-blown tourist trap, with prices to match.
What you get for under $60 in Hanoi including full breakfast for 3
Southeast Asia is still reliably cheap in most locations. It’s not across the board, however. Some spots in Thailand are best suited to those with a tourist budget and parts of Malaysia and Laos can seem more expensive than they should be. Prices in Vietnam and Cambodia are consistently good though. No matter what kind of budget you’re on, you’ll probably be very happy with your hotels–and your massage prices.
As with Bali for Indonesia, some parts of India (especially Mumbai, Bangalore, Jaipur, and Delhi) have gotten quite a bit more expensive thanks to rising incomes at the top and increased tourism over the years. For India most of this is reflected in lodging though: it’s still quite reasonable to eat and get around and there are more budget flight options each year. A rising dollar also helps, though a disastrous move by the government to take big bank notes out of circulation practically froze all commerce for weeks in 2016 and the effects of that will go on for a while. Nepal is crazy cheap and tourism is still down since the last earthquake, which also wrecked their fragile economy. They could really use every dollar you spend there.
Overall costs in the countries of Latin America are either flat or lower than they were in past years. Mexico is the greatest overall value now since its currency has plummeted by 50% since early 2015. It’s still a better place for mid-range travelers than shoestring backpackers, but there are few places where you get as much for your money once you get out of the resort zones. Here’s how to travel Mexico on the cheap.
Sopes with chorizo or veggies for $1.25 each
Cheap travel spots with plenty to see and do include Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Colombia is temporarily a good deal because of exchange rates. Argentina and Panama are good values, but tougher to do on a strict budget.
In Europe, the rule of thumb used to just be “head to Eastern Europe.” That was a political designation more than a geographical one, applying to the former Iron Curtain countries. Those are still a great deal, especially outside the capital cities. So you’re still going to be a happy backpacker traveling in the Czech Republic, Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria. Slovakia is a good value too, but harder to get around than the others and thus more costly on that count.
The countryside of Bulgaria
Portugal is also harder to visit on a backpacker budget, but it’s the clear winner as far as having the lowest prices in “western Europe.” It’s also got some of the best weather. What’s really new in the region though is the emergence of the Balkan countries as bargain travel destinations. I’ll be heading there this year to do some on-the-ground research, but you can travel for cheap in the former war zones of Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo, and Albania, plus Macedonia down toward Greece.
Morocco and Egypt have seen currency drops in the past few years and are still good spots for backpackers. Egypt’s currency went from 9 to the dollar to 18 in 2016 alone.
The Temporary Bargains for U.S. Vacationers
Mexico is the obvious choice this coming year for Americans, as it was all of 2016. Thanks to a variety of reasons that go from oil to Trump to bad governance, the Mexican peso is stuck around the 20 to the dollar mark. You would see the benefit of this so much in a place like Los Cabos that caters to the wealthy, but you will see it bigtime in cheaper beaches like Puerto Escondido, inland cities like Mexico City and Guanajuato, and small towns like Real de Catorce and Cuetzalan.
Our neighbor to the north is also cheaper than it has been for a verrry long time. Canada is a good 1/3 less expensive than it was a few years back. It’s easy to get to, gorgeous, and mostly not very crowded. Plus they’re celebrating a big birthday this year and all national parks will be free!
South Africa has also seen a massive change in exchange rates, going from 9 to the dollar at the end of 2012 to 14 to the dollar at the end of 2016—a drop of more than 50%. Two countries featured in my book—Morocco and Egypt—have seen their currencies drop less but they’re still down significantly. So are Kenya and Tanzania, so you may be able to snag a safari for less in 2017.
San Felipe de Barajas Fort in Cartagena
Colombia is dramatically cheaper than it was just a few years ago and flights to the UNESCO World Heritage walled city of Cartagena are frequently cheaper than ones to the Caribbean. If you wanted to scout out eternal spring Medellin as a possible place to live someday, this would be a good year for a Colombia vacation. The Colombian peso traded below 2,000 to the greenback until 2014, but now it’s trading around 3,000 to the dollar.
Peru prices are lower thanks to an exchange rate drop, so if that’s on your bucket list start making plans. Brazil, Chile, and Argentina are all a better value overall than they’ve been in past years for mid-range travelers.
You can go anywhere except Singapore and find good values in Southeast Asia if you’re on a vacation budget. The U.S. dollar is up against all the local currencies, which has a big impact in Thailand and it means you get 25% more for your dollar in the Philippines than you did four years ago. You get 50% more in Malaysia.
All of Europe is on sale right now thanks to a post-Brexit pound and an economy-weakened euro. I don’t normally give advice on here about visiting the most popular, most expensive countries like England, France, and Italy, but 2017 would be a great year to do a classic Europe trip. The normally outrageous prices in Iceland, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway now just feel like Manhattan prices instead of ones that will put you into shock. The best Europe value overall is Portugal though, while the former Eastern Bloc countries offer great values on food, wine, attractions, and hotels. To find the best values, try to get beyond the magnet cities of Prague and Budapest. Slovakia is a great option if you’re trying to find a gorgeous emerging destination without so many tourists.
Wherever you do want to go, don’t put it off too long. I’ve seen the dollar rise and fall numerous times since becoming a travel writer 20+ years ago and when you’re on the wrong side of the equation it can really sock it to your wallet. Just ask any Canadians you know since they’re feeling the pain.
When the exchange rate is so heavily in your favor as it is right now for Americans, it’s downright crazy to keep putting that big trip on the back burner.
See you on the road!