Unless you’re a trustafarian or have been saving big bucks from working in law or finance for years, your round-the-world journey is going to have some budget restraints. Long-term travel is drastically cheaper than going on vacation, but Western Europe, Japan, and Australia can be really pricey even if you’re staying in hostels and never eating at nice restaurants.
Fortunately, most of the cheapest places to travel in the world are situated in clusters. (That’s also mostly true for the cheapest places to live.) So you don’t have to buy some complicated (and expensive) around-the-world ticket that has you bouncing from airport to airport every few weeks. In fact, you could just get a one-way ticket to Bangkok or Guatemala City and be done with it for quite a while. Just pick up the other tickets as you go. Because here is where you should concentrate your travels if you’re on a budget. Nearly all of The World’s Cheapest Destinations fall into one of these budget travel clusters.
If you’re coming from the USA or Canada and are short on savings, it’s a whole lot cheaper to get to this part of the world than to fly across an ocean. In recent years I have bought a ticket Guatemala for $490 and got a one-way ticket to Belize for around $200. That’s about what I would have had to spend to fly from the east coast to the west domestically. Sometimes you’ll see even better deals if you’re willing to endure flying on Spirit Airlines. (Going on Star Alliance Avianca is a much better bet for a little more money.)
Nicaragua is the low-cost leader in the region, but the political situation there is dicey these days. Guatemala is quite cheap and Panama isn’t too bad once you get out of the capital. Try to limit your time in much more expensive Costa Rica and Belize.
From Panama you can take a ferry around the Darian Gap and get to Colombia, which leads to…
South America’s Cheap Travel Cluster
Travel costs are widely divergent in South America, with the country taking up the largest part of the map usually being the most expensive. That would be Brazil, though the raw-materials-based economy has been tanking lately and you can get a lot more local currency for your dollars or euros or pounds. For now anyway, it’s only kind of expensive instead of crazy expensive. Same for Chile, whose currency has gone from lofty to reasonable.
Colombia has become a much better deal in recent years and prices in Peru are less than they were five years ago thanks to exchange differences, even though the number of tourists has exploded. Just assume you’re going to spend a fortune for Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley.
The cheapest places to travel are generally Ecuador and Bolivia, so budget travelers usually combine those two with Peru for the bulk of their time. Ecuador uses the greenback though, so you don’t get any benefit from a strong dollar there if you’re American.
Argentina in an on again, off again bargain depending on the inflation rate, but at least now you don’t have to shell out a lot for a visa and there’s no two-tiered system for exchange rates. For the moment it’s a bargain again. Distances are long to do all this overland, but there are plenty of overnight bus options and in some countries (like Bolivia and Colombia), domestic flights aren’t a whole lot more than the best bus.
Southeast Asia Bargain Travel Clusters
This is where it all started for me and where it has all started for a few hundred thousand backpackers since. You can usually get a semi-reasonable flight to one of the countries in this region—or use miles if you’re good at travel hacking—and then travel overland to visit the rest of them.
Cambodia and Laos battle for the cheapest prices in the region and in those countries Thai baht are considered a hard currency. Dollars are commonly used apart from small transactions. Vietnam is one of the best values in the world when it comes to accommodation and beer, though transportation costs can add up fast in the long and skinny country. Thailand has gotten less expensive the past few years if you avoid the package tour areas, just because of exchange rate differences.
Burma is not the bargain it should be, mostly because demand is so far ahead of supply when it comes to a tourism infrastructure. (Plus it’s still not a government I want to give my money to.) Malaysia is a bit pricier than the others, but there’s a trade-off in that it’s a lot more developed and easy, plus their currency has declined against the dollar and euro the past couple years.
Indonesia is always one of my picks though for the best overall values in the world and that has only increased lately as their currency has dropped. You can travel between all these countries by land and sea, though most people fly from Malaysia, Singapore, or Australia to Indonesia to save days of travel time. There’s a ferry from the west coast of Malaysia to Sumatra that’s not too daunting if you’re headed to that island.
The Philippines is an honorable mention in the upcoming 5th edition of The World’s Cheapest Destinations. It’s an especially good deal for going out drinking and everyone educated speaks English, which makes it much easier for getting around.
It’s not easy, but you can travel overland all the way from Kathmandu, through India, to Sri Lanka. You can save a lot of time and hassle by flying here and there though, especially with budget fliers like IndiGo Airline in India. Nepal is probably the outright cheapest place in the world if you’re not a mountaineer and the country could really use your tourism bucks. Here’s a detailed look at travel prices in Nepal.
India is quite cheap outside the cities and Sri Lanka offers a chance to visit a beautiful place that was in turmoil for decades. Again, if you can cash in frequent flyer miles to get there, travel will be quite inexpensive all around.
Eastern Europe and The Balkans Travel Clusters
In terms of outright value for money, it’s hard to top the former Iron Curtain countries of Europe. You could get by on the proverbial $50 a day single or $75 for a couple in this region fairly easily if you’re not moving too quickly and you cook for yourself at least one meal a day. Slovakia, the Czech Republic (outside Prague), Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria all offer a lot of interesting sights, hearty food and beer, good wine, and plenty of culture. Bulgaria is on par with parts of Central America and Southeast Asia in terms of costs, despite astounding natural beauty and some cool towns to hang out in for a while.
You could detour down to Turkey, which is a bit more reasonable these days because of exchange rate trends, but it’s far from stable. If you must visit Western Europe, Greece isn’t too pricey if you stay off the most popular islands and Portugal is still a bargain for now.
The emerging hotspot in Europe is the Balkan states that were at war with each other a couple decades ago. They still haven’t fully recovered and some are on par with Southeast Asia for meals and drinks. I was really surprised at how many great deals I found when I was traveling through the Balkans independently and on a bike tour. You can find a lot of bargains in Bosnia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania, and (to a lesser extent) Serbia. As with the other travel clusters, you can go overland from one to the other and since some are not part of the EU 3-month travel quota, you can stay longer by just hanging out in Albania for a while.
Croatia gets a lot of tourists though, especially Dubrovnik in the summer, and its economy is in better shape, so prices there are not much of a bargain. Limit your time there or just pass through.
It’s hard to believe that Syria and Yemen were once backpacker destinations or that Egypt was one of the most popular travel destinations in the world for vacationers. But hey, Iran and Afghanistan were on the “hippy trail” of travelers in the 60s too.
Obviously things can change for the worse, especially when radical Islam is involved. If you’re not easily spooked, Egypt is fairly calm these days and it’s a buyer’s market for hotels and services. Jordan is eternally suffering from having bad neighbors, but it’s a terrific place to visit, especially if you can spend a couple weeks there instead of a quick in and out.
Now, just because these are the cheap travel clusters, it doesn’t mean you have to hit all of them on one trip. Save some for later! A year sounds like a long time, but the more you try to cram in, the more it’ll fly by in a blur of transportation. Stop and smell the baklava and you’ll have a richer experience.