[This post on the cheapest places to travel for Americans in 2021 was updated in June.]
In a normal year when I’m giving advice on the cheapest places to travel, I’m looking at prices, exchange rates, and special situations that are leading to temporary deals for travelers. This year it’s a crapshoot. Many countries are still a question mark when it comes to welcoming visitors and if you have to quarantine for 10 days or two weeks at a government-approved hotel, that negates much of the savings the place might offer.
Since I’ve got five editions of The World’s Cheapest Destinations under my belt, I might know a bit more about this subject than most. The changes usually aren’t very drastic from year to year or even over a period of three years. When I update the book, some sections don’t need more than a few minor tweaks. The strong U.S. dollar has made the best values an even better deal the past few years, however, and made some formerly borderline places more affordable to travel than they used to be.
In normal times, a lot of this depends on your budget. 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 while on their one vacation of the year. 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.
This year, you have to add availability to the factors. There are a lot of lists out there on which countries are open and which are not, but start with this one from Kayak.com.
The Cheapest Open 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 17 years later, those are still a safe bet overall, with some of the lowest per-day travel costs in the world.
For now, you can’t visit any of them, but hopefully by late 2021 it will be possible. Bali had gotten too popular for its own good and was a full-blown tourist trap before the pandemic hit, with prices to match if you’re not putting down roots for a while.
When Southeast Asia opens up again, it will still be reliably cheap in most locations. It’s not that way 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.
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 or flat against all the local currencies except in Thailand. You get 10% more for your dollar in the Philippines than you did five years ago. You get a third more for your money in Malaysia than you did in the mid-’00s.
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. Thanks to how the exchange rate has fared since five years ago, Vietnam was one of the countries where I barely had to edit the prices in the latest edition of my book.
The problem is, most of them are not letting anyone in. For good reason: as I write this, the two countries have been poster children for containing the virus, but no word one when you’ll be able to fly there as a foreigner. Thailand is a different story: they have announced a phased re-opening for vaccinated travelers starting with Phuket and then spreading to four other areas as the summer goes on. In the early stages there are still a lot of hurdles, but those should ease up by the fall.
As with Bali for Indonesia, some parts of India (especially Mumbai, Bangalore, Jaipur, Agra, 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. The rate seems to have settled into a band between 64 and 74 to the dollar and it’s around 73 as I write this. When it’s safe to visit again–which is looking like it might not be anytime soon since the country is competing with Brazil as the least prepared for a second wave–India will continue to be one of the world’s best travel values.
Nepal has been one of the cheapest places to travel since I started hitting the road in 1993 and it just might be the cheapest travel destination in the world for a backpacker who doesn’t drink. I’ve been there a few times and the last time I reported on travel prices in Nepal. If you go trekking through the mountains here and stay at tea houses, this may be the cheapest week or two of travel you’ve ever had in your life, but with some of the most spectacular views you could ask for.
The country briefly opened back up again, but then closed. They opened up to Everest mountain climbers for the season in May, then closed again. As soon as they feel they can, they will welcome you back. They’re right next to India though, which is experiencing a deadly second wave from variants, so that might keep the borders closed.
You Can Visit Most of Latin America and Open Countries Are Travel Bargains
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, it’s open, and it’s right on our doorstep. Its currency dropped by nearly 50% between 2015 and 2017 and it stayed there. When I first started visiting 15 years ago it was 10 or 11 pesos to the dollar most of the time. Now it’s usually around 19 or 20. It’s such a great deal that I moved there permanently.
Mexico is 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.
Cheap travel spots with plenty to see and do include Guatemala, Honduras, Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. All of those are open now, with restrictions. Assume you will need to arrive with a negative swab test and wear a mask everywhere in public. I expect them to follow what Belize has done eventually though and let you in without a test if you show proof of a completed vaccination schedule.
The problem with South America though is the largest country, Brazil, is led by a Trumpian blowhard that insisted the pandemic was no big deal. Now it’s getting hit with more deaths than ever and their problems are spreading to neighboring countries. There are only two places in South America where more than 50% of the citizens have been vaccinated as of mid-2021: The Galapagos Islands and Chile. Many others are still in the single digits.
Nicaragua is a better deal than it’s ever been, but with a dicey political situation causing people to fear a mini Venezuela in the making, few people were visiting before the pandemic. There are fewer still now. This is the best value in Latin America right now if you’re one of the intrepid travelers making your way there. It’s a buyer’s market for everything. Unfortunately, Nicaragua is releasing laughably unreliable Covid statistics, so nobody really knows how bad the situation is there.
The U.S. dollar exchange rate in Colombia is still holding strong, making it a relatively good value.
For now, Argentina is reasonably priced again. For now though, they’re not open and they’re struggling more than most because…
The bottom half of South America is in trouble again with variants, mostly because of Brazil’s botched response from its COVID-denying president. He’s now facing massive protests and threats of genocide charges, however, so his days may be numbered. This is now the deadliest place to be in the Americas, so avoid Brazil no matter what the prices are like.
The Cheapest Places in Europe are Opening Again (IF You Are Vaccinated)
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.
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 did lots of on-the-ground research the year before last and you can see prices for some at the links here. You can travel for cheap in the former war zones of Montenegro, Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, and Albania, plus North Macedonia down toward Greece.
Until this summer, the open countries that were also a bargain to visit were few and far between in Europe. Your best open options were Montenegro to the west and Georgia to the far east past Asian Turkey.
Greece and Croatia are also open as I write this and they are not terribly expensive compared to open Iceland.
Thing should start changing soon. The EU announced it would start letting vaccinated Americans into the member countries this summer. A few (like Spain) may let you in with a negative PCR test instead. We’re starting to see actual dates now for mid-June, so check the current status for where you’re thinking of going.
Where to Look for Travel Deals in Africa
Morocco and Egypt are the two best travel values in Africa for any budget level and that’s not likely to change anytime soon.
Both are in the 5th edition of The World’s Cheapest Destinations and the lack of tourists in two countries that depend a lot on foreign visitors means that those who return will find plenty of bargains on lodging and tours. Egypt especially. The country already had some of the best lodging values on the planet for mid-range travelers and now almost none of those hotels are more than half full.
Egypt is open to visitors though, as long as you bring a negative PCR test from the last 72 hours or 96 hours depending on your nationality. Morocco is not open at the present time. Watch for that to change once vaccination percentages get higher.
As I outlined in an earlier article, many of the destinations for an African safari have opened back up or never closed to start with. So while a safari is generally a big investment, especially counting the airfare to get there, once again it’s a buyer’s market in the places that are open. Stick to a company with a good reputation though: prices too good to be true probably mean the porters and workers are feeling most of the cost cuts.
South Africa has been one of the worst-hit countries in this crisis though, so it’ll be a while before you can go to Cape Town and Kruger.
The Best Strategy for Travel Bargains This Year
This is the most unusual time I’ve ever lived through in terms of tourism since the usual rules of supply and demand, currency valuation, and local spending power don’t matter in so many countries–the countries are simply not open. It doesn’t matter much which countries are the cheapest places to travel when half of them have closed borders and it’s not safe to get on a packed plane with people who aren’t vaccinated.
So the first place you have to start is with availability, then demand, then the value factors. Although I hate to say it, the best strategy is probably to stick with the Americas and maybe Europe by the fall until we get closer to 2022.
If you’re on a vacation budget, you don’t have to worry much about what the situation will be like nine months from now. You want to know where you can actually go. If you know the place will be open, book your plane tickets as soon as possible. Those generous refund/credit policies in place now are not going to last.
Mexico is still the most obvious choice this year for Americans, as it has been the past few years. Thanks to a variety of reasons, the Mexican peso has stayed quite weak compared to the dollar. You won’t 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. If you get into the interior of Mexico, you’ll find prices on restaurants, drinks, lodging, and entertainment that are half or less what you’d pay in middle America.
For now, Canada looks like it will be closed until at least the summer. When it opens back up, our neighbor to the north is still cheaper than it used to be. Canada is a good 1/4 less expensive than it was a decade ago. It’s easy to get to, gorgeous, and mostly not very crowded—especially if you compare the visitation of their national parks to ours.
Colombia is dramatically cheaper than it was a decade ago and the dollar is holding strong. 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. Just check the news first: there’s been a fair bit of political unrest and some virus hotspot breakouts.
Peru is open, prices are good, and this is a rare time to experience a popular country without the crushing crowds. So if that’s on your bucket list start making plans. Just try to explore more or Peru beyond Machu Picchu, will you?
Ecuador is back open too, another entry in The World’s Cheapest Destinations. Flight prices have been good and you’ll have your pick of places to stay. If you’ve got a sufficient vacation budget to explore the Galapagos, this is the year to find the best possible rates.
Panama isn’t such a great destination for backpackers, but for those on vacation it’s a terrific value, especially when it’s time to go out drinking. The country is open (for those with a negative test) and it’s the hub for Copa Air.
Europe is about to be back on the table now, going beyond just a few open spots like Croatia (not so cheap) and Albania (a great deal). Keep an eye on the “Which countries are open to Americans” lists after you’ve gotten fully vaccinated.
Asia is a mixed bag, but Thailand is being the most aggressive and forthright about opening up again. As I write this a quarantine is still required, but there’s talk of rolling that back.
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 25+ years ago and when you’re on the wrong side of the equation it can really sock it to your wallet. Just ask any traveling Canadians or Brits you know. Our turn to be blue will come and it’ll come without much warning.
A “cheapest places to travel” list would normally have a record number of desirable destinations to include when there’s a tourism slump and a strong dollar. 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. The main problem now is getting there and getting in. As soon as the place you’ve been dreaming of is open, make some plans.
Once we all get vaccinated, see you on the road!