[This post on the cheapest places to travel for Americans was updated in July 2022.]
In a normal year when I’m giving advice on the cheapest places to travel to, I’m looking at prices, exchange rates, and special situations that are leading to temporary deals for travelers. In 2021 it was a crapshoot. Many countries were still a question mark for welcoming visitors and if you had to quarantine for 10 days or two weeks at a government-approved hotel, that negated much of the savings the place might offer.
In 2022 we ended up with different problems: a clueless airline industry that laid off or forced into retirement too many of its workers when business went down. (In the USA, that’s despite getting huge bailouts to keep their staff levels up.) Fuel prices skyrocketed after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Supply chain issues and spiking post-pandemic demand led to worldwide inflation.
On the plus side, if you’re American, the dollar hit a 20-year high against the euro and Japanese yen, along with record levels in a host of other countries. That makes every place cheaper for those earning or spending greenbacks.
Since I’ve got five editions of The World’s Cheapest Destinations under my belt, I might know a bit more about the cheapest places to travel 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 to 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.
Thankfully, we can now take availability out of the mix. Only a smattering of countries remain partially closed, like Japan and China. There are a lot of lists out there on which countries are still closed or have restrictions on entry (you usually need to be vaccinated), but start with this one from Kayak.com.
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 17 years later, those are still a safe bet overall, with some of the lowest per-day travel costs in the world.
Now you can visit them all again and there’s even talk of a five-year digital nomad visa for Indonesia, which would be a game-changer. 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. But the island desperately wants visitors again and for a short while it will be a deal. Spread out to the rest of the country though and find your expenses dropping fast.
With the dollar as strong as it is though, location-independent workers don’t have to worry so much about where their money will stretch. Scroll down to the Europe section and consider some place there you’ve been dreaming about perhaps. With the dollar at parity against the euro as I write this, even the expensive spots like France and Italy are much more affordable, especially if you rent an apartment for a while.
Also, for what it’s worth, two of the three countries that have seen the biggest currency declines against the dollar over the past year are in Europe: Hungary and (partially in Europe) Turkey.
The Cheapest Places to Travel: Welcome Back to Asia
The backpackers’ favorite region is back in play again: Southeast Asia. I already mentioned Indonesia, but there are plenty of choices there that you can visit overland or on a quick budget flight.
Now that Southeast Asia is open 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 against all the local currencies, including in Thailand. (As I write this it is 35 baht to the dollar, a historically great rate.)
The dollar is flirting with a 10-year high in the Philippines. You get a third more for your money in Malaysia than you did in the mid-’00s.
The dollar is also close to a record high against the dong of Vietnam, making one of the world’s greatest lodging value an even better deal. 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.
Prices in Cambodia are tied to the greenback, which they actually use in most transactions, but they are consistently good. 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, 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 exchange rate against the dollar is making it an even better deal as I write this, going from 73 to 80 per $ in the course of one year. The place can drive you crazy, but 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’s currency tends to move in line with the Indian rupee and right now it is at a record low against the dollar. If you’re pulling from a dollar account at the ATM, you’ll feel like one of the richest people around.
The Cheapest Places in Europe are Opening Again
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. I just spent a few weeks in Bulgaria and it’s definitely one of the greatest values in the world. I’ll update my old post on prices there soon, but for eating, drinking, and enjoying the great outdoors, it’s hard to top.
Portugal has gotten super-popular lately and 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.
The emergence of the Balkan countries as bargain travel destinations has meant a lot of new options in Europe outside of the Schengen zone in some cases. I did lots of on-the-ground research a while back 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.
Just be advised that hordes of people are taking advantage of Europe’s reopening and peak crowds are back. The popular sites of Andalucia, Spain were really crowded when I was there this summer. This should ease up a bit outside of the summer and it won’t be so hot either.
Greece and Croatia were two of the first European countries to open back up. They’re not as inexpensive as the others mentioned above, but they are not terribly expensive either, especially at current exchange rates. I’ll probably be spending time in both of them next year.
Plenty of Cheap Places to Visit in Latin America
Overall costs in the countries of Latin America are either flat or lower than they were in past years. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, Argentina just may be the best travel value in the world right now, with terrific prices on everything. Bring plenty of cash though to get the best rate.
Mexico is the best overall value that’s close, right on the USA’s doorstep. Its currency dropped by nearly 50% between 2015 and 2017 and it stayed there. When I first started visiting the country it was 10 or 11 pesos to the dollar most of the time. Now it’s usually around 20. It’s such a great deal that I moved there permanently and got residency.
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. Some still have travel restrictions in place and are trying to keep variants in check, so research what you need before you head that way.
If you’ve always dreamed of heading to Brazil, this is a historically great time. They did terribly at handling the pandemic, thanks to their Trumpian blowhard leader that also did everything too little, too late. But now the risks aren’t any worse than elsewhere and you get 2.5 times more Brazilian reales for your greenback than you did a decade ago.
I am heading to Colombia soon and am looking forward to some great travel bargains there. I’m seeing nice Airbnb places in the best neighborhood of Medellin for less than $30 a night and internal flights are a great deal. 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.
Peru and Bolivia did not fare well during the pandemic and had some of the highest death rates after Brazil. They’re still struggling as I write this. If you take your vaccinated & boostered self there though and bring your mask, you’ll be able to take advantage of lower crowd levels at Machu Picchu and find hotels that are competing hard for your business.
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.
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. The dollar is trading near the top of its range in both countries, making a good value an even better one for Americans.
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.
As I outlined in an article last year on Africa safari bargains, 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 check the latest situation and restrictions before heading to Cape Town and Kruger.
The rest of the continent has fared rather well during this pandemic compared to other parts of the world, despite a low vaccination rate in many nations. Either they’ve had far less contact with outsiders or they’ve got a better immune system. Or both. So it would be a good time to head there for a while and hit multiple countries.
The Best Strategy for Travel Bargains This Year
The last two years have been the most unusual time I’ve ever lived through in terms of tourism. The usual rules of supply and demand, currency valuation, and local spending power didn’t matter in so many countries–the countries were simply not open. It didn’t matter much which countries were the cheapest places to travel when half of them had closed borders and wasn’t safe to get on a packed plane or ship with people who aren’t vaccinated.
So the first place you had to start was with availability, then demand, then the value factors. Now that the world is open again, normal economic factors are much more in play, including airfare prices.
Mexico is still the most obvious choice this year for Americans if you’re focused on where you can get to quickly and for a reasonable price, 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.
Or you can head north to Canada, which is finally open again. Our neighbor to the north is still cheaper than it used to be. Canada is a good 20-30% 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.
Europe is back on the table now, fully open to vaccinated visitors (and some countries even if you’re not). As mentioned at the beginning, every place there is on sale now with the euro at parity with the dollar. Use that to get an even better deal in a country like Portugal or head to one of the cheapest places to travel in Europe and live like royalty with your more valuable greenbacks.
Flights to Europe have gotten expensive over the summer thanks to airline staffing problems, high fuel prices, and high demand, so it would be best to let things cool off in every way before you book a flight. Prices should ease up for the fall and winter. Do a quick search on Kayak or Skyscanner and keep your dates flexible.
If you’ve wanted to set off around the world for some long-term travel, now you can finally do it again without a lot of sections of the globe being closed. Take that long flight to Bangkok to get started and maybe stop off in Japan first for a short splurge: the yen is at a historic low against the buck.
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 in a time like this has a record number of desirable destinations to include after 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.
See you on the road!