I love to travel, but as a college student, jet-setting doesn’t always fit my bank account. Weekend getaways, staycations, and last-minute discounts help me make the most of my travel budget, but what about budget travel to more exotic destinations?
I’ve found that visiting places with favorable exchange rates has worked out well for international destinations – especially when I can also find the best airline ticket deals to get there. Some of the main factors I consider when evaluating a potential destination are: cost of living, visa fees, airfare, activities, culture, and safety. Using this strategy, I’ve been able to travel to five South American countries in the past two years on a relatively tight budget.
With all of this background in mind, here is my list of the top ten budget travel destinations, with the underlying theme being very favorable exchange rates and extremely low costs of living.
Best Cheap Travel Destinations Around the World
Kampala is one of the cheapest cities in the world, and Uganda, known as “The Pearl of Africa,” hosts Lake Victoria, which is the second largest lake in the world. The official language is Swahili, but English is widely spoken, especially among the staff at hotels and tour companies.
Kampala is at the top of my travel bucket list because it’s a hub for adventure activities such as whitewater rafting on the Nile River and bungee jumping. The city of Jinja also offers quad biking and river boarding (boogie boarding down the river).
Jamaica has plenty of luxury options, but thanks to the island’s new international airport, deals on 3,000 new hotel rooms, and clean beaches, Budget Travel has rated Jamaica one of the top budget travel destinations for 2011.
International airfare has been pretty affordable lately. I checked Kayak.com and round-trip flights from the eastern U.S. are under $400, which is cheap enough for me to justify a visit to an affordable hotel for a long weekend. Homemade Jamaican jerk chicken is a great plus too!
The only reason Jamaica isn’t number one on this list is because I avoid hurricane season (July and August), but I’d rather visit during the winter when I’m craving some sunshine anyway.
Bangladesh was rated Lonely Planet’s number one value destination in 2011. According to Lonely Planet, you can buy meals for under a dollar and enjoy river cruises for rates lower than what you’d spend in nearby India. Bangladesh may be a non-traditional travel destination, but don’t overlook it.
With the exchange rate, I’ll be able to stretch my travel budget enough to sail by the Irrawaddy River Dolphins and see tigers in the Sunderbans National Park outside of Khulna. Bangladesh also has a wide range of handmade crafts such as coconut masks, bamboo sculptures, and folk dolls. Leatherwork and pearls are also popular exports.
The U.S. State Department warns that tourist visas granted upon arrival are usually only valid for 15 days, so you shouldn’t expect to have an extended stay without a fine or special permission.
I’m not sure exactly when Hungary came onto my travel radar. Budapest has gotten a lot of publicity lately for its beauty as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Fortunately, Hungary is also an affordable travel destination. You can get huge meals in markets for $5, public transportation via train for $1, and hotels for $20 a night.
The city seems like a curious mixture of 14th century architecture and modernization. Highlights include the gorgeous architecture of the Fisherman’s Bastion, the Buda Royal Palace, and the tranquil Margaret Island.
I spent an entire summer in Quito, and there’s still so much I haven’t seen. With just $3 for lunch, I bought soup, rice, chicken, juice, and Jell-O. A bus across the city cost 50 cents, and because Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar, I didn’t even have to worry about losing money in the exchange. I wish I had time to explore beach towns like Montanita and cloud forests like Mindo.
The beauty of Ecuador is that it has a rich natural ecosystem, from the Andes Mountains running through the country to the amazing coastal rain forest, yet you’re also near incredible major cities like Quito and Guayaquil.
I’ve heard that the street food in Thailand is world-class. Blogger Richard Barrow tried a Thai Food Challenge and ate street food in Thailand for every meal for an entire month. His spending averaged less than $4 a day on food. At the end of the challenge, he had tried one hundred different meals. How can you beat the price, variety, and deliciousness?
It’s no surprise, then, that Thai cooking classes are so popular, but there are plenty of things to do for budget travelers as well: relax on the beaches, explore elegant Buddhist temples, shop at the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, and check out the busy colorful city of Bangkok.
Don’t be misled by the prices at Machu Picchu; Peru is really a very affordable travel destination. I lived in the Ancash region, just north of Lima, for almost four months last fall. A typical three-course lunch was as low as $2 in the town of Huaraz. Hostels throughout the country are budget-friendly as well. A typical bed in a dorm room cost $8 to $10, which usually included a simple breakfast of juice, bread, and fruit.
I also found public transportation to be affordable, although airfare within the country is expensive. For example, a bus from Cusco to Lima cost me $37, while the cheapest round trip plane ticket I found was $160.
8. Dominican Republic
The Dominican Republic is an attractive budget travel destination for baseball fans and suntanners alike. Santo Domingo, the capital city, was named a UNESCO World Heritage site because there are still colonial elements from Christopher Columbus’s arrival in 1492. The island comes alive during Carnaval Dominicano in February and Semana Santa in April.
The Dominican Republic is home to a wide range of lodging options to fit any budget, from luxury resorts to affordable hostels. Although it’s not the cheapest country in the region, there is a good mix of sun, safety, and affordability.
AskMen named Croatia one of its Top Ten Cheap Vacations, and they say hostels go for about $10 per night. I visited the city of Dubrovnik a few years ago, and I remember being able to see my toes while swimming in the crystal-clear water. I also remember seeing the bright orange roofs on buildings showing which of them were bombed in the Yugoslavian War from 1991 to 1995.
While food and lodging were both relatively cheap in the “Pearl of the Adriatic,” I did have a problem finding shop owners and waiters who spoke English. I should have bought a Croatian phrase book.
I took part in a college study abroad program in Buenos Aires, so Argentina holds a special place in my heart. The cost of living is cheaper than in similar cities in the United States, but inflation is an issue with prices rising for the past few years. For example, I noticed that groceries were cheaper when I was there in December 2009 than when I visited exactly one year later. A bottle of Coke cost 3.50 pesos then and rose to 6 pesos in 2010. However, public transportation remains affordable as does lodging.
There are other equally exciting cities that are cheaper than Buenos Aires like Cordoba, Salta, and Jujuy.
I’m grateful that I can still fit international travel in my budget. When I save up for a trip, I plan my itinerary accordingly. Choosing destinations with a lower cost of living allows me to explore new destinations for a longer period of time.
These are just the top 10 places on my list. How about you? Have you been to any of these countries? Are there any affordable places on your travel bucket list?
(photo credit: Shutterstock)