Most Americans assume international travel is inherently expensive. And it is — if you insist on traveling to major European capitals during peak seasons.
The trick to cheap international travel? Skip the Romes, Parises, and Londons of the world and search for the hidden gems instead.
My wife and I visit an average of 10 countries per year while living entirely on her modest school counselor’s salary (which is comparable to a teacher’s salary). We need to pay close attention to the cost to travel as much as we do.
We don’t save money by staying in hostels or hitchhiking our way around foreign countries. We can travel comfortably and affordably because we choose our destinations with care, minimizing the largest travel expenses.
The 2 Biggest Travel Expenses
Traveling involves two types of expenses: getting there and staying there.
For Americans traveling internationally, getting there means the cost of flights plus any additional travel required upon arrival. The flight costs largely depend on where you’re traveling from. If you live by a major international airport, you can expect cheaper flights than if you’re flying from a tiny regional airport and have to make several transfers.
You can employ plenty of tricks to find cheap flights. One classic strategy centers around travel reward credit cards, but it’s not your only option. You should also sign up for airfare alerts through websites like Airfarewatchdog to be notified when your bucket-list fares drop below their normal pricing. Sign up for Dollar Flight Club as well for low-cost fare notifications and opportunities (see our full review of Dollar Flight Club here).
Stay as flexible as possible about travel dates. Traveling in October, for example, is far cheaper than traveling during the holidays. As you research fares, use the “flexible dates” option on websites like Skyscanner.
While you only have so much control over flight costs, it’s easier to predict and control the cost to stay in any given destination. From favorable exchange rates to a dramatically lower cost of living, many of the most beautiful places in the world offer cheap travel opportunities for Americans.
10 Cheap (& Gorgeous) Countries to Add to Your Bucket List
As much as I love Paris and Amsterdam, they’re expensive and teeming with tourists.
Forget about the famous destinations. They’ll still be there 20 years from now, just as famous and just as overrun with tourists. Instead, focus on visiting countries that are gradually being discovered by Western tourists, and visit them before they lose their authenticity and affordability.
Here are 10 of those destinations where your dollar stretches further and the locals are genuinely glad to see you.
Reasons to Visit: Rainforests, historic cities, beach towns
Ecuador boasts a rich natural ecosystem, from the Andes Mountains running through the country to the pristine coastal rainforest. Its small size means you can quickly travel between ecosystems and major cities like Quito and Guayaquil.
What’s more, Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar, so you don’t have to worry about losing money in the exchange. Its infrastructure is also better than most of its neighbors, making travel comfortable and safe.
Ecuador has a large American expat population, especially among retirees. The mountainside city of Cuenca draws more American transplants every year with its year-round perfect weather, rich culture, low cost of living, and gorgeous colonial architecture dating back nearly 500 years.
Ecuador offers something for everyone. Sun worshippers can lounge on the beaches of towns like Montanita, while ecotourists can explore the cloud forests of Mindo. History buffs will enjoy the culture and architecture of Quito and Cuenca. Ecuador has developed a reputation for being the perfect miniaturization of South America as a whole, offering much of the continent’s variety within its narrow borders.
Reasons to Visit: Historic cities, affordable skiing, beach towns on the Black Sea, wine tasting, friendly locals
I loved Bulgaria. It was the first random vacation my wife and I took, based on entering a date range and our starting airport on Skyscanner and using the “anywhere” option. We picked the first cheap destination that caught our eye.
From rich history to cheap skiing to surprisingly good wines, we were pleasantly surprised at every turn. We toured the ancient ruins of the Second Bulgarian Empire’s capital city in Veliko Tarnovo, then enjoyed a five-course meal from one of the city’s many restaurants looking out from the mountainside. In Plovdiv, the second-largest city in Bulgaria, we strolled the old town, explored Roman ruins dating back nearly 2,000 years, and toured the vineyards in the surrounding countryside. The capital city of Sofia offered stunning orthodox churches, outstanding restaurants, and friendly locals inviting us to have a drink with them.
Hospitality was a recurring theme in Bulgaria. At every turn, the locals were warm, welcoming, and eager to practice their English with us. In one boutique wine bar, the owner spent an hour and a half talking to us about the local viticulture and wine styles. She gave us numerous free pours, then invited us to meet her friends at a dinner party.
We spent around $35 each night for a full upscale apartment and had gourmet meals for around $20 per person.
Reasons to Visit: Rainforests, beaches, water sports, temples, cuisine
Thailand is famous for its food, and for good reason. Even the street food in Thailand is world-class. Blogger Richard Barrow tried a Thai street food challenge and ate street food in Thailand for every meal for an entire month. At the end of the challenge, he had tried 100 different meals, and his food spending averaged less than $4 per day.
It’s no surprise that Thai cooking classes are so popular, but there are plenty of other activities for budget travelers. The beaches are world-class, from famous destinations like Phuket to less obvious retreats like Koh Muk and its mysterious Emerald Cave.
When you get sick of sunbathing, embark on a kayaking expedition to explore the towering rock columns jutting up from the sea. Our tour visited one particularly large formation that had collapsed on the inside, creating a hidden interior lagoon you could only access by kayaking through tidal caverns at just the right time of day.
History and culture buffs can explore the country’s wealth of elegant Buddhist temples. As you build your itinerary, check out temple destinations including Ayutthaya, Wat Pho at the City of Angels, and the more recent Wat Pha Sorn Kaew.
Thailand’s cities and towns offer plenty of cultural experiences as well, from shopping at the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market to basking in the vibrant energy of Bangkok. And when you’re sick of the crowds, you can escape to Hua Hin or Khao Lak for scuba diving, snorkeling, surfing, hiking, and waterfall tours.
For more ideas, see our full breakdown of how to plan a trip to Thailand on a budget.
4. South Africa
Reasons to Visit: Safari, wildlife, outdoor adventure travel, wine tasting, history, culture
The currency of South Africa, the rand, collapsed in value a few years ago and has struggled to gain any traction in the years since. The exchange rate makes it an incredibly affordable country to visit if you can find a cheap flight.
Once there, you can stay in major cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg inexpensively. Cape Town, nestled between the ocean and the dramatic bluffs of Table Mountain, will steal your heart. It offers beaches, hiking, funky neighborhoods, outstanding restaurants, and is surrounded by wine country. Within an hour or so from downtown, you can tour the vineyards in Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, both charming towns known for their world-renowned wines.
When you can’t consume any more food and wine, visit one of the world’s few mainland penguin colonies just south of Cape Town. You shouldn’t touch them, but you can get close enough to do so. If you want a more adventurous wildlife encounter, drive a little further to Gansbaai for cage diving with great white sharks.
Speaking of wildlife, no trip to South Africa is complete without a safari. You can do safaris on the cheap if you like, with tent camping, no-frills meal options, and the standard “roughing it” adventure travel experience. Or you can stay at an upscale lodge, wining and dining and generally being pampered.
The better safari experiences lie nearer to Johannesburg, a decidedly less charming city than Cape Town. You can take internal flights between the two cities for very little money, or you can visit the game preserves and safari parks closer to Cape Town to keep your itinerary simpler.
5. The Dominican Republic
Reasons to Visit: Beaches, relaxation, ecotourism
The Dominican Republic makes an attractive budget travel destination for baseball fans and sunbathers alike. Santo Domingo, the capital city, was named a UNESCO World Heritage site because it still contains colonial elements from Christopher Columbus’s arrival in 1492. For travelers looking for action and excitement, the country particularly comes alive during Carnaval Dominicano in February and Semana Santa in April.
Beyond beaches and beverages, you can also find plenty of natural beauty on and around the island. Consider visiting the Damajagua Waterfalls, humpback whale watching at Samaná, or climbing Mount Isabel de Torres, the tallest mountain in the Caribbean, for a unique experience in the region.
While not the cheapest country in the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic offers an attractive mix of sun, safety, and affordability. You can find a range of lodging options to fit any budget, from luxury resorts to affordable hostels.
Reasons to Visit: History, ancient churches and monasteries, wine tasting, beach towns
Where can you find ancient cave cities, 1,500-year-old churches, beachside resort towns, wineries owned by the same family for generations, and historic mountaintop towns all within a few hours of each other?
In the small Caucasus country of Georgia. This hidden gem of a country is both extremely charming and extremely cheap to visit.
The capital, Tbilisi, offers a cobbled historic downtown that’s safe, walkable, and affordable. Visit the Anchiskhati Basilica, built in the early 500s, before enjoying a coffee or dinner at a nearby sidewalk cafe.
For history dating back even further, visit one of Georgia’s ancient cave cities. Some of the more extensive options include Vardzia and Uplistsikhe, which has been home to no fewer than 17 distinct civilizations over the millennia.
Be sure to include at least a night or two in the hilltop town of Sighnaghi, which looks like a Tuscan village transplanted into the Caucasus Mountains. You won’t be disappointed by the views, the relaxing vibe, or nearby Bodbe Monastery.
You could stay at hotels of course, but for a more authentic experience stay at guest houses. They’re essentially bed-and-breakfasts operated by locals. Beyond a comfortable room and homemade breakfast, you can expect to be greeted with an afternoon platter of cheeses, wine, and other light fare.
Reasons to Visit: Culture, wildlife, and nature, cuisine
In Bangladesh, it’s still possible to buy meals for under a dollar and enjoy river cruises for less than you’d spend in nearby India. With the favorable exchange rate, you can stretch your travel budget enough to sail with the Irrawaddy River Dolphins and spot tigers in Sunderbans National Park outside of Khulna. In the local markets, you can browse inexpensive handmade crafts such as coconut masks, bamboo sculptures, and folk dolls. Leatherwork and pearls are also popular exports here.
Check out the Old Town in Dhaka for a taste of the vibrant chaos of Bangladesh. When you get sick of walking, hire a rickshaw to get around the city like a local. If the crowds become too much for you, head over to Lalbagh Fort to enjoy its serene gardens.
The U.S. State Department warns that tourist visas granted upon arrival are usually only valid for 15 to 30 days, so plan accordingly.
Reasons to Visit: City exploration, nightlife, wine tasting, cuisine, outdoor sports, nature
Argentina has lots to offer. Its capital city, Buenos Aires, is often referred to as the “Paris of South America,” and it’s beautiful, elegant, and surprisingly affordable. I recently booked an apartment on Airbnb in the trendy Palermo Hollywood neighborhood and “splurged” on an upscale apartment costing only $45 per night.
But there’s more to Argentina than chic Buenos Aires. Bordering Brazil, Iguazú Falls is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most visited sites in both Argentina and Brazil. Enjoy hikes, group tours and treks, and water sports at the base of the colossal waterfalls.
Then there’s the wine. Argentina is the world’s sixth-largest producer of wine by volume, and that high volume in no way diminishes the quality of the product. From aromatic white Torrontes to hearty Malbecs to muscular Cabernets, oenophiles can enjoy millions of acres of vineyards. And for carnivores looking to pair that Cabernet, there’s nothing better than an Argentinian steak.
When you’ve eaten your fill, put on your hiking or ski boots to visit Argentina’s wintry wonderlands. Los Glaciares National Park is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, where you can explore stunningly blue glaciers up close and even tour the park on horseback. Or head to Ushuaia on the southern coast of Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego for hiking, skiing, snowboarding, and sledding. Wildlife enthusiasts can encounter penguins, seals, a wealth of local birds, and spot orca whales that colonize the small islands along the Beagle Channel.
Reasons to Visit: Medieval cities, beach towns, water sports, wine tasting
While Croatia was significantly cheaper a decade ago, it’s still more affordable than most European countries, despite its picture-perfect beaches and generous coastline. Beyond the beaches themselves, Croatia offers excellent water sports, including diving, snorkeling, waterskiing, and sailing. The water is surprisingly clear and blue, and divers can explore the wrecks of trading ships hundreds or even thousands of years old.
Moving inland, outdoor enthusiasts can explore stunning Plitvice Lakes National Park. Named after its 16 electric-blue lakes, the park also features waterfalls, a forested canyon, hiking, and easier strolls along boardwalks. It’s the most visited national park in Croatia, and for good reason.
For city experiences beyond medieval-walled Dubrovnik, visit Split for its Roman-era palace, waterfront promenade, and bustling nightlife. Zagreb is also an underrated European capital city and worth at least a few days when you first land in the country.
Reasons to Visit: A wonderful mix of colonial and indigenous cities, rainforest, beaches, adventure sports
Don’t be misled by the prices at Machu Picchu. Peru, like most of South America, remains an affordable travel destination. In smaller towns like Huaraz, you can still find three-course meals for under $5. You can also get around the country inexpensively by its safe public transportation.
Peru offers plenty of options for everyone. From historic colonial cities to the Amazon rainforest to coastal beaches to the mysterious Nazca lines, it’s easy to spend weeks exploring Peru.
Fly into Lima and start your trip by exploring its mix of pre- and post-colonial history. From the 1,800-year-old ruins of Huaca Pucllana to the chilling catacombs beneath the Monastery of San Francisco, Lima is worth at least a few days of your time.
Next, get outside of Lima to really explore the country. Arequipa, the second-largest city in Peru, is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site renowned for its unique white volcanic stone buildings. It’s also gained a reputation for adventure sports in nearby Colca Canyon, one of the world’s deepest canyons.
Visit famed Lake Titicaca for watersports, birdwatching, boating, and the “floating islands” of the indigenous Uros people. You can also do some hiking on the lake’s real island of Taquile.
For ecotourism and wildlife watching, head to the Amazon by way of Puerto Maldonado. Once in the rainforest, you can watch for manatees, pink river dolphins, sloths, monkeys, capybaras, anacondas, caimans, and maybe even a jaguar.
International travel doesn’t have to be expensive. In fact, there are dozens of ways to travel the world for free.
Look for countries where you can both fly cheaply and stay inexpensively once there. Before booking a hotel, look into more affordable hotel alternatives, like Airbnb, guest houses, and bed-and-breakfasts. The difference in pricing between international hotel brands and local accommodation options is often dramatic in these lower-cost countries, and staying in an apartment on Airbnb can offer both more space and a more authentic experience.
Most of all, stay open-minded. Get off the beaten path to visit destinations most people never even consider. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you find.
What’s the most interesting destination you’ve visited? What made it a memorable trip?