One of the questions I’m always asked, in addition to “what country has the best food?” is “where is the cheapest place to travel?”
When you travel places where your money goes farther, you can stay longer and do more. It’s a lot more fun to marvel over how little you are spending than to spend your time worrying about every penny.
In a strange coincidence, some of the cheapest places I’ve visited have also been some of my very favorite spots. Here are a handful:
Koh Lanta, Thailand
South East Asia is known as a cheap backpacker haven, and it is definitely less expensive than many places in the world. However prices have risen quite a bit in the more touristy areas, particularly in Thailand, and you can find yourself paying western prices or even more in the peak season. There are still some less pricey places though, you just have to seek them out. In addition to being my favorite island in Thailand, Koh Lanta was the cheapest we visited.
Koh Lanta hasn’t been taken over by commercialism as much as other islands on the Andaman Coast. In the middle of peak season we were able to secure a private bungalow at beachside “resort” for $15 a night. At a delicious neighboring restaurant we paid $7 for a meal for two. There are a lot of things to do on the island but we spent most of our time drinking cocktails and watching absolutely amazing sunsets.
Hoi An, Vietnam
Vietnam was light years cheaper than the rest of South East Asia. Everything from accomodation to food was not only inexpensive but fantastic value. This was true everywhere from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, but the cheapest place we stayed was probably the beautiful town of Hoi An.
Even though Hoi An is probably the biggest tourist attraction in Vietnam, with it’s UNESCO old town and cheap tailors, it’s still incredibly cheap. Within half an hour of arriving we found a cheap place to stay. It was a huge room with free wifi for only $12. We spent our days visiting tailors and enjoying the amazing and cheap food (a meal for two was around $5).
The best value in Hoi An though? The beer. Delicious fresh beer for 12 cents a cup. Man, I miss that beer.
Compared to the other places on this list Budapest is somewhat pricey, but really it’s all relative. In Europe, where a cup of coffee can cost you 6 euros, Budapest is a pretty great deal. It’s also one of the prettiest and most elegant cities I’ve been to. It’s much nicer and less expensive than it’s sister city Prague.
In Budapest you can score a bed in a pretty decent hostel for $20 (again… it’s relative). You can go out and enjoy a traditional meal and a bottle of hungarian wine for $10. For an even cheaper experience hit up one of the many bakeries or eat lunch in the market.
If you really want a deal in Europe though you need to go east. The prices in countries like Bosnia, Romania and Albania are extremely cheap as they haven’t yet been discovered by tourists to the extent of Western and Central Europe.
Mostar was a really beautiful and heartbreaking place. It’s really interesting to visit and it doesn’t cost too much. Here you can get a private room with a tv for $20-$30 and eat a big meal for very little. The best value was the day long tour of the surrounding areas offered at Majda’s Hostel. For 10 Euros (might be slightly more now), you get to see basically all of the highlights of Herzegovinia.
It doesn’t get any cheaper than China. For a budget backpacker cities like Beijing and Shanghai are cheap, but every other city is just dirt, dirt cheap. Hostel rooms will run you maybe $3-5 (and the hostels in China are some of the nicest I’ve seen).
Xi’an, where I spent three months this past spring, is one of the cheapest of the cheap. It’s one of the oldest cities in China (and the world) with a rich cultural past, but most travelers breeze in to see the Terracotta Warriors and then leave, making it still mostly local and inexpensive. Food is the best deal- a generous and delicious meal for two can come in at $4 or less.
Of course there is a risk to traveling cheap. Even though things cost barely anything you find yourself wanting to spend less and less money. You get paranoid about being ripped off. Before you know it you find yourself in a 15 minute argument with a bike rental guy over the equivalent of $1.
I know as soon as I hit publish someone is going to chime in telling me I paid WAY too much in the cities I went to. Frankly, I’m not really interested in that kind of pissing contest. There’s always someone getting stuff cheaper than you and I don’t think spending the least amount of money is really the goal. It’s conserving your resources so that you can travel longer and deeper.