Given the Dire Economy, Should I Travel Overseas This Year?

Ask Rolf: Vagabonding traveler Rolf Potts answers your questions about travel and the world

04.20.09 | 10:12 AM ET

Rolf Potts

Dear Rolf,

I was planning to take a big trip this year, but given the gloomy economy, I’m having second thoughts. What do think?


—Elise, Provo, UT

Dear Elise,

I understand your fear, but it’s actually a great time to travel overseas. In many ways, times have never been better to put your international dream trip into motion, since travel deals have boomed and (with many employers encouraging voluntary leaves of absence from work) time to travel is in greater abundance. If you have some money saved up, this could be a great time to grab your passport and head abroad.

The secret, of course, is to travel in parts of the world where you can stretch your travel budget. This, combined with the current abundance of flight and hotel deals, may well mean that a two-week trip to Budapest or Bali could end up costing less on a day-to-day level than a similar journey to New York or Key West.

Keeping in mind that one can save money in simply choosing a less expensive destination, I contacted travel writer and editor Tim Leffel, whose book The World’s Cheapest Destinations is now in its third edition. In his own words, here are Leffel’s 2009 global travel recommendations, organized by region:

Central America and the Caribbean

The cheapest prices overall are in Honduras. Unlike at Maya sites Chichen Itza (Mexico) or Tikal (Guatemala), there is a real thriving, interesting town that’s walking distance from the ruins at Copan. The most expensive hotel in town there is less than $100 a night and there are plenty decent ones that are less than $15 for a private double. You can find plenty of parks and colonial towns where the traveling is cheap and there are no tour buses. The islands of Utila and Roatan are certainly no secret anymore, but they are a far better value than the rest of the Caribbean and this is one of the cheapest places in the world to get an open-water PADI scuba diving certification.

South America

Ecuador and Bolivia are the cheapest interesting places to go in South America. (Paraguay is the rock bottom choice, but there’s less to do there.) In both places you’ve got interesting indigenous cultures and the Andes Mountains. Ecuador wins out for variety though, with a section of the Amazon basin on one side of the mountains and beaches on the other side. Although the country is on the equator, it’s not really all that hot. Most of the population centers are at a high altitude. You can find a room almost anywhere for less than $10 and a simple restaurant meal for a buck or two, plus here the prices are easy to figure out: Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar as its currency.

Europe

Europe and “cheap” don’t appear in the same sentence very often anymore, but even in the most popular countries, prices drop noticeably when you get outside the major cities. This is especially true in Hungary and the Czech Republic, which offer some of the best deals on the continent. There’s an especially good network of biking routes in the Czech Republic that will take you through castle towns and vineyards, places where it’s hard to find an inn priced at more than $60 a night and where a dollar gets you a pint of some of the best beer on Earth.

Asia

If you don’t mind running into other backpackers every day, Thailand is the obvious choice in Asia. Bangkok is a major flight hub and recent political troubles have scared people off, so airfare deals are frequent. (Just be sure to check the latest security reports before going.) It’s an easy place to travel around and there’s an excellent infrastructure of cheap hotels ($5 to $15 a night for a basic double), direct buses, a good train network, and local travel agencies who can sort it all out for a minimal fee. If the crowds get to be too much, just hop over the border to Laos, which is like stepping back in time to a simpler age—and even lower prices.

Africa

Africa is not as cheap as you would expect, partly because the distances are so long between one spot and the next and partly because some of the most interesting things to do here require vehicles and guides. So the best deal—Egypt—is actually in North Africa. Life centers on the Nile, so getting from Cairo to Luxor to Aswan involves ponying up only $10 to $15 for a train ticket, the latter getting you a first class seat. When you get tired of ruins, head to a chilled-out spot on the Red Sea for great snorkeling.

Oceania

I don’t really have any great suggestion for here I’m afraid. If your round-the-world ticket is already stopping in Fiji, you can get off the tourist track and find bearable prices. Obviously Australia is well set up for backpackers and there are hostels everywhere on the coasts. But there are no real bargains in this region, even though the dollar is healthier now than it was a year ago. Budget what you would for a vacation in the U.S. or Canada and expect to pay more than $1,000 for a plane ticket as well. It’s better to visit the region as part of a long-term trip rather than on a vacation of two weeks or less.

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Columnist Rolf Potts is the author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, and Marco Polo Didn't Go There: Stories and Revelations From One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer. His stories have appeared in National Geographic Traveler, the New York Times Magazine and Conde Nast Traveler, as well as in The Best American Travel Writing.


9 Comments for Given the Dire Economy, Should I Travel Overseas This Year?

Matt Stabile 04.20.09 | 12:21 PM ET

To add my two cents to the “South America” suggestions, I disagree that “Ecuador and Bolivia are the cheapest interesting places to go in South America.” I’m not dissuading travel to either country, each would make a great trip, but there are a couple other options with arguably more diverse options (city and country) once you’re there.

First of all, Argentina is probably one of the most vibrant countries in the continent with some of the most diverse offerings. For Americans, the exchange rate is $1=3.69 pesos, making visits to trendy Buenos Aires extremely affordable and trips to the wine country and Patagonia very doable.

Second, Colombia’s exchange rate is $1=2377.5 pesos, which means you’re easily going to get by on less than $30/day, and there is a huge swath of offerings to see, from metropolitan cities to beautiful beaches. Security is almost a non-issue in most of the country and you’ll be hard-pressed to run into many tourists at even the country’s most popular sights (always a plus).

Robin Slater 04.20.09 | 5:19 PM ET

Rolf seems very much on the mark and in tune with travel trends in his claim that now is the time to travel.  Working in the travel sector here in (Ecuador) South America there has been a slight down turn in travel demand and many (mainly mid to upper range service providers - hotels, Galapagos boats etc) are trying to attract more clients by offering a range of incentives and discounts.  I have rarely seen so many offers coming across my fax machine and via email.  How long this will hold out greatly boils down to the supply & demand. 

In terms of “cheapest interesting places” it greatly boils down to what one would consider interesting and what activities you are doing!  It is a bit of a relative term.  Interesting for one person may not be interesting for another.  Most South American countries, like Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, Chile all have their particular interesting aspects.

Warmest regards,
Robin Slater
President
Sangay Touring
sangay (com)

Brian Peters 04.20.09 | 11:05 PM ET

I took off on a round the world trip because the prices were low and dropping even as I traveled. As long as you have the financial resources to fund your trip and not be destitute when you come back, by all means go NOW. You’ll regret not going with the prices the way they are, whatever region of the world you pick to see and explore.

Tim Leffel 04.21.09 | 9:41 AM ET

Matt, I agree with you that Argentina is a bargain, but mostly for mid- and upper-level travelers these days. Anyone who has been there in the past two years will tell you prices rose dramatically in that time, especially for hotels, and getting around means very long bus rides or rapacious internal flight prices for foreigners. I had the time of my life there, restaurants are a great value, and the destination is in the World’s Cheapest Destinations book, but the two countries I mentioned (and Peru) are a better bet for backpackers. In a short interview like this, naturally I couldn’t cover but a couple choices.

There are plenty of bargains in Central America too beyond Honduras: I have lots of price info on Guatemala and Nicaragua in the book. Good talking to you Rolf!

Erika 04.23.09 | 2:10 PM ET

Even though Brazil didn’t make the list, it is indeed an affordable country to visit in South America.

While it may not be the cheapest, there are definitely some bargains. You just have to know where to go!  With a exchange rate of $2.2 reais per dollar, and airfare around $500, Brazil is quite affordable at the moment and your dollars would go very far.

I would suggest traveling to the North East of Brazil and away from the larger cities. You can find quaint and charming inns for less then $30 a night and abundant fresh seafood meals for less then $10! Not to mention the warmth and smiles of the Brazilian people, those are free!

If you would like some suggestions on places to go, have a look at greenrootstravel.com under favorite getaways. And if you need any help in planning a trip to Brazil just drop me a line!

Happy Traveling!
Erika Cunha
Brazil Travel Specialist

pirano 04.23.09 | 4:38 PM ET

RE: Europe—I spent most of the day booking summer travel around Europe—about a dozen cities, primarily capitals—and was very pleasantly surprised to find how cheap (relatively speaking) many mid-level hotels are, compared to a year ago. Definitely looks like a decent summer price-wise.

Linda M 04.24.09 | 11:08 AM ET

Brazil is at a serious disadvantage for budget travelers because you get socked with a $130 charge just to enter the country. Same with Chile, but not (so far) with Argentina, Ecuador, or Peru. I don’t know about you, but I can do a lot with $130 on the ground so that’s a big reason for me to go elsewhere.

dean mcallister 04.25.09 | 5:37 PM ET

I’m planning on flying to Peru with airmexico a deal on tranvel zoo and then going to machu pichu.  When is the best month to go and how do you make reservations to the site?  I understand you have to obtain a date and ticket because of overcrowing.  Any help would be appreciated.
Thanks, in advance, Dean Mcalllister

Tim Leffel 04.27.09 | 7:00 PM ET

You don’t need reservations to Machu Picchu, only to climb the small peak next to it because it’s a small narrow path. In theory you could be turned away in the afternoon if MP gets too crowded, but they don’t seem to be enforcing the capacity controls, from what I hear.

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