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
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
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.