International travel doesn’t need to be expensive. In fact, if you pick your destination properly you’ll be able to live at a much higher standard of living than you can Stateside without spending any more money than you’d shell out for an average weekend of forgettable nonsense at your usual low-rent haunts.
If you’re in the mood for some low-cost travelling that won’t leave you broke, consider the following awesome cheap places to visit.
Berlin has held the title as Europe’s premier low-cost capital for nearly two decades now. Despite being the capital city of the world’s third largest industrial power, the fall of the wall back in the late 1980’s set the stage for an affordable international party hub. During Berlin’s half-century of schism the Soviets just couldn’t stop building unnecessary new neighborhoods and utility buildings in the East and that means to this day East Berlin continues to stretch out in a nearly endless sprawl of city blocks slowly being transformed by artists, immigrants, and anyone with a dream and a lack of capital to make it happen elsewhere. Cheap housing = cheap everything, and it’s easy to have a truly world-class night on the town for $30 USD (€23, £18.50) or less.
Lisbon is cheap, but Porto puts Portugal’s capital to shame, especially if you go during the off-season. You can find great lodging in Porto for $10-$15 (€8-€12 , £4.50-£9) a night, an exceptional lunch of seafood caught right outside town for $5 and massive dinners of grilled octopus, heaps of salt cod and all the vegetables and buttered potatoes you can eat for no more than $10 a head. Cheap tours of the local Port cellars (complete with buzz-inducing tastings), trips up the Douro river to visit some of the world’s most gorgeous vineyards and the natural beauty of the city’s rocky terrain and expansive beach make Porto one of Europe’s hidden treasures.
It’s important to note, very quickly, that economic instability in safe, developed countries is every budget traveller’s dream. The bigger a country’s economic crisis the cheaper and cheaper it becomes to spend some quality time exploring its shores. This is true both when it comes to daily living and to actually reaching countries suffering from hard times, as locales taking a beating tend to bend over backwards on airfare to get people to continue to visit them (i.e. Japan post-Tsunami).
It is not in any way exploitative to live it up in a country like Greece while they’re experiencing some economic turmoil. In fact, there are few more positive actions you can take for the people of these countries than to travel to them and spend money on local products and services. Helping to stimulate local economies while living like (polite) royalty is the definition of a win-win.
A perennial favorite, Buenos Aires (a.k.a. BsAs) is home to more travellers and ex-pats than any other city in South America, and for good reason. Modern BsAs is the result of a mix of about a half-dozen different European and South American cultures meaning the food, architecture, attitude, and vibe of the city strikes the right chord between the foreign and the familiar. Want another positive benefit of the city’s mixed pedigree? You’ll be able to find just about anything you could ever want there, including more than enough English speakers to find your way around. Add on other positives including the city’s love of dance and a resident daily diet consisting mainly of gelato (ice cream) and the world’s best grass-fed beef and BsAs would be a steal at any price. The fact you’ll get the equivalent worth of $4 for every one US dollar you spend makes visiting BsAs a no-brainer for the wise budget-conscious traveller.
As great as Buenos Aires may be when you’re looking to live large on the cheap, the city does have one daunting downside that might prevent you from living up your tango-dancing dreams. That is the fact BsAs sits at the absolute end of the world, down at the southern part of the South American continent. It might as well be a short boat ride from the glaciers of the South Pole. BsAs’ distance means it can be a bit expensive to fly to, and shelling out $1,000-$2,000 USD (€800-1200, £450-900) for a round trip ticket won’t strike the average individual as a cheap trip, no matter how cost-effective the end destination may be.
But Panama, in addition to other relatively stable and safe Central American countries like Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Honduras are cheap to enjoy and cheap to fly to, even from the northern United States. A two-second search on Kayak just revealed I could purchase a round-trip ticket from New York City to Panama City, leaving next week no less, for $301. Unlike Costa Rica and Guatemala, Panama remains a hidden treasure, offering inexpensive amenities and entertainment, endless natural beauty, and a decidedly welcome lack of tourists.
If there’s one budget travel destination more famous and well-trafficked than Buenos Aires it’s Thailand. Bangkok has long been considered the destination for a traveller to live like a little prince without breaking the bank, providing easy access to every sensual pleasure you could ever want at a bargain. And when I say every sensual pleasure I do mean every. Great local food for under $1 USD a plate, hour-long massages on the beach for $12 USD, and yes, whatever sex you could ever dream of. You don’t need to seek out sexual experiences when you visit Bangkok to have a good time, not in the least, but it’s impossible to mention Thailand’s best-known destination without at least tipping your hat to its status as the world capital of sex tourism.
If you’re interested in a lower-key, but still inexpensive and traveller-friendly corner of Thailand, you should visit Chiang Mai. At Chiang Mai you’ll find an abundance of travellers and ex-pats more interested in living a less wild expression of the good life while still getting an authentically Thai experience.
And if Thailand is too popular for your desires, nearby Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Indonesia offer their own unique low-cost traveller-friendly pleasures.
You don’t always need to travel overseas to open yourself up to new experiences, to regain a little perspective on your life and to rewire your perspective on the world. I currently live in North America and while I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to various far-off corners of the world, I’ve stumbled upon some of my most significant revelations and enjoyed some of my most life-changing experiences travelling in North America.
The warmth of a bank teller in Knoxville, Tennessee, once dissolved my encrusted cynicism as powerfully as the kindness of strangers located half the world away. Visiting the West Coast for a couple months was a bigger culture shock than visiting Berlin, and spending a few days at my friend’s cabin in Central Pennsylvania always acts as a powerful system-reset and never costs me more than an all-inclusive $60 USD (€48, £27).
International travel offers its own unique and fascinating sets of circumstances and environmental cues that encourage personal growth in a manner domestic travel can never achieve. Yet, don’t assume you need to jet across an ocean to get the break from everyday life you crave.