The world’s 14 best-value destinations
Let's face it, there are plenty of cheap destinations in the world, and some of them deserve to be cheap. But there are also gems out there which are lovely and interesting as well as very easy on the budget. These ‘best-value' places are ones where you have an excellent time and you're continually shocked at how cheap things are there too.
Not long ago we published lists of our picks for the best-value cities in Europe, and the best-value cities in Asia. For both of those we ranked destinations for people traveling just to a specific region, but it's time to open it up and collect our best-value recommendations from the entire world.
Some make the list for some non-obvious reasons, so it's not all about being heaven for the cheapskate travellers. The list below includes up-to-date currency conversions from the main World Backpacker Index for 2011 list.
The 14 best-value destinations in the world
(cheapest to more expensive)
1 – Hoi An, Vietnam
Unless you've been researching your own trip to Vietnam, chances are good that you've never heard of Hoi An, or you think I meant to type Hanoi instead. While Hanoi is actually the cheapest city on our Asia list, Hoi An is only a bit more expensive, and most people find it far more pleasant and interesting. This is like a living museum of a Chinese fishing village in the old section, where almost every other shop is a cheap tailor.
Hoi An is really beautiful in general and many people do like to get a new set of affordable threads made up for them in a day or two, but for others of us it's the food that steals the show. Many of Vietnam's finest restaurants are dotted all over town, with most of them charging US$2 to US$4 for a main course. You can also get the world's cheapest beer here, called bia hoi, for around US$0.15 a glass.
- Daily Backpacker Index:291,800 = $14.15/day
2 – Goa, India
It's true that prices in Goa have been creeping up in recent years, but it's still a shocking value for anyone who can afford to get there. This former Portuguese colony has almost none of the madness that can drag visitors to India down, but there's abundant beauty and even peace, plus wonderful beaches.
An increasing number of package hotels have opened up in the Calangute/Baga section of North Goa, and those booking online might see prices higher than they were expecting, but almost anywhere else in Goa is cheaper. The laid-back yet fascinating hippie town of Anjuna still has plenty of hotels that start at around US$10 per night, with meals going for around US$2 and a big bottle of Kingfisher Beer for around the same. Different parts of Goa appeal to different types of travelers, so it's just a matter of finding the one that suits you best.
- Daily Backpacker Index:INR646 = US$14.46/day
Even though Bangkok itself is quite cheap and it's definitely fascinating, the northern city of Chiang Mai in Thailand is really a better value. You'll want to spend a few days in Bangkok for sure, but in Chiang Mai you'll find better weather, dozens of gorgeous temples, and abundant shopping and markets where souvenirs and clothing are far cheaper.
The hotels of Chiang Mai are a particular bargain as well, with honest-to-gosh private hotel rooms starting around US$5 per night just outside the main city walls. Pay a bit more and you've got air conditioning, cable TV, and a fridge of your own. The food is excellent as well, with many boutique-type restaurants in the tourist area where US$4 buys a multi-course meal.
- Daily Backpacker Index: THB548 = US$18.04/day
4 – Cairo, Egypt
Cairo is certainly on the “pay attention to the news” list for the time being, but that situation is actually helping push prices down for flights and nicer hotels in the tourist zone. Even when things appear calm, Cairo is amazingly cheap for the budget traveler, with hotels around US$15 being quite normal in the main backpacker district.
The one thing to watch out for in all of Egypt is the tout situation, as tourists usually feel like they are being shadowed around by “helpful” locals whose cousins sell the cheapest Nile cruises or the best tours of the Great Pyramids. It pays to do your research and stand firm, which will help you get a car and driver for the day for around US$25 for up to 3 people.
- Daily Backpacker Index: EGP129.40 – US$21.75/day
5 – Bali, Indonesia
Bali is another place where those who try to book online from home might think that hotels have gotten quite expensive there. And it's true that many have, but there are also hundreds of places that aren't listed online that still have very nice rooms for well under US$20 per night and are usually easy to find once you arrive.
And Bali appears to be suffering from its popularity and recent growth, with road-traffic delays now eating up a big chunk of a day tour. Still, the scenery and lifestyle of the locals continue to blow new visitors away, with one of the world's most unique and easily accessible cultures. The food is excellent and meals for around US$3 are easy to find, while big bottles of Bintang beer are even cheaper if you look around a bit.
- Daily Backpacker Index: IDR186,400 = US$$21.89/day
Siem Reap has a special place on these lists, since the Backpacker Index price is actually inflated by the justifiably high price of the mind-blowing Angkor Wat temple complex just to its north. Once you've sorted out your visit there, whether it's the 1-day ticket, the 3-day ticket, or the week-long ticket, everything else is incredibly cheap.
It would be easy to assume that a town built as the staging area for visits to a world-class attraction would be filled with predatory businesses and goofy souvenir shops. There are a few of those, but mostly this is a lovely and mellow Cambodian town that would be a highlight even if not for Angkor Wat being nearby. A dinner for under US$3 is standard, washed down by a 50-cent glass of Angkor Beer at one of the dozens of places advertising the happy-hour special.
- Daily Backpacker Index: US$23.70/day
7 – Cusco, Peru
Cusco, as you perhaps know, is the large town closest to Machu Picchu in Peru, and it's also the staging area for every trip to that famous hill-top sight. For this reason, Cusco is nearly identical to Siem Reap mentioned just above, except we didn't include the cost of Machu Picchu in the daily price. Regardless of how you get to Machu Picchu from Cusco, it's going to cost a lot, with the train day-trip package now going for around US$150.
The thing Cusco has in common with Siem Reap though is that it's a perfectly wonderful town on its own, and a popular place for the backpacking crowd to hang out for weeks at a time. An abundance of hostels and cheap hotels means that finding a cheap bed is usually quite easy, not to mention the very good food and cheap drinks and nightlife. The setting itself is worth the trip, but you can't not go to Machu Picchu anyway, so budget properly.
- Daily Backpacker Index: PEN 66.80 – US$23.94/day
By now people might be sick of hearing about Colombia's resurgence for tourism, but Cartagena definitely belongs on a list like this. The newly-safe beach city has a gorgeous colonial old town plus a long strip of hotels and resorts along a very nice stretch of sand, making this one of the better opportunities to combine culture and leisure in South America.
Cartagena is also very cheap by international standards for everything from hotels to food to entertainment, but if things continue to go well for Colombia it seems likely that prices will keep creeping up quickly. These sorts of undervalued destinations don't stay undervalued forever.
- Daily Backpacker Index: COP43300 – US$24.50/day
Having quite a bit in common with Cartagena, minus the recent national turmoil, Panama City is starting to attract foreign tourists in droves. The Canal Zone continues to be a big draw, but now people are focused on the city itself and its shopping, dining, and nightlife.
There are also very nice beaches nearby, and resort areas not far away as well. As Costa Rica and Belize continue to get more expensive each year, Panama City is getting noticed for its cosmopolitan mix of pleasures along with extremely appealing price tags. There are other parts of Central America that are even cheaper, but none that are this sophisticated at the same time.
- Daily Backpacker Index: US$26.40/day
10 – Krakow, Poland
The first European city on this list is certainly one that is likely to get more expensive in the coming years as more people discover it. Its somewhat out of the way location is probably the only thing that keeps it from being overrun like Prague, but it's definitely worth the extra bit of effort.
The old town center is one of the nicer examples you'll find in this region, but the infrastructure for budget tourists is what puts it over the top. The many hostels and hotels all over the tourist district are in fierce competition for business, keeping prices weirdly low for such a nice place. This is now big on the stag and hen-party list for Brits and other Europeans, mostly due to the low prices and festive atmosphere.
- Daily Backpacker Index: PLN78.60 = US$29.11/day
Though Buenos Aires is actually among the more expensive cities in South America, it has a firm place on the good-value list because it's so incredibly nice. Prices have crept up (mostly through inflation) as the Argentine currency continues to struggle, and the result is that it's still a fabulous bargain for anyone who can afford the flight there.
The lack of famous tourist attractions is more than overcome by the general pleasantness and sophistication of everything there. Beef lovers are famously in heaven in BA, but even vegetarians have overflowing options at plenty of new restaurants in the trendier districts. The full range of charms in Buenos Aires can be hard to describe. Just go.
- Daily Backpacker Index: ARS129 – US$31.54/day
12 – Budapest, Hungary
Two or three decades ago, Americans could go to Europe, and the strength of the US dollar meant that almost everything seemed cheap. If anything, the tables are turned these days, but Budapest is still one shining example of an important and beautiful capital city in Europe where your money goes a suspiciously long way.
There are plenty of big-time attractions, especially in and around Castle Hill, but the place also has a bit of a frontier spirit (for Westerners) that is hard to find these days. The hearty and paprika-covered food is cheap and popular with most visitors, and the drinks and nightlife are very reasonably priced as well.
- Daily Backpacker Index: HUF6900 – US$37.95/day
13 – Antalya, Turkey
If you've heard of Antalya, Turkey you might think of it as a place where Brits and Germans go to spend a week or two at an all-inclusive hotel just outside of town. And while that part is very popular, it probably gives others the wrong impression of Antalya itself. This is a historic Mediterranean town with one of the most beautiful city centers you'll ever see, and most things are crazy-cheap as well.
Hotels along pedestrian alleys just a few blocks from main town square can be found for around US$15 per night, including a very filling Turkish breakfast. Most of the attractions are ancient ruins that are just out in the open, so you'll have plenty left to spend on the delicious local food and the cheap drinks advertised on every restaurant signboard.
- Daily Backpacker Index: TL64.89 – US$40.81/day
14 – New Zealand in general
If you've been keeping track of the Backpacker Index as we go down this list, you'll notice that we just took a huge jump up to our final entry. But the reason “New Zealand in general” makes this list is that those “city” prices are quite misleading in this country. The stars of the show are the natural sights and outdoor attractions, which are free or cheap in almost every case.
The other reason why New Zealand is excellent value is that the best way to visit the scenery is to rent a campervan (small motor home) and drive you and your group all over. The high-season (December through February) rental rates can be a bit high, but considering that it's your transportation and your lodging (plus small nightly fees at “holiday parks” as you go), plus you will likely save even more by cooking for yourself, New Zealand makes for a very cheap holiday. Even those who choose to travel around by tourist buses and stay in hostels or cabins will spend very little, so the value is there all around.
- Auckland Daily Backpacker Index: NZD76.60 – US$62.80/day
- Queenstown Daily Backpacker Index: NZD91.20 – US$74.15/day