OVERSEAS ADVENTURE FOR LESS
It may be tempting to revisit a favorite spot on your next trip out of the country. Perhaps you enjoy exploring the ruins of Rome or partying the night away in Cancun. But there are equally exciting -- and cheaper -- options if you know where to look. Some are well-known overseas but new to American travelers, while others are just developing as international hot spots. All offer inexpensive lodging and meals along with the thrill of discovering a new place. And while flights overseas can be expensive, many online resources can direct you to the best fares.
Volcan Baru in the Chiriqui province of Panama is an active volcano and the country's tallest mountain. Climbers who reach the peak on a clear day can see both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, as well as stunning views of the countryside. Hiking up the mountain can be taxing; a jeep tour costing about $120 a person is an easy alternative. Start early enough and you may catch a magnificent sunrise.
A thriving tourist and expat presence makes the nearby town of Boquete a good base camp for a low-cost international vacation. Hotel rooms range from about $60 to $120 and private rooms at hostels go for $25 to $30. Those travelling in a group might consider a rental home to save on lodging. Food is very affordable; a review on TripAdvisor of a top-rated local restaurant says a father and daughter shared a steak dinner, with sides and drinks, for $21. Volcan Baru aside, there are plenty of attractions near Boquete -- waterfalls, rock climbing, river rafting, and a wildlife refuge, to name a few. An added advantage of traveling to Panama: The U.S. dollar is legal tender.
BULGARIA'S BLACK SEA REGION
Although Americans are rarely seen there, Bulgarian resort towns on the Black Sea are a popular destination for Europeans. Varna, the largest city in the region, is only one possible landing point. There are many smaller cities to choose from, including Golden Sands and Sunny Beach, which are popular with families. In the latter, hotels with five-star reviews on Kayak can be booked for less than $45 a night. Round-trip airfare can be pricey, but expenses once you're there are not. A beer is about 50 cents and apart from a few tourist traps most meals are cheap. Because these areas are popular with vacationing Brits, some locals speak English.
Turkey's economic and cultural capital, Istanbul, was named a "capital of culture" by the European Union in 2010. It is one of the world's most popular tourist destinations, which is understandable given the city's history. Travelers can visit the Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and a steamy Turkish bath, all located in the central Sultanahmet district. While prices here aren't dirt cheap, there are deals to be found. The highly-rated Hanedan Hotel, recipient of a Trip Advisor certificate of excellence in 2013, offers rooms for 30 euros during low season, November through mid-March, and 55 euros the rest of the year. For food, Ortaklar serves delicious meals for about $7. Both the restaurant and hotel are within walking distance of the main attractions.
KO PHA NGAN, THAILAND
Ko Pha Ngan is an island in southeast Thailand famous for its monthly full-moon parties on the Haad Rin beach. The raves attract tens of thousands of visitors, especially at Christmas and on New Year's Eve. Accommodations are a bit more expensive than one might expect in Thailand, but they still count as cheap. A bed in a hostel costs about $10 while a single room with air conditioning goes for about $20, according to the Nomadic Matt travel blog. The site recommends arriving several days before the full moon and avoiding online bookings as they're often overpriced and many hotels still don't have an online presence. Food and drinks are costly compared with less popular parts of Thailand but still notably cheap. A Thai meal costs about $4, a beer about $3, and a bucket (a little sand bucket filled with liquor and mixer) will set you back $8.
If Thailand seems too touristy, the new go-to spot in Southeast Asia is Vietnam. Aside from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, which are filled with travelers, the must-see attractions include the former imperial capital Hue and its citadel, the Mekong Delta, and the My Son archaeological site. High-end hotels in the big cities can reach western prices, $150 to $250 a night, but there's no need to spend that much for good lodging. Lonely Planet says the $10 to $30 range nets a room with AC, satellite TV, and a refrigerator; $40 to $80 brings four-star accommodations. A haircut costs $2, draft beer is less than 50 cents a liter, and a meal can be had for $1 to $5.
The capital of Uganda, Kampala sits on the northern banks of Lake Victoria, the second largest freshwater lake in the world. English is the official language of the country and is spoken by many residents. Tourists can visit the nearby temples and mosques, take walking or motorbike tours of the marketplaces and historical sites, and join the locals at one of the many clubs and bars. The markets are a good place to find local foods: roast chicken, beef, goat, and corn; matooke (mashed vegetables); and one of the many stews. Peanuts, locally called groundnuts, are often used in sauces. Four-star hotels are reasonable at $40 a night. The capital is a starting point for multi-day safaris into the surrounding wilderness, and daytrips to nearby Lake Mburo, the Budongo Forest, and Ssezibwa Falls.
Lonely Planet named Bangladesh the world's best value destination in 2011. The Asian nation has it all: temple cities, mangrove forests, and a contender for the world's longest sandy sea beach (Cox's Bazar). American citizens must get a visa to visit the country, but it can be acquired upon entry for $50 and is valid for up to 30 days. Visit the Sadarghat Port in Dhaka City to get a taste of the energy of the city or travel to Boga Lake near Chittagong to relax in nature. This isn't a destination for the inexperienced traveler -- don't expect English menus or a built-up tourism infrastructure -- but it's the unchartered waters that make it exciting. Most tourist hotels are priced for foreigners, $40 to $70 for a three-star hotel, but meals cost only $3 to $5, even with the tourist markup.
Two cities in Nepal, Pokhara and the capital Kathmandu, are top destinations for backpackers in Asia. Daily costs of attractions and transportation are under $20. Hotels are about $20 in Pokhara and are a little more expensive ($40 to $50) in Kathmandu. Tibetan, Indian, European, and Thai influences have all left their mark on the local cuisine, but expect to find a few common staples: lentils (dal), curry, and a grain. The country's breathtaking natural beauty is a big draw, from Mount Everest to Begnas Lake and the mountainside village of Sarangkot. The many Buddhist temples and stupas provide opportunities for quiet meditation.
Lisbon has been a budget travel destination in Europe for years and with the euro weakening against the dollar it's even more attractive for Americans. Start with a walk up the Miradouro da Senhora do Monte for sunsets and good views of the city. For less than $5 you can enjoy a local pastry, ride the famously charming Electrico 28 tram, or cross the Tagus River on a ferry. The local castles, museums, and ancient neighborhoods are also musts. Hotels are in the $60 to $90 range, but there are many apartments listed on Airbnb for less than $75. Save money by preparing your own meals after visiting the indoor Mercado da Ribeira.
Nicaragua is an inexpensive paradise for adventure-seeking travelers. Here you can hike through lush forests, explore Granada (the first European colony on the continental Americas), and snorkel and surf at the pristine beaches in San Juan del Sur. More adventurous travelers can go "volcano boarding" down the side of Cerro Negro, an active volcano. Good hotels can be found for $60 to $70 a night in the major cities, Managua and Leon, but also consider the smaller, often family-owned hospedajes, or inns. In terms of comfort and cost, they are somewhere between a hostel and a bed and breakfast and often go for $30 or less a night.
Kayak reports that flights to New Delhi and Hyderabad cost 11 percent less this year than last, with the cheapest flights (around $1,000) available in March, April, September, and October. U.S. citizens need to pay $76 for a six-month visa and foreigners have to pay higher entrance fees at many of the major sites, but even so, most sites are $10 or less. Accommodations and food are inexpensive and some backpackers talk about traveling India on $10 to $20 a day. The country is so large it's unlikely you'll be able to hit all the must-see sites, but one option is the Golden Triangle route: start and end in New Dehli with stops in Agra (where the Taj Mahal is) and the "pink city" of Jaipur, where you'll find breathtaking palaces and bazaars.