If past years (or recessions) have sucked up your travel budget, plan smart and get more in bang for your buck in these value destinations, from Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2012.
1. Northeastern USA
Cities of the American northeast – New York, Boston and Washington DC – might not be the world’s cheapest, but you can save a bundle by taking advantage of the recent boom of budget bus companies. These buses, which also connect with Philadelphia, Toronto, Pittsburgh and even Charlotte, are a steal at about US$5 one way (and sometimes just US$1). Considering most destinations are ped-friendly (with good public transport and walkable centres), you can hop-scotch across the region without booking a flight or hiring a car. Better still, the ride’s comfortable, there’s free wi-fi, buses leave on time and there’s often plenty of room.
Japan had a rough 2011, with the March earthquake and a hard year for tourism, so travelling there is not only a good thing to do, but can actually make financial sense. Compared with destinations like London, Paris or New York, its attractions and accommodation are often much cheaper. In Tokyo, for example, it’s possible to find simple, Japanese-style minshuku guesthouses from ¥3000 (US$37). Also, many attractions are free (eg temples, botanic gardens) or just cheap (the Tokyo National Museum is a fifth the cost of Tower of London), while attractions like the Nagano ski runs or Disney tickets are cheaper than Alps lift tickets or Mickey Mouse’s entry in Anaheim.
Marco Polo was impressed – and you will be too, once you experience the stunning scenery of this safe, stable Central Asian nation. And it can be accessed at dirt-cheap rates, even including the hire of a car and driver. Getting a Russian Lada for several days can be arranged for about US$300, which opens up the Afghan border and Pamir Highway, one of the world’s greatest road trips. You’ll stop off at hot springs, 2000-year-old stone structures and cartoon-style forts, finishing your days at village homestays or yurts for about US$10 per person. For even less, make a DIY trek to emerald lakes close to the Uzbek border.
4. Porto, Portugal
The town that put the ‘Port’ in Portugal (as well as the port in your wine glass) is a seriously good deal. Connected with much of Europe via budget airlines, Porto is a lovely town of atmospheric narrow lanes, village-like plazas and buildings decked in azuelo tile. You can stay in antique-filled inns with river views from just €25 (US$37.75), take a ride on an historical tram (€1; US$1.40) or head to the beach near Afurada village by ferry (€1). A few hours east is the traditional wine district of Alto Douro, where you cruise in a flat-bottomed boat (€20; US$28.50) and sleep in 200-year-old homes (€60; US$86). And did we mention the port?
Mountains, cannibal caves, dinosaur footprints, crafts markets – and you get around by pony. Welcome to Lesotho, the ‘kingdom of the sky’. Completely enveloped by South Africa, it’s a cheaper proposition than its powerful neighbour, with pony treks its main tourist drawcard. The best deals are to the west at off-the-beaten-track Malealea, about 60km southeast of the capital Masuru, where multiday treks lead into a massive mountain range and landscape coloured musk and orange. It’s extraordinary – and cheaper than pony treks in the east. Overnight trips, including a pony, food and a guide, begin at US$50 per day.
6. Iquitos, Peru
Booking a five-day Amazon cruise from abroad can run to US$3500 per person, not including flights. That can be cut at least in half by dealing directly with folks in Iquitos – the world’s biggest city not reachable by road. Local outfits can tailor trips to venture into piranha fishing spots, look for pink dolphins in the wildlife-rich Allpahuayo Mishana National Reserve (stopping at native villages to mingle with Amazonians) or reach the rustic Otorongo Lodge on the Colombian border. Meanwhile, Iquitos is interesting in itself: Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower) fame came to build rubber baron’s mansions. The best time to visit is October or November, when it’s still dry but before summer crowds.
7. San Francisco, USA
The city by the bay might expensive to live in, but San Francisco practically begs you to visit. Little boutique hotels near Union Square can be had for under US$100 – a fraction of what you’ll pay in New York or London. Beyond the street cars (the historical ones on Market St are cheaper than the touristy cable cars), BART has cheap, easy links to San Francisco’s airport – so no need for US$60 taxi rides. Food-wise, San Francisco’s ‘mission burrito’ (stuffed with rice, beans and carne asada) goes for US$5 in the bar-filled Mission. And there’s so much cheap and free stuff to do: walking on the Golden Gate, Pacific beaches, vintage arcade Musée Mécanique and a host of free art galleries.
8. Ohrid, Macedonia
There’s always a race for the next big thing in Europe, and budget-friendly Macedonia is rising in popularity for its mountainous setting of vineyards, lakes and Byzantine churches; it’s also a mainstay stop-off on Balkan trips. Beyond the lively capital Skopje, the spiritual heart is three road hours’ west at Ohrid, a lovely town with a medieval castle looking over church-lined hilly streets and the lush coastline of Lake Ohrid.
9. Mekong Delta, Vietnam
Vietnam is always good value, but you can now skip the package trips arranged in Ho Chi Minh City that tread the same worn-out routes. It’s become easier, more rewarding and just as cheap to go on DIY multiday adventures to destinations like Ben Tre, Chao Doc and the floating markets of Vinh Long, and some less-seen ones like Ha Tien or Tra Vinh. Go by air-conditioned bus or hire moto-taxis as you go; the latter know ferry crossings on roads not on any map. Boat trips go for US$5 to US$10, while most guesthouses run US$10 to US$25. Take a ferry or plane from Rach Gia to the beaches of Phu Quoc Island, then fly back to Ho Chi Minh City. Short flights are cheap – under US$50.
10. Mérida, Mexico
Most equate the Yucatan with the beaches, but the best place to experience the food, life and architecture of the ‘real Mexico’ is a few hours inland at this lively city. Historical homes have been turned into inns, often for the fraction of the cost of Cancún resorts. The Spanish colonial centre of Plaza Grande has 16th-century cathedrals and free art museums; on weekends it becomes the scene of dance, food and parties. Day trips to five Mayan sites on the public Ruta Puuc bus loop go for about US$40, or head to the village of Celestún and hire a motorboats (US$17 per person) to see hundreds of pink flamingos in the mangroves.