"If it’s not what you were looking for, then it’s not a bargain."
That phrase seems a bit trite, but it’s true. Buying anything simply because it’s the cheapest is bound to leave you unhappy, especially when you discover that you could have paid just a bit more for something you really wanted.
As a backpacker out of college, I spent $3 a night in a Bangkok guesthouse. The cheap price was due to the fact that it sat right next to a sewage canal. That was a night I’ll never forget. For just $5 or $10 more, I could have found far more comfortable lodging. Lesson learned.
Here are some quick and easy rules for cheap international travel -- without ruining your vacation.
Stay in Local Neighborhoods
On a recent trip to Istanbul, I discovered a Best Western for just $60 a night. (Use Expedia or Trip Advisor to begin your search for deal-priced lodgings and skip the well-traveled places found in guide books). This hotel was quite nice, and half the price of some of the more popular tourist options. The catch was that it was two subway stops (or a $5 cab ride) away from Istanbul’s main tourist attractions. The money I saved by staying slightly outside the tourist radius allowed me to splurge on even finer meals. And when the meals were done, I was quickly whisked back to my budget-friendly hotel.
For the truly adventurous traveler, staying in someone’s home is the best deal of all. These are often hosted by older couples that rent out their kids' old bedrooms now that they are off to college or elsewhere. And these are often in very nice neighborhoods. Prices can be up to 75% lower than typical hotel rates.
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This is controversial for some, but has consistently worked for me. I pack a carry-on bag that can hold three to four days worth of clothes. That way I avoid the increasingly onerous airline baggage fees. Once I’m settled in on my vacation, I flesh out my wardrobe, and if necessary, purchase a second piece of luggage. My closet is now filled with Dominican guayabera shirts, kitschy Japanese t-shirts and French navy-striped sailor shirts -- all functional souvenirs that also make for great conversation starters.
Off-Season is Always Best
That Istanbul trip I mentioned was in March of 2010. Had I gone a few months later, I would have paid twice as much for airfare and hotels, and all of the main attractions would have been overcrowded. September and October are my favorite months in many places, as the weather is still warm enough to enjoy evening strolls. For some tropical countries, though, it’s peak season or nothing. Goa and India, for example, are blissfully dry from December through April. And nighttime temps drop into the blissful 60-degree range. But if you time your trip to arrive in September, you’ll see the hottest, muggiest weather the Earth has to offer.
Find the Deals
Local tourist boards offer great deals that are unavailable to local citizens. For example, a Eurail pass allows you to see much of Europe for far less money than if you were to buy tickets locally. One of my favorite deals is to fly on the airline of the country that will be a key part of a multi-country trip -- these flag carriers offer sweet deals to make sure you spend some time in their country. For example, I’m flying to Alicante, Spain this fall via Icelandair. Why Icelandair? Because that carrier has great prices to Europe and also allows you to stay over in Iceland for a few days -- at no extra cost.
Lastly, be sure to ask for an all-museum pass when you visit any major museum. It costs a little more than a single-entry pass, but quickly pays for itself by the second or third museum. If you see four to five different museums in one day, the savings are huge.
The Best Countries for Bargains
All of these rules apply to almost any country you visit, thoughyour dollar will go especially far in these five destinations:
Nicaragua: This is an up-and-coming destination with beautiful scenery, friendly people, delicious food and inexpensive lodging choices.
Vietnam: Some frugal travelers prefer the new hotspots of Laos and Cambodia, but they’re still a bit too raw for me. Vietnam has all the comforts you really need, including paved highways, well-built lodgings and unbeatable prices.
Slovenia: Think of this as the "poor man’s Europe." In fact, this country is just east of northern Italy, and its cuisine, quaint lodgings and beautiful state forests are reminiscent of its Italian neighbors -- with prices much lower than traditional Europe.
Long before I was born, my grandfather used to routinely travel to Yugoslavia, what is now Slovenia and Croatia. I heard great stories about them when I was young. After finally seeing Dubrovnik, Belgrade, Ljubljana and Split for myself, I now understand why he had such great affection for these places. Best of all, they’re still a bargain for cheap international travel.
Barbados: Of all the Caribbean destinations, this is one of the few that hasn’t become overrun by the high-spending crowd. As a result, a wide range of reasonably priced lodgings can still be had, even in high-season. The people are extremely friendly, and the snorkeling is first rate.
United States: I’d be remiss to ignore possibly the greatest travel bargain of all, the U.S.A. The recent drop in the dollar has boosted the cost of travelling abroad. Here at home, though, many regions -- especially outside of the major cities -- offer all kinds of value from lakeside camping to simply ogling the clouds in places like Glacier National Park. If you haven't explored your own backyard, now's as good a time as any to see the many great sites this country has to offer.
Additionally, I like to time my travels to the valuation of the dollar. With the dollar currently at a multi-year low, my coming trip to Spain may be my last foreign adventure for awhile. When the dollar rebounds down the road, it'll be time to take out the passport again.
Lastly, if you have small kids, don’t let that be a reason not to travel. My parents took me abroad starting at an early age. That’s why I’m a lifelong travel junkie now.
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