The following is a guest post by Angie Picardo from NerdWallet. If you are interested in guest posting at Club Thrifty, please see our guest posting guidelines.
There is so much information online today for researching travel destinations that it’s not too difficult for you to make excellent vacation choices on a budget. The places you can go — without breaking the bank — may surprise you.
But where do you start? First, how you search makes a big difference, and looking at the climate and atmosphere of a place is a good way to start your research. For example, YouTube has many videos made by travelers so you can get an idea of what it is like to visit many places.
Next, really do your research — there are some great travel deals out there. A good travel tip for those looking for bargains on airfare is setting an alert for the lowest fares using sites like Kayak and Air Watch Dog. You can also search for air fares using Google Flight, which offers a basic search function covering many airlines for fare comparisons. Tuesday afternoons have been pinpointed by some studies as the best day to buy cheap airline tickets because it is the day of the week when the most seats are available. Traveling on a Wednesday or Saturday can also be cheaper. Flexibility with days and times also can reduce fares. For example, early morning and late night flights are often better deals, and traveling on flights with stopovers or plane changes can reduce costs too, though they are less convenient. In addition, shopping for deals far in advance and looking for discounted hotel and flight packages can help also. Of course, traveling lightly is cheaper, because some airlines try to gouge passengers that carry extra or overweight bags.
Fun Fact: For international flights you could try flying as a courier for a package that requires a human attendant. These discounted, or even free flights, are generally available only for one person though. There are courier agencies to sign up with and you can try contact airlines directly. In addition, there are many volunteer programs that allow you to travel for little to no money.
Without further ado, here are some beautiful travel destinations that you may be able to check off your bucket list without breaking the bank!
Cheap and Beautiful Travel Destinations
One of the top destinations in the Mayan Riviera is Playa del Carmen, due to its very large white beaches and clear water on the Caribbean. A short bus ride from the Cancun International Airport is easy on the eyes, because the journey follows the coastline. Playa isn’t as crowded or expensive as Cancun, but it is also not too far away. Also, it is close to Cozumel which offers outstanding diving and snorkeling opportunities.
In addition, Zihuatanejo is a small town on the Pacific coast near Ixtapa. It is a little more sedate than the typical tourist center, but still close to Ixtapa if you want activities like shopping, dining and nightlife. In January, average temperatures are in the low to mid 80s, but winter in the U.S. and Canada is also when the snow birds are in Mexico, so prices are high. Of course, it is best to choose times to visit when the least people are there, so prices are low.
2.) Costa Rica
This small Central American country is a popular destination with people who like nature, because it is very rich in biodiversity. There are mountains, jungles, forests, streams, lakes, volcanoes, beaches and many wild species. Costa Rica is also consistently rated as one of the happiest nations in the world.
Once you are there, it is fairly affordable. AirBnB has a number of rental opportunities ranging from $50 – $100 per night.
One advantage of the strong tourist economy there is the large number of ratings for places to stay on sites like AirBnB and TripAdvisor. (Generally speaking, the more ratings there are, the more useful the ratings are.) If it is your first trip to there, it might help to look at travel packages like those on the website called Caravan. Their ten day package features a range of activities and sites to visit. If you want a shorter stay, you could arrange your own travel, but do some of activities they mention on your own. Sometimes Costco Travel and Sun Trips have packages there as well.
This small, sub-tropical country is becoming more and more popular due to the abundance of nature, slow pace and affordability. Of course, it helps to know some Spanish, but many people there speak at least some English, so travelers need not worry. Belize is probably best enjoyed by people who like the outdoors, beaches and water. Diving, swimming, snorkeling and fishing are some of the most popular activities because the Caribbean waters are very warm during the summer season – up to 83 degrees!
There are also well over 300 kilometers of coastline to explore. The low season here is from May to October, with rains beginning in June, so look for deals during late spring to early fall. Prices during December, January and February might be very high, unless you plan far in advance and get lucky. This is no surprise, since daily highs during these months are about 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
Vancouver is known to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world due to its location between water and mountains and temperate climate. You can drive a short distance and find excellent skiing and snowboarding in winter and hiking and camping in spring and summer. Vancouver also has many fine restaurants and hotels, in addition to a zoo, a suspension footbridge, aquarium and art museums. If you are inclined to drive in order to explore, you can go to Victoria, the undeveloped parts of British Columbia or Seattle.
January and February are the mild, wet times so there are less tourists and better deals. The best weather is in summer when temperatures range from the 60s to low 70s, but this is also when travel costs tend to be the highest. If you are traveling during the high season it probably is a good idea to book flights and accommodation three months in advance.
Banff is for nature lovers or for those who want to escape to a quiet place for relaxation. The town has less than 10,000 people and is close to the beautiful Banff National Park, which is the main attraction. This park draws hikers from around the world who want to take in spectacular mountain vistas forests and lakes. To get there you fly to Calgary and rent a car for a one and a half hour drive or take a shuttle.
Southeast Asia (in general)
This whole region is experiencing an uptick in foreign travelers. While this trend can have a negative impact because it alters local culture, it can also help establish expectations on both sides for how to interact. Once you fly there and become situated there are many places to visit in Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos. There are many climates and different rainy seasons in these countries, so it would probably a big help to make sure you carefully research when the monsoon periods are in each place you intend to visit.
This country still offers low-cost options for travel once you get there. Large, air-conditioned buses are available as are share taxis and rentals – but don’t rent a car or motorcycle without insurance. Also, if you want to have time to view the scenery riding a bus or even a slow-moving train is better than driving. If you really want to see the land and interact with people, you could rent a mountain bike or take your own. A mountain bike is recommended due to rough roads. There are also water taxis and in country flights, though the country overall is fairly small. Hitchhiking is probably not that safe. Meals can be had for about $2.50, depending on where you go. This is also a country with significant poverty, corruption and some crime, so it is best to be very careful about choosing locations to visit. Phnom Penh is the capital, but there are also sleepy coastal villages like Kep where you can slow down and just look at the water.
Vietnam borders Cambodia, so if you are in Phnom Pehn you can catch a bus to Saigon for about $10 – $20. Though it is also possible to travel the other direction and wind up in Thailand, if you prefer. If the choice is Vietnam you will find a country that is wealthier than Cambodia and more developed. Economic growth is readily observable and you will pay more when in Vietnam for just about everything. Like Cambodia, this is a country where you can find low-cost enjoyable food at local markets – usually a woman with fresh produce and spices who whips up something right in front of you. Of course, there are also higher end restaurants and fine dining. There are so many things to do in Vietnam, it really comes down to doing your research first before you can begin to decide. From an overnight stay on a junk in Halong Bay to taking cooking classes, there is a wide array of options.
Note: In January in February there is the national Tet holiday, which means local people are on the move and travel for foreigners may be very difficult, so it is probably best to avoid Vietnam during this time. There are many forms of transportation available including trains, but on them be very careful with baggage because there are thieves. The same is true for buses. In cities there are pedicab drivers and taxis for hire if you want to be driven somewhere.
Thailand is just a bus ride away from Cambodia. Flights in Bangkok can be expensive, but there is something called a Discovery Pass for flying within Southeast Asia which apparently can result in significant savings. There are also sometimes trains, but they can be very slow. Bus seems to be the preferred method, though if you want something more private there are also taxis, but that will cost more.
Thailand is the most developed country in Southeast Asia, so there are many of the amenities of modern living, such as restaurants, cineplexes, and shopping malls. If you don’t want these things, it would probably best to not spend much time in Bangkok and head out to Chiang Mai, which has a lower cost of living and more access to natural habitats. If AirBnB is a good indication, accommodation can be had for $15 to $60 per night.
There are many sites to visit in Chiang Mai including the Healing Family Foundation, which was established to teach disabled children to weave products that can be sold to support themselves. A trip to Chiang Mai would not be complete without getting at least one massage. They are usually so affordable you might as well get more, and they can last for several hours. Some of the activities are touristy like visiting the Old Moat and others are more about coming in contact with local culture like seeing an elephant camp. It helps to know your own tastes before you go so you don’t try to do everything in one trip and wind up having one superficial experience after another. Chiang Mai is a good place to slow down and have an authentic experience.
Laos is a very long country that can be entered from Cambodia, Thailand or Vietnam. It is still relatively undeveloped so it can be very affordable once you are there, but be prepared for some hardship if you are used to a certain standard of comfort and cleanliness. It is known for being very relaxed. Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane, and Southern Laos are some of the top destinations. You will want to carefully research the seasons in order to avoid the rainy period, and places where there may be many mosquitoes.
Luang Prabang is the former capital city of Laos and has many Buddhist temples and markets to visit. The total population is only about 25,000 people. A meal of sticky rice and coconut can be purchased for about one US dollar. Vang Vieng has become a destination for backpackers, but it also has earned a reputation for some ugly behavior and substance abuse. Still, it has natural beauty and peaceful river and is affordable. Vientane is the current capital of Laos and has a population of well over 700,000. Like Luang Prabang there are many Buddhist temples here, including Buddha Park. In a city this size there are many restaurants, but visiting Makphet is a little different because it has a training program for street kids to help them get jobs and have sustainable incomes. It is also one of the top-rated restaurants there.
Just remember, think outside the box when you’re thinking of traveling, and be an avid researcher — the world will truly be your oyster.
Angie Picardo is a staff writer for NerdWallet, a personal finance website dedicated to helping travelers save money with the best credit cards.