The 10 Best 2019 Budget Travel Destinations
Whether it's a favorable exchange rate, new flight route or overlooked city, that dream trip may be more accessible than you think.
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Central America is a good value in general, but in recent years Antigua’s evolving cultural scene adds extra incentive to visit. UNESCO has recognized the Spanish colonial city, originally founded in the 16th century, for its charming cobblestone streets and Baroque Antigueño architecture. Today the bustling city offers new reasons to visit, like La Nueva Fábrica, an art center that’s set to debut February 13. Here, visitors can explore contemporary art galleries and exhibitions for $6. It’s free to visit Santo Domingo del Cerro, a contemporary sculpture park populated with pieces from acclaimed artist Efraín Recinos. It’s also free or nominal to visit Antigua’s historic churches and cathedrals, and many salsa-dancing schools offer free introductory group classes. Meanwhile, partaking in Antigua’s thriving food and coffee scene costs about $20 a day at casual restaurants. As for hotels, lodging at the charming (and popular) Hotel Posada San Pedro (I and II), max out at about $50 a night, and next-level ones like Good Hotel Antigua run about $100.
India’s southwestern state made headlines in 2018 for experiencing the worst flooding it had seen in about a century. The region’s popular attractions were unaffected for the most part, and budget travelers can find resort lodging for around $50 at Abad Whispering Palms. But the term budget is relative, and even five-star stays such as Kumarakom Lake Resort can be booked for under $200 a night. Kerala is most famous for its backwaters, an extensive network of canals, lagoons and rivers that host all manner of kettuvallam, or houseboats, that ply its waters. The cheapest way is via a ferry run by the Alleppey District Tourism Promotion Council that nets you up to eight hours on the water for $4, but kettuvallam are a better bet if you want to sail through smaller canals and have more creature comforts on board. Tea plantations are another huge draw, with Munnar (pictured) attracting the lion’s share of tourists, but the hill stations of Wayanad and Vagamon are worthy contenders. Not least, Kerala’s beaches rival those of the more touristy Goa, and Varkala, Marari and Kannur are among the best.
It’s been about a decade since Greece entered an economic crisis, and the nation is slowly recovering. Tourism is up as well, yet deals are still to be found even on the over-visited islands of Santorini and Mykonos in the popular Cyclades chain — at least in the off- and shoulder-seasons. Airbnb has deals closer to $100 on those islands outside of the peak season of July and August, while prices dip even further on lesser-known islands such as Sifnos and Milos. And it’s on the lesser-known islands, whether in the Cyclades or one of the other six island chains, that you’ll find fewer tourists and more affordable restaurants, bars and shopping. Local table wine in general is surprisingly good and generally no more than $10 a bottle. If island hopping, inter-island ferries tend to be more affordable than flying between islands, as long as you’re willing to spend, say, up to nine hours on a ferry between Athens and Crete. Of course, Greece is more than its islands. The mainland offers good deals everywhere, from the gorgeous Peloponessos coast and its beach towns to inland Meteora and its famous monasteries. The coastal town of Nafpaktos in Central Greece is one of the most picturesque in the country, while Thessaloniki rivals Athens for food, ancient ruins and interesting neighborhoods.
While French Polynesia is not typically associated with the budget concept, consider that French Bee, France’s first long-haul budget carrier, now flies direct from San Francisco to Papeete on the island of Tahiti starting at $330 one way as of February. Following an eight-hour flight, bypass the expensive resorts for local guesthouses, or pensions, which can cost less than $100 a night and provide a more authentic experience anyway. While Bora Bora is the most popular (read: spendy) island, Tahiti is comprised of 118 islands. Most are uninhabited, but about a dozen remain under-the-radar. In fact, pensions are available on the lesser-known Moorea (pictured), Rangiroa, Fakarava and the Austral Islands. Food is also inexpensive if you eat at your pension, or there are local markets, food trucks and casual spots. You’ll also save money by opting for bikes instead of cars to get around, and then sticking to one island instead of taking inter-island flights.
Luang Prabang, Laos
New flight routes from across Asia to this landlocked country have brought more attention to Laos. It’s often overlooked for its better-known neighbors of Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and China, but the country offers culture, wildlife tours and outdoor activities — all at bargain prices. Luang Prabang is the best-known destination at this point, a UNESCO World Heritage Site filled with golden Buddhist temples. Besides temple hopping, the Luang Prabang Night Market is a nightly affair, with rows of vendors selling all kinds of clothes, paper lanterns, embroidered bags and much more. Spas are a popular site around town, and massages can be found for less than $10. If going the true budget route, it’s possible to get by on $30 a day, including basic lodging. If your budget runs a little higher, places like the upscale Villa Maly will still cost less than $100 a night. Street food generally costs a couple of dollars, while mid-range restaurants average no more than $20 for two people.
Outside of the Albuquerque International Balloon Festival, Albuquerque tends to get overlooked in favor of Santa Fe. But as New Mexico’s largest city, it offers museums (Albuquerque Museum, Indian Pueblo Cultural Center) that top out at $8, and ABQ BioPark, which comprises a zoo, aquarium and botanical garden for no more than $22. Hotels like the Nativo Lodge offer rooms starting at $110, or $145 for rooms that were individually painted by Native American artists. And let’s not forget Albuquerque is a major Route 66 stop. A self-guided tour directs you to downtown and historic Old Town, the KiMo Theatre, Nob Hill and the University of New Mexico. Also nearby is the Petroglyph National Monument, one of of the largest U.S. sites for ancient rock carvings with great hiking trails, and it costs no more than $2 for parking. Keep an eye on 2020, when the city is expected to debut a new mixed-use Sawmill District containing shopping, entertainment, local art and Sawmill Market, a 25,000-square-foot food hall that will take up residence in a converted lumber warehouse.
It’s fair to say that the majority of the region’s visitors only experience Calgary’s airport before hopping in a rental car and heading west to Banff and Lake Louise. But those who stay to explore the city's charms will find hotels for around $100 a night, even in summer and at brand-new properties like the Alt Hotel. A modern light rail system provides free rides in the downtown section on the C-Train, while a comprehensive bike lane system makes it easy to explore happening neighborhoods from the East Village to Inglewood to Beltline. Then again, more than 500 miles of paths are conducive to free exercise. Also free? The brand-new, design-forward Central Library, where you can jump on on a daily tour or simply tackle some research. All the money you’ll save will let you experience Calgary’s thriving restaurant and microbrewery scene — Deane House and Cold Garden Beverage Company are among the standouts. But come summer, don't overlook the city’s food trucks, serving up everything from chicken and waffles to Salvadoran street food.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Notoriously expensive Argentina has recently become more affordable as the country deals with an economic decline, with the exchange rate currently offering 37 pesos to the dollar. As a result, solid three-star hotels like the boutique Rendez-Vous Hotel Buenos Aires can be found for less than $100. Expensive restaurants are more in reach too, but with a robust food scene, don’t overlook the many coffeeshops, cafes and street food options. Among the cheap eats, it’s hard to go wrong with empanadas, sausage sandwiches, local pizza, Peruvian chicken, gelato or alfajor, a cake-like snack filled with either chocolate or dulce de leche. The money saved can be used for a splurge at hotspot steakhouse La Carnicería or Tegui, the country’s only restaurant to place on the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list. Not least, the long-running San Telmo market is a favorite for food, antiques, and on Sunday, free tango dancing in the square. Use the city’s inexpensive subway and bus system to navigate using a reloadable SUBE card.
Those who have been longing to spy mountain gorillas in the wild have three options: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. In the Congo, Virunga National Park closed for half of 2018 following an attack against a group of British tourists, and safety remains an issue. Rwanda just raised prices for its gorilla treks from $750 to $1,500 a person as the country targets the luxury market. By process of elimination, that leaves Uganda as the best affordable option, with gorilla permits starting at just $450 if you go in the low season of April, May or November, and $600 the rest of the year. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park are the two main areas for gorilla hikes, and companies such as African Budget Safaris provide different package options. Otherwise, budget safari lodges such as CTPH Gorilla Conservation Camp in Buhoma start at just $40 a night for a single room and can book gorilla permits.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Chattanooga has emerged from Nashville’s shadow to become a primary destination. Once known as a railway hub, today the city is better known for its outdoor activities, culture and affordable restaurants. On the outdoor front, there’s Lookout Mountain, offering a scenic overlook, the deepest cave in the country (complete with an underground waterfall), zipline and one of the steepest train rides. As one of the longest pedestrian bridges in the world, Walnut Street Bridge provides scenic views for runners, walkers and cyclists. The 8-mile-long Chattanooga Riverwalk is another great option, and connects the Chickamauga Dam with downtown. Speaking of downtown, culture lovers will appreciate the smart traveling exhibitions (look for "Noel Anderson: Blak Origin Moment" in October 2019) and permanent collection at the Hunter Museum of American Art (free on Thursday nights). The worthwhile Songbirds Guitar Museum contains an impressive collection of vintage guitars, and costs $12 per ticket or $45 for a family of four. Meanwhile, those curious about the whiskey-making process can tour the Chattanooga Whiskey Experimental Distillery for $12, including a whiskey flight at the end. For lodging, bed-and-breakfast Mayor's Mansion Inn starts at $139 , while the trendy new Moxy Chattanooga Downtown comes in about $150.