July 8, 2009 2:54 AM   Subscribe

TravelFilter: What are the cheapest (but best) travel destinations in the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia (specifically, Southeast Asia)?

Just got back from a two-week trip to London (which, incidentally, I loved) and Paris (which, incidentally, gets a big meeeh). Unfortunately, the trip cost somewhere between three arms and four legs not only because of the exchange rates, but also because of the pricey nature of our accommodations (not sacrificing quality for price, etc.). I'm thirsting for more... just as soon as my wallet recovers.

Now, obviously, the specific affordability of a trip to any nation depends on how strong the dollar is against the given currency at that point in time -- that much, I get. But past that, aren't there destinations that are, at their essence, cheaper to go to and stay at? You know, places that are off-the-radar but stunningly beautiful? (Sorry, I made it a little complex with that last one, I know.)

I dug a "previously..." up, and it was good... but centered around South America, and the consensus seemed to be on Peru. (You probably know the one I'm talking about.) Hence, the specific phrasing of my question.

posted by the NATURAL to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Thailand is pretty inexpensive (although it can be expensive to get there), easy to get to and travel in. The more remote islands are really wonderful and scenic and run the gamut between backpacker-travel heaven and resort luxury. The more popular islands are a kind of nasty tourist hell. I havent been there in years, so I'm sure you can find more up-to-date info. Maybe try Lonely Planet?
posted by elendil71 at 3:40 AM on July 8, 2009

Best answer: Indonesia! I lived there for a year a couple years ago. My plane ticket from the States cost more than the whole year's rent for a three-bedroom house on a little hill looking over a beautiful canyon in a big city. It's basically impossible to spend more than $5 at a food stall. I easily covered all my expenses on my (in dollar terms) four-figure salary, and saved about 1/3 of my income, without cutting any corners. A train ride to Jakarta from my city, about 100 miles/160 km away, was $7, in air-conditioned, super-executive first class.

Some key (fun) search words:
• A losmen is a cheeeeeeap guesthouse, and may be the only place to stay in many smaller, off-the-beaten track places, like Batu Keras
• A warung is a food stall by the side of the road, which, if crowded, is usually safe. I only got sick once or twice.
Angkots/bemos are little minibuses that take you everywhere for peanuts. Again, often the only mode of transport in some more off-the-beaten-path places.

Also, pretty much everyone is friendly, it's safe (enough), and Indonesian is ridiculously easy to pick up for all your everyday phrases. As far as what to see, start with their World Heritage Sites, try out their insanely gorgeous beaches, climb a few volcanoes, and perhaps see a komodo dragon, or the crater lake of the volcanic eruption which may have pushed humanity through a "bottleneck event" and almost wiped us out as a species? There's a lot of history and culture as well, from wayang kulit shows to the art-deco colonial/architectural heritage of Bandung to the palatial legacy of sultans (actually, the sultans are still there!).

Practicalities: Air Asia can get you around the country cheaply, and to Indonesia in the first place from a cheaper gateway in Southeast Asia like Bangkok, Singapore, or Hong Kong. Trains are fun but slow, and while the roads on Java and Bali are the best in the country, that's not saying a lot. 30-day visas are available on arrival to most citizens of developed countries, but you can pop to Singapore or Malaysia for a day and get a new visa when you come back if you want to extend your trip. Travel time is a big factor there, though - outside of Java and Bali, things slow waaay down. It's a great place to visit if you've got at least three weeks or something. However, Java and Bali are also the easiest places to travel and are totally full of enough to keep you happy exploring for months, even years.

An itinerary that started in Jakarta and moved overland toward Bali and Lombok, its quieter, less-touristy neighbor, could take anywhere from two weeks to two months. There's way too much to see and do for me to mention it all here, but go pick up a guidebook to the archipelago at the library and you'll see what I'm talking about.

Also, a final warning: I can't tell you how many expats I met who went there to surf or for some sun or just to get away from the stress of life in Europe/America/Australia and fell head over heels in love with the may never leave.
posted by mdonley at 4:07 AM on July 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Seconding Indonesia and adding Laos, which is like Indonesia in price but less aggressive in attitude.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:30 AM on July 8, 2009

Seconding Laos. No stunning beaches, but cheap as chips and fantastically friendly people.
posted by gergtreble at 6:11 AM on July 8, 2009

Malaysian Borneo is awesome.
posted by arabelladragon at 7:22 AM on July 8, 2009

There are loads of beaches in Laos - what are you blabbering about?

Forget Thailand if the $ exchange rate is a worry. The baht is strong.
posted by the cuban at 7:48 AM on July 8, 2009

There are loads of beaches in Laos - what are you blabbering about?

Well, the only beaches would be on rivers or lakes, rather than on the ocean, is maybe what was meant.
posted by Falconetti at 8:06 AM on July 8, 2009

Best answer: the pricey nature of our accommodations (not sacrificing quality for price, etc.)

Sure, there's cheap places but if you want Western-style accommodations and service you have to pay for it, sometimes as much as you would pay in the West. I spent $18/day in Laos in 2005 (including visas, transportation, food, hotel and souvenirs) but I stayed in wood shacks with no running water.

Thailand is great and can be really cheap but if you need to stay at a 4-star hotel it will still cost quite a lot. I would decide where your line is for comfort level. Still going high-end in Thailand will be less than high-end in in London. Pretty much all of SE Asia is on the travel radar nowadays and I question if the places that are remote enough to fit your criteria will have nice enough accommodations/food/transport for you. If this isn't an issue, forgive my answer.

I found that in Africa, in general, there's either super high end ($500/night hotel room in Ethiopia!) or really low end and not much middle ground. Egypt can be quite affordable if you stay away from tours and huge hotel chains. I find the temples there stunningly beautiful! If you're looking for more beach or landscape beautiful look into Madagascar (you can find a nice mid-range hotel here thanks to the French influence), Mozambique (never been but I suspect maybe its still a bit rough for you). The key to these sort of places is booking it on your own to keep costs down. I book everything in-country and usually don't book hotels in advance but I travel low-end.

For SE Asia there's so much documented on Thai beaches (cheap for you but not undiscovered). I'll let the other responses fill you in for that region however, I will say that Inle Lake in Myanmar is one of the most stunningly beautiful places I've been but I'm not quite sure that's what you're looking for. I usually hesitate to give recommendations without more details in what kind of things you like to see and do.
posted by Bunglegirl at 8:17 AM on July 8, 2009

Best answer: The Western region of Ghana has a number of excellent beach lodges, ranging from four-star hotels to a set of tents. My favorite was the Green Turtle Lodge. You can get three excellent meals, a big hut with running water shower, and drinks for under $60 a night. They do lots of eco-tourism and community tourism.

As Bunglegirl said, accommodations in Africa (at least in my experience in West Africa) tend to fall at the extremes. It's possible to find midrange accommodation if you expand your definition of "midrange" to include fans instead of air conditioners and running water instead of hot water.

Perhaps you could look into Mali? It's the one place I really wanted to go that I never made it to. See Timbuktu, travel with a salt caravan, soak in the desert scenery. On top of that, there's an excellent music scene.
posted by bassooner at 8:42 AM on July 8, 2009

Best answer: Mozambique. Mozambique. Mozambique. Mozambique. Mozambique.

Beautiful, friendly people. Gorgeous beaches. Cheap. For comparison's sake, I stayed in a hut on the beach in both Tofo, Mozambique and Koh Tao, Thailand for a week, in similar fashion (nothing fancy, but not cooking my own food, either). My outlay in Tofo was about $160 and in Koh Tao, about $300.
posted by pollex at 12:21 PM on July 8, 2009

China! Not really off the radar though.

The big cities are only as expensive as you make them. In Shanghai I stayed at a hostel that cost about $5 a day. And it was fantastic (Mingtown or something or other). Western restaurants and upscale Chinese places can be pricey, but eat from street vendors and you're looking at about $1.50 for lunch. Even moderate-priced restaurants are cheap. You could get three meat dishes to share for about $7.

Go to smaller cities (note: in China, "smaller" is very much relative) and the prices go down, and your "off the radar" appeal goes up. I recommend the city of Chengdu in Sichuan. From there you can explore the Sichuan countryside (check Flickr for pics of the park Jiuzhaigou) -- I don't think there are many more stunning places on earth.
posted by imalaowai at 3:20 PM on July 8, 2009

Best answer: Before you go about thinking about new places to go to, I'd pay close attention to Paris's meh. Why was it meh? In my experience, very few destinations (the middle of Siberia comes to mind) are without merit. Paris is, like, this awesome city. It's huge, it has many beautiful sections, and it offers different things to different people. It wasn't my favorite destination in France but for you to actually meh it raises some issues.

Speaking of France, if you ever make it back there make a beeline for the southwest, which is loaded with incredible beauty, really friendly people, and jaw-droppingly good food. The anchovies in Collioure alone make a trip like that worthwhile.

The truth is, it is possible to travel cheaply nearly anywhere (some places easier than others, this is true). However, if you insist on traveling "richly" you may actually miss out. For example, if you go to China (not a bad destination, fairly cheap but stunningly beautiful, and excellent food besides) you will be miserable if you stay in a luxury hotel for foreigners, and doubly so if you, heavens forbid, eat your meals there. Luxury Hotels in particular are designed to homogenize your experience. This is not what travel is about -- or at least not what I think travel is about. Travel is about connecting with new cultures and experiences just slightly outside of your current frame of experience.

In Egypt and China the worst food I ate was at the places recommended to tourists: the cheerful lightly buffets we were all carted off to during a pyramids tour in Cairo; a godawful roof terrace cafe in Luxor that actually had the audacity to sell what was clearly flavorless baked chicken as schwarma; a supposed four star restaurant in Shanghai that charged 10 times what a meal would cost anywhere else, and offered food that was mostly flavorless, if pleasantly presented. The best food was whatever I ate off the street. If you get sick, that is the price you pay for new experiences (again, my stinking opinion). I'd heartily recommend eating yogurt as soon as you arrive at an unfamiliar locale, as that will acquaint your system with the local microscopic community. Fermented pickles are excellent for this as well, and are represented in the cuisines of much of Asia and the Middle East.

I'm not saying you have to rough it. I never really did. There are plenty of accommodations in the world which are nice without being anything like the Holiday Inn. Most hostels in Asia and the Middle East are going to be comparable in quality to the full-fledged hotels, the one exception being a lack of privacy.

Also, what on Earth do you mean by "best" in your question above? That can only really be answered with a thorough knowledge of your likes and dislikes, quirks, attitudes, and overall preferences. For example, I have heard people recommend Madrid as a destination because it is a great partying town. I am sure there are other redeeming qualities to Madrid, but nonetheless that reputation has pushed Madrid further down on my list of "places in Spain I want to see one day". So it really depends on you.

Personally I think your question is waay to broad and focuses too much on cost, when the truth is not only can you pay and arm and a leg anywhere, but you can also stay in nice accommodations cheaply or crappy accommodations profligately. And, this is true everywhere in the world. Now, it is so, that you can really lux it out in many SE Asian countries for far less than it would cost to do the same in the US or Europe. But that doesn't alter the fact that actually a nice pensione or bed and breakfast can actually be a "better" experience than a luxury hotel overall while being cheaper, no matter where you are. Or that the food served on simple wooden slats on the side of the road will taste way better than the sanitary but utterly sanitized and tasteless version disinterred on a clean boring plate.
posted by Deathalicious at 12:03 AM on July 9, 2009

Yeah, what was Paris meh thing about? Paris? Meh? Are you kidding???

I'm curious what theNatural did/saw there.
posted by imalaowai at 7:45 AM on July 9, 2009

AFRiCA: seconding what bassooner said about Africa, except this -

Perhaps you could look into Mali
A very, very experienced developing-world traveler was telling me just yesterday about how utterly draining it was to be there as a tourist - beyond-average lack of infrastructure, unfriendly locals (throwing stones!), lack of availability of just about... anything worth having, and more and more aggressive begging than she had seen anywhere else. More, I used to work in Ghana, where Mali is widely known as the place with nothing to do/see and nothing to buy/sell. They were going there as part of a West Africa desert trip. This was not my trip I am reporting, but really, I have not heard any strong recommendations.

ASIA: How could you guys forget Vietnam? You can have a comfortable hotel for cheap, you want to eat on the street every night, and the trains are really pleasant. Also seconding what people are saying about China.
posted by whatzit at 1:11 AM on July 12, 2009

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