cheapest travel for cheapest person
January 29, 2015 7:29 PM   Subscribe

I'm a young woman in the US. Never traveled abroad. I accomplished a big goal, and I've saved up $1700, so I'm taking myself somewhere. Looking to make the trip in the summer for a week or two. Will be alone. I like food, wandering around cities and interesting towns, and free/cheap things, like museums, window shopping, etc. More interested in walking around a cool place than lying on a beach. I want to stay in a hostel or similar. No other criteria--I'd like this to be pretty open-ended. Where should I go?
posted by there will be glitter to Travel & Transportation (42 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Where are you in the US? It makes a big difference in terms of plane ticket prices. (Flying to London is a lot cheaper from the East Coast, for example, than San Francisco.)
posted by joyceanmachine at 7:33 PM on January 29, 2015

Response by poster: Good point, thanks. I'm in North Carolina.
posted by there will be glitter at 7:37 PM on January 29, 2015

Rome. So much amazing art for free in the most glorious churches in the world, and super walkable. Plenty of fun hostels.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:38 PM on January 29, 2015 [4 favorites]

Do you speak any other languages?

1. If you do, what languages?

2. If you don't, how comfortable do you feel winging it?

(Seriously, if you only speak English, do NOT let that stop you from visiting a non-English country; I went to Italy a year or so ago even though I only know, like, four things in Italian, and I was still able to get by using a phrase book and a lot of hand gesturing. And also now one of my absolute favorite stories came when a really hot guy in Florence saw me on the street stepping to one side to avoid walking under a ladder and he winked and said "ah, malo fortuna, eh?" and I just thought, "wow, I think I understood that.")
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:40 PM on January 29, 2015 [9 favorites]

Congratulations on meeting your goal and saving up the $1700!! I love traveling so I find your question very exciting.

If you're hoping to go to Europe, I'd recommend saving a bit more as the plane ticket alone could cost close to that (if much less if you travel during non-peak times.) If you're interested in Europe, I can make some suggestions although there are so many great places everywhere!! How about Asia, for example?

How about doing a road trip across Canada? It's an awesome country, has tons to offer, and is like the US enough to feel comfortable but different enough to also be exciting?

1. How comfortable do you feel (or think you'll feel) in situations where you don't speak the language?

2. How comfortable are you with public transportation?

3. What has been your favorite place to visit in the US so far?
posted by smorgasbord at 7:41 PM on January 29, 2015

posted by j_curiouser at 7:52 PM on January 29, 2015

Response by poster: Languages: I know enough German and enough Spanish to feel comfortable having simple conversations and finding my way around. Totally fine with English not being the thing at my destination.

Public transportation: Super comfortable.

Favorite US spot: New York City or northern New Mexico! NM was astoundingly beautiful, and I loved spending days just exploring and eating cheap food in NYC.

I haven't traveled much, but I'm pretty confident that I'm going to be a pretty confident traveler. I know I'm working with not a lot of cash; I might have a couple hundred more by the time summer rolls around, but I'm really dedicated to stretching what I've got. I don't need to go to a really expensive city or to Europe, though I'd love to; I just want to see somewhere really cool.

So, yeah, sorry for leaving out this information to begin with! Thank you.
posted by there will be glitter at 7:56 PM on January 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

Mexico City. It's way cheaper than Europe, it has more museums than almost anywhere in the world, it's beautiful and the food is awesome. Stay in Condesa or Roma Norte.
posted by ericthegardener at 7:58 PM on January 29, 2015 [13 favorites]

Mexico! DF is full of free/cheap activities and Oaxaca has beautiful beaches
posted by nvly at 7:59 PM on January 29, 2015

If you can leave from BWI (D.C.) -- I saw amazing prices from WOW Air (budget Icelandic airline) to London, Reykjavik, and... somewhere else in Europe. I considered booking a summer trip just for that. You can fly to the cheapest place, then take the train to another city.
posted by DoubleLune at 8:02 PM on January 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

If you hunt around for a vaguely affordable ticket to Southeast Asia (as in under $1200), you can probably get along just fine on whatever's left. Thailand is an excellent place for first-time international travel because even though it's strikingly different than anywhere in the West, yet a very easy place to travel (the tourist infrastructure is excellent even in fairly rural, less touristed places, and people are generally quite friendly).
posted by tapir-whorf at 8:07 PM on January 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

Does it have to be summer? That's going to be the high season for a lot of places: more crowded, expensive airfare, booked hostels. If you wait until September for example, the weather in Europe will still be fine.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 8:10 PM on January 29, 2015

Nthing TWinbrook8 about airfare, its ridiculously high to Europe in summer. You are going to have to find a really good deal in order to make this work.
posted by signondiego at 8:16 PM on January 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

Whereever you go, consider using an Iceland-based airline to get there - they often will let you extend your "layover" in Reykjavik to being a couple days instead of just a couple hours, so you can check Iceland out as a sort of bonus.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:17 PM on January 29, 2015 [4 favorites]

Norwegian Airlines has some extremely cheap fares, but they are from Florida. it's a budget airline, but I would suggest you check them out for destinations such as Oslo or Copenhagen.

Go Today has budget vacation packages all over the world; the hotels may not be the very best, but you can upgrade if you want.
posted by blob at 8:29 PM on January 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've saved up $1700, so I'm taking myself somewhere. Looking to make the trip in the summer for a week or two.

I'll be a bit of wet blanket - you probably need more money if you want spend this much time outside the United States. I think two weeks anywhere is not realistic, but you could probably manage one week if you stay in this hemisphere.

Airfare is going to take a good chunk of your $1700 if you go to Europe, so crossing the Atlantic is out of the question. (since you are in NC, I used Raleigh in June 2015 as the point of departure)

It looks like you can get to Canada and certain South American locales for under $500 round-trip, living you $1200 as your residue. That is probably enough for a week in Panama, for example. You definitely don't want to be short of cash while abroad, so I'd focus on keeping airfare at $5-600 and the trip about a week long so your budget is not stretched too tight. I travel abroad regularly and it's amazing how fast your money dwindles. You have to budget for everything - lodging, food, travel et cetera. A shorter trip allows for a more enjoyable trip (and a week in one place is pretty long).
posted by Tanizaki at 8:31 PM on January 29, 2015 [12 favorites]

If you speak German, I totally recommend Germany and Austria. They aren't particularly cheap, but most European locations aren't, and there are some magnificent, incredible things to see there. They are very pleasant countries to visit because transportation is so easy and efficient, food is great, everything just works.

I went to the Baltic States a few months ago and I would say of European-ish destinations, those are some that are still more so affordable than others and you can get by on less money, plus they could be accessible via Icelandair (I like the idea of getting extra bang for your buck by laying over in Iceland if you can - it's wonderful there). I particularly enjoyed Tallinn (Estonia) and Riga (Latvia).

Santiago, Chile is a cool place with some good wandering and museums available as well. Tanizaki makes a good point about airfare being the biggest issue for you, so honestly, I would wait until last minute and see what the crazy cheap deals are for airfares right at that time, since you don't care about where you're going. Consider hopping a discount airline flight (like Southwest) to a more major hub for international travel like Dulles or JFK, you can sometimes get deals from there that are good enough to make it worth the extra hop. Consider Couchsurfing, it's fun and free.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:37 PM on January 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

Guatemala. Your money will go far there. I recommend heading to Antigua first, hike Pacaya, poke around and find a travel buddy then to venture out to other more remote areas (Atitlan, Tikal, Xela). There's not a ton in the way of window shopping or museums in these places, but it's beautiful and interesting and cheap.
posted by greta simone at 8:46 PM on January 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

How much of the U.S. have you visited? It's a big, varied country. I'm descended from multiple generations of city slickers, and I felt more "abroad" riding through some of the little towns outside Chicago than I did in London, Beijing, or Shanghai.
posted by d. z. wang at 8:54 PM on January 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

Europe will be hot and expensive in summer. If you can get a cheap fare, that doesn't have to be a deal breaker but if you're looking to push your budget, that might not be the best option. That said, Iceland would be really cool. Your budget will go really far in Central America. Honestly, it's close but there are so many parts of Mexico I'd like to visit. Maybe you could get a deal to Ireland? I loved Ireland.
posted by kat518 at 9:03 PM on January 29, 2015

If you want to spend a little more but get a LOT of bang for your buck:


I also agree with the suggestion upthread of Rome.

On the one hand, airfare to Europe is not going to be cheap. You're looking at $850-1000 for all of the above. Which only leaves you ~$700 on the ground.

However, let's be real. You can absolutely do any of these places on $50 a day, if you're careful. Especially, for the European cities, considering the exchange rate to the Euro. This summer is absolutely the year to travel in the Eurozone.

Stay in hostel dorms and eat cheap street food. A major way to save money on a trip like this is to pick a place and stick with it. Don't try to see Berlin, Prague, Vienna, and Krakow. Just like literally go to Berlin. Maybe take a day trip or two.

Also, really minimize your shopping. The honest truth is that, now that we have fast fashion chains in the US, Europe gets all the same clothes we do. Unless you have a lot of money to shop for incredibly special things, stuff is stuff, you know? Sure, buy ONE "Checkpoint Charlie" t-shirt, pick up a few postcards, maybe a little present for your mom. But for $1700, this is not a shopping trip. Same goes for partying. Have a beer and a currywurst, sure, but don't go crazy. (Also good advice in general for traveling overseas in a strange city on your own as a woman when there's a language barrier.)

Second Idea: Stay close to home and take a bigger trip.

For this, I'd consider places like Montreal, Mexico City, Somewhere in Central America, or, hey, could you potentially swing Cuba? The airfare for these trips is much more in line with what you'd pay to fly domestically, which leaves you over a thousand dollars to spend. You could spend a month in Guatemala for $1000. A week or two will with that budget means the sky is basically the limit as long as you keep things vaguely reasonable. You'll be able to travel around, pay for tours and excursions and a little bit of shopping and partying. You'll actually be able to afford to eat in restaurants and indulge a little. Another perk of a trip like this is that the language barrier is less likely to be an issue, since these places are all used to seeing American tourists. (And they do speak English in Montreal.)

So there's two choices to make. Slightly more expensive trip where your options are limited, but OMG VERY EXOTIC DESTINATION/ONCE IN A LIFETIME THING or somewhere your money goes further but isn't quite as special. (Unless you've always dreamed of visiting Frida Kahlo's house, and then Mexico is a win-win.)
posted by Sara C. at 9:12 PM on January 29, 2015 [11 favorites]

Seconding Sara C: Go to Berlin (or Budapest or Prague) if you can find cheap enough airfare, but a week or two in Montreal in August would be fantastic. It's up there with Barcelona, Berlin and London as a fun, interesting, and culturally-distinct city (I've lived in all 4), it's so close you could drive there if you wanted, and you'd save a lot of money, especially with the Canadian dollar going for 70-80 cents US right now.
posted by Flashman at 9:39 PM on January 29, 2015 [3 favorites]

If you don't care where you go, then follow a site like Fare Deal Alert or The Flight Deal for a few weeks and see if something great comes up.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 9:58 PM on January 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


Set your origin, select the dates of your trip, select (this is optional) "direct flights only', select the maximum you want to pay, and then see where you can travel to in the world.

SPOILER ALERT: If you're looking at Europe, it'll probably end up being London.
posted by I-baLL at 10:12 PM on January 29, 2015 [4 favorites]

Per Sara C, you could go to Montreal. It's definitely not the US but it's not that foreign either and if you are concerned about your budget it's not very expensive, especially with the Canadian dollar at 80 cents to the US dollar. And they legitimately speak a different language and it's a gorgeous city with tons to do and see. You could probably do both Quebec City and Montreal in that budget.
posted by GuyZero at 10:15 PM on January 29, 2015 [5 favorites]

Costa Rica!!! amazing place, will fit your budget
posted by raw sugar at 10:31 PM on January 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

nthing that Montreal in the summer is a fantastic place.
posted by busted_crayons at 11:08 PM on January 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

Oh, if you fly out of NYC to Scandinavia on Norwegian Air then you can get to Oslo or Copenhagen or...uh...shit, what's that Swedish city? Uh... anyways, yeah, you can get there for under $400 round trip. Don't pick a seat on the site and bring your own food and you'll save big.

Oh, and Wow Air flies to Iceland for cheap.
posted by I-baLL at 11:13 PM on January 29, 2015

If you're meticulous about it, you might be able to bring down the cost of flying by getting a credit card with a favourable reward scheme (and a favourable interest rate, ideally) and shovelling everything through that card. This is not for anyone who's anything but completely on the ball with time and debt management. One issue here is that there might not be enough time to build up points; summer flights fill up fast and there's no "last-minute" advantage. But it might be possible if you can rack up a lot of points fast (without going into debt, by e.g. bouncing things through it); you'd have to check the terms.

I agree with Berlin, if you can get over there.
posted by cotton dress sock at 1:25 AM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

Europe is going to be rough on this much dough. Central America is cheaper and closer but definitely only for experienced travellers in my opinion. However, that said Portugal is cheaper (and cooler, tourist-wise not heat-wise) than other Eurospots, and is pretty close.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 3:06 AM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you decide on Germany, you could stay at youth hostels for much less than a hotel. It's shared space but safe and you just can't beat the price!
posted by smorgasbord at 4:04 AM on January 30, 2015

Youth hostels are everywhere, not just Germany!
posted by freya_lamb at 5:03 AM on January 30, 2015

Couldn't let this thread go by without a mention of the Eurail Pass.
posted by oliverburkeman at 5:16 AM on January 30, 2015

Nthing Mexico, with Mexico City as your home base. So huge, so much awesome stuff, so affordable compared to Europe. Spend a week in Mexico City and a week looping out to smaller cities and little towns, such as up to San Miguel de Allende and back.
posted by drlith at 5:39 AM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you're open to it, I think Couchsurfing is a great experience. I wouldn't recommend it just to save money because it really takes a different approach to travel, but for me it's always offered a much deeper experience and also strikes a good balance of social time for me when I'm a solo traveler. The peak-er the time and more popular the destination, the harder it might be to find a host. (And it takes a time investment to build a profile, make meaningful contacts, etc). It does bring trip expenses down a lot.

In your shoes I think I'd keep a close eye on airfares and if you see something cheap and interesting just go for it!
posted by Salamandrous at 6:50 AM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

Barcelona in the summer is the best. Plenty of museums or just walk the city. Buy cheap food at the outdoor market for meals and party all night.
posted by Toddles at 7:03 AM on January 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

I like either England or France, or a combination of both, for your first foray. Also not all museums are free, but you can buy City Passes which can save you a LOT of money! Paris Pass London Pass.

I'd do WOW Airlines from BWI to London. I mean the rates are pretty good, and they're still going to take up a good chunk of your budget. I'm seeing $929 BWI to London, departing on Aug 19 and returning on August 31. But play around with dates, it's a pretty friendly site. Also, book now, summer is THE season for young people to go to Europe. If you can go in October, leaving on Oct 16 and returning Oct 30, the fare is only $668. That makes the rest of your money go way further. Going in the fall it'll be a LOT less crowded. August is notorious for being the time when all of Europe goes on a month long holiday. I don't know how true that is anymore, but June and July are PEAK times for travel. Book air travel soon, seats are already selling out.

Hostels in London in October are $30 to $40 a night. So bear that in mind. Check Hostel World and make reservations.

From London, you can use Ryan Air for cheap fares to other countries. Or Eurostar to Paris or Brussels. or wherever the wind takes you.

For cheap travel tips check out Lonely Planet guides. They'll recommend cheap eats and hostels.

Youth Hostels are great, but they may get very full in the summer. So you may want to reserve ahead of time. I met some very nice folks in hostels.

When I did my sojourn in France, I bought the France Rail pass (only $99 in 1989) and stayed in hostels.

Save more money for sure. I was pretty broke in France, but I had a good time. Hostels in France give you a great breakfast! Bread, yogurt and a bowl of coffee!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:08 AM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

Ecuador is cheap, stable, and relatively safe. Start in Quito, and from there, you can take extremely cheap buses to all the surrounding cities, which are amazingly rustic and beautiful. You will feel like you're in a different world.
posted by eas98 at 7:19 AM on January 30, 2015 [3 favorites]

Alaska is a fantastic place to visit in the summertime. When I was there 20+ years ago it was a good place for a woman to travel by herself. N.B. I actually interned in Alaska and ran into a lot of similarly minded twentysomethings whom I ran with while I was there.

Now I get to turn into a mom. :-) Not all places are created equal when it comes to women travelling alone safely and without harassment. Most of my solo travel was done in the nineties: the world of travel has changed, and not for the better. In the end, though, I'm glad I did it. The safety factor bears mentioning but should not be a total stop on solo travel.

Check out Journeywoman - they publish an email newsletter and offer a lot of deals and advice for women travelling solo and in groups.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 8:37 AM on January 30, 2015

Nowhere mentioned so far in this thread is unsafe for women to travel alone.
posted by Sara C. at 8:48 AM on January 30, 2015 [4 favorites]

Tuscany, Italy is the absolute best place I ever went. It's beautiful, the food is incredible, there is culture/art everywhere and you could walk around the cities for weeks finding new things.
posted by shesbenevolent at 10:40 AM on January 30, 2015

One quick suggestion: try to look up airfare. I found ridiculously cheap flights to all kinds of places (round trip from Cleveland to Nairobi for $700. Not that I'm heading to Nairobi at the moment, but cheap flights are cheap flights).

The other thing is airbnb, which I have found fabulous in Spain, Peru and Canada. Not only did I find amazing accommodations for super cheap, but I also befriended my hosts, who are wonderful people.

Also, just a quick response to Sara C. up there mentioning traveling alone as a woman (and I'm glad she brought it up - it's important to consider). I'm 36 and have been very fortunate to have traveled alone around the world (Europe, Ghana, Indonesia, India, Peru, among other places) for the past 15 years and honestly, I have never had a problem. I pay attention to my surroundings, I don't flash around money and I wear my regular clothes (none of that khaki safari stuff) that I wear in Cleveland. I also sometimes wear a gold band on my ring finger (even though I am definitely not married) for a little extra protection (this was especially useful in Indonesia where I was proposed to pretty much every day). I pack light and I trust my instincts. I'm not saying that there aren't the occasional shady situations, but if you keep your head up, they are no shadier than east Cleveland, which is pretty damn shady.

Also, SPAIN. Especially the north - San Sebastian, Bilbao, Oviedo, Santiago de Compostela. Underrated and gorgeous.
posted by cachondeo45 at 5:50 PM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

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