In a world of inflation, rising airline fares and increasing travel demand, it’s high time to rediscover some old affordable favourites – and perhaps some new ones too. Most are closer to home, making them cheaper to get to.
Exchange rates can help but our picks are places that have always offered good value no matter the currency fluctuations. Then again, good times or bad times, who doesn’t appreciate a bargain?
Of course, affordable doesn’t simply mean budget. Luxury hotels will always cost more than mid-range ones, but they can be more affordable in certain places, even if beyond the budget of some travellers.
Portugal is the cheapest Eurozone destination but that doesn’t mean it’s as bargain-priced as many other European countries. And some seemingly beaut value places, such as Bali, charge for accommodation in US dollars which can make for a costly trip if the mercurial Australian dollar is ailing.
Wise decisions also affect affordability. Chinese-brand hotels go for half the price of Western-brand ones in China and Western meals (and posh Chinese meals) are expensive. A little Chinese-language knowledge or adventurous spirit make China very affordable but for the regular overseas tourist it simply isn’t.
Also implicit in the idea of affordability is surely value: we want the best experience for our dollar, dong or dinar. No point in including nations that don’t deliver as holiday destinations no matter how cheap they might be.
Here then is Traveller’s bargain destinations hall of fame, with our pick of the 20 all-time most affordable and good-value for a holiday (with our dollar dazzler ratings out of five dollar signs).
Haedong Yonggungsa Temple in Busan, South Korea. Photo: iStock
THE LOWDOWN Serene temples compete with karaoke bars, neon-lit cities vie with mountain views, and history competes with K-pop in South Korea. Beyond Seoul lie castle towns, seaside resorts, national parks and confetti of islands. And it gets better: transportation and food is excellent and affordable, and attractions absurdly priced – the $1.10 entrance fee to World Heritage-listed Suwon Fortress was recently abolished. A 74-hour Discover Seoul Pass for $100 gets you entry to every major tourist attraction. The average hotel-room price is $120 for two, according to Budget Your Trip.
BEST BARGAINS October-November is low season but autumn foliage sumptuous. The Korail Pass costs about $50 a day if you’re going to whizz around. Seoul is priciest (consider staying in nearby Ujeongbu), but once beyond prices keep falling. Pohang, Jeonju and Busan are particularly affordable. The best-value hotels are boutique local establishments; avoid big international chains.
THE ONE SPLURGE Koreans are the world’s biggest spenders on luxury goods. You won’t have to look far for fancy handbags.
TRAVELLER DOLLAR DAZZLER RATING $$$$
The Palace of the Parliament, Bucharest, Romania. Photo: iStock
THE LOWDOWN If you think Europe is expensive then you haven’t been east of Vienna. You could go almost anywhere in Eastern Europe with a tight wallet but Romania is wonderful: renovated old towns, gorgeous castles, the Carpathian Mountains, venerable villages and a great motorway system (though some dodgy country roads). The extensive train system provides cheap if slow transport. Worlddata.info ranks Romania 57th in the world for cost of living, the lowest in Europe apart from Kosovo, Moldova and Russia.
BEST BARGAINS It hardly matters: even capital Bucharest won’t strain your budget. Still, Timișoara (which has outstanding Art Nouveau architecture) and pretty baroque Sibiu are visit-worthy destinations considered among Europe’s cheapest by digital nomads. The beaches, vineyards and spa towns of the short Black Sea coast provide a four-night stay in a four-star hotel including abundant daily spa treatments for $500 a person.
THE ONE SPLURGE Icons painted on glass are a specialty of the Maramures region in Transylvania; the best will set you back several hundred dollars.
TRAVELLER DOLLAR DAZZLER RATING $$$ and a half
Bohey Dulang Island Semporna, Sabah. Photo: iStock
THE LOWDOWN If variety is the spice of life, then Malaysia offers rainforest adventures, fish-filled reefs, historic towns, and cultural diversity. It has one of the best food scenes on the planet and, with good hygiene, you can eat for an insignificant cost in street markets. But at every level of budget Malaysia is a bargain: prices are higher than Indonesia or Thailand, but so are overall standards. You can book four-star hotels for as little as $150 and truly swanky ones for $300. Malaysia Airlines offers competitively priced airfares.
BEST BARGAINS If you’re going to plunge into adrenaline activities with safe standards, do it here: half-day white-water rafting costs around $65 and guided jungle treks $30. Entry to Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sabah is only $10. Meanwhile overlooked Johore Bahru just over the border from Singapore is undergoing a spectacular makeover.
THE ONE SPLURGE The Datai Langkawi is one of Malaysia’s most famous resorts and has outstanding dining, but will cost you $1000 a night.
TRAVELLER DOLLAR DAZZLER RATING $$$$$
Turunc Bays in Marmaris. Photo: iStock
THE LOWDOWN The humanitarian crisis following last week’s earthquakes in Turkey and Syria continues.
But when the time is right travellers should give Turkey serious consideration. Istanbul Airport, and Istanbul itself, is still open to visitors.The worn seduction of Istanbul with its fabulous Ottoman monuments, a turquoise Mediterranean coast with hip resorts and ancient ruins, and Cappadocia’s humped landscapes and cave churches make Turkey a top travel destination – and one of the friendliest. Turkey has always been affordable, and with its currency greatly devalued remains so despite inflation. Costs are 48 per cent lower than in Italy or 21 per cent lower than in Greece according to Numbeo. Turkish Airlines’ huge network and competitive pricing is a bonus.
BEST BARGAINS Turkish islands such as Cunda (near Lesbos) are more low-key than Greek counterparts. Muğla region and nearby Marmaris offer bargain holidays, but beware high-season hordes of northern Europeans. The Black Sea coast, mostly visited by domestic tourists, offers an interesting alternative to the Med. September and especially October have off-season rates and the weather in the south remains mighty fine.
THE ONE SPLURGE Turkish carpets are irresistible. Pure silk carpets from Hereke shimmer like butterfly wings and cost a fortune.
TRAVELLER DOLLAR DAZZLER RATING $$$$$
Kruger National Park. Photo: iStock
THE LOWDOWN One of the world’s most beautiful countries, a vibrant culture and thrilling wildlife encounters are reasons South Africa is a favourite. Although lack of airline competition makes getting there pricey, you’ll be compensated by low prices when you arrive: $150 for a three- or four-star hotel (except in Cape Town), $50 for a three-course meal, $100 and often less for a bungy jump. About $250 a person a day gets you a comprehensive four-star holiday.
BEST BARGAINS If on safari, Kruger National Park allows for self-drive and has plenty of budget accommodation options. State-owned lodges and cottages in South African national parks are great value. Northernmost Limpopo Province has all South Africa’s scenic beauty but few foreign tourists, making it one the cheapest destinations. Cape Town and nearby Stellenbosch wine country are the most expensive, but you still won’t be complaining.
THE ONE SPLURGE A posh safari lodge in a private game reserve is an indulgence and adventure: worth two nights despite the elephant-sized bill.
TRAVELLER DOLLAR DAZZLER RATING $$$ and a half
Fukuoka, Japan. Photo: iStock
THE LOWDOWN Here’s a turn-up for the bookings. Japan has a reputation for expense, but if you avoid elaborate kaiseki meals, luxury hotels and infamous yubari melons you can stay, eat and get around more cheaply than in Europe or America. You can enjoy a $20 lunch in super-posh Tokyo district Ginza – and there’s no tipping. Japan proves that affordable doesn’t mean cheap but good value, and the value you get is endless wonderful experiences in a unique destination.
BEST BARGAINS Forget fancy and Western-brand hotels and check into small business and local-brand hotels such as Welcome Inn, APA Hotels and Toyoko Inn. Fukuoka, Kobe, Osaka and Sapporo are well-priced cities. Myoko Kogen is the best-priced big ski resort. If you’re going to racket around, a Japan Rail Pass is the best option. Bento boxes from department-store food halls are bargain eats, especially when reduced in price at day’s end.
THE ONE SPLURGE An upmarket ryokan or traditional inn isn’t just a stay but a cultural experience and will include a delectable multi-course evening meal.
TRAVELLER DOLLAR DAZZLER RATING $$$
Photo: Tembo Beach Club and Resort Koh Samui
THE LOWDOWN We all know you can eat in the street and stay in beach huts for next to nothing in Thailand, but one of our favourite destinations is affordable at all levels. In 2022, UK comparison website money.co.uk declared Bangkok the world’s cheapest luxury-travel destination. Meanwhile Budget Direct says our purchasing power is 257 per cent higher in Thailand than at home. Well worth it, then, for luscious islands, beautiful beaches, adventures in highlands, big-city excitement and the always friendly Thai smile.
BEST BARGAINS Koh Chang, Koh Samui and Koh Lanta are among competitively priced islands; mainland Krabi is a cheap island-gazing base. The entire northeast of the country is under the radar but filled with national parks and tribal culture: try Nakhon Nayok province or the Isan region along the Mekong River.
THE ONE SPLURGE If you indulge in highly taxed wine at luxury hotels, you’ll pay the price. A bottle of Bin 8 Penfolds at W Hotel Bangkok is $155; it retails in Australia for $40.
TRAVELLER DOLLAR DAZZLER RATING $$$$
InterContinental Phu Quoc. Photo: Supplied
THE LOWDOWN For food alone Vietnam is a favourite. Add the transformations and heady vibe of an emerging economy, incense-laden temples, lakeside old towns, lush highlands and mushrooming beach resorts and you have every reason to visit. And Vietnam remains one of the cheapest travel destinations in Asia, with direct budget flights from Australia an added saver. Expect to pay under two dollars for a beer or coffee, not much more for a bowl of pho, $50 for a decent hotel and $170 for an upmarket one. Nothing to complain about, except the traffic.
BEST BARGAINS Have a half-price honeymoon on tropical island Phu Quoc, or hit the sands at up-and-coming new resort destination Quy Nhon in central Vietnam. Or forget the beach and head inland instead to former colonial hill town Dalat or eco-destination Dien Bien Phu; for the moment, mostly domestic tourists keep prices low.
THE ONE SPLURGE The Mekong River is a travel highway most easily navigated on a luxury river cruise, which also takes in Cambodia; you’ll pay around $400 a person a day.
TRAVELLER DOLLAR SAVER RATING $$$$$
Photo: Merusaka Nusa Dua
THE LOWDOWN Our long love affair with Bali is anchored in the low cost of holidaying there, but the island’s lush landscapes, sand, surf and gracious culture are huge added bonuses. Volume means flight costs are low, and everything from hotels to restaurant dining, spa treatments to tours remains reasonably priced. Luxury hotels average $350 a night, and an upmarket meal might be $50, though wine is pricey. Other parts of Indonesia are even cheaper, with Flores, Sumba and Lake Toba among up-and-coming hotspots.
BEST BARGAINS Northern Bali takes getting to (a three-hour drive from the airport) but resorts at Lovina and Pemuteran are priced accordingly. Wet-season rains, usually only short and abrupt, make October-April the cheaper season. Elsewhere, Bandung in West Java has cool-climate highland landscapes and Yogyakarta abundant culture; both have well-priced accommodation. Java and Sumatra generally, not known for beaches, are bargain destinations with astonishing landscapes.
THE ONE SPLURGE Songket, a traditional brocaded, patterned silk interwoven with gold or silver thread, might cost you several hundred dollars.
TRAVELLER DOLLAR DAZZLER RATING $$$$
Photo: Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort
THE LOWDOWN Short(ish) flights, 300-plus tropical islands, stunning lagoons and reefs and a rugged hinterland fit for adventure lure us to Fiji. The friendliness lures us back. Fiji is the one destination that has more Australians visiting than pre-pandemic, and with a longer average stay too. Return flights are reasonably priced from $659 from Sydney and $799 from Melbourne with Fiji Airways. A day’s snorkelling tour costs around $100 – a fraction of the Queensland price – and a three-course meal in a mid-range restaurant is $30.
BEST BARGAINS Away from resort hubs, main island Viti Levu has well-priced hotels –look along the southern Coral Coast and around adventure capital Pacific Harbour. The Mamanuca Islands have budget resorts and, being close to the mainland, the cost of getting there is low. February-March is cheapest: although the wet season, rain is usually short and heavy.
THE ONE SPLURGE Go mad and skydive over Denarau Island’s gorgeous emerald sea near the airport, which will cost F$830 ($540) for 60 seconds of freefall.
TRAVELLER DOLLAR DAZZLER RATING $$$$ and a half
TEN MORE AFFORDABLE DESTINATIONS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
Why this friendly, fabulous destination is so under-visited is a mystery, but the result is seascapes of French Polynesian beauty without the eye-watering prices. A mid-range hotel costs around $150 a night and an upmarket meal for two $60. Backpackers could get by on $40 a day. See philippines.travel
Long-term travellers and digital nomads are increasingly roosting in Bulgaria, where the cost of living is half that of Australia and 40 per cent cheaper than in western Europe. Its cultural assets, history, humming cities and stunning mountain landscapes are very underestimated. See bulgariatravel.org
Like neighbouring Cambodia, Laos is budget heaven for backpackers, although food and petrol prices are higher than in Southeast Asian neighbours. For everyone else Laos is also top value, with many top-luxury hotels going for $350-500 a night, and mains in elegant local restaurants costing $10. See tourismlaos.org
One of the hot travel destinations of the moment isn’t as cheap as it once was, with inflation running at over 10 per cent (though forecast to fall this year). Still, Georgia remains very competitively priced, and provides splendid high-mountain scenery, a very long history and some of the world’s oldest wines. See georgia.travel
Okay, while not quite an all-time cheapie, Argentina has been excellent value since 2001 when the peso stopped being pegged one-to-one with the US dollar. It now sits at 185 pesos to the US dollar (and 280 pesos on the street). Its landscapes are outstanding, and so is its distinctive culture. See argentina.travel
For the Mediterranean lifestyle at around 45 per cent less than Greece or Croatia – and far less crowded too – this newly trendy holiday hotspot is the place to be. It has an Adriatic coastline, medieval castles, ancient Greek and Roman ruins, and a sumptuously rugged interior. See egov-albania-al.online
If you can avoid swanky hotels, hotel restaurants, chic nightclubs and foreign liquor then this is surely one of the most famously affordable destinations. Entrance to the Taj Mahal, one of the world’s greatest sights, costs just $17. Take to unwashed wandering and you could stay forever. See incredibleindia.org
Three-course restaurant meals for two at $50, beers for $5 and the average hotel price hovering around $100 shows why Mexico is the go-to getaway for other North Americans. Getting there isn’t that cheap for Australians but a flamboyant culture and great food are compensations. See visitmexico.com
Avoid the seaside tourist resorts (why wouldn’t you) and Egypt has great-value accommodation, transport and food. Entrance tickets to gobsmacking temple complexes are under $10. The bang for your buck is colossal: this is one of the world’s great travel destinations. See egypt.travel
It’s going to cost you to get there but Cuba is more affordable than many other Caribbean islands and has a wealth of sights and history, and a very vibrant culture. If you’re prepared to use homestays you get a great local experience for about $1000 a week for two. See cubatravel.cu